Tract XI – On The Church (Part I)

I have come, in my Tracts, to a discussion of the Church.[1] Having first talked about the Anglican interpretation of Scripture (Tract 9), as well as how the Bible and the Church relate (Tract 10), we may now proceed to use the Scriptures as our foundation for elaborating on Anglican theology and spirituality in every area.

The Church is a divine organism, underappreciated and misunderstood even by Anglicans. When I was a young man, for example, I thought that ecclesiology (the part of theology which studies the Church) was an expendable appendage to the body of theology: now, I believe that it is the very guts of theology.

As we shall see: how we think of and treat the Church is how we think of and are treating Jesus Himself.

The Anglican Formularies and the Church

Perhaps the most fundamental definition of the Church is that it is the people of God, for the word “church” in Greek is ekklesia, which means congregation. Israel of the Old Covenant is called the “church” in the wilderness by Stephen (Acts 7:38). But “people” does not fully convey the meaning, for that word has different connotations today. The people of God, the Church, is not just a collection of individuals (as many are prone to think) but a corporate whole, a single “person” with a corporate personality. God judges or blesses Israel as a whole, and Israel as a whole is seen as the wife of God.

This idea of the Church as congregation is the foundation of the definition of the Church in Article 19 of the 39 Articles, where we read: “The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance, in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same.” The Articles’ definition of the Church assumes a visible nature of the Church, something I’ll discuss later, and expresses the Word and the Sacraments as being essential aspects of the Church.

Article 20 also expresses a close relationship between the People of God (the Church) and the Word of God (Holy Writ), stating that the Church has real authority but no authority “to ordain any thing that is contrary to God’s Word written.” Similarly, the Church is “a witness and a keeper of Holy Writ, yet, as it ought not to decree any thing against the same, so besides the same ought it not to enforce any thing to be believed for necessity of Salvation.”

The Articles say no more than this.

The Second Office of Instruction of the traditional Prayer Book introduces a new element into the Anglican definition of the Church, that of the Church as the Body of Christ. It states that “The Church is the Body of which Jesus Christ is the Head, and all baptized people are the members.” The Office of Instruction also rehearses the four marks of the Church, which we confess in the Nicene Creed, that the Church is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. The Apostles’ Creed reinforces the idea of the Church as the people of God when we say that we believe in the “holy, catholic Church, the communion of saints.”

The biblical images and definitions of the Church are even more fundamental and essential than those of the Anglican formularies: let us now turn to them.

The Church is the Bride of Jesus Christ

The definition of the Church given in the Scriptures is not a dictionary definition but a definition by image and example. In the Scriptures, the Church is never a mere “official” institution, nor is it ever merely a human institution. Instead, the Bible assumes that the Church is a divine organism created by God and sustained by His Living Word.

The Holy Scriptures employ several related images of the identity and nature of the Church. The Church is, first of all, the Bride of Jesus Christ. The people of God are not some shapeless, formless group of people but constitute the single Bride of Christ.

The story of God and man, which is the story of the Bible, is a love story. It’s a story about how God created man to spend the rest of his life in close communion with Him. The Bible begins and ends with a wedding! In the beginning (Genesis 1), the first wedding is that of God and man, but there’s also a human marriage at the beginning of the Bible: the marriage of Adam and Eve. When God created Adam, he said of Adam: “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” And so, God says: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Gen 2:24).

In other words, from the beginning, God created men and women to come together and become one flesh. Two individuals become one person, or relationship, in marriage.

The Bible also ends with a marriage, in Revelation 21:1-3[2], where St. John refers to the Church as the New Jerusalem. He says:

Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. Also there was no more sea. Then I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God.”

This is where eternal life is going: to a marriage between Jesus Christ and His Bride, the Church. Jesus Christ and His wife, the Church, are one, just as a man and a woman are one in marriage.

Therefore, how you treat the Church is how you are treating Jesus. You really can’t say I love God, whom you haven’t seen, if you don’t love Jesus’ Bride, whom you have seen.

It’s a good idea to know what Jesus Christ thinks about the Church. Jesus loves His Church and gave Himself for her (Ephesians 5:25-29). Everything He does is to glorify, nourish, and love her. Jesus sees the Church, His Bride and Body, as He sees Himself.

Jesus Christ is not a polygamist.

But this is sometimes, without meaning to, how we think about His relationship with us. Many Christians believe that their relationship with Jesus is primarily an individual one. In other words, it’s a direct, immediate relationship with Jesus, without any other men or women involved.

Although God does, indeed, relate to each of us individually, this relationship takes place in the context of the larger relationship between Christ and His Bride, the Church. There are two and a half billion Christians in the world today. Does this mean that Jesus has two and a half billion brides? God forbid! That would make Jesus the ultimate polygamist.

