Teddy Ray: Absent from Flesh — the casualties of bodiless theology (sex, the Church, the Eucharist, and Christian fiction, for starters)
Guest blog by Teddy Ray. Teddy is a pastor and preacher for the Offerings Community, and the executive pastor of First United Methodist Church in Lexington, KY. He blogs at Teddy Ray: Theology, Ministry & Life with God.
He says about his writing: “My goal is to provide a pastoral voice on issues related to the church, its ministry, and Christian living. I do this as someone with much hope for the church and for Christianity in the West, but also as someone concerned that the North American Church has lost its way on a number of points. With that, I hope some of these thoughts will point to a different way of being church, doing ministry, and living as Christians than what seems most prevalent today.”
He has been doing some very good writing at his blog. He is also doing some updating of the sermons of John Wesley: John Wesley’s Sermons for Today.
A few years ago, I heard and loved this new rendition of an old Isaac Watts hymn, “Absent from flesh! O blissful thought.” I could listen to that tune over and over. And I can’t help but be swept up by the band’s soulful performance.
Sadly, I’ll never be able to sing the song in worship. It contains some terrible theology. More specifically, the song reflects the type of theology that has pillaged so much of the Western Church, leaving only a shell of the Christian faith in some places, and guiding us dangerously close to heresy in others.
The whole hymn looks forward to that blissful day when we will be “absent from flesh.” We could take this to be celebrating freedom from “the lustful desires of the flesh”––a theme we see several times in Scripture––and while the song certainly celebrates that freedom, it goes beyond it. It celebrates a final, disembodied, blissful existence.
That’s quite a contrast to Job’s proclamation, “And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God.”1
You may think I’m quibbling. To the contrary, I think this affects nearly everything about our faith.
The Body of Christ
The great miracle of Christianity is that the Son of God came to earth and took on real flesh, lived a real, human existence, died a real, human death, and then was raised in the flesh. Forty days later, he was taken up into heaven, still in the flesh.
How odd that a faith so rooted in the miracle of Christ’s body would be at risk of denying the body’s importance.
In his brilliant book on Christian funerals, Tom Long says it a bit more bluntly: “The earliest Christians could never have anticipated how thoroughly we contemporary Christians would be willing to trade our incarnational birthright for a bowl of warmed-over Neoplatonic porridge.”2
Our understanding of the body of Christ goes further––to something even more amazing to me. Those who are in Christ are now the body of Christ.
This means that Christians are connected in an organic way. We’re not just some voluntary organization of people with mutual interests––a Kiwanis Club or fraternity of sorts. “In Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.”3
When the apostle Paul tells the Corinthians to flee from sexual immorality, he doesn’t base it on a simple, “God said not to…” Instead, he says, “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never!”4 Why flee from sexual immorality? Because our bodies are part of the body of Christ!
And when we take communion, it’s not just an act of commemoration, but actual participation in the body of Christ: “Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ?”5
Casualties of bodiless theology
There may be no bit of Protestant theology more impoverished than our understanding of sex and sexuality.
Some groups divorce our sexuality from our spirituality. What happens in the bedroom is personal, and so long as it doesn’t affect someone’s belief in God or service in the world, why should anyone care? I’ve seen a number of people try to argue that what the Bible has to say about sex isn’t really about sex, it’s about idolatry.
Do you see that move? Bodily things aren’t really at issue, just the spiritual meaning behind them… Read through the book of 1 Corinthians, and you’ll see Paul trying to change the minds of a group who obviously thought something similar to this.
Other groups make sexuality about rules they find in the Bible. Ask them to elaborate a deeper theology of sexuality, and they’ll struggle to quote anything beyond proof-text Bible verses and trite sayings.
Where our theology has become absent from flesh, it’s causing an anemic theology of sexuality. Those who especially are losing out include singles, people struggling with fertility problems, and people of homosexual orientation. Though I’m not fully convinced by all their conclusions, the Roman Catholic Church has done a far better job of keeping flesh on our theology of sexuality (Pope John Paul II’s seminal work was titled A Theology of the Body). For more, see my post “Sexuality and Webbed Theology.”
What happens when we stop seeing the Church as a living organism––the very body of Christ? The natural next step is to see it as a voluntary organization of like-minded people.
