We Were Never “Spiritually Dead”

death-spiritual

Let me clarify right off the bat that I do think we were spiritually dead at one point, just not in the way it is commonly thought we were.

What is usually meant by being “spiritually dead” is a state of being separated from God. The common explanation for this is that our sins cause us to become separated.

If we are going to say that we were at some point separated from God, we have to say that either God decided to be separate from us from the moment we came into existence or we were not separate from him at first, until we first sinned, and then God left us. In the former case, it’s not very loving of God to create us in a state of spiritual death (and could we then really be said to be “very good” and made in the image of God?). As for the latter case, I say that our sin doesn’t offend God (I have previously written about this here) and, consequently, it cannot separate us from him. Indeed, nothing can separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:38-39). Can we say with honesty that God separating himself from us is ever a loving thing to do?

So what do I mean when I use the phrase “spiritually dead”?

I believe we were never actually separated from God. We only thought we were. In other words, our being “spiritually dead” wasn’t an ontological condition of depravity. Rather, it was unbelief, a state of the mind where faith is placed in a false reality. We were “spiritually dead,” but only in the sense of a mindset of separation resulting in destructive behavior. Simply put, humanity was deceived.

Why, then, all the talk in the scriptures about salvation and being saved? Let’s take a look at some related scriptures.

Paul was sent by Jesus to “the Gentiles…to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light…” (Acts 26:18, emphasis mine).

Jesus came not to bring salvation itself, but “to give to His people the knowledge of salvation” (Luke 1:77, emphasis mine), which, despite our ignorance, we have always had.

Similarly, Jesus “brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Timothy 1:9-10, emphasis mine). Jesus didn’t bring them, because they were already available. He brought them to light; that is, he simply revealed them.

“You were at one time strangers and enemies in your minds as expressed through your evil deeds” (Colossians 1:21, emphasis mine). We only thought we were God’s enemies; it wasn’t actually true.

“Being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart” (Ephesians 4:18, emphasis mine). Here Paul speak of people who did not experience the life of God, not because it was not available to them, but simply because they did not understand it, were ignorant of it, and chose to not partake of it.

“For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened” (Romans 1:21-23, emphasis mine).

Again, we were never spiritually dead, as if God had left us and we needed some sort of spiritual resuscitation. We can, however, act as if we are. That’s why it says we were “dead in our transgressions and sins” (Ephesians 2:1). The reference is to our actions. Same with Colossians 2:13 – “When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh…” We can live as if we are separated from God, but that doesn’t mean we actually are. We can “alienate” ourselves from God in our own thinking, but we actually cannot distance ourselves from him. Our union with Christ is the fundamental, immutable, and permanent reality. He is closer than the air we breathe.

The life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ happened within our time, but it was a manifestation of an eternal event. His appearance revealed what has always been true – the mystery hidden for ages and generations was finally made known in our dimension of time and space. – Andre Rabe

As a concluding thought, “spiritual death” seems like a very poor term to describe what the above scriptures did, since it is not about separation from God. It would be better to call it ignorance or an illusion, and what Christ did a revelation of reality that draws us out of our ignorance and illusions.

Beliefs, Unity, and the Illusion of Denominations (Part 3)

Read part 1 and part 2.

Some churches get together in an attempt to “create unity.” Identifying people according to beliefs has served to create divisions, so the idea is to not focus on differences but what is held in common. This is an improvement from separating yourself from everyone, but it still misses the good news.

Whether people know it or not, believe it or not, or act like it or not, we are one because Jesus made us one at the cross. We are all united to the same man, and therefore to each other. Unity isn’t something we create but preserve (Ephesians 4:3). Human effort to achieve unity needs to be given up and replaced with the realization that we are all already one in Christ.

Kris Vallotton explains and exposes the nature of denominationalism:

Both the Protestant Reformation and the movements that have sprung up from it all emphasize doctrinal agreement above relationship. This priority has created a culture that constantly threatens to divide people at the very core of their bonding point. While many believers admit that damaged relationships and church splits are costly, the denominational mindset leads them to conclude that the way to avoid this is simply to find ways to enforce doctrinal conformity so disagreements can’t arise. Thus, denominationalism also creates a culture that is critical of anyone who thinks outside the box of tradition, and it desperately fears inspiration. Leaders under this spirit have more faith in the devil’s power to deceive believers than the Holy Spirit’s ability to lead them into all truth. Shepherds in denominationalism resist revelatory thinking because they understand that new ideas spawn disagreements and disagreement attacks the central nervous system of their churches…The lens of denominationalism is primarily defined by the priority of doctrinal agreement, which necessitates a negative view of disagreement in the Body of Christ. Therefore, when someone with a denominational lens approaches Scripture, it requires that biblical terms and concepts support the goal of eliminating disagreement and, ultimately, discouraging individualism. For example, we can see this in the denominational approach to terms like loyalty and unity. In denominationalism, loyalty is often redefined as “agreeing with the leader.” Disagreement is called “disloyal,” and often “disrespectful.” But the truth is that loyalty is actually only tested when we don’t agree. For example, David’s loyalty to King Saul was revealed, not when he lived in the king’s house as his favored son-in-law, but when he lived in the wilderness as the king’s hated and hunted rival. If we agree with our leader over an issue, then we are going to do what our leader wants us to do anyway, because we agree. It is only when we disagree that the fabric of our relationship is put to the test.

