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Core Christianity: Tough Questions Answered

What It Means for a Church to Be Spiritual

by Jeff Mallinson posted September 19, 2019

What exactly does it mean for a church to have the Spirit? Ephesians 2:13-22 helps answer this question and radically reframes our understanding of what it means to be spiritual. Here, Paul urges believers to avoid false spirituality, and he turns our focus to the true source and guarantee of the Spirit's presence: the faithful proclamation of Christ's work. 

One Body by the Cross: Vertical and Horizontal Reconciliation

Paul addresses those who "once were far off" (v. 13) and says that God gathers people to become "a dwelling place for God by the Spirit" (v. 22). He rejects spiritualties that rely on human effort and turns our focus to "Christ Jesus himself" (v. 20). For him, a church is spiritual neither because of members' enthusiasm nor through institutional unity. Instead, he connects the presence of the Spirit to the horizontal and vertical peace achieved by the cross. 

Our relationship to God is a vertical relationship, and our relationship to fellow humans is a horizontal relationship. Sin constructed barriers to peace along each axis. Gentiles were once vertically disconnected from God's promises but "have been brought near by the blood of Christ" (v. 13). Likewise, Christ removed a horizontal "dividing wall of hostility" (v. 14) between Jews and Gentiles, reconciling all "in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility" (v. 16). 

The architecture of the old temple represented the barriers that existed prior to the cross. A curtain separated the Holy of Holies from the people (Heb. 9:1-9), and the only time anyone passed through the veil was when the high priest entered on the Day of Atonement (Exod. 30:10). But on Good Friday, the curtain was torn from top to bottom, allowing access to the Spirit once more (Matt. 27:50-51). None of this has anything to do with humans working themselves into the right spiritual state, and everything to do with God's habit of showing up on his own terms. 

Misguided Mysticisms

Some Christians misunderstand Paul's claim that we "have access in one Spirit to the Father" (v. 18), assuming that such access bypasses the ordinary means of grace. This common human attempt to cultivate an unmediated spirituality or direct union with God, is called "mysticism." Every mystical encounter depends on human effort. 

The background for Ephesians 2:13-22 is apparent in verses 1-12, in which Paul opposes the Judaizers who want to force Gentile converts to abide by the ceremonial law. Against such thinking, Paul claims that God brought peace by "abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances" (v. 15). Thus, if we were to ask Paul what it means for a church to be "spiritual," he would answer that it occurs when a church has access to the Father (v. 18), on account of Christ (v. 13) who breaks down the barrier between humanity and the Spirit (v. 22). He would answer that a "carnal" church is one that depends upon its own fleshly effort. By "flesh" Paul did not mean that there is something inherently evil about the physical world. Rather, "flesh" refers to human attempts to access the Spirit. Therefore, spirituality has little to do with lighting, mood, sound, or atmospheric elements. True spirituality occurs by grace alone. 

Promised Presence

Paul provides comfort for Christians who want to know whether their churches are spiritual enough. It turns out that spirituality is not a matter of degree; we either have the Spirit or we don't. If we have a true church, then we have the Spirit. Where Jesus is, there is the Spirit. 

Christ is present in the Lord's Supper, where we no longer dine as "strangers and aliens" but as brothers and sisters, united as the body of Christ. All of this brings a concrete peace and objective reality, not merely an idealistic hope or sociological unity. 

One Body and One Spirit

So is your church spiritual enough? Ephesians 2 suggests that your church is assuredly spiritual if it truly is a church. Since the church is found where the word is preached and the sacraments are administered, and since the Spirit is promised to us alongside the means of grace, we rest assured that wherever the church is, there too is the Spirit. This does not give us license to be dull, apathetic, or stale. On the contrary, we freely rejoice that the source of our spirituality is outside of ourselves. Therefore, take heart that if you have Christ, you too are spiritual enough, in the only sense that matters. 

Adapted from Jeff Mallinson, “Is Your Church Spiritual Enough?” Modern Reformation, Jan/Feb 2015. Used by permission.  

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Jeff Mallinson

Jeff Mallinson (D.Phil., Oxford) is Professor of Theology and Philosophy at Concordia University, Irvine. He is a popular speaker, podcaster, and writer. His specialty is the history of ideas, especially as they shed light on the ways in which religious and philosophical ideas can both emancipate and enslave individuals. In addition to several scholarly book chapters and articles, he is the author of Sexy: The Quest for Erotic Virtue in Perplexing Times (ViW Books, 2017), Faith, Reason, and Revelation in Theodore Beza (Oxford University Press, 2003), and associate editor of The Encyclopedia of Luther and the Reformation (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017).

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