“Even As We Are One”: On the Unity of Christ’s Body

O God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, our only Savior, the Prince of Peace; Give us grace seriously to lay to heart the great dangers we are in by our unhappy divisions. Take away all hatred and prejudice, and whatsoever else may hinder us from godly union and concord; that as there is but one Body and one Spirit, and one hope of our calling, one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of us all, so we may be all of one heart and of one soul, united in one holy bond of truth and peace, of faith and charity, and may with one mind and one mouth glorify thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

– Collect for the Unity of God’s People.[1]

Amongst all the sad divisions that plague the Church in our day, the topic of ecclesial unity stands atop the list of causes of such divisions. Despite having different ideas for how unity is to be achieved, thankfully all parties agree that unity is something to be achieved. Rome has her own view, as does the East. The Anglican tradition isn’t without its own storehouse of ideas either; and whether or not Evangelicals can be said to have a cohesive or exhaustive theory on unity, they are at least to be lauded for their practical charity towards other traditions when it comes to allying for societal change. Is this divided mess simply the way things are to be? Is the Church so torn that her only hope of visible unity is to be put off until our Lord returns? Thankfully, I don’t think we are forced to take this conclusion. I believe Scripture, and our Fathers, provide a better way forward towards the unity that our Lord prayed for, that avoids the trappings we so easily fall into today. First, I would like to discuss the nature of the Church, and, with that groundwork being laid, then consider how unity can be achieved by looking at various passages in the New Testament.

The nature of the Church

The Church is the body of Christ. But what do we mean by that? We understand through Scripture that the analogy of a body is utilized, where Christ is our head and we are His body. However, is this purely a metaphor with no grounding in reality? Perhaps when abstracted from the rest of our faith; however, when we consider this analogy in light of the Incarnation, things will begin to appear more clearly.

In the incarnation, the eternal second person of the blessed Trinity assumed to himself a human nature. The Athanasian creed states this beautiful mystery in this manner:

Now this is the true faith:
That we believe and confess
that our Lord Jesus Christ, God’s Son,
is both God and human, equally.
He is God from the essence of the Father,
begotten before time;
and he is human from the essence of his mother,
born in time;
completely God, completely human,
with a rational soul and human flesh;
equal to the Father as regards divinity,
less than the Father as regards humanity.
Although he is God and human,
yet Christ is not two, but one.
He is one, however,
not by his divinity being turned into flesh,
but by God’s taking humanity to himself.
He is one,
certainly not by the blending of his essence,
but by the unity of his person.
For just as one human is both rational soul and flesh,
so too the one Christ is both God and human.

The phrase “but by God’s taking humanity to himself” indicates an upward movement of the creature towards the Divine, rather than the typical notion of divine condescension towards the creature.[2] This humanity has with it a true body as we have bodies. This is what is referred to as Christ’s natural body. It is natural in that it is the body that is fitting to a true humanity, as man is a composite of both body and soul. We reject the claims of Docetism that Christ did not possess a natural, physical body and affirm that our Lord did indeed assume all that is essential to mankind in order that He may perfectly redeem it. This body is what was birthed from the Virgin Mary and crucified upon the Cross. This same natural body was raised from the dead and ascended into Heaven where it remains until that glorious day when our Lord returns again.

But, when we speak of the Church being the body of Christ, is this natural body what we have as its referent? Here tradition speaks of the various modes by which Christ’s one body is to be understood and communicated. We have already spoken of the natural body, so now let us turn to the other two modes. After the natural body, we come to understand the mystical body, and after that the sacramental body. The sacramental body is that which is communicated to us in the Eucharist, which we will consider more fully later in this essay. For now, we will direct our focus to the mystical body.

The mystical body is the “blessed company of all faithful people.”[3] Two other times the language of the mystical body is used in the prayerbook,[4] and each refers to the one body made up of all who profess Christ, both in heaven and on earth. This is the body most spoken of in relation to the Church. When a sinner is baptized and united to Christ, the Spirit joins them in a holy communion with all other faithful believers who are in Christ. To be found in Christ, then, is to be part of this blessed body. We must be careful to avoid the error of dividing this mystical body from the natural body, for Christ has only one body. E.L. Mascall elucidates this in a helpful manner such that it is best to quote him at length here: “Christ has only one Body, that which he took from his mother the Virgin Mary, but that Body exists under various modes. As a natural body, it was seen on earth, hung on the cross, rose in glory on the first Easter Day, and was taken into heaven in the Ascension; as a mystical Body it first appeared on earth on the first Whitsunday and we know it as the Holy Catholic Church; as a sacramental Body it becomes present on our altars at every Eucharist when, by the operation of the Holy Ghost and the priestly act of Christ, bread and wine are transformed into, and made one with, the glorified Body which is in heaven.”[5] It is, indeed one body. We must also beware of falling into the trappings that modern Reformed and Protestant notions of an invisible church distinct from a visible church can lead to. In its best formulation, the unity is retained. However, in most articulations there becomes a bifurcation of the body in such a way that an individual can be a member of the visible church without ever participating in the invisible, or true, church, and thus creating two churches and two bodies.

