In the mid-18th century, Henry Scougal wrote, “True religion is a union of the soul with God, a real participation of the Divine nature, the very image of God drawn upon the soul, or in the apostle’s phrase, ‘it is Christ formed within us’.” Amen, Brother Scougal! Thankfully, the doctrine of union with Christ has been given more attention as of late. It teaches that Christians are united to Christ by faith, and that his story of death, burial, resurrection, and glorification is our story, too.
But what about the corporate expressions of our union with Christ? Can the life of God be discerned in the soul of the local church? Does it have a corporate expression or is it solely an individual benefit?
In a nutshell, union with Christ teaches that we were not only created for oneness with God but also oneness with one another. No doubt, Jesus came to first unite us with Himself and then God the Father and Spirit (Jn 14:18-23; 15:4-7; 17:20-25). But his salvific work extends to create oneness with other Christians, too, as we are joined together to Christ (Eph 2:11-22).
Let’s consider three passages that highlight the corporate dimensions of union with Christ, starting with 1 John 1:1-3:
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life — the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us — that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.
This passage teaches us two things about spiritual fellowship with Christ. First, the life of God is found in the soul of man through Christ (1 John 1:1-2). This “life” – who is Jesus – appeared and the apostles saw it, testified to it, and experienced it firsthand. Second, spiritual fellowship with Christ is shared relationally in the church (1 John 1:3). Thus, union with God through the Son makes union with one another possible.
Think about it this way: the apostles did not preach the gospel so there would be a new me, but so there would be a new "we." The power of the gospel shows up in the creation of the bride of Christ – a new and royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God (cf. Ex 19:1-6 with 1 Pet 2:9-11). The Church, not just individual Christians, is one with Christ. This leads us to two more passages for consideration.
In 1 Corinthians and Ephesians, the Apostle Paul used the body metaphor to encourage church unity. He taught them that they are the body of Christ and that each individual is a part of it (1 Cor 12:27). He spoke of Jesus’ blood making peace between Jew and Gentile, fashioning the two into one new man in his body (Eph 2:14-16). The nature of this body metaphor connotes incorporation and identification of God’s people with Christ. It denotes a close relationship and communion between Christ and his church, and between members of the Church.
One striking implication of this metaphor is that God’s children have a fundamentally new identity. They have given up their “I” status as individuals. Now they are a “we” – a new spiritual family. They are one with Christ as Paul explains in Galatians 2:20: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” But they are also one with one another. This flies in the face of our hyper-individualized, self-actualizing culture, where the main unit of existence is the self. As a part of the New Covenant, Jesus ushers in a new inaugurated ontology, where our sense of being as a Christian is now radically corporate.
Now that we have established the theological import of union with Christ for the local church, let’s consider some applications. Let me drop this doctrine in on my own life and see what we get.
Sometimes I come home from a long day of work with a sinful, grumpy attitude. Now and then, I complain about the dirtiness of the kitchen or the mess in the living room or the pile of laundry on the bed. What has she done all day? (Remember: sinful attitude. My wife works incredibly hard!) But union with Christ teaches me that I am one with my wife through Christ and uniquely united to her in marriage. Therefore, that’s not just her mess; it’s our mess! Not only should I be more compassionate, but I should find ways to help her accomplish these tasks.
I enjoy spending time with my family, but also relish the opportunity to get away with the guys. Sometimes when I am frequently away, I notice my wife is overwhelmed and somewhat withdrawn from me. Union with Christ challenges my selfishness! Being united to one another in Christ compels me to love my wife and live out of our marriage union. This means that my time is actually our time.
Of course our oneness with Christ and one another can be applied broadly to the local church, not just in Christian marriage. Do you ever feel jealous towards a brother who has been blessed with success, be that financial or ministerial or vocational or relational? Rather than competing with that brother, enjoy his blessing as your blessing. His joy can be your joy, because you are one in Christ!
The church is messy. It’s made up of broken, sinful people who live amidst broken, sinful circumstances. You may be tempted to withdraw from a sister who is hurting terribly from a crisis. I just don’t have time to care for her, you tell yourself. I’ll pray for her and hope someone else will get to her. I have other things to do with my time. Union with Christ challenges this notion! It tells us to get into the mess with her. It pushes us to weep with her. Because you are united through Christ to her, her mess and pain is your mess and pain.
You see, union with Christ pushes us to feel a brother or sister’s pain and joy as if it were our own. In 1 Corinthians 12:26, Paul says something similar: “If one member [of the body of Christ] suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” – which is another way of saying that Christian empathy is rooted in our oneness with Christ. Could this thinking be what unlocks a new level of love and compassion for Christians in local congregations?
It may be easy to picture the local church as made up of a bunch of individuals – individuals who have some things in common, but who think very individually. This is my time, my money, my resources, and my space. But remember, when we become Christians, we move from an “I” to a “We.” Therefore, the local church is a single, spiritual entity – an entity that ought to think and act corporately! We must learn to think “We” more than “Me.” Our time, money, resources, and our spaces, all for the glory of Christ and the spread of the gospel.
Can you imagine that for a moment? What would it look like if our local churches embraced a radical “we” orientation rather than a culture-shaped “I” orientation? Would we experience a deeper, more profound unity within our congregation? Would small groups, elder boards, and missions committees function more effectively? Would congregants absorb and bear up with more bites and offenses? Would more members move towards each other with compassion and empathy? And would the world be powerfully drawn to God’s unified family, a concern that Jesus himself once prayed for (John 17:20-25)?
Finally, union with Christ teaches us that it’s not our efforts that create congregational unity. God has already created unity by joining together individuals to Christ. Unity, then, is a precious gift to be received and cherished! We don’t need to conjure unity up from nothing as if the whole thing depended on prayer meetings or Peacemaker workshops or World-wide church councils, which are all good things. Rather, our job is to eagerly “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3).
We live life together because we are already joined together. May the Lord grant us the strength to do just that: prize the gift of our corporate union with Christ, then eagerly maintain it for the sake of gospel life and mission!
Prayer of Reflection
Father, thank you for not only saving us from our sin and from your wrath, but for also saving us into a new life with a new family, the church. May your Spirit empower us to fight against the strong, "I-focused" current of today. May your Spirit show us the wonders of the gospel of oneness, which pushes us to sacrificially love those with whom we are joined together in Christ. Amen.