by Andrew Wood
As a boy I had a copy of Rudyard Kipling’s classic poem “If” hanging on my bedroom wall. The opening line has always stuck with me: “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you.”
Over the years I’ve found that it’s not always easy to keep my head in challenging circumstances, whether it’s a disagreement with a neighbor, meeting a deadline at work, making a hard financial decision, or disciplining the children. When we’re faced with difficulties it is easy to follow our first impulses rather than behaving in a God-honoring way.
On a larger scale, the same is true of the church. In his letters to the Colossians and Ephesians, Paul describes Christ as the head of the church, his body (Colossians 1:18, Ephesians 1:22, 23). Ideally, each member of the body should follow the instructions of the head and function as a harmonious whole to accomplish God’s purposes. In practice, the body of Christ often seems divided and self-destructive, at times even acting in direct disobedience to his will. Ironically, at the very time we think we are at our best, we are often at our worst. Prior to his conversion Paul himself thought he was squarely within the will of God while he was destroying the church (Acts 22:3-5). How can we avoid the same mistake and “keep our head” in the church?
The Significance of the Head
It is helpful first to understand some of the rich symbolism in Paul’s choice of head as a metaphor for Christ. In biblical times, the head was understood to be the seat of life and representative of the whole person. The Greeks had a relatively advanced medical understanding of the head as the seat of intelligence, with the entire body dependent upon it. Clearly, it is the part of the body that provides vital nourishment and respiration as well as harmoniously coordinating the activities of the other parts for the good of the whole.
Through the senses of sight and hearing the head provides the body with information. Through speech and facial expressions it communicates to the world. In biblical times, the head was the part of the body that received honor and blessing, such as an anointing or a crown (Leviticus 8:12); or guilt and a curse, such as the practice of laying hands on the head of a blasphemer before stoning him (24:14). The head is so significant it is usually quite difficult for us to identify someone if the face is hidden.
Losing Our Head
In his letter to the Colossians Paul dealt with church members who had “lost connection with the Head” (Colossians 2:19)—obviously a dire situation as it cut them off from the body’s God-ordained source of nourishment and growth. At first the ways they were going astray may seem alien to us. For example, they were judgmental about dietary rules and religious holidays (vv. 16, 17). That’s not something we would do . . . is it? Recently my wife posted on her Facebook page a recipe for making apple tarts that included among the ingredients several ounces of a sugary soft drink as a sweetener. Admittedly it was not the most healthy treat, but the condescending superiority expressed in the comments of some health-conscious mothers was anything but Christian.
What about holidays? Do we look down on Christians who include the cultural images of Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny alongside their celebration of the biblical events? On the other side, do we judge Christians who choose not to participate in Halloween as being ultra-conservatives who are out of step with culture? Is a church with Saturday night services unfaithful to God? Hmm. It seems that judging one another based on observance of religious festivals is still a very live issue.
Paul also describes people who appear humble but their spirituality is focused on things other than Christ, such as angels or personal experiences. Before we point the finger at flaky New Age types or people who pray to saints, consider this question: how would the average Christian react if you criticized his favorite preacher, theologian, or even political figure? I saw a lot of false humility dissolve a few years ago when Billy Graham came to my city. Apparently wherever he goes a small group of protesters follows holding up signs that say things like “Billy Graham is a False Prophet.” At the sight of these signs, otherwise mild-mannered Christian people got into red-faced shouting matches and an elderly man in suit and tie actually had to be held back by his family from physically attacking the protesters. It is hard to imagine the actions of either side were guided by the Head of the church.
In all of these examples, we may act with the best of intentions in ways that seem right to us, but in fact we may be simply following strong cultural ideas of what we believe a religious person should do or think, rather than what Christ has actually indicated we should do or think. In two places Proverbs warns us, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death” (Proverbs 14:12, 16:25). How can we avoid doing things that seem right but actually hurt the body of Christ and ultimately ourselves?
Getting Our Head Back
Appropriately for people who need to follow the “Head,” Paul begins by urging us to change our minds, refocusing our thinking from earthly to heavenly things (Colossians 3:1-4). Psychologists tell us that changing any kind of major behavior requires that we first change the way we think. Often this includes identifying ourselves with another person who provides us with a good role model to follow. Paul’s instructions go even deeper. We are to identify ourselves so fully with Christ that we are completely “hidden” in him, totally subsuming our identities in his. This does not mean our identity is lost like a drop of water in the ocean; when he returns we will appear with him in glory as well. But the key to following the head is to recognize first of all that we are acting for him and his glory, not for our own.
Paul goes on to list sinful attributes that must be put to death in the life of every believer (vv. 5-11). A common thread running through most of these—such as sexual immorality, greed, anger, and slander—is that they are things that cause broken relationships among believers. As members of one body, we must not do anything that hurts or hinders the functioning of other members of the body.
At the end of this section he makes a special effort to point out that in the church, ethnic, cultural, and class barriers are erased. If we are all in Christ and Christ is in all of us, to judge other members of the body as inferior is to disparage Christ himself, who has chosen to accept that person into his body just as he accepts us.
It would be highly inaccurate to view Christianity as a matter of prohibitions: “Don’t do this, don’t do that.” In fact the weight of Scripture is much more upon positive exhortations. So too, Paul goes on to describe the way Christians should act when they are properly following the Head (Colossians 3:15-17). We should be people who love deeply because we are deeply loved, who forgive because we have been forgiven so much, who live peacefully because we have been called to peace. The Word should dwell in us richly, overflowing in wise teaching, joyful worship, and gratitude. It’s not difficult to imagine that a church of people who really acted in these ways would attract far more people than the most brilliant marketing strategies we might devise.
Kipling’s poem begins with the exhortation, “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you” and ends with a promise: “Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it, And—which is more—you’ll be a Man my son!” If we truly “keep our head” in the body of Christ, we too will inherit the earth (Matthew 5:5) and grow into the spiritually mature men and women God created us to be.
Andrew Wood is a freelance writer in Cincinnati, Ohio.