Paul Louis Metzger is Professor of Christian Theology and Theology of Culture at King’s Multnomah University in Portland, Oregon. He received his PhD in 1999 from King's College in London.

Relationships are important in the way we share the gospel.

Edited transcript

J. Michael Feazell: I’d like to begin by finding out what led you into the study of theology.

PLM: I was in North­western College, St. Paul, Minnesota. In my junior or senior year I was interacting with a couple of professors and one, Walter Dunit, introduced me to the discipline of systematic theology and how it’s all-encompassing. While there’s the descriptive element in talking about what the church has believed in the past, there’s also that prescriptive element, about what do we believe and present today for the church and the society at large. I always had a desire to bring theology into the present context. So that was very intriguing to me in terms of that all-encompassing enterprise that also has present-day import. That’s what led me into the discipline, and the study of God, and I could think of nothing greater than the study of God and especially the triune nature of God.

JMF: Somewhere along the path you moved into Trinitarian theology. How did that go about?

PLM: I was a student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and a couple of my professors there had encouraged me for my doctoral studies to consider applying to King’s College, London, to work with Professor Colin Gunton. He was a leading Trinitarian theologian who died a few years ago and was a major player in terms of the renaissance in Trinitarian theology. Working at King’s in London was a great introduction into Trinitarian thought forms, and it was great to be able to work with him. There were others, such as John Zizioulas, who would come in and teach and lecture, and many others as well. It was a great place to study Trinitarian theology.

JMF: You’re editor of a book called Trinitarian Soundings in Systematic Theology, in which you look at Colin Gunton and his work through the eyes of a number of authors. Maybe we could talk about that a little later. Right now, as we introduced you, we mentioned that your passion is the integration of theology and spirituality with cultural sensitivity. What is an integration of theology and spirituality? What’s the difference, and what do you mean by integration?

PLM: Theology by nature is a very integrative discipline and very much concerned for various domains of thought and life. As a Christian, I think everything we’re about should be about spirituality. While I’m not doing spiritual theology in that classic sense of the discussion that Professor James Houston will be about, I have great respect for his work. The types of theological thought forms I’m working with within Trinitarian theology are participation in the life of God, union with Christ. Those are central motifs in my own writing and research, and that has import for cultural sensitivity dynamics in our postmodern, post-Christian context of how we engage alternative spiritualities. We need a robust understanding and awareness of the spiritual dimensions bound up with the holy love of God, and Christ, in the power of the Spirit. That’s bound up with what I’m thinking of here.

JMF: By “spirituality,” you’re not talking necessarily about spirituality in the sense of mysticism… you’re talking about a holistic Christian life as theology informs it, particularly Trinitarian theology. What is practical about Trinitarian theology in the Christian life?

PLM: When Trinitarian theology is framed in light of the holy love of God in Christ and that we’re called to participate in this God’s life and not simply to emulate (which is part of our work), but actually to participate, it gets us beyond a form of religion, or rules, and legalism and “sin management” (as some will talk about it) of do’s and don’ts. Paul is very much against that in the book of Colossians, where there was a faulty asceticism of “don’t drink, don’t chew, don’t date girls who do” type of thinking back in the ancient world. The Christians were getting bound up with them and they thought that their identity with Christ was about sin management — keeping the rules.

Paul is saying that our life with Christ goes far beyond sheer concern for moral rights — it must be about union and communion within the life of God. He says in Colossians 2:9-10: “All the fullness of deity dwells in bodily form, and you have been given fullness in Christ.” That’s the kind of union that Paul is concerned for. You said before that it’s not about mysticism per se, well to me, there is a mystical component. It’s not the kind of Buddhist mysticism, a pantheism, it’s not that, but the Reformers were very concerned for union with Christ in the Spirit, where our hearts are wed to his heart. There really is that participation, and I would call that mystical, but it is bound up with the holistic frame of reference with practical import to such things as you mentioned in getting beyond legalism toward a real relational model of spirituality.

JMF: By relational model, you’re talking about how to get along with each other.