With all that said, there are invisible qualities we can attribute to the mystical body. This is because the Church, considered as a whole, is a sacramental organism. As such, the Church is more than its visible elements. Considered as its organic whole, the Church possesses all the “notes” that we confess in the creeds. This body the is One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church established by Christ at Pentecost. The topic of this essay is the Church’s “oneness.” This oneness is possessed by this body at all times. We must distinguish between this organic body considered as a whole and its visible extensions. It is not merely enough to affirm that this mystical body always enjoys this oneness per its supernatural existence, but we must press further and maintain that its visible extensions must also participate in this oneness. Unity, if it is a true unity, must go beyond the organism into its extensions as the fruit of that vital union. We do not consider a branch to be alive if it is not bearing fruit, and its bearing fruit is a sign of its vital connection to the root.

So then, in one sense, there is an invisible roster of the saints in heaven who, though currently departed from this life, are still joined to Christ and experience the bliss and joys of the beatific vision. We cannot see them, though they exist in a far greater manner than we currently do, and thus they possess an invisible quality separated from their visible bodies. Another sense in which this mystical body takes an invisible quality is the way in which it is constituted. Individual believers constitute this body, but how do they become part of it? Principally, it is a work of the Spirit. “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.”[6] This is not to deny the use of visible and physical means, but rather to prioritize the vivifying source of these means. We can see the physical and visible instruments used, but we cannot see the work done. Take, for example, the baptism of an infant. We can see the sacrament applied, but we cannot see the regenerating work done upon the soul. We see the instrumental cause, but not the effect, or the principal agent involved. So then, the Spirit is the efficient cause of our becoming part of the mystical body of Christ.

When we believe in Christ, and through the sacraments, the Spirit unites us to the glorified humanity of Christ. We do not become identical with His natural body, but we are engrafted into his humanity by the work of the Spirit and thus are considered to be hidden “with Christ,” are identified with his death and resurrected life, and have “put on” Christ.[7] It is in this manner that Christ, in taking up human nature, has taken up all those who are in Him into the life of the Godhead. We will now turn to a few passages of Scripture in order to further identify how this body possesses the quality of oneness and unity.

John 17

The first passage we will consider will be the prayer Jesus offered for the Church in John 17. Our Lord petitions the Father for multiple blessings upon the Church, with unity being a major theme. What kind of unity is prayed for here? I think this prayer will instruct us in both the primary grounds of our unity, as well as its ecclesiastical expression.

In each petition for unity, Jesus asks of the Father that believers may be one “even as we are one.”[8] This speaks to the unity that the Godhead enjoys amidst the three persons of the blessed Trinity. However, how can this be had by a mere creature? We do not become the 4th member of the Godhead when we believe, for we can never become who God is. We can, however, become like God as we participate in the divine life. As we’ve established, in the incarnation the second person of the Trinity takes upon himself a true humanity, and when we believe we are joined to that humanity in a mystical fashion by the power of the Spirit. In this way, we are in the Son, and by divine unity, the Son is in the Father. Therefore, as we are in the Son, we are in the Father and are taken up to participate in and enjoy the eternal beatitude of the blessed Trinity. This is a true reality for every believer, and it is a beautiful and awe-inspiring mystery that Saints of old and Angels above have longed to see and understand. As Mascall puts it, “In Christ the Christian enjoys an intimacy with God that exceeds all that a creature could dream of. He is admitted into the very life of the triune God. And the unity which Christians have with one another is nothing less than a participation in the unity of God himself.”[9]

