The faithful and meaningful communication of the gospel is of great concern to all who minister cross-culturally. Most desire to accurately convey the content of the gospel from the Scriptures while simultaneously couching the message in terms understandable in the target culture. This can be a difficult task as it demands a deep understanding of both the biblical message and the host culture. Unfortunately, cross-cultural workers sometimes fail in one or both of these requirements.
Fortunately, the Bible itself is filled with many theological themes; some of these themes inevitably connect with certain cultures better than others. For example, Westerners have historically grasped and gravitated toward forensic, judicial categories more readily than people from other parts of the world. In this article, I want to suggest that the concept of “union with Christ” is not only a significant theological theme in the New Testament, but it also naturally connects with Chinese culture.
In what follows, I first briefly show the importance of “union with Christ” in the New Testament, especially in Paul’s letters. Second, I show some of its connections to Chinese culture. For the sake of brevity, we will limit most of our biblical discussion to Ephesians, though many other passages could be mentioned. I will conclude that “union with Christ” provides a helpful entryway to evangelism and discipleship in China.
Union with Christ
While “union with Christ” themes are found in other parts of the New Testament, Paul’s letters are the most abundant source for understanding the significance of this concept. While the term “united to” with reference to Christ occurs only in Romans 6:5, the idea is prevalent in all Paul’s epistles. Paul typically communicates “union with Christ” via prepositional phrases such as “in Christ,” “with Christ,” “into Christ,” and “through Christ.”
In addition to prepositional phrases, Paul also uses a number of images to highlight the theme, such as the body of Christ and clothing metaphors. These and related phrases and metaphors are found hundreds of times in Paul’s writings, leading Constantine Campbell to conclude that “union with Christ” is the “web” that holds all of Paul’s theology together. He writes: “Every Pauline theme and pastoral concern ultimately coheres with the whole through their common bond—union with Christ.”
One example will suffice to demonstrate the significance of “union with Christ.” In Ephesians 1:3–14 , one of Paul’s most complete single statements on salvation, he says that believers in Jesus receive “every spiritual blessing . . . in Christ” (v. 3); are chosen “in him” (v. 4); are “predestined for adoption through Jesus Christ” (v. 5); are blessed “in the beloved” (v. 6); have redemption “in him” (v. 7); have inheritance “in him” (v. 11); have hope “in Christ” (v. 12); and are sealed by the Holy Spirit “in him” (v. 13). Clearly Paul believes that union with Christ is central to salvation! Though but one example, this text is representative of a number of similar Pauline passages.
The exact nature of “union with Christ” is a complex matter that lies beyond the bounds of the present discussion. A brief definition will have to suffice. “Union with Christ” is best understood as “a covenantal bond on the basis of faith that results in the spiritual joining of believers to Christ and one another via the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.” The covenantal nature of union with Christ is of primary importance for the purposes of this article. In short, “union with Christ” is Paul’s central theme for defining the new covenant people of God.
Again, Ephesians is particularly clear: “But now, in Christ Jesus, you who were once far away, have come near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, the one who makes the two one and destroys the dividing wall of hostility in his flesh” (2:13–14). Just prior to these verses, Paul explicates the beauty of the gospel of God’s grace received through faith (2:1–10). This message is for all and makes those who were strangers to the covenants into people of the covenant (2:11–12). Following the quoted verses, Paul shows that the law, which divided Jew and Gentile, is no longer the identity marker of God’s people: God has created a new humanity in Christ (2:15). Those once separated are, through the cross, joined together as the household of God, his temple (2:16–22). All of this takes place in Christ. Thus, the new covenant people of God are those, Jew and Gentile alike, slave and free, rich and poor, male and female, united to one another in Christ.
Intersections with Chinese Culture
The above observations hardly do justice to the richness of “union with Christ” themes in the New Testament. Nevertheless, the significance of “union with Christ” should be clear. We have emphasized “union with Christ” as the primary identity marker of the new covenant people of God. In this section, we move to a brief analysis of two aspects of Chinese culture that intersect with the concept of “union with Christ.” This cultural analysis will also help further elucidate “union with Christ.”
First, those with any knowledge of Chinese culture understand the importance of relationship (关系; guanxi) in all areas of life. While guanxi is not monolithic—there are different types—in many ways, guanxi is what makes Chinese society tick. One’s identity, place in society, and ability to flourish often hinge on the quality and quantity of one’s relationships. Moreover, decision-making is normally based on the perceived effects on relationships. Many people will choose that which causes the least amount of relational friction, even if the decision leads to personal loss.