Jesus has one and only one Bride: the Church. Each individual Christian is but one member of this beautiful and holy Bride of Jesus.

Union with God

When we think of grand theological doctrines such as the doctrine of the Church or the Incarnation, we often run the risk of making the union God seeks with man a remote abstraction. The image of the Church as the Bride of Christ makes concrete the close union God has with man through Christ.

The marriage image is divinely appropriate so that we may follow Pope John Paul II in speaking of a “Theology of the Body.” The union between a man and his wife is a sacramental participation in that greater union between Christ and His Bride, the Church. In one of the most dramatic turns in all of Scripture, St. Paul reveals in Ephesians 5 that when he speaks of the marriage of a man and his wife, he is really speaking of the marriage between Christ and His Wife. Paul writes:

So husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies; he who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as the Lord does the church. For we are members of His body, of His flesh and of His bones. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the church (Ephesians 5:28-32).

Just as a man and his wife each remain who they are as individuals, they also have a common identity that is so close they are to be considered one person. So close has Jesus come to His Wife that she is one flesh with Him and members of His Body: the two have been made one.

The marriage of Christ and the Church has its antecedent in the marriage of God and man at the Incarnation, where God and man were made one. These unions between different natures in Christ and different persons in the Christ-Church marriage have their ultimate origin in the Trinity itself, the Three Persons and One God.

That union which God has always had within Himself He has now shared in the Incarnation and in the extension of the Incarnation, the Church. How beautifully and simply Jesus expresses it when He prays “that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us” (John 17:21). As Anglican theologian E.L. Mascall puts it: “the life of the Church, the organic act which constitutes its unity, is the life of the Holy Trinity imparted to men in Christ.”[3]

The Church is the Body of Christ

God calls the Church not only the Bride of Christ but also the Body of Christ.

When a husband and wife marry, they become one flesh, a union sealed and symbolized by sexual union. The husband’s body no longer belongs only to him but also to his wife, and the wife’s body belongs to the husband, and not just to her. The New Testament often speaks of the Church as being in Christ and united to Him. Just as a man and his wife become one thing or person, so do Jesus and His Bride. This makes sense since, in Jesus, God and man are made one, or “married.”

The Church as the Body of Jesus Christ is St. Paul’s favorite image for expressing the truth of who we are as the Church. Sometimes, Paul speaks of the Church as the Body of Christ in relation to Christ as the Head[4], while other times he speaks of the Church as the entire Body[5]. In both cases, the closest organic and living relationship between Christ and the Church is expressed.

Let’s look at one important passage where Paul teaches that the Church is the Body of Christ: 1 Corinthians 12. The whole chapter is about how the entire Church is the Body of Christ, but one of the most important verses in the chapter is verse 27, where Paul says: “Now you [plural] are the body of Christ, and members individually.” Paul’s point in 1 Corinthians 12 is that each member in the Body of Christ is incomplete without all of the other members of the Body. There is only one Body of Christ, not many. Therefore, since the Corinthian Christians are all members of the one Body of Christ, they should live in love, build the Body up, and not use their gifts for selfish gain.

Consider your own body for a moment. What would happen if each part of your body thought it had an independent connection to you? Your brain would be over here, your eyes over there, your ears somewhere different, and everything else all over the place, dismembered from one another. If this happened to your body, all of the members would die. Each member only has an identity in terms of the larger, greater body, and each member only has life when connected to the body.

A simple diagram will help.

Many Christians believe that the relationship between Jesus, the Church, and the individual believer looks like this:

Christ-Christian-Church

In this view, Jesus has a personal and individual relationship with each Christian believer, apart from the Church. The Church is at the end of this relationship and is seen as optional. Since each believer has his own relationship directly with Jesus, he doesn’t need the Church. Now he may want it as a devotional aid, something to help him in his personal walk with God, but he doesn’t need it.

But the way God portrays the relationship in His Word is actually like this:

Christ-Church-Christian

Jesus has established a close, personal union with His Bride and His Body, the Church. Individual Christians are members of Christ only when they are also members of the Church. Remember: members can only live in relation to the whole body. When Paul calls the Church the Body of Jesus Christ, he really means it. The Church is His physical, bodily presence on earth.

Think of what it would mean if the Church were not the Body of Christ. Jesus rose from the dead on Easter Sunday, ascended into heaven 40 days later, and was never seen again until the Second Coming. Doesn’t that seem wrong?

Wouldn’t it be a little anticlimactic if Jesus spent thirty-three years on earth, only three in His public ministry, and then left the earth and was never seen again until the Second Coming? God must have thought that man and even human bodies are really important things for Him to take them into Himself as He did.

The Church is the Body of Jesus Christ: it is His eyes and ears, His hands and feet, and His voice and His heart. Without the Church, how would men see and know God?

