The body of Jesus, Prioritism, and Holism

How Jesus' human body ought to unify missionaries with differing perspectives

How important is the human body? And how does our view of the body affect our understanding of missions?

In very general terms, missiologists and missionaries fall into two broad perspectives: prioritism and holism (or what is sometimes called integralism). Prioritism regards the task of evangelism and discipleship as the primary missionary task. Other works, such as mercy ministries, are secondary and exist to serve the primary task of making disciples.

Holism, on the other hand, seeks to place equal emphasis on the tasks of evangelism and discipleship, mercy ministry, justice issues, and even creation care. Proponents of holism often criticize practitioners of prioritism for only caring about the souls of people rather than their whole person, body and soul.

Photo by the blowup on Unsplash

Will the real Gnostics please stand up?

At the level of theory, these two viewpoints can be fiercely debated, and at times the debate can even lack the charity which brothers and sisters in Christ owe to one another. However, at the level of real people doing real work, we often find ourselves much closer together than our theories would suggest.

I think anyone who views the Gospel Life website would quickly come to the conclusion that we are prioritists. We believe the primary mission of the church is to make disciples. But I also hope the straw man arguments claiming that prioritists don’t care about people’s “real world” problems would be quickly burned to the ground by our example of mercy ministries.

I heard someone say recently (and I can’t find the source!) that every major Christian heresy has a thread of Gnosticism in it. A generalized Gnosticism (as opposed to the formal set of beliefs from the second century AD) — the bifurcation of the physical world and the spiritual world — has always plagued Christian theology and mission.

Yet we don’t have to journey far into our New Testaments to be drawn back toward a balanced understanding of the whole human being as a union of body and spirit/soul (or if you prefer a tripartite human make-up: body, soul, and spirit).

The Human Body of Jesus in the Gospel of John

For this Palm Sunday, the pastors at Gospel Life Baptist Church asked me to preach from John 19 about the death of Christ. We have recently been preaching through the letter of 1 John, and so it was quite interesting to then turn back to the Gospel according to John with his first letter still ringing in my heart.

One theme you can’t miss in 1 John is his emphasis on Jesus’ human body. First, John reminds his readers that he not only saw Jesus, but even touched him with his own hands (1 John 1:1). Second, John gives a simple way to test between true and lying spirits: the Spirit of God confesses “that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh” (1 John 4:2). Third, John tells us there are three testimonies to Jesus’ person: the Spirit, the water, and the blood (1 John 5:6-8). Two of these, the water of Jesus’ baptism and the blood of Jesus’ death, cannot be separated from Jesus’ human body.

While John’s gospel is rightly seen as expressing Christ’s divinity with greater force and clarity than almost any other book of the New Testament — “and the Word was God” (John 1:1) — John also gives clear evidence of Jesus’ humanity. Pilate’s statement is the message of John himself: “Here is the man” (John 19:5)!

Jesus suffers the pain of flogging, mocking, and crucifixion. But John also emphasizes the human body of Jesus in numerous other ways: Jesus carries his cross. The clothes that had covered his body are gambled over among the soldiers. The woman who grew his human body in her womb and brought him into the world stands at the foot of the cross. His human throat thirsts. His human body is pierced, and human blood and “water” (possibly fluid that had built up in the pericardial sack around his heart due to the trauma his body endured) flow forth. Finally, his body is carefully placed in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, wrapped in linen cloths with myrrh and aloes and placed in a tomb.

The emphasis on Jesus’ human body continues into John’s resurrection accounts in John 20–21. Peter and John see the linen cloths removed and the wrapping for his head carefully folded in the empty tomb. Mary Magadelene holds tightly to Jesus’ risen body. Thomas places his fingers in Jesus’ injuries. Jesus cooks and eats alongside the Sea of Galilee.

While biblical scholars debate how early Gnostic heresy became a formalized system of belief, we cannot miss the fact that John was assaulting a proto-gnostic view of the world. John wants us to know that Jesus was not a spirit that appeared like a human. Jesus was God the Son who took on a human nature and lived, died, and lived again in a human body.

If we understand what we share in common — we are not Gnostics — and where we differ — biblical theology and eschatology — perhaps we might also find a way to appreciate the work of other missionaries, even if they emphasize different priorities than ourselves.