The connection to “union with Christ” should be clear: union themes emphasize the intimate relationship between God and humanity in Christ. Paul’s oft-employed metaphor of the body displays the beauty of this reality. Believers in Jesus are the body of Christ, implying an intimate relationship between the church and her Lord. Jesus is the head of the church, which is his body (Eph. 1:22–23). Being a member of the body of Christ means, among other things, that believers are spiritually and inseparably bound to Christ. In Ephesians 5, Paul again uses the body metaphor alongside the marriage metaphor to explicate the relationship between Christ and the church. As the husband-wife relationship is the closest among human relationships, so the connection between Christ and the church is real and intimate. In short, the church, as the body of Christ, highlights the relationship between humanity and God via union with Christ.
Not only does the body metaphor draw attention to the relationship between Christ and the church, it also explains the relationship between believers. In Ephesians 4:15–16, Paul wraps up his discussion of unity in Christ, drawing again on the body metaphor. This time, he reaffirms Christ as the head of the church and emphasizes the purpose of individual gifting—the building up of the body of Christ. This follows his well-known proclamation of the church as “one body” (Ephesians 4:4). Significantly, the unity of the church in Christ does not destroy the individuality of the members. Rather, the members work together for mutual benefit (Ephesians 4:16). Nevertheless, it is important to remember that “union with Christ” is primarily a corporate concept. That is, the individual members gain full identity only in relation to Christ and one another.
As an aside, this aspect of “union with Christ” also meshes well with another feature of Chinese culture: collective identity. That is, many (most?) Chinese understand their identity within a certain network of relationships, beginning with the family. Likewise, “union with Christ” provides the fundamental Christian identity in relation to Christ and the church.
Second, Confucian principles emphasize the importance of harmony (和谐). Within the Confucian tradition, harmony is the aim in all areas of life—personal, social, ethical, and political. Related to the concept of guanxi, harmony emphasizes peaceful relations between people. In fact, harmony can be said to be the key ingredient to the good life.
While few in contemporary Chinese society might identify themselves as Confucian, harmony remains a driving force in social relationships. Indeed, “harmonious society” is touted as important for the international advancement of China; it is one of the eighteen “Core Values of Socialism” posted in every Chinese city. Of course, one can always speculate as to the exact meaning of “harmony” when the term is used in government advertisements. Nevertheless, the concept itself remains important, particularly in interpersonal relationships. Of course, other aspects of culture are closely related, such as filial piety. Yet, harmony remains a relational goal.
The connections in Ephesians are again clear. Most poignantly, Paul writes in Ephesians 2:14 that “he himself is our peace.” There are two particularly significant points for our purposes. First, the “our” in this verse includes Jews and Gentiles—those typically not at peace. Jesus himself is the peace that brings divided people together. Second, Paul probably has in mind the Old Testament concept of peace (shalom), which emphasizes the completeness of all things. In other words, in Christ, God’s world and God’s people find true shalom, harmony in being truly whole. The peace between people naturally considered enemies (Jews and Gentiles) takes place in union with Christ. As noted above, this peace in Christ creates one’s most fundamental guanxi and therefore creates the only truly harmonious society—the church. Then, in Ephesians 2:17–18, Paul reiterates the point, again focusing on peace and unity. Peace, he says, was preached to all—Jew and Gentile alike—resulting in the joining together in one Spirit all those who are united to Christ.
To apply this to the contemporary church in China, the gospel creates a harmonious society (i.e., the church) in which one gains a new primary identity. This new society includes all—rich and poor, Han and minority—in Christ. This body works together, each member serving the others for the good of the body (Ephesians 4:4–16). No longer do diverging groups need to battle one another for face or fortune. Rather, in Christ, believers together put on the armor of God and together battle the true enemy of peace (Ephesians 6:10–20).
Other cultural themes could be mentioned. For example, the restoration of glory in Christ parallels the Chinese search for face. These examples show the potential use of this important biblical theme within Chinese culture. Specifically, “union with Christ” themes could be used to shape contextualized gospel presentations. One could move through the biblical story highlighting the creation of harmony in the beginning, the destruction of guanxi and harmony through sin and rebellion, the failure to achieve harmony through Israel’s history, and the true harmony found in guanxi with Christ. Likewise, discipleship should be grounded in the new identity of those in Christ. In Christ, we are no longer fundamentally Han, minority, foreigner, rich, or poor, but “one new humanity” (Ephesians 2:15). Following and serving Jesus in China must flow from this new identity.