“[God] has put all things under [Christ’s] feet and has made Him the head over all things through the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:22-23).
I have modified the NRSV’s translation of this verse. Rather than saying that Christ is head over all things for the Church, as the NRSV renders it, I have proposed that He is head over all things through the Church. My reasoning is in the previous post on these verses. In this post, I wish to address the matter with which I concluded the previous meditations, namely: What is the significance of the truth that Christ is head over all things through the Church for a Christian’s self-understanding and sense of identity?
How a Christian ought to think about herself is a very important topic, especially because the notions of identity and self-understanding are psychologically crucial and important. Many persons lead miserable lives because their understanding of themselves is a miserable one; they think they are failures, or unlovable, or they don’t measure up, etc. On the other hand, very many persons also testify that their lives were changed forever and they were freed from various bad habits and destructive patterns of behavior when they came to understand themselves in a different light — as creatures of God, “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Ps. 139:14).
Christian self-understanding is a point of emphasis in many of Paul’s epistles. In Romans 6, for example, the Apostle encourages his audience to “consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Jesus Christ” (Rom. 6:11). And in the third chapter of the Epistle to the Galatians, he tells them that if they belong to Christ, are united with Him in baptism, then they are children of God and inheritors of the promise made to Abraham (Gal. 3:23-29).
In the same way, in the Epistle to the Ephesians, he tells these Christians they are the body of Christ and the fullness of Him who fills all things, through whom Christ is head over all things in the world by the will of God the Father. What is significant about this proposal for Christian identity?
I can only speak from my own experience. Many times I am tempted to think of myself as separate from Christ, especially because I know my own sinfulness and my own weakness in the face of sin and temptation. I saw a quote online that is attributed to Luther, though I wonder whether he actually said it; it goes like this: When I look at myself, I don’t see how I can be saved, but when I look at Christ, I don’t see how I can be lost. It is this first part that is relevant for present purposes. I too often look at myself and see no hope for salvation. I see myself as separate from Christ, apart from Him, in some ways opposed to Him or at least unwilling to submit to Him, unwilling to surrender everything to Him, skeptical of Him, unsure of Him, etc. And perhaps others may often feel the same way about themselves, too.
For a miserable wretch like myself, Paul has the following suggestion: begin to think about yourself different; adopt a different identity; understand yourself not in relation to your weakest points, but in relation to what Christ has done for you and wants to do through you going forward. I should no longer think of myself as a miserable wretch and far from Christ, but rather I should understand myself to be a member in the body of Christ, through whom He wishes to accomplish His will in the world. This Christ, who loves the entire world and wishes all men and women to come to Him in repentance and to receive every spiritual blessing, does not wish to accomplish His will apart from me, but rather through me. When I leave my home in the morning and begin my day among others, I should think that I am going out into the world not as a miserable sinner and a wretch, but as a part of the body of Christ with a mission — “to bring all things to unity in [Christ]” (Eph. 1:10), as God has willed from all eternity.
In general, this seems to me to be Paul’s approach to training Christians. He reminds them constantly of their union with Christ and presses them to assume a new identity, a new self-understanding, and to live in accordance with it. I am reminded here of a quote from a Catholic saint, perhaps St. Ignatius of Loyola, along the following lines: Whatever God says about a man, that is he. And if we are Christians and believe in the inspiration of Scripture, then let us take what God says about us through His apostle, namely that we are members of the body of Christ in the world, and begin to think about ourselves accordingly.
But someone might raise the following concern. Can I not disqualify myself through my sinning? Am I not right to look at what I do and despair, since I clearly feel myself to be far from God because of what I have done? This seems to me to be a reasonable concern. And yet Paul writes these words to the Ephesians, whom we cannot assume to have all been in a state of grace and profound sanctification. On the contrary, the apostle has to take the time to write to them not to make room for the devil (Eph. 4:27). He tells them in the fourth chapter not to lie to one another, not to hold grudges and be angry with one another, not to live as the Gentiles do, not to grieve the Holy Spirit, etc. From the fact that he says these things to them, I infer that the Ephesians were human beings with struggles and hardships and shortcomings like the rest of us. And yet he still calls them the body of Christ in the world and the fullness of Him who fills all things. I take it that he does this because Paul is convinced that the way to holiness and sanctification is through a renewed self-understanding, through the renewing of the mind (cf. Rom 12:2) in conformity with what God says about us in Christ.