Where we really differ: Biblical Theology and Eschatology

Like in a lot of theological and missiological debates, the proponents of prioritism and holism typically spar on the level of proof texts. For example, the prioritist will emphasize the Great Commission and the example of the apostles, while the holist will look to the Old Testament prophets’ emphasis on mercy and justice. When we spar at this level, we rarely get anywhere.

Perhaps it is better to first emphasize what all of us have in common: We are Christians, not Gnostics. We believe that the human body and the material world were created good, and we all believe that Jesus died to redeem all of creation. Jesus died to redeem and resurrect the entire human — body and soul. Jesus died to redeem and renew all of creation, which has been subjected to futility because of human sin.

While we could always find extreme figures and particularly bad examples of prioritism and holism if we look, the vast majority of Christians involved in missions agree on the doctrinal points in the above paragraph.

The places we diverge, however, are in the areas of biblical theology and eschatology. One of the primary tasks of biblical theology is to explain how the various parts of the Bible fit together into a unified whole. In the debate over missions, we face the issue of what continuities and discontinuities exist between the mission of churches in our current epoch and the mission of God’s people in previous epochs. Is creation care part of the mission of churches because it was part of Adam’s mission? Should Christians emphasize the pursuit of justice as an aspect of missions because the prophets criticized Israel’s failure to reflect God’s mercy and justice? 

In sum, if something was Adam’s mission or Israel’s mission, is it also the mission of Jesus’ disciples today? Or do the disciples of Jesus have a unique calling within the economy of the new covenant that is distinct from Adam or Israel? Christians who understand the Bible’s unity through the lens of covenant theology, dispensational theology, or progressive covenantalism will arrive at different answers to these questions depending on how they see the parts of the Bible fitting together.

Similarly, we see a divergence based on eschatology (which is not entirely unrelated to biblical theology). By eschatology, I do not mean primarily the timing of Jesus’ return or the nature of the millennium. (Of course, postmillennialists will trend holist. Premillennialists will trend prioritist. Amillennialists can be a wild card.) Rather, I mean the issue of the already and the not yet. According to the New Testament, eschatology is not about the future. It is about now. We are in the Last Days now! 

But what can we expect to see transformed now, even within the present age, and what will not yet be transformed until the new creation? Can we expect our current world, still frustrated by sin and death, to be transformed through the death and resurrection of Christ? Or is the primary act of transformation during our current time period the new birth and the gathering of believers into God’s church? Do we believe that while believers can have positive effects on society at certain times they will never ultimately transform the world in this age?

Uniting the Body of Christ around the body of Jesus

Once again, different people will have different answers to these questions, but the important point is that we should each recognize that those answers don’t come from particular verses here and there as much as they come from our theological systems — our biblical theologies and our eschatologies. I think if we recognize this, it is possible for us to hold with strong conviction these theological positions and our resulting missiological viewpoints, while also understanding and respecting the viewpoints of others.

If we understand what we share in common — we are not Gnostics — and where we differ — biblical theology and eschatology — perhaps we might also find a way to appreciate the work of other missionaries, even if they emphasize different priorities than ourselves. For example, while I am a prioritist and don’t believe that creation care should be confused with missions, there remains room in my prioritist viewpoint for creation care. Taking care of God’s creation is the proper response of born again believers to the fact that we live in creation and are stewards of it. It’s not missions, but it is one way we live righteously as God’s people in the world. Therefore, I can appreciate those who are giving their lives to it.

Similarly, I would hope that holists could cool down much of their rhetoric, which often accuses prioritists of not preaching “the whole gospel” or “the gospel of the kingdom.” It should be beyond dispute that prioritists are among those who are most deeply involved in disaster relief, orphan care, medical missions, and numerous other ministries which seek to care for the whole person. Even though we may differentiate evangelism as deserving first emphasis, we remain deeply committed to living as salt and light in the world and loving people who are made up of both body and soul.

Certainly, we could all do better, but one fact remains: no matter whether we are prioritists or holists, we are not Gnostics. Jesus possessed a human body, affirmed the good of creation, and redeemed both the material and the spiritual. The body of Jesus ought to unite us as the body of Christ.

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Joshua Hutchens

Joshua Hutchens

Joshua Hutchens (PhD, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is a missionary to Malawi and president of Gospel Life. Before becoming president of Gospel Life, he served as a pastor in Kentucky. He is married to Stacy Leigh, and they have five children.

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