PLM: Yes, and that God communes with us heart-to-heart, not simply thought-to-thought, but heart-to-heart, because that’s where the best communion takes place. Our thoughts, our actions, our moral initiatives flow out of that heart-to-heart communion with God. I like to pick up from Martin Luther and his side-kick Melanchthon, when they both in the 1500s talked about, we don’t change hearts by changing behaviors. Our behaviors are changed by our hearts being changed. That only occurs by way of the Holy Spirit being poured out, as Romans 5:5 says: “The love of God is poured out into our hearts with the Holy Spirit.” When our hearts are transformed, then these other things flow from them. That’s what I would call an affective spirituality that’s bound up from Trinitarian thought.

JMF: Now, cultural sensitivity flows right out of that, in an authentic Christianity that’s coming from the heart as opposed to a list of rules. Cultural sensitivity is going to be the natural by-product. What are some of the ways that you focus on with regard to bringing cultural sensitivity into that process?

PLM: Well, because God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, God did not seek to… I like to use the imagery of he didn’t come to take back Jerusalem or take back America from his enemies. In the evangelical Christian movement (of which I’m a part), we’re often concerned for our rights, and taking back America from those who live very differently from us. While I want to follow the Bible through and through, and live according to God’s desires for us as his people, nonetheless God is calling us to love people where we’re not seeking to shape them by behavioral frames of reference, but as we relate to people relationally, not behaviorally — they get to see that we care about them. That’s where there’s the opportunity for people to have a change of heart. As it’s been said elsewhere (and I agree with this), we’re known more in the conservative Christian movement for what we are against than what we’re for.

As I’m engaging in cultural issues when I’m working in Portland, Oregon (it’s not the Bible Belt), and when I’m working with Buddhists and others and they’re concerned about what they’ve seen in evangelical America of seeking to take back America from them, there’s a lot of fear that they have of us. I think that an imperfect love is driven out by fear, but a perfect love casts out fear. When they come to understand that we’re concerned for their well-being and that we want to care for them in the love of God in Christ, that changes the dynamics of how we deal with people with different spiritualities and different moralities. It’s that relational context that gives birth — comes forth from God’s heart — to a kind of cultural engagement that is not about enforcing Christianity on people, but it comes from the inside out, not the outside in.

JMF: In the Gospels, Jesus is described as a friend of sinners, and yet in our evangelical traditions, we tend to shy away from being friends of sinners — the last thing we’re going to be is a friend of sinners. We want our children to go to private Christian schools, we want to keep ourselves in an enclave of our friends within the church, not outside the church. Yet it sounds like you’re talking about the need to be friends of sinners, like Jesus was and for the same reasons as Jesus was, because people are human beings created in the image of God, and it’s the heart of God that reaches out to all people. Often though, Christians are told to make friends with non-believers with an ulterior motive of getting the gospel to them [PLM: bait and switch] — it’s a project where the real goal is to get the gospel to them, as opposed to them being the goal as a person, worthy of friendship because the love of Christ is in us and he’s a friend of sinners.

PLM: Absolutely. With that frame of reference, Trinitarian theology gives rise to a concern for people as people, and not as a means to an end of something else. So I couldn’t agree with you more, that we don’t engage nonbelievers and build relationships with them simply to get the gospel to them, because there’s a problematic notion of the gospel if we don’t see the gospel itself in terms of its DNA as relational — the good news is that God desires relationship with us. If I’m only after relationship for the sake of seeing people come to Christ, then relationship is not the goal — relationship is a means to an end of something else, and often that’s a behavioral rationalistic frame of reference — understanding certain things about God and doing certain things, rather than heart-to-heart communion.

When I talk about a desire to build relationships with people, that goes beyond whether they come to Christ or not, because I think Jesus would want me to care for them, for the oppressed, those who are in hunger and need, even if they don’t come to Christ. I think he would still feed them and would still care for them, and we should, too. But we always want to see people come to know Jesus personally as Lord and Savior. That’s our desire because we know this communion with him, and we want others to know it. It’s an invitation rather than a negation.

JMF: It’s living out of the gospel, rather than a formulaic presentation by words — it’s being the gospel.

PLM: It’s a gospel of word and deed. Especially in our context today, because we have created so much fear in the broader community and so many contexts as conservative Christians with our “take back America” strategy, I find that we have to create the space with our lives for our views to be heard, and that’s going to require a lot more sacrificial living than we’ve been accustomed to. We’ll look a lot more like the early church context. I’m excited about that, even though there’s some fear on my part of what that will entail, but for us to move toward a mindset of being a missional outpost in our culture rather than some dominant superstructure, makes for our depending on God and Christ more, not less. So I’m excited about the opportunities that the church will have in North America in days ahead.