This unity therefore must be the basis of all other forms of unity in the mystical body, because this is the first unity the believer experiences. Ever before the believer finds himself in unity with his newfound brothers and sisters, he is first and foremost bound up into the divine unity of the Father and the Son, by the power and work of the Spirit. It is from this unity in the mystical body that visible ecclesial unity is to be founded upon. This is why, in my opinion, any attempt of “de-churching” those outside your particular ecclesial boundaries will run afoul of putting the cart before the horse. As Jesus continues in this prayer, this mystical unity is the basis for our perfection in unity: “…that they may be one, even as we are one. I in them, and you in me, that they may become perfectly one…”[10] I do not wish to make a harsh divide between the unity the mystical body enjoys and its visible expression because the mystical body itself is a visible body, I simply wish to make an important distinction within that body. The visible unity is not the grounds of the unity between Christ and the believer, yet the visible unity is the means by which our union with Christ is perfected. As we will see later in this essay, ecclesial unity is found in fellowship with the Apostles. But we cannot make the mistake of thinking that one’s fellowship with the Apostles becomes the grounds by which they are united to Christ.

1 Corinthians 12:1230

We’ve touched on this passage briefly when discussing the nature of the mystical body of Christ, and how the Spirit is the principal agent involved in our union with that body. As we concluded the previous section, we noted that while the visible unity of the Church is not the grounds for one’s inclusion in the mystical body, the visible expression of this unity is nevertheless necessary for the edification and perfection of the individual believer. The New Testament does not know of a believer isolated from the body because a severed limb is a dying limb. We cannot expect a Christian living in isolation from other believers to be one that is growing in grace because they cut themselves off from the very means of grace. In this section, we will consider the life of the Christian within the mystical body, and the vital role the ecclesial structure plays towards the well-ordering of that life.

In verses 12 and 13, the Apostle sets forth the ontological reality of the unity of Christ’s body. First and foremost, all who have believed and been baptized are joined together by the Spirit to form one body. This, as we’ve seen already, is the mystical body. All are joined to Christ and thus joined to God. In this mutual union, they find a unity amongst themselves as they constitute one body. A helpful analogy might be that of brotherhood. Two individuals can be brothers and yet be at odds with one another. Consider Jacob and Esau. Together, they have an indissoluble union that makes them brothers. They will always exist as such. Yet, they can be in strife with one another and have discord with one another. This disunity in affection cannot undo the underlying unity of their brotherhood. It can only stunt their growth and mutual affection for one another. Therefore, there exists in them a unity of relation, and a unity of affection. One cannot be destroyed no matter how much anger and malice exists for one another, but there can be a destruction of this latter unity that would require restoration. Even though Cain murdered his brother, Abel remained his brother in death. Considering this in the context of the mystical body, there exists therefore a unity of relation (our individual union to Christ, and therefore with one another as brothers and sisters), and a unity of affection (our mutual love for one another).

Paul naturally moves from this former unity in Christ to the latter unity. This unity of affection is precisely what Christ has in mind in John 17 when he speaks of our unity in him perfecting our oneness. This body, says the Apostle, does not exist as one member, but as a collection of individuals joined together in Christ, and manifested by their love and care for one another. This unity of affection is shown in the relation of various body parts working in harmony for the perfect functioning of the body. As such, the mystical body of Christ will lack perfection if its members are not in harmony with one another. Contextually, we recognize Paul is speaking primarily about the Church in Corinth striving for this unity amongst its various members; however, this is equally true of the mystical body at large. Consider the various epistles written to the various churches across the known world, or even the seven churches addressed at the beginning of Revelation. Each is a church distinct from one another, and they are together the one church, the one body of Christ. The Church of Ephesus is not synonymous with the Church of Corinth. Yet, they subsist together in the one mystical body, the Church of God. This is, in part, why the Apostle devoted so much time and energy to encouraging and developing mutual love amongst the various Churches—because together we make up the one body.

So how then are we to strive for this unity of affection? The Apostle naturally moves to this point in the immediate verses. Beginning in verse 27, the Apostle puts forth the divinely appointed means to help the body grow unto perfection. Paul states that God has appointed various offices within the Church which are all geared towards this mutual love and work of the body. As the Apostle says elsewhere, Christ has gifted these offices “for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ…”[11] As shown above, in Christ there is no distinction of persons. Yet, in the life of the mystical body, there is a necessity for distinctions. Some men are set apart for holy orders such that they may be used by Christ for the ordering and perfecting of the body through their ministry. This doesn’t mean the laymen have no responsibility. This does, however, show us the means by which all members of the mystical body are to find their strength and direction. It is through the ministry of these men, whom we would see as the successors of the Apostles and operating within their authority, that believers find grace in the sacraments in order to put to death the deeds of the flesh and order their lives toward that unity of affection.

