Christos Sp. Voulgaris
The Church the Body of Christ
The author is Dean of the school of Theology, University of Athens
All New Testament authors agree that the condition in which creation found itself after the fall, caused by man’s disobedience and sin (cf.f.e. Acts 13,22-31. Rom. 8,18-25 etc.,) suggests also the way to its restoration. Indeed, re-creation consists in God’s action on the human level, through the incarnation of the Son, where He combats satan who had become “the ruler of this world” (Matth.9,34. 12,24. Mk.3,22. Lk.11,15. John 12,31. 16,11. 14,30. Gal.1,4. etc.,), breaks his power and sets man free from his subjection to him and, along with him the entire creation as well (Rom.8,15ff). This is to say that salvation is not accomplished by man himself, but by God and in particular by man’s appropriation of Christ’s human nature to himself. In other words, sin and evil enter the world after man’s estrangement and separation from God, while salvation is the condition caused by man’s communion with God. Both conditions affect the entire creation. Summing up this idea St.John observes that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us,…and from his fullness have we all received and therefore, “to all who received him, believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God” (John 1,12-16. cf. Rom. 8,14-17. Gal.4,4-6, etc). Therefore, the real, i.e. the Son’s incarnate presence in the world and effects of his work upon men, consisting in their adoption again as God’s sons, constitute an ecclesiological event which excludes the possibility to regard the Church as an invisible entity in a cosmic sense, in accordance with the platonic ideas or the Gnostic myths, because the historical reality of the incarnation, experienced by all those who believed in the Son, stresses also the historical reality of the Church as that specific human society of all those believing in and saved by the incarnate Son.
This, however, is not enough when we refer to the Church as a historical reality, because it cannot be restricted to a mere human institution. As a historical reality, the Church combines in itself both, the divine and the human. As St. John says again, “our fellowship with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ” became possible by the Son’s entrance into history: “that which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands… and the life was made manifest, and we saw it… that which we seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you may have fellowship with us” (1John 1,1-3. cf. Phil. 2,5-11. Col. 1,15-20. 1Tim. 3,16 etc.,). This fellowship with Christ is an endless reality for humanity, continuing even after his exultation because it is worked out by the Holly Spirit (John 14,8) and is realized within the Church, since it is the Holy Spirit who makes Christ present in the believers: “Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Matth.28,20. John 17,11ff). Because the Church came into being as a historical reality by Christ’s presence and in the world, it follows that Christ’s Church are inseparably knit together. This is why the Church’s task and mission in the world is “to make known the manifold wisdom of God to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places, according to the eternal purpose which he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord… and make all men see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things” (Ephes. 3,9-11). The Church extends to the whole creation which is thus re-created by joining it. This is the mystery in God’s manifold wisdom which Paul speaks about in Ephesians and Colossians by extending the boundaries of the Church to the boundaries of creation. Thus the Church is God’s new creation because in it all things are re-capitulated in Christ, “things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephes. 1;10). Though visible and historical in appearance, and divine and human in nature, the Church is a mystery in itself, as a mystery is the person of Christ in who are inseparably united the divine and the human, uncreated and created.
This explains why any definition of the Church is absent in the New Testament. Instead of a definition, the New Testament authors give plenty an information with regard to the place and life of the Church in the world and describe it by a variety of symbolisms which express the same reality, i.e. that within which God’s communion with man and the entire created order takes place in the person of Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. The common denominator in all these metaphors is the person of Christ who is the formative factor and the connecting link of the members. This is how St. John Chrysostom speaks about them: “Christ is the head, we are the body… He is the foundation stone, we are the building; he is the vineyard, we are the wine; he is the groom, we are the bride; he is the shepherd, we are the sheep; he is the way, we are the walking ones; we are also the temple, he is the resident; he is the first-born, we are the brothers; he is the heir, we are the co-heirs; he is the life, we are the living; he is the resurrection, we are the risen; he is the light, we are the enlightened” (In 1 Cor. Hom. 8,4. M.P.G.61,72.).
