Yielding to gravity (by Jay Matenga)

By Jay Mātenga |
Joshua Earle | Unsplash

Nga mihi ki te hunga e whai ana i to rātou whainga… (Greetings to everyone who is pursuing their purpose),

The text for this month is 1 Corinthians 1:9-10 (NLT), 
“God will (keep you strong and free from blame), for he is faithful to do what he says, and he has invited you into (koinonia) with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. I appeal to you, dear brothers and sisters, by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, to live in harmony with each other. Let there be no divisions in the church. Rather, be of one mind, united in thought and purpose.” 

Why? I believe Paul answered earlier in verse 6, “(it) confirms that what I told you about Christ is true”. Our koinonia with God in Christ and with one another in Christ is the primary witness to the power of the gospel, proving its truth. In saying this, Paul is setting the stage for his critique of the Corinthians’ internal divisions, appealing to them so that they do not spoil their witness to surrounding peoples. With their petty rivalries and lack of humility, they are diminishing the Good News. Let those with ears to hear…

There are obvious boundaries to our faith, both theological and ethical boundaries, but they may be wider than many of us care to accept.

I have said before and I will never now stop emphasising the fact that unity does not require uniformity nor conformity. I believe the New Testament writers strongly promote the opposite. Diversity is welcome. A diversity held in communal tension—harmony. But let’s not run too far with what we think diversity includes. There are obvious boundaries to our faith, both theological and ethical boundaries, but they may be wider than many of us care to accept.

You may have heard the terms “bounded sets” and “centred sets”. In a very real sense, the Kingdom of God/New Creation is a large set or macro group centred on Jesus as the Messiah. Paul uses “Lord Jesus Christ” to emphasize this fact. A little like my nan’s use of my first, middle, and last names to let me know that I was acting, ahem, inappropriately (I used to hear my full name a lot!). Only Paul isn’t chastising Jesus, he is using Lord Jesus Christ as the exemplar and giver of his authority to reprimand the Corinthians.

Our faith is centred on the Lord Jesus Christ.

Our faith is centred on the Lord Jesus Christ. Belief in Christ, allegiance to Christ, and bearing the fruit of the Spirit of Christ is the first and last anchor of unity for the global Church. Do you believe and follow the biblical Jesus? OK, you’re my sibling in Christ. Paul uses “in Christ” as shorthand for this. This echoes John’s theology of abiding and resonates with the indigenous world’s deeply spiritual consciousness of our connection with the Creator. All Jesus’ followers are intimately connected with Him and each other. A holy singularity. One.

We are unified because we are centred on Christ, centripetally drawn in by the gravity that Jesus creates. Once the relationship is authentically established it would take an exorbitant amount of effort to break free of it, but it can be done. We get a sense of this in John 15’s metaphor of the vine, and earlier in John 14:2 where Jesus promises to create many dwelling places for us—a promise already fulfilled by the sending of the Spirit and made real to us in the diverse communities of faith that we call local churches. Again, in Matthew 28:20 and elsewhere, his presence (by the Spirit) with us to the end of the age is the unifying factor enabling ever more disciples to dwell together in Him, so long as we choose to do so.

We are also a bounded set in Christ.

But we are also a bounded set in Christ. His gravity may hold us, drawing us closer and maturing us into the full stature of Christ, but we must also remain aware of the boundary between who is or is not “in”. Contrary to the thinking of theological universalism, biblically faithful believers cannot agree that everyone will be granted eternal life automatically. The New Testament is clear on this fact. A conscious decision to believe, follow, and bear evidential fruit is required. Our faith must manifest in our societies as ‘good works’. We are called to be a blessing, to bring God’s life into dying spaces and light into hearts and minds darkened by wilful ignorance of God’s goodness. I am not talking about a form of political manipulation or propaganda, but real-world loving, bringing healing to hurting people. Protesting injustice afar is all well and good, so long as in our everyday lives we also do good: “live justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God” (Micah 6:8). Sometimes it is a little too easy to get caught up in condemning distant abuses and too easy to ignore doing local good, especially if it inconveniences us.

Agape translated as ”love” loses its potency and it is too easily interpreted in ways the Bible doesn’t condone.