We recognize the necessity for some doctrine of apostolic succession because Scripture often ties the life of the mystical body with those whom Christ has set over various flocks. It is interesting, against Roman claims to unity, that the Apostle mentions nothing of St. Peter here, nor of any special gifting for the unity of the body apart from principally the ministry of the Apostles (and by necessity their successors). One would imagine that if St. Peter and his successors possessed a divine commission and gift for the very purpose of maintaining unity within the body we would see it here since the Apostle so conjoins the Apostolic ministry with the unity of the body. Yet, we do not see that here, or in any other relevant portion of Scripture. Rather, we see this as bound up in all of the Apostles and their successors, working together as a body of shepherds under the Chief Shepherd, Jesus Christ.

Considering the importance of Apostolic succession a bit further, let’s consider a couple of passages and their implications. In Acts 2:42 we read that the disciples devoted themselves to “the Apostles’ teaching” amongst other parts of the life of the Church. It is not enough to be devoted to the prayers of the Church, or even the sacraments of the Church, but there must also be a fellowship with the Apostles and their doctrine. Consider more fully how the Apostle John speaks about the necessity of this fellowship: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.”[12]For the Apostle John, central to the confession of Jesus as God incarnate is the fellowship with the Apostles. How then can you be assured that the doctrine you believe is true and correct? It must be Apostolic. It is only under the ministry of the Apostles and their successors that we can be confident of our doctrine and devotion. It is only through their ministry that Christ has promised to bless the body with unity.

1 Corinthians 10:1222

It would be the height of negligence to consider the unity of Christ’s body without discussing the sacrament of unity. As Mascall noted, the primary unity of Christ’s body is not a hierarchical unity or jurisdictional unity, but a sacramental unity.[13] It is in this final section we will consider the role that the Eucharist plays in maintaining and strengthening the unity of the mystical body.

After instructing the believers at Corinth not to be haughty because of their New Covenant privileges, the Apostle enjoins them to flee idolatry and to learn from the sins of their fathers in the faith. The Israelites had Christ present with them through his provision in the wilderness, and they spurned his grace and fell because of it. We have Christ present in a far greater way, and therefore we have even more reason not to spurn the grace of God given to us in the Eucharist. If Christ then was present with the fathers in the wilderness, what does it mean then for the bread and wine to be a “participation” in the body and blood of Christ? It means that Christ is not only present to us by way of providence, but he is truly present under the mode of his sacramental body. As we recall earlier when Mascall distinguished the three modes, he mentions that the sacramental body is a participation in the natural body. This means that Christ, in a very real sense, is present in the Eucharist. Setting aside any debates on how we can explain and describe this real presence, we must wholeheartedly affirm that Christ is truly, bodily, present in the Sacrament.

To what end then is Christ present? What good do his Body and Blood afford us? As our Lord said, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”[14] Once again we come to the importance of the incarnation. The eternal Son of God took to himself a true humanity, and in the hypostatic union, this humanity became a wellspring of life. Therefore, the Lord was pleased to so join the life-giving benefits of his humanity and communicate it to us through the Blessed Sacrament. Christ is then present to heal and strengthen us as we participate in his glorified humanity.

This is a good and comforting truth, but what does it have to do with the topic of this essay? What practical import does the Eucharist have in strengthening visible unity? The Apostle seemed to think it had much to do with remedying disunity. After laying this groundwork, the Apostle later exhorts believers to take care of one another and to truly consider this holy mystery before partaking lest they contradict with their lives what the sacrament testifies to, and thus bring condemnation to their souls. This sacrament has as it were a dual signatory function. Meaning, not only do the bread and the wine function as signs of the body and blood of Christ but the body and the blood function as signs of the greater reality, which is the unity of Christ’s body. In this way, the sacrament serves to heal not only our souls but also to strengthen us and heal our divisions. By faithfully partaking of this blessed sacrament, though we are many, we become one body. This is signified in the one bread. Just as the one bread is made up of many grains consecrated to become the one body of Christ, we who are many are “consecrated” to become more and more the body of Christ, which is one and not many. Thus we pray during Holy Communion that, as we faithfully receive the blessed sacrament, we, being filled with grace, may be “made one body with him, that he may dwell in us, and we in him.”[15] As St. Augustine said, “If you have received worthily, you are what you have received.”[16]

Conclusion

We have spent a good deal focusing on the union of the soul to Christ, and therefore to God which, as noted before, has an invisible quality to it. This seems quite strange given the focus of our inquiry is supposed to be about visible unity. However, I think this is important and necessary because this union is logically prior to any other unity the believer experiences. Before the believer has brothers and sisters to identify, the believer must first be identified with the head of the body. My hand does not have a relation to the rest of my body until it first has its relation to me as my hand. Likewise, the believer first has their relation to Christ before they have a relation to the rest of the body. Since we have established that the Apostles and their successors the Bishops were given by Christ for the edification, maturation, and guidance of his body, communion with them cannot be prior to one’s union with Christ even if they serve as instrumental means by which we come to Christ.