Belonging to the whole, all parts form a unity and as such their relationship to one another is defined by the whole which is Christ, their generating and formative factor. This reality is better expressed by St. Paul’s metaphor about the Church as “Body”, “the body of Christ”. No doubt, the metaphor of the “body” offers the most appropriate and accurate description of the Church’s nature because it presents it as the extension and continuity of the incarnation of the divine Logos, so that Ecclesiology proper is directly related to Theo-logy, to Soterio-logy and to Eschato-logy. In this way the Church is, as Paul puts it, “the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Ephes. 1,22,23), i.e. as that entity within which the unity of the entire creation is again achieved (Ephes. 1,10).
Looking at it closely, the “body” metaphor is not new with Paul. It is also used in the Septuagint (with no equivalent in the Hebrew Bible), the Rabbinic literature, Stoicism and Gnosticism, and as such it was know to Paul’s readers. Nevertheless, while in them it denoted collectivity and solidarity, in Paul it denotes the Church as a living organism, i.e. the body of Christ, and there is no trace of a stage at which he regarded the Church as “body” without considering it as “the body of Christ”. This is to say that the Church is a “body” only with reference to the person of Christ.
The first instance in which Paul works out the metaphor with reference to the Church is 1Cor. 12,12-27 where he concludes (v.27) that Christians form a body as members of it only because they are members of Christ by participating to him on account of their appropriation of his saving work to themselves. This makes it clear that the description of the Church as “the body of Christ” is not occasioned by the metaphor; rather, it was the Church which was first defined as “the body of Christ” and then the conception of the Christians as members of the body was formed. In other words, Christians are members of the body because they participate in the body of Christ which as the Church. Obviously then, this idea clearly gives priority to the incarnation event for the formation of the body of Christ. Christology thus is the foundation of Ecclesiology.
The metaphor of the body expresses an ontological entity of a variety of members with different functions but of the same nature (Rom. 12,4-5. 1Cor.12,12-31. Ephes.4,11-16). What connects the members to each other is not their external similarity and uniformity but the oneness of their nature, and in this case the human nature of the incarnate Son of God in which they participate through Baptism. Their unity in nature, however, does not make them identical as persons, but one in Christ, because in baptism each individual person-member imitates sacra mentally Christ by putting on his own human nature free from sin (Gal.3,27) and so enlightened by the Holy Spirit he becomes son of God by adoption and thus is led into perfection and immortality (Cf. Clement of Alexandria, Pedagogue, I,4). This is what Paul stresses in Rom.6,3-11. The “first fruits of the Spirit” (Rom.8,23.Cf. 2Cor.1,22. Gal.4,6. Ephes.1,13. T it.3,5 etc.,), repeats at baptism the event of Pentecost within each individual and so the baptized one becomes “pneumatikos” (1Cor.2,13ff. Gal.6,1. 1Pet.2,5) by being re-created and reborn into a new life, the life “from above”, i.e. “of water and the Spirit” (1John 3,3-6). It is this radical change affected at baptism which attaches every individual into the body of Christ, the Church, where every distinction disappears to the extent that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for they are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal.3,28). Salvation becomes an experience only when man joins the body of Christ and becomes part of the whole. Therefore, the individual can become a member only if he belongs to the body of Christ, the Church, in which he is united with him and with the other members. In the Church, his body, Christ’s humanity reflects its prerogatives upon his members who thus do not live to themselves but to Christ to whom they ever since belong (Rom. 14,7-8. Gal. 2,20. 2Cor. 5,15. Phil. 1,21. 1Pet. 2,4-5), because the life of the head is poured out to its body. This makes it clear why writing to the Corinthians Paul does not ask if the Church is divided, but rather if Christ is divided (1Cor. 1,13. 12,12). In the same sense Christ reproved Saul on the road to Damascus not by asking him why he persecuted the Church, but rather why he persecuted him (Acts 9,4).
The close unity between Christ, the Church and the Christians has nothing in common with the idea of a “corporate personality” put out in Europe at the end of the 19th century. Their unity is centered in Christ’s human nature in which individual members retain their individuality as persons. No one is absorbed by the other, as in Gnosticism. We can see this clearer in 1Cor. 12 where Paul speaks about the role of the Holy Spirit in the Church. In order to emphasize the unity and the variety in the body of the Church, Paul says that the variety of the gifts comes “from the Spirit”, in the same way as the variety of the services stems “from the same Lord” and the variety of the workings comes “from the same God” (1Cor. 12,4-5), because “to each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (v.7), “who apportions to each one individually as he wills” (v. 11). The oneness of the Spirit does not lead to the confusion of the various gifts. The same principle, Says Paul, applies to the Church which as a body has a variety of members baptized into it “by one Spirit” (vs. 12-13), but with different functions. In the Church, Christians “are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (vs.24-27). The opposite creates confusion which destroys the reality of the body, the Church :”if all were a single organ, where would be the body? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body” (vs. 19-20).
