This reflection on Affective Theology considers the Church. Christ’s love, through his Spirit, unites the many members of the Church into one body. In Ephesians 5:25-27 Paul used human marriages as his key analogy: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.”
Paul, in the same context, took up the inaugural marriage text of Genesis 2:24—“a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh”—as a “mystery” that ultimately “refers to Christ and the church” (in Ephesians 5:32). We can also add another level of insight here. The original marital event in Eden displayed Adam’s inadequacy: he was incomplete. So, God gave him “a helper fit for him.” (Genesis 2:20). And the same theme of a necessary “helper” reappeared at the end of Christ’s earthly ministry. All believers need “another helper” (see John 14:16 & 26). This helper, the Spirit, awakens souls by our union with him, as “the love of God” is “poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:5). And this love starts to transform both individuals and churches.
Once these paired features—of human-inadequacy-and-divine-supply—come to the fore we can start to grasp God’s plan for our being. We are created to need God and each other. The bonds between creator and creatures, husbands and wives, and members of the church all only operate properly with the bonding presence of God’s love at work. It’s by the Spirit bringing God’s love to us and then working through us. Picture pipelines rather than storage tanks!
This affective reality is crucial to a satisfying life in any church. In Ephesians 4 Paul wrote that all our differences are skillfully crafted in the Body of Christ so that “when each part is working properly [then Jesus, by the Spirit] makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (verse 16). He repeated this Body-and-parts analogy with the local church in Corinth. In 1 Corinthians 12 he reminded them of the Spirit’s role. He makes every part fit together as a whole. In chapter 13 Paul then underlined love—“the greatest of these is love”—as the basis for healthy body-life.
When a community is united by Christ’s love, beauty is present. As we noted already, spirituality only works as “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.” Jesus also warned a group of failed “believers” in John 8:42, “If God were [truly] your Father, you would love me.” This, alone, makes the church: God’s paternity. And this by Christ’s life shared through his Spirit. So, the test of this paternity is clear: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). Nothing less will do!
But an obvious problem jumps out here. In too many cases love is not what defines church life! Instead, we find strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, and worse (Galatians 5:21-22). Jesus also noted this in his Sermon on the Mount, “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven …” (Matthew 7:21). Neighborly love, as the fruit of the Spirit, is his key discriminator. The Good Samaritan story of Luke 10 says as much.
But even if the gap between real biblical love, and the colder relational reality in many churches, is clear, it’s helpful to recall that most Bible books were written to address the problem. Paul’s grief with the Corinthians, for instance, led him to write, “But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ” (1 Corinthians 3:1).
Even if churches are pure in their doctrine and polity—along with any other features of seeming compliance—the Lord’s warning to the theologically sound Ephesian church in Revelation 2:4 is also striking. “But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.”
Yet if and when the “born again” work of the Spirit is active among many in a given church, what does it look like? Paul answered this in writing to the Philippians. “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (2:3-7).
The substance of love is obvious here, though the word isn’t used. Christ’s upside-down selfless devotion to others is the measure of his presence in and among us. In Adam’s fallen version of life, self-care is primary. In Christ’s life of love, meeting needs among those around him was his strongest motive. Not as a duty, but as the outflow of his compassionate heart.
Some practical issues are also important. The role of church leaders is to shepherd and shelter the younger members of the church. When features of the “flesh”—as lives still shaped by former self-interests are obvious—the church needs to offer what any loving parent offers a growing infant: firm but caring discipline. Change diapers as needed. And with that there must be adequate feeding and exercise. Jesus called all his followers to “abide in my word” in John 8:31. He offers “truth” to live by in place of the ocean of dangerous false values we once embraced. So good shepherds are always to be devoted to Scriptures, and selfless in their love.
Notice, as we wrap this up, how little emphasis has been devoted here to external features. To the need for sound creeds or doctrines, or for tight church leadership structures, and definitions of how authority is to be distributed among those in leadership positions. The various pastoral books in the New Testament help us here. But what’s striking is how these concerns were only secondary for Jesus in the gospels. And how loose the authority structures were in the narratives of the Acts of the Apostles. We see the power of love at work much more than the love of power. And the church grew by leaps and bounds as the Spirit worked among them, spreading God’s love. The key is to find or form communities where the Spirit is present and moving in lives—where mutual, moral, and creative love is obvious among mature members. For those who have tasted God’s rich goodness and live accordingly.
Next time we will take up the expansive outflow of God’s love—his spreading goodness. He offers free access to his love as he, through his Spirit, draws people to himself, worldwide.