JMF: Speaking then of cultural sensitivity, in your book Consuming Jesus: Beyond Race and Class Divisions in a Consumer Church, you point out that race problems are not necessarily a thing of the past, even though overtly many of the structures are gone, that within the church, there tends to still be race and class divisions. Could you talk about the title, what you mean by “consuming Jesus,” and also what these race and class divisions look like.

PLM: In the title, Consuming Jesus: Beyond Race and Class Divisions in a Consumer Church, I’m doing two things with the words Consuming Jesus. One, negatively: we have with consumer culture these projections we place on Jesus. We make Jesus to be what we want him to be. So consumerism consumes our perspectives on Jesus.

I think here of the movie Talladega Nights. There is this prayer by Ricky Bobby (Will Ferrell) where he’s praying to Jesus, eight pounds, six ounce baby Jesus, to help him win a race. Other people at the dinner table are talking about how they like Jesus looking like this or Jesus looking like this, but it’s all based on their own preferences rather than on who he is in himself. So the negative aspect is how consumerism impacts us and we distort the biblical perspective on Jesus with our own cultural preferences.

The more positive notion, in terms of how I use the words, is that I long for the church to be consumed by Jesus and a more noble vision of our concern for the church being his people, his community, where there are no divisions (including divisions of race and class) — those are torn and destroyed. That’s the other aspect of how I’m using the words “consuming Jesus.”

To develop that further, the issue of how race is still with us today (and race and class divisions tend to go together in American culture historically and even in the present day), there’s a book called Divided by Faith on evangelical religion in America where the authors, Emerson and Smith, talk about how we’re not in the slavery era of race problems, we’re not in the Jim Crow era of separate drinking fountains, sitting at the back of the bus, but in the post-Civil Rights era. Because we don’t have these legal structures in the same way that we may have in the past, a lot of people think that racism is no longer with us.

So they develop this at length about how racism, racialization, how race impacts everything from economics to where you live, to job placement, etc. They talk about how race is still with us. Race is a variable, not a constant — it’s always fluctuating — racialization and race impacts our culture. With that as a backdrop, I argue in the book that one of the ways in which racism is still with us is by consumer preference. We all tend to flock with those or toward those who are like us, and a lot of churches cater to that.

There’s been use of this missions principle, the homogeneous unit principle, applied to church growth strategies in America. To help the church grow fastest, you work with people of the same socio-economic feather and if you target them, they will flock together and they will flock quickly. It’s difficult to get churches to move beyond these kinds of principles because it’s very pragmatic: it does grow churches quickly when you’re working with preferences of people, and people tend to choose (if you listen to them) churches based on what they like rather than where God is calling them.

Just listen to how people say, “I chose this church because I like the worship, I like the way the pastor speaks.” You don’t hear much about “God called my family to this church.” That might be hard to configure at times, what’s the call of God like, but nonetheless you don’t have people even wrestling with that. So if a pastor’s going to talk about race divisions, normal families will be thinking, “What does this have to do with my family? I just want to see my kids raised up morally and I want them to have good Bible teaching. I’ll just go to the church next door where we don’t have to listen to this stuff — what does this have to do with the gospel?”

I talk about how these things are related to the gospel message because Paul says in Galatians 3: “There’s no longer any division between Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free.” While the Jew-Gentile issue is different from black/white issues, for example (because you could become a Jew if you’re a Gentile, by circumcision and other things — but a black person can’t become a white person, a white person can’t become a black person), but those same divisions between Jews and Gentiles have pertinence and relevance to the divisions we have on racism and racialization today.

JMF: Morality seems to be the thing that we’re focused on with our children — maybe not so much with ourselves, but certainly with our children — we want our children to be moral. It reminds me of The Music Man: we want the children not to be playing pool, we want them to be moral, so we get them into band. But through all that search for morality, or that effort to focus on morality, we can get to the place where morality becomes so important that we look down on sinners, we even despise them, we talk about them in negative ways of reflecting how we feel about them, as opposed to being like Jesus, who is a friend of sinners, to letting his love flow through us because these are the very people he came to die for. We are all sinners before we come to Christ anyway (and we still sin afterward), and yet we focus on morality, but the gospel focuses on relationality. You’ve talked about the parable of the Good Samaritan, how it relates to that.

