Book Review: Being Conformed to Christ in Community, by Jim Samra
There aren’t many doctoral dissertations which are directly relevant to the work of pastoral ministry. This review, however, is about one of them: Jim Samra’s book Being Conformed to Christ in Community, which is the published version of his 2004 Oxford DPhil thesis.
Actually, this isn’t really a book review; it’s more an exercise in theological mining. Down in the caves of academic New Testament study, a work of real value for pastors has been forged. Yet its gems lie buried under mountains of footnotes, discussions of Greek syntax, and extensive interaction with other scholars.
The point of this review, then, is simply to summarize, interact with, and apply the fruits of Samra’s study to pastoral ministry. To shift metaphors, I’m aiming to bring the cookies down a couple shelves. Samra, senior minister at Calvary Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, has already done some of that in his excellent, popular-level book The Gift of Church (click here for a review). But I think there are a few more good cookies left on the shelf.
After an introductory chapter which surveys previous scholarship, Samra considers
- whether or not Paul’s apostolic commission included bringing believers to maturity in Christ (Ch. 2);
- what Paul sees as the marks, standard, and process of maturity (Ch. 3);
- the central motif of maturity for Paul: conformity to Christ (Ch. 4);
- five components of the maturation process (Ch. 5);
- and the role of the local church in the maturation process (Ch. 6).
Here’s Samra’s bottom line, from the book’s preface:
The study originated as an attempt to answer the question, “Why did Paul start churches?” The answer that this work proposes is that Paul worked diligently to begin and maintain churches because he felt he was responsible for delivering mature believers on the day of Christ and that church was the place where and the means through which believers would come to maturity. (xi)
FIVE THESES ON BEING CONFORMED TO CHRIST IN COMMUNITY
That’s the big picture; now for some specifics. Before we dig any deeper, I should note that Samra’s work is almost purely descriptive. So all the “therefore’s”—all the implications for church life in what follows—are mine. Though I hope Samra could say “Amen” to each of them. (And in fact he recently did so by email.)
1. Paul’s apostolic commission included delivering believers mature in Christ on the last day.
The burden of chapter two is the question of whether Paul’s commission as an apostle included only evangelistic preaching, or also the ongoing nurture of communities of believers. Samra rightly argues the latter. For example, he draws from Philippians 2:12-16, in which Paul exhorts the Philippian church to work out their salvation with fear and trembling (vv. 12-13) and, unlike the grumbling Israelites, to be blameless and hold fast the word of life in the midst of a dark world (vv. 14-16). This is all so that on the day of Christ, “Paul will be able to boast that he has not run or labored in vain. This must indicate that Paul sees himself as responsible for the delivery of ‘blameless’ people on the day of Christ” (40).
Samra’s clearly biblical point here may seem obvious. But how much do your church’s mission efforts reflect a commitment to present believers mature in Christ, not merely to produce “decisions”? Do you measure success in evangelism by the number of decisions made, regardless of whether those “decisions” get baptized, join the church, and bear genuine fruit over the long haul? Or would you, like Paul, consider your work as a pastor to have been in vain if these “decisions” do not end up growing to maturity?
2. In Paul’s absence, local churches are held responsible to grow believers to maturity.
Later in the study Samra makes a number of important points about how Paul envisioned this project of maturation being carried out. For instance, Samra argues from a number of passages that in Paul’s absence, “he expects the maturational aspect of his apostolic commission to be done by the local community” (52). Paul expected the churches, in his absence (Phil. 1:27, 2:12), to build each other up in Christ. Further, “Our contention is that the role of the apostolic ministry does not decrease, but transfers to the community as a community and not simply to the next generation of leaders” (52, n. 128).
Today, with Paul and the other apostles permanently absent, the local church is the means God has ordained for bringing Christians to maturity. Paul’s work of maturing believers is now the church’s work. The whole church is responsible to grow believers in conformity to Christ.
This leads to another important observation: “Paul expected believers’ participation in the local community to be beneficial for their maturation” (133). Paul’s metaphors of the church as a field or building (1 Cor. 3:1-15), for example, imply that the church itself is to be a place of growth
Again, it may seem obvious to say that Paul expected church participation to help Christians grow. But at least one influential church recently concluded that their church wasn’t, in fact, very good at helping Christians mature.
Therefore, obvious as it may seem, pastors should ask themselves: Does the church I pastor help Christians grow to maturity in Christ? Would the members of my church say that participation in this local church helps to conform them to the character of Christ?
Better still: Does each corporate worship service, each Sunday School class, each small group help believers grow to maturity in Christ? If not, what can I do about it?
3. Conformity to Christ is the central motif in Paul’s understanding of maturity.
In chapter four, Samra surveys five passages which are crucial for Paul’s understanding of Christian maturity: Philippians 3:7-21, Romans 8:29/12:1-2, 2 Corinthians 2:17-4:8, 1 Corinthians 15, and Galatians 3:26-4:20. Samra’s conclusion from these passages is that conformity to Christ is the central motif in Paul’s understanding of Christian maturity. In other words, “Christ is set forward as the standard to which believers are being and will be conformed” (107).