In his epistles to the Romans and to the Corinthians, when he speaks about the Church as the body of Christ, Paul never depicts Christ as the head of the Church. In them he only stresses the unity of the Christians in Christ as members of the Church. The idea of Christ as the head of the Church, his body, occurs in the epistles to the Ephesians and to the Colossians where the Apostle speaks about the relationship of the Church as a whole to Christ (Ephes. 1,22. 4,15. 5,23. Col. 1,18). However, as in 1Cor. 12,3 “no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit”, so also in Ephes. 3,16 the riches of Christ’s glory can be “strengthened with might through his Spirit in the inner man”, so that the Body of the Church consists of members ;filled with the Spirit” (Ephes. 5,18). In other words, “the equipment of the saints… for building up the body of Christ” is worked out by the Holy Spirit, but comes from Christ as a source “who is the head,… from whom the whole body joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly, makes bodily growth and up builds itself in love”(Ephes. 4,12-16. Cf. Col. 2,19). Christ’s place as the head of the one body of the Church underlines the unbreakable unity of both, while at the same time it distinguishes the head from the body as two separate entities, as it also distinguishes each member of the body from the rest. Christ and Church can not be identified, nor do the members of the Church. Their unity is considered in a collective sense, in which each part is united with the rest in substance, while it retains its individuality and distinct entity. Furthermore, Christ’s place as head of the Church indicates that neither the Church can be body without the Church as his body. This makes it plain why the Church is necessary component of Christ’s divine-and-human person, “the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Ephes. 1,23).
This phrase describes the divine-and-human nature of the overall body of the Church as a living organism, i.e. the unbreakable unity of its divine and human elements, in which the divine is the head, Christ. While the human is Christ’s humanity appropriated by the members of the Church in baptism. Thus the Church is connected with the event of the incarnation of the divine Logos and through him with the other two persons of the Holy Trinity, the Father and the Holy Spirit, with which the Logos-Son is related by their common divine nature. Being the human body of the incarnate Son, then, the Church realizes the unity and communion between the Triune God and humanity achieved by the incarnation and the overall redemptive work of the Son. Since the son ship of Christ is an internal issue of the Holy Trinity, on account of the common divine nature of its persons, likewise the Church must be seen in the context of Christ’s “consubstantiality” with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Or, to put it in other words, the Church as a historical entity falls within the context of its inner relationship with Christ, because its nature is defined by its unity with Christ, on the human level, and by his consubstantiality with the Father and the Holy Spirit, on the divine level. Through his incarnation, the Son connects the Church with the Holy Trinity in his own divine-and-human person (Cf.Ephes. 2,4-6). Christ’s perfect humanity forms the nature, as well as the entity of the Church which in this way constitutes the perpetual continuation of his incarnation extending beyond time. Hence, any thought of an ontological separation between Christ and Church rules out both, the fact of Christ’s incarnation and the reality of the Church. Without its ontological connection with Christ, the Church becomes a mere social organization. Christ and the Church together from a “whole”; without Christ is nothing; in him the Church is everything. Without the Church, Christ the Son is not incarnate, because after his incarnation the Son can be thought of only as both, divine and human and, therefore, only with the Church, while the Church can be thought of only in Christ and with Christ as his human body, i.e. as “the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Ephes. 1,23). Here we meet with the extreme paradox: the unity which Christ forms with the Church is in some way identified with himself: he is the whole Christ, body and head. While he is a part of the whole, he is also the whole, the incarnate divine Son. And while the Church exist as a community in its own right, it at the same time is the body of the distinct person of Christ, the humanity of the incarnate Son and Logos.