The boundaries of our faith (in Christ vs in the world) are also well established in Scripture, especially the New Testament. Like other Epistle writers, John (especially in 1 John) encapsulates the entire ethic of God as love (agape)—actively benevolent, socially-oriented compassion. The opposite is lust (epithymia)—socially destructive selfish desire. The former is evidence of being in Christ, the latter in the world. Therein lies the border of the bounded set that is ‘in-Christ’. Agape is captured in te reo Māori (Māori language) by the word aroha (aloha in Hawaiian). Aroha is a better anchored word than the English ”love”. Agape translated as ”love” loses its potency and it is too easily interpreted in ways the Bible doesn’t condone. Aroha on the other hand infers a strong social obligation and commitment to others as part of our belonging, dwelling, or abiding together. Drawing from spiritual realities, aroha encapsulates grace, mercy, and loving kindness towards others. It is dynamically equivalent to the Old Testament’s (c)hesed and the New Testament’s agape and charis.

Encouraging unity in the midst of differing perspectives of the Christian life is no easy feat. In the age of democratised information, pastors can no longer guarantee that all of their congregation will agree with their message. Congregants are listening to many other voices as well—many of them not so healthy. Scale that up to global Christian networks and the complexities multiply. Yet, in important ways things get simpler when working at a metaphorical 30,000ft. There is so much complexity across the board that network leaders are forced to consider what is essential to the faith. As the ancient saying goes, “In the essentials, unity; in the non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” While the source of the saying is debated, the truth of it remains, and the unity of the global church depends on it. In the paragraphs above, I have laid out what I consider to be essential. Everything else is contextual.

That our faith is a contextual faith is the prime reason for its spread across the face of the earth.

That our faith is a contextual faith is the prime reason for its spread across the face of the earth, with freedom to be expressed in indigenous forms and meaning emerging from culturally determined realities. It is a missionary faith, ever inviting more people in—generating new habitations for the Holy Spirit to dwell and Christ followers to abide as they co-create New Creation in their contexts. It is this exciting dynamic that draws me to serve at the intersections of difference within the global Church and to promote World Christianity as a whole. To satisfy my increasing sense of call to focus on World Christianity I have prayerfully felt the need to relinquish my local responsibilities. Therefore, I have tended my resignation from Missions Interlink (NZ) from 31 July 2024. I will continue to lead the Mission Commission (MC) of the World Evangelical Alliance in a 50% capacity and then contract my editorial services to the new Christian Daily International (CDI) online news service. My responsibility with CDI will be as Editor of the Opinions section with the aim of amplifying voices from the growing edges of World Christianity.

A diverse variety of voices will find liberty on the CDI platform so long as their experience of God in context exhibits the essentials of our faith. In addition to ensuring that content remains factually correct, biblically faithful, and coherent, my job will be to make sure they also remain charitable in all things. In this I hope to nurture koinonia across the global Church and show that we really can be of one mind, united in thought and purpose.

For now, kaua e waiho ma te kupu, ma te arero te aroha; engari ma te mahi, ma te pono (let’s not merely say that we love each other; let us show the truth by our actions), 1 John 3:18. In this way we can best #stayonmission.

Arohanui ki a koutou e haere ana ki te ao (love to you all as you go into the world).


Dr Jay Matenga is a Maori theologian of missions practice. He leads Missions Interlink NZ, the missionary alliance of Aotearoa New Zealand, from which he is seconded for half his time to lead the World Evangelical Alliance’s Mission Commission. Prior to his 2015 appointment with Missions Interlink, Jay served for 15 years as the Director of Pioneers and 5 years before that with WEC International, sending and caring for missionaries from New Zealand. His MA studies (All Nations Christian College) investigated relationships of power within missions structures and his doctoral research (Fuller Seminary) led to his development of an Industrial and Indigenous values spectrum as a way of understanding intercultural interactions, which can provide a pathway to maturity through transformative tensions. The views expressed in this or any other opinion article do not necessarily reflect the views of Christian Daily International.

The views expressed in this or any other opinion article do not necessarily reflect the views of Christian Daily International.