How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church
By C. Christopher Smith
Brazos Press, 2019
222 pages (paperback), $16.99
Some of the most profitable, God-glorifying, and personally challenging conversations I’ve had in the last decade occurred with a deacon in my local church. With our union in Christ at the forefront, these conversations allow for difficult (sometimes ignorant) questions to be asked with a mutual understanding that the questions posed come not from malice but from a genuine desire to learn from one another and grow more fully into the image of Christ. When we get together, we do so with an expectation that we will learn something new from each other. We’ve faced different circumstances in our lives, and it has been life-giving to be able to sit down with him for hours at a time, while he—a thirty-something black man—just lets me empty myself of the questions and concerns American culture has created in a thirty-something white guy like me. He does not condemn me for the ways I understand things; instead, he lovingly and charitably challenges and engages with me to think more like a Christian on important issues.
It’s this type of conversation I believe C. Christopher Smith is trying to encourage Christians everywhere to engage in, with his book How the Body of Christ Talks. From the outset, Smith says that the fundamental question with which he wrestles is “How do we learn to talk together in our churches when we have been formed by a culture that goes to great lengths to avoid conversation?” (8). Throughout the book, he shows an appreciation for the diverse makeup of the church (cultural, experiential, racial, and so on), often revisiting the biblical description of the church as Christ’s body made up of many distinct members. While Smith acknowledges that our diversity and sin will create a relational mess, in the spirit of pressing on together toward eternity, he reminds us of the imagery of John 15 and what it means to abide in Christ and with our brothers and sisters (ch. 6). In addition, he rightly points out that our cultural upbringings have certainly played a part in how we approach any number of conversations, and we need to be mindful of those shaping influences (ch. 8) while remaining acutely aware of the God-given, image-bearing dignity of those with whom we may disagree (ch. 9).
In an attempt to make a case for why we ought to engage in these types of conversations, even when our culture is encouraging us not to, Smith spends his first chapter creating a setting for the rest of the book in social trinitarian theology. “Social trinitarianism,” he states, “emphasizes the three divine persons, in contrast to other interpretations that emphasize their unity” (12). As he begins to apply his Trinitarian theology to the way members in the church interact with one another, he further accentuates diversity by emphasizing that God is a “fundamentally social being and that humankind created in God’s image is also fundamentally social.” His statements here in the opening chapter seem to communicate that the unity of the Godhead—and through Smith’s application, the unity of the church—is of secondary importance when it comes to having constructive conversations. He doesn’t outright reject classical Trinitarianism, but he so emphasizes the fundamental conversational diversity of the Trinity that the impression with which the reader is left is that unity in diversity is found in the way the Trinity communes among itself rather than the church’s union with Christ, her indwelling by the Spirit, and her adoption into the family of the Father. This is not to say that social trinitarianism has no value (or place in this conversation), simply that it’s less than accurate (and therefore less than helpful) to ground the import of the way in which brothers and sisters in Christ talk to each other in the way the Trinity communes among itself, rather than in their mutual union in Christ. We can (and must) learn to talk to one another well—not because the Trinity communes among itself, but because we are image-bearers of the living God, members of the body of Christ, and irrevocably united to him by his life, death, and resurrection.
Another underlying theme throughout the book is that we all have a “truth” to contribute to the conversation that is completely valid and needs to be taken into consideration when the local church, through conversation, defines what actual truth is. This is an unfortunate—and I’m sure unintended—byproduct of neglecting the importance of true Christian unity. The result is a low view of God’s word, which essentially sends church members out to create compromises with one another in order to find a sense of unity, rather than speak humbly and lovingly with one another because of the unity we already have.
Smith spends the rest of How the Body of Christ Talks digging into the how of creating and sustaining spaces for conversations. He describes optimal group size, formatting, scheduling, and the like for holding conversations within the church, all of which are helpful for the local body that would like to start but doesn’t know how to begin. Nonetheless, the problems inherent in his social trinitarian framing work their way out in the examples of conversational techniques provided throughout the book. Many of the examples provided seem to be ways of either abrogating the responsibility of church elders to instruct and defend sound doctrine (see 157–61) or encouraging congregants to find a sort of unity in diversity (see 74–77). Although he earnestly attempts to lay solid practical groundwork for meaningful conversation, the foundation is so faulty that I struggled to see how lasting any attempt could actually be. If we’re not unified in Christ, only striving to live out what we individually believe is good and right for us as the church, then we will have unity insofar as our opinions agree. If we’re working together for the gratification of our own desires, not the glory of God, then our “unity” will ultimately result in schism, because we will all have different opinions on which desire or goal is most important. If, however, what God has said is of first importance and we all find unity in his truth, then there is great power and freedom for Spirit-filled, church-edifying conversation.
For thoughtful Christians firmly established in what they believe, How the Body of Christ Talks will be of some value. Smith has many beneficial things to say. For example, I appreciated the detailed practical suggestions and was encouraged by his reminder that diversity is not a barrier to unity but a wonderful aspect of life in Christ. But, since the social trinitarian construct makes it more problematic than ultimately helpful, I wouldn’t generally recommend it. I believe our Christian unity ought to be the bedrock for the church’s call to conversation, and I find it risky to recommend resources that would encourage otherwise.
Matt Boga is a member and lay leader at Reality Church of Stockton in Stockton, California. In his free time Matt enjoys reading, building with his hands, and playing basketball. You can follow him on Twitter at @mattboga.