There was a time when there were no denominations. It’s not that people all had the exact same beliefs back then. They just thought that those differences were not a good enough reason for people to gather separately. Their reason for gathering was never having the same beliefs in the first place. Their emphasis was not doctrine but Jesus. The essence of denominationalism is identifying yourself with anything other than Jesus. Denominationalism happened when people began to place greater value on their beliefs than on their relationships with other people.

Some who have read up to this point may conclude that I am a non-denominational. I am not. The non-denominational group as a whole has itself become a denomination (unofficial though it may be), marked by the belief that there shouldn’t be any denominations. But in declaring themselves non-denominational, they implicitly validate the idea of denominationalism by creating their own denomination. Being non-denominational is insufficient. Choosing to not be a part of any denomination does not go far enough because it acknowledges denominations as legitimate; you just personally choose not to be part of one.

I will take a step further and claim that denominations do not exist“What the heck do you mean, Ty? Of course they exist! Look at the world around you. There are denominations everywhere!” Just because people act like and think that something is real doesn’t mean it is. Consider, for example, any god of any religion. People have worshipped nonexistent gods for years, but it hasn’t made them any more real.

When I say denominations do not exist I am not talking about human acknowledgment but God’s acknowledgment. Denominations are a human invention, a tradition of man. They are an illusion, a myth, a figment of people’s imaginations. They do not exist in reality. They are artificial divisions within the undivided body of Christ. They were not God’s idea, and when he looks at the Church he does not see denominations. Thus, it would probably be a good idea to stop acting and talking as if they do exist.

I’m not worried about everyone agreeing with me that we shouldn’t accept denominations. Personally, it makes no difference whether we agree or not. I am committed to loving all people regardless of their beliefs. I won’t let someone’s claim to be of a certain denomination affect how I treat them. I just won’t acknowledge them as part of a denomination, or stated differently, separate from me. I have more faith in the unity Jesus has achieved than the false division that I might experience by sight.

Beliefs, Unity, and the Illusion of Denominations (Part 1)

This is the 1st part of a 3 part series. In part 1 we take a look at the history of denominationalism and how it has affected the body of Christ.

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Last summer I was a leader of a Q&A discussion group at a christian camp for high schoolers. One high schooler asked a question that many would do well to consider themselves:

“What’s with all the different denominations? I mean, they’re not even in the bible.”

In essence this high schooler was asking why denominations exist, whether they are legitimate, and if they are then which one is the right denomination. To answer these questions, let’s take a look at the history of denominationalism.

(Note: I use “denomination” according to its modern usage, to refer to a people who denominate based on agreement on a body of doctrines.)

The first known hint of denominations appeared in the church at Corinth. Paul wrote to them:

Now I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment. For I have been informed concerning you, my brethren, by Chloe’s people, that there are quarrels among you. Now I mean this, that each one of you is saying, “I am of Paul,” and “I of Apollos,” and “I of Cephas,” and “I of Christ.” Has Christ been divided? Paul was not crucified for you, was he? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? – 1 Corinthians 1:10-13

The Corinthians tried to separate themselves according to different leaders. Paul responds with rhetorical questions that point back to what should be everybody’s common denominator – Jesus. So denominations were almost established, but Paul did not allow them to.

Denominationalism in its modern form began to emerge a couple hundred years after Christ when people began to create various theological schools based on the teachings of certain well-known men. People separated themselves according to the teachings they favored and the teachers that taught them.

People further segregated around this time by holding councils to determine the majority vote on what they believed to be right doctrines and thereby declare anyone who believed otherwise to be a heretic.

(Note: Although some would claim that whatever the councils decided must be right, assuming that their meeting and decision making were infallibly inspired by Holy Spirit is just that, an assumption, not to mention an unbiblical assumption.)

But it was during the 16th century that denominationalism gained momentum and became firmly grounded, accompanying the Protestant Reformation.

Martin Luther and his followers rightly pointed out mistakes such as the practice of indulgences and the teaching of salvation by works, but they separated themselves from Catholics by demonizing them.

Protestants are called Protestants because they were born in a doctrinal protest, and it continues to this day. They are identified by what they placed their highest value on – beliefs. This is why denominations identify themselves primarily by their beliefs, often along with some person who originated that way of thinking (Wesleyan, Methodist, Lutheran, Baptist, Catholic, etc., each of which, if one is familiar with them, conjure up certain doctrinal dispositions).

As time passed, people placed more and more value on getting beliefs right, and as a result the number of issues to disagree over increased. A new denomination emerged with each new disputed doctrine that was considered important enough to split over. Accordingly, separation in the church increased alongside the increase in doctrinal precision.

Contrary to the denominational method of identification, the members of the early church were called “christians” because it was evident to those around them that the person of Christ was most important to them. And if people wanted to describe a group of believers back in the day they didn’t identify them by beliefs but only by physical location (e.g. Paul writes to the church of God at Corinth, to the saints in Ephesus, etc.).

Even within denominations people recognize that they don’t believe all the same things (i.e. they may disagree on what is not included in their particular body of doctrine). This raises the question – how significant are beliefs?

We’ll take a look at this question in part 2.