PLM: When Jesus is talking about morality (because in the context of the Good Samaritan parable, he’s being challenged by a religious leader who asked, what must I do to inherit eternal life?), Jesus gets into that discussion of caring for one’s neighbor, and Jesus frames morality relationally. He’s concerned, as God, for morality, but how he shapes or frames morality is always relational. The religious leaders were often so concerned for a kind of behavioral, individualistic morality, they missed the real essence of the law — which was to love your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself.

So Jesus says, “this is what it means to care for one’s neighbor” — and our neighbor is not the person I most like. As Henri Nouwen said, “a true community is the place where the person you least like always lives.” Who does Jesus use as the hero in the story of the Good Samaritan? It’s the Samaritan who had extraordinary mercy, as one translation frames it. In that context, it’s the religious leaders (this man’s peer group), who don’t care for the Jewish man (I’m assuming it’s a Jewish man) — one of their own who’s been oppressed, who’s been beaten, left for dead. It’s a Samaritan who comes to his aid, and in the issues of race and poverty matters that I’m concerned for in Consuming Jesus, I’m not looking at people of different ethnicities as bound up somehow with sin, but how we relate to people or not relate to them, based on them being different from us. That’s the sin issue, that we don’t care. Jesus is concerned for mercy and justice and sacrifice and breaking down divisions, especially in the church, but also beyond. Jesus was concerned; Paul was concerned for these things in the church.

JMF: I’ve always been intrigued by Peter’s statement: to be ready always to give an answer for the hope that lies within you. It implies that you’re not supposed to be always going around blurting out the hope that lies with you, but you’re prepared, you’re ready to, when the opportunity and the circumstances call for it. Paul said something, in another context, about an individual that he said not to associate with because of his behavior within the church and they were, in effect, putting him out of the church for a season. He had to correct them: “When I said that, I didn’t mean not to associate with anyone who’s a sinner — I was talking about the individual who purports to be a member of the church who was grievously and overtly sinning in public.” He said you’ve got to associate with sinners and unbelievers, otherwise you have to come out of the world.

There’s a recognition of the fact that relational Christianity is going to and needs to engage people who are not believers. That means it’s right and appropriate to be friends of sinners, and you can do that without taking up their behavior. Yet how can we reach out to them showing them what the gospel is and what Christ is like in the world if we don’t engage them, if we keep them at arm’s length, if we just see them as a target of our condemnation, and we’re constantly trying to pass laws to put them in jail?

PLM: Exactly. With Christ, even with the leper, even though it wasn’t a sin issue that the person had leprosy (maybe some people want to make the connection, he has this because he’s a sinner), if you look at it from a legalistic sense, looking at the letter not the spirit, Jesus, by touching the leper, broke the law, from that reading. But by touching and healing the leper, he fulfilled the law. Jesus is about a relational engagement, a transformation of people. While I share the concern for being holy people and we’re called to be holy people, it’s a dysfunctional spirituality, it so fears engaging the world that we don’t have contact. We need to be so captured by God’s holy love in Christ that the real force of movement is from us to them in God’s holy love, not a fear of coming out from the world so that we’re not tainted.

Where’s the transformation coming from: Are we being conformed, or are we being transforming agents? In John 17 Jesus prays, “Father, I don’t pray that you would take them out of the world, but that you protect them in the world.” Where did Jesus hang out, and where were Jesus’ greatest rebukes going? Who was the audience for his rebukes that were most forthright? For the religious leaders. I think about that in terms of a concern about myself, because it wasn’t the tax collectors and the sinners, the prostitutes that he attacked — he called them to repent, but his attacks were for those who considered themselves righteous and they don’t need him. That’s where his rebuke was, and it was a stinging rebuke.

My question to me, as a religious leader, is, if I read this Gospel and I’m thinking he’s attacking mostly the nonbeliever person who is the “sinner,” then I’m missing the point. Am I broken? Am I sensing my own need for him today? That’s where I think all Christian leaders should be going, and we need that sense of desperation for him to show up and transform us. Because then, we will be in a position to speak to people in our midst.

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Last modified: Tuesday, March 30, 2021, 6:15 PM