We must be very precise here. Though the apostolic ministry is necessary for grace to be given, it is not unity with the Apostles that begets the union of the soul to Christ, but the inverse. First, we are joined to Christ, and then have a relation to the rest of his body. It is then through our unity with the rest of the body that we strengthen our unity with Christ. One reason we cannot conflate the unity of the mystical body with its ecclesial expression is that in this principal union there is no distinction between male and female, Greek or Jew. Yet in the ecclesial structure, there does exist this hierarchy and distinction between male and female.[17] Therefore, since there is such a distinction, the former union must be prior and function as the constitutive grounds for any other form of unity. If, then, we are to have any progress towards visible unity, we must first acknowledge the fundamental unity all baptized persons enjoy, and secondly, we must be ready to extend fellowship to all those who are validly in possession of the Apostolic ministry. I do not believe I have put forth anything of substance that Roman Catholics, or the Orthodox, would disagree with. From this, and with much prayer, we have good grounds to pursue ecclesial unity across multiple traditions. May it so please our Lord to unite his body in truth and love, for the sake of the world around us.

Notes

  1. Taken from the 1928 Book of Common Prayer (Georgia: Anglican Parishes Association, 2015) 37‒38
  2. Both concepts are indeed true. In order for the Divine to take up humanity, the Divine must condescend to the creature. However, this condescension has as its telos the glorification of the creature, and thus our creed speaks of the “taking up” of the manhood into the Godhead.
  3. 1928 Book of Common Prayer (Georgia: Anglican Parishes Association, 2015), The Order for Holy Communion, 83
  4. Ibid. See the collects for All Saints Day (p. 256) and for the Burial of the Dead (p. 336)
  5. E.L. Mascall, Christ, the Christian, and the Church: A Study of the Incarnation and Its Consequences (Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers Marketing, 2017), 161‒162
  6. 1 Corinthians 12:13. All citations from Scripture will be from the English Standard Version (2016) unless otherwise specified.
  7. Colossians 3:3, Romans 6:3‒4, Galatians 3:27
  8. See verses 11, 20, and 21.
  9. Ibid, pp. 98‒99
  10. John 17:22‒23
  11. Ephesians 4:12‒13
  12. 1 John 1:1‒3, emphasis mine.
  13. “It is, no doubt, true that, according to the modern Roman theory, obedience to the Papal See is materially necessary to salvation, whatever exceptions there may be in practice for those whose schism is in good faith and not, in the technical sense, ‘formal.’ But, even so, membership of the Church must be seen to be primarily not jurisdictional or moral, but sacramental; for presumably any Roman theologian will assert, with Cognar, that every baptized child, even of dissident parents, is ‘truly incorporate in Christ and in the Church—the True Church,’ even while he will add that it is a duty, when the child attains the age of reason, for it consciously to accept the Papal jurisdiction.” Ibid, pp. 152‒153
  14. John 6:53‒54
  15. 1928 Book of Common Prayer (Georgia: Anglican Parishes Association, 2015), The Order for Holy Communion, 81
  16. St. Augustine, Sermon 227
  17. It would seem to me that if we flatten this distinction (the soul’s union to Christ and the believer’s unity with the rest of the body) then we concede major grounds to proponents of women’s ordination.

 



Cory is a native of the great state of Arkansas who is currently in exile in Virginia, and is a layman in the APA. He is interested in the ecumenical dialogue amongst Protestant denominations, as well as between Protestants and Roman Catholics. With a background particularly in Presbyterian theology, Cory enjoys discussing the theological differences between Presbyterian and traditional Anglican doctrine with a pursuit of a Reformed Catholicity. He is a husband to his delightful wife Emily, and father to three wonderful children: Calvin, Elias, and Ella.


'“Even As We Are One”: On the Unity of Christ’s Body' has 1 comment

  1. January 16, 2023 @ 9:11 am William

    Thank you. I enjoyed reading your essay and I think it well written. It informed me and helped me understand the body of Christ better.

    Reply


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