Let me address a certain scandal of the New Testament that is latent within the Eastern Orthodox notion of theosis: there is the idea that believers in some way become intimately connected with God in a special way. Said in a more direct way, but potentially misleading way depending on how you interpret the words, believers become like God by becoming like Christ and by the pouring of the Holy Spirit. This is not to mention the various places throughout the Old Testament where God’s power is given to certain individuals in such a way that they seem to operate in a role that rises above our humanness, such as Moses or Elijah as the man of God. This notion of theosis is not talked about much in Western Christianity, and much to our detriment of reading the Scriptures, but with perhaps a very good reason behind it: the idea is certainly a dangerous idea, because the very purposes behind heart of the person can turn this notion to mean various things. For Paul, he sees it as an ultimate sharing in God’s glory, but that comes through a suffering and rejection in which he and others bear the marks of the cross on their lives. But we are aware of all sort of cult leaders in history who saw themselves deified in some special way that was exclusive to them, but lurking behind it was a desire for power and control. Then, there are the people who exist in large gap between Paul and cult leaders, who don’t seem themselves as deified but they see themselves as special instruments of God that legitimates their present position and personal mission as being above other people’s, such as pastors who think their vision for their church is God’s will.
Let’s face it and be honest about it: The Scriptures testimony about God and His power is a radical idea that cuts against the modern categorization of God as entirely distinct from the world, but without succumbing to a pantheism; the end result is that humans are somehow holders of God’s power and agents of God’s love, but yet in such a way that it is never truly their own secure possession. This creates a dramatic ambiguity about our own nature as people, and as with all ambiguities, the gaps sometimes be filled in with our own ideas and purposes, for better or worse.
But the one idea that is expressed in the New Testament that hedges against the misappropriation of the ambiguity about the specific boundaries between God’s empowerment and our own personal being is the Church as the Body of Christ is reflected in our corporate nature as believers. Let me specific in what I mean: I am not talking about community, being part of a local church, a member of a small group, etc. A corporate understanding of faith certainly moves towards community, but there are a few reasons why we should not treat corporate nature as being about community:
1) There are people who have experienced abusive communities that professed faith and their own experiences may have them longing for community but are unable to feel safe to truly participate, but yet they simultaneously recognize their faith is shared and joined together with others.
2) Related to #1, while we as Christians should aspire to be in a community, the corporate nature of the Church does not designate individual people possessions of any specific community. In other words, that I belong to a corporate body doesn’t mean any specific community can lay claim of entitlement to me. Specific communities are not entitled to people as their members, and it is important to not treat the corporate nature of Christian faith as some sort of entitlement for specific communities of faith.
3) Treating the coroporate nature as simply a community has a tendency to creates cultish, as it treats the community as the embodiment of the Church rather than as a portion of it. The corporate nature of the Church spans beyond the immediate social networks we participate in.
4) It is often times a temptation to treat the experiences we have in community as part of God’s power. But much of what we experience in the community is the normal psychological processes of affiliation, attachment, and acceptance and the experiences these create within us. These can certainly viewed as a good thing, but only if these processes are directed towards a godly direction, and the experiences may be joined with an empowerment from God. But the power of community is not itself the power of the Church as the Body of Christ.
Rather, the corporate nature of faith is about the recognition that a) God is at work throughout other people, including those outside my immediate social network of faith and B) God does not provide monopolies of certain types of power and authority. The first notion has embedded in the earliest Christian traditions, such as the affirmation of a “holy catholic/unviersal church.” That my faith in Jesus Christ is shared with the faith in Chirst and a Palestinian Christian is this recognition that we boths share something in common in our hearts and that because of the power of God, both participate in a common way of life.
It is the second notion, however, that has tended to be forgotten. Human societies have a predilection for monopolies of power, authority, etc. Why? While we might attribute it to be more nefarious motives of power-hungry people, and that certainly is part of the explanation, it is more complex than that. Monopolies of power crowd out ambiguity and feelings of uncertainty. For instance, if you have multiple leaders with the same authority and status, then who gets to make decisions when there is a disagreement? Or, if there is a crisis, who will you look to solve your problem immediately? Roman Catholicism succumbed to this monopolization of power to some degree, making the bishop of Rome the leader of the Catholic faith that had a power and authority that no one else had.
This, however, isn’t the condition of the New Testament Church. When Jesus selected twelve disciples as a symbolic renewal of the twelve tribes of Israel, He was symbolically reinstituting the tribal confederation where there was no exclusive rule or king, except God. Then, post-ascension, there were many apostles, and if Romans 15:20 is any indication, apostleship entail the recognition that apostles had a specific authority within certain areas, but not the whole church. But even that was not monopolized as Paul in Romans, I would contend, engages them in a prophetic role. Then, the pouring out of the Holy Spirit extended the gift of prophecy throughout all sorts of people of all different classes, in fulfillment of the promise of Joel, and the various gatherings had to share this space for the various people with the prophetic gifting to be shared. The Church existed as a non-monopolized meritocracy, where God’s gifts were distributed variously but not in a way that made anyone fit a special role that no one else could have.
The end result of this is that the Church is directed, lead, and motivated to action not by individual people nor by democratic processes, but through the recognition of God’s will that emerges from the various voices being joined together, in a discerning manner. This seems to be Paul’s point about wisdom in 1 Corinthians 2:13: spiritual discourse of one person is combined with the spiritual discourse or another, much as the teachings of Paul and the teaching of Apollos are combined, to discern what the Spirit is saying to the Body of Christ and to its specific communities.
However, this mindset entails two necessary conditions on our part:1) a willingness to face ambiguity and uncertainty so as to not make us shrink away through the monopolization of power, authority, status, etc. and 2) a process of discerning to discern who is truly empowered by God, both as a person and in the moment of action, so as to not disintegrate into the chaos of divergent, conflicting voices. But as Paul tries to counsel the Corinthians, this will entail people of the communities not seeing the different leader as offering competing voices that the people must join themselves to over and against others. This means people must not be conflict-oriented at their heart, seeing power from and knowledge about God as some scarce supply that only a specific few have, but that God is abundant and generous to those who are willing to receive. That isn’t to say there is never conflict that exists within the Church: there is a conflict is between the will of God and the ways of the world, and sometimes this conflict gets expressed in the midst of the Church as various agendas and actions infiltrate that are against God’s will for the Church. However, the power and authority of the Church is grounded upon the union of various divinely empowered voices and action as part of the corporate Body of Christ; power and authority is not determined by the victors of conflicts.
In this, the Church is corporately legitimized to a reflection of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, but the legitimization never reaches specific individuals as if it is their gifts, authority, and status are their own secure and/or monopolized possession. In the concrete, this entails my recognizing that my giftedness is also shared by other people that operate together to build something from our commonly held and differentiating giftedness, and that my giftedness continues only so far as God provides it. We are corporately brought together and empower so as to fulfill our purposes as being in the image of God.