We stop acting as a body of people who are together because we’ve been brought together under the great headship of Christ. We stop seeing corporate worship as a mystical act, one in which we join God’s people on earth and all the company of heaven to praise his name.
Instead, we behave much like the rest of the world. We ask what “product” we’re offering to “attract” people. We look for how we, as individuals, are being “fed.”
We create an atmosphere where vocal Christian leaders like Donald Miller can say, “So, do I attend church? Not often, to be honest. Like I said, it’s not how I learn.” In the same post, Miller said that he doesn’t really connect to God by singing songs, either. For Miller, “attending church” is about learning something from a sermon and connecting emotionally through song. If a worship service isn’t meeting someone’s personal needs for learning and emotional connection, what’s the point?
Even more worrisome, Miller wrote a follow-up post where he said, “[M]ost of the influential Christian leaders I know (who are not pastors) do not attend church.”
My word of advice: if any of the Christian leaders you’re following “do not attend church,” I think you should stop paying attention to them as Christian leaders. They may be thoughtful, smart, sincere people, but their understanding of worship and the church is bordering on heretical. Listen to them as you would secular leaders––take the wheat; leave the chaff.6
Do you see why I’ve been writing things like “No more teaching pastors!” and “Secret option C in the worship wars“? Many current practices in the church are teaching people like Donald Miller to think about church and worship in this hyper-individual, consumerist fashion. Only a church absent from flesh could have such an anemic understanding of the Church.
Did you know that treating Holy Communion as only a commemoration, or as optional in the life of the church, is a relatively new invention? Almost every great theologian and Bible scholar throughout history has agreed that at Communion, we come into the real presence of Christ in a unique way.
For 3/4 of the church’s history, the Eucharist was the climax of a worship service. Contrary to some people’s belief, reformers like Luther, Calvin, and Wesley, weren’t the ones responsible for displacing it. They sought to strengthen our view of the Word and reframe, but not weaken, our view of the Table.
Those reformers would be troubled to see many of our practices today––treating Communion as optional or taking it infrequently. They would be aghast at the common notion that lunch with friends after worship is a sufficient substitute for the Eucharistic celebration.
So our Eucharistic theology and practice has also been made absent from flesh in many quarters. Rather than encountering the real presence of Christ at the Table, we encounter ordinary bread and juice (or Goldfish Crackers and Sprite) in a commemoration where the actual elements are barely significant.
By trivializing the physical nature of things, we’ve lost the spiritual significance of them, as well. A Eucharist without Christ’s real presence loses its mystical quality. It puts a glass ceiling between heaven and earth and puts all significance in our remembering minds.
The Left Behind series is allegedly making another run at the big-screen. This time with Nicolas Cage. Oh my!
That series was the latest in a line of Christian pop culture that promotes this sort of bodiless theology. The end and goal of Christian life is to “fly away” in some sort of rapture experience. I’ll not belabor this point, but you need to know that this line of belief about the future is less than 200 years old.
Yes, for the first 1800 years of Christianity, just about no one taught about a pre-tribulation rapture. This is all part of a larger system known as “dispensationalism” that was invented around the same time.
Does this theology require an absent-from-flesh theology? Not necessarily. But it has produced most of our current notions about floating up to heaven for a disembodied eternity––a far cry from the biblical picture of resurrected and embodied life in a new heaven and a new earth.
Someone frequently called a forerunner of dispensationalist theology: Isaac Watts, the writer of that catchy hymn, “Absent from flesh! O blissful thought!” Perhaps the creative writing talents of people with this bodiless theology are the cause of its prevalence today.
These are just some starting thoughts. I haven’t even talked about funerals, disability, money, the environment, abortion, healing, or violence (to name a few more). What else would you say about a theology of the body and the things it affects? Comment on this at Teddy Ray: Theology, Ministry & Life with God.
- Job 19:26
- Thomas G. Long (2009-10-02). Accompany Them with Singing: The Christian Funeral (p. 30). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition
- Rom 12:5
- 1 Cor 6:15
- 1 Cor 10:16
- To be clear, I agree with Donald Miller that the church extends beyond any particular worship gathering. But Miller is treating as optional (and opting out) something that the Church has treated as essential in almost all places and times throughout history. When I see a “Christian” leader doing that, I run away.