If conformity to Christ is central for Paul, it should be central in our churches. If you were to ask a member of your church to summarize what it means to live and grow as a Christian, what would he or she say? That growing as a Christian means caring for the poor or transforming culture? That it’s about having a good quiet time every morning? That it means keeping the right set of rules and making sure that you’ve got the right set of behaviors?
Love of neighbor, personal devotion, and godly actions are all important aspects of what it means to grow as a Christian. Yet conformity to Christ is the foundation, goal, and glue that holds all of these things together and puts them in their proper place.
And for Paul, being conformed to Christ is an outworking of the fact that we are already united to Christ. We seek to grow in conformity to his character because we have already been united to him by faith.
4. Five key means through which believers grow to maturity in Christ are identifying with Christ, enduring suffering, experiencing the presence of God, receiving and living out wisdom from God, and imitating a godly example.
In chapter five, Samra explores five key means through which, according to Paul, believers grow to maturity in Christ:
- identifying with Christ,
- enduring suffering,
- experiencing the presence of God,
- receiving and living out wisdom from God,
- and imitating a godly example.
I won’t unpack all of them here, but a few are particularly noteworthy, or neglected.
By “indentifying with Christ,” Samra means the deliberate mental action of reminding ourselves that we belong to Christ, that we are united with Christ, and that we have died and been raised with Christ (cf. Rom. 6:1-14). And he rightly points out that the Lord’s Supper and baptism are two means by which we do this (153). Baptism, whether or own or observing another’s, reminds us that we have died and been raised with Christ (Rom. 6:1-4). And whatever else we might say about the nature of the Lord’s Supper, it is not less than a tangible reminder that we are united to Christ and are one body in him (1 Cor. 10:16-17). Pastors would do well to teach their people these things, and to urge them to use the celebration of these two ordinances as means of more closely identifying with Christ.
Look back over Samra’s list of means of growth. Do all of them feature regularly in your own teaching on Christian growth? When was the last time you preached about how suffering conforms us to the image of Christ? Do you disciple others through modeling godliness yourself? Do you teach others to do the same?
Samra points out that in Philippians 3:17 Paul coins a new word in order to urge the church to become “imitators together” of him. By this Paul indicates that “imitating a more mature example is something that ought to be done collectively within the community” (165). One-on-one discipling is not merely something that happens between individual believers, but is something that is to take place in the context of a local congregation.
If Paul wanted the Philippian believers to imitate him and other godly examples together, as a community, then it should be normal in our churches for Christians to serve as and seek godly examples. Not only that, but we should encourage the members of our churches to seek those examples primarily within their own local church. After all, those are the people who have covenanted to care for them and to hold them accountable to grow in Christ.
5. For Paul, individual and corporate maturity are strikingly interconnected.
In his study of 1 Corinthians, Samra argues that there is a “reciprocal relationship between the failure of the community and the immaturity of believers. Clearly the community is failing because the individuals are immature, but…it is also true that the believers are immature because the community is failing” (136, n. 13). Consider 1 Corinthians 5. This sinning man was confirmed and even encouraged to continue in his sin because the church as a whole approved it and gloried in their “tolerance.”
Further, Samra points out that in 1 Corinthians 12 to 14, Paul alternates freely between viewing the church and individual Christians as the object of our efforts at “building up.” Therefore, “to build up the church is to build up the individuals in the church, and vice versa” (32; cf. 149-151).
To sum up both of these points, we can say that if a church as a whole is immature, it will tend to hinder the growth of its members. And if a church as a whole is mature, that will spur on its members to maturity.
Surely most pastors are concerned to help believers grow to maturity in Christ. But fewer, it seems, understand that a key factor in growing individual Christians is the maturity of the whole church.
What’s normal in your church? Is it normal for members to share the gospel with non-Christians, to engage each other in discipling relationships, to sacrifice themselves for the sake of others, to study Scripture and apply it to their own and others’ lives? Or is it normal for people to show up on Sunday and then pay little attention to Christ throughout the rest of the week?
In order to help every church member mature, pastors should be concerned to cultivate a godly culture in the church. They should be concerned to establish normal habits, expectations, and patterns for people to follow which all lead to godliness. They should apply their sermons not merely to individual Christians, but to how the church lives together as a whole. They should aim to strengthen not merely individual Christians, but the church as a whole, so that the entire church becomes a greenhouse of growth in godliness.
A REMINDER OF SCRIPTURE’S PRIORIITIES FOR MINISTRY
For the pastor who’s kept up his Greek and is up for a workout, Conformed to Christ in Community could be worth a read, especially if you skim strategically. All of us need to be reminded of Scripture’s priorities for ministry, and that’s just what Samra’s book does.