That this paradox is so, i.e. that the appropriation of humanity by the divine Logos at his incarnation is tantamount to the formation of the Church as his body, in an objective sense, even before any human persons joined it as members, is evident in Ephes. 5,22-30, where the unity between man and woman in the Sacrament of Marriage is placed parallel to the unity between Christ and the Church after the incarnation. The expressions: “as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her” (Ephes. 5,25. Cf., Acts 20,28), and “that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word” (v.26), suggest the objective existence of an entity before the incarnation proper living in sin, which the Son took to himself by becoming human and cleansed it. Christ’s body here is the entire human nature “per se”, not the body’s human members who are added to it by appropriating to themselves the human nature of the Son. Human nature cleansed from sin comprises the Church as Christ’s and so human persons are added to it as its members afterwards, so that we can say that as Christ’s body the Church exists as an objective reality even before or regardless of its members. The Church exists objectively at the incarnation and because of it, even without members. Christ’s human nature, being his human body, is the place within which he works out eternally the redemption and salvation of each particular human person and through them the salvation of the entire created order, to which humanity belongs (Cf.Rom. 8,14ff).
Now we can understand better Christ’s expression “in me” (εν εμοί) in John 6,56 and 15,1-10, as well as Paul’s frequent expression “in Christ” (εν Χριστώ) denoting not man’s identification with or absorption by Christ, but his unity with and in Christ’s humanity. Man’s unity with Christ does not deform him, but conforms him “to the image” of the incarnate Son (Rom. 8,29. 2Cor. 3,18. Gal.2,20.), which has nothing to do again with the idea of “corporate personality”. In the Church, the relationship is a member relationship to the head and the body, the whole Christ. In the same sense is also understood Paul’s formula “in Christ” with reference to Christ’s correspondence with Adam which defines the relationship between the “one” and the “many”. On account of the unity or the oneness of human nature, Adam’s fall extends to all of his descendents, while their individuality is preserved by their active participation in Adam’s sin when each human person does exactly what Adam did in the past, being thus for it personally responsible: “εφ’ ω πάντες ήμαρτον» (“because all men sinned on account of it”, Rom. 5,12). Influenced by satan fallen human persons inherit Adam’s sin which is “Like the transgression of Adam” («επί τω ομοιώματι της παραβάσεως Αδάμ»,Rom. 5,14). This fact rules out the rabbinic idea, according to which Adam constitutes the coherence of mankind in the sense that all men were created “in him”. Restricting the hereditary transmission of the original sin and ignoring satan’s role in it, we are forced to deny the existence of righteous men in the Old Testament, on the one hand, and accept the universal salvation of all men by Christ without their active appropriation of his saving work to themselves, on the other. In this case, personal freedom and responsibility are done away with, and together with them active membership in the Church as well. In Paul’s expression “for as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (1Cor. 15,22), we must understand the fall and restoration of human nature as objective conditions to which men participate personally by their own free will. Being unable to achieve salvation because of his fallen nature, man in Christ obtains it by actively sharing in Christ’s human nature cleansed from sin. This is why the Old Testament law could not save man (Heb. 7,19), even though, as Goad’s work, the law was “holy” and “good” and “spiritual” (Rom. 7,12-16), being thus restricted to the role of “our custodian until Christ came” (Gal. 3,23). Conditions changed however, when :God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Rom. 8,3-4). Thus, “in Adam” and “in Christ’ we understand human nature in its two conditions: of sinfulness and sinless ness, i.e. the body of Adam, human nature, and “the body of Christ which is the Church” (Col. 1,24).
In conclusion, we observe that it is in full agreement with Pauline thought when St. John Chrysostom comments that at his incarnation Christ “took to himself the flesh of the Church” (“εκκλησίας σάρκα ανέλαβεν”). Homily before the exile, (2. M.P.G. 52,429) and formed it into his own body animated by himself as its head. The mystery of Christ “which was kept secret for long ages” (Rom. 16,25. Ephes. 3,4;5;9. Col.1,26) has been disclosed as Church in the fullness of time “to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephes. 1,10), “that through the Church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places, according to the eternal purpose which he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Ephes. 3,10-11. Col. 1,16-20). Comprising all creation, visible and invisible, the Church unites in itself “all things” with Christ as “head over all things” (Ephes. 1,22-23), so that in the Church man comes into communion not only with those other human members of it, but also with all those creatures which are subjected to Christ and accept him as “the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation” (Col. 1,15).