John Keble rightly taught that the Church is the extension of Christ’s Incarnation, for, through the Church, Jesus Christ continues His ministry of reconciliation to men. It is the locus of God’s divine activity among men today. To say that the Church is the Body of Christ is no mere metaphor but a metaphysical reality whose significance we are scarcely able to and scarcely dare to imagine. This Body is not merely an individual human person but a new human nature in Christ, which is shared with all who have been united to Christ by baptism and faith.

The Mystical Body of Christ[6]

We must now speak of that most wonderful and practical of doctrines: the Mystical Body of Christ. The doctrine of the Mystical Body of Christ is the essence of what God has done and continues to do – to create and re-create man as a fit Bride for Him to marry and become one with. It is also the antidote to the disastrous individualism of the post-Reformation Church and the answer to the neo-Gnostic “I’m spiritual but not religious” meme that is ubiquitous in the world, including the Church, today.

How you see and treat the Church is how you see and treat Jesus Christ.

There are three Bodies of Christ of which theologians speak. The first is the natural body of Christ, which was born of Mary, ministered in Israel for approximately thirty-three years, died, rose again, and has now ascended to the right hand of the Father. This is the now glorified natural body of Christ, which has taken on a new human nature and has lifted the New Humanity united to Him into the heavenly places with Him (Ephesians 2:6).

The second body of Christ is the Mystical Body of Christ, which is the Church. Why is it the Mystical Body of Christ? The word mystical seems doomed to conjure up men in wizards’ hats casting spells from entranced Lotus positions. But by “mystical,” the Church means “real but hidden.”

The third body of Christ is the Eucharistic Body of Christ, for the Scriptures teach that Jesus is truly present in the Eucharist and that those who are faithful members baptized into Christ are truly partakers of Him in His Supper.

These three bodies of Christ are all united in ways that lie beyond the scope of this Tract.

In contrast to the individualized and atomized Christ that we sometimes imagine, the Christ of the Scriptures gives not just spiritual gifts and talents and not just bits and pieces of a panoply of armor: He communicates His life to us. It’s always tricky to say too much about such doctrines, but it’s just as problematic to say too little.

It seems to work something like this: the divine and human nature are united in Jesus Christ, without the two losing their identities and becoming a tertium quid. In the same way, the Church is united to Jesus Christ, without either of them losing its identity. The conclusion, then, is that God has united His divine nature to the divinized human nature of Jesus, a new human nature that He communicates to a redeemed humanity in some way. This is also what St. Athanasius was getting at when he said: “God became man that man might become God.”

Jesus told His disciples in John 14:12, “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do he will do also; and greater works than these he will do, because I go to My Father.” How can this be? Because what Jesus began to do in His natural body for three years, He is now continuing to do through His Mystical Body, the Church.

Think about it: only a small minority of the people who lived on earth at the time of Christ would ever have seen Him. A small minority of those who lived in tiny Israel would have seen any of His miracles. Most of those who saw His miracles would have been privileged only to have seen one.

But if the Church is truly the Body of Christ, then think of the miracles, the preaching, and healing that Jesus does today! There are more than two billion Christians and hundreds of thousands of churches all across the world. Every time Christ comes to His people in the Eucharist, another miracle is performed, if only we had eyes to see. Every time a faithful preacher (even if a poor one) preaches, Christ is preaching. Every time a Christian does good to someone else, Jesus is ministering to that person to heal him. This can only be true if, in some true sense, the Church is Jesus Christ.

The Church, therefore, is the prolongation or extension of the life of Jesus Christ through time and space. The scope of Christ’s ministry is not merely the two and a half billion Christians alive today but includes all of the things He has done or will do for men through men from the first chapters of the Scriptures until the time He returns!

Jesus is united to and never absent from His Body, the Church. The life and ministry that Jesus gave us for thirty-three years in Israel are now given to all Christians in all time and every place. The Church is the new Body of Christ that He assumed, by which He heals and saves the world today.

The Church is also the physical, bodily presence of Jesus Christ on earth today. It’s inconceivable that God would take the drastic and dramatic action of taking on human flesh for thirty-three years, only to seemingly abandon it for the next 2000 years. If the Church is not the Body of Christ, we’re reduced to a hazy “spiritual” presence of Jesus in our lives and an invisible Church and Kingdom, of which no one can say: “The Kingdom of God is here!” or “Come and see!”

If the Church is not the Body of Christ, then we have no Jesus into whose hands and side we can put our hands to be convinced of His love.

The meaning and importance of the related doctrines of the Incarnation and the Mystical Body of Christ have been described in a way beyond comparison by E.L. Mascall, who says:

That in Jesus of Nazareth human nature is permanently and inseparably united to the Person of the Eternal Word, that by baptism men and women are re-created by incorporation into the human nature of Jesus and receive thereby a real communication of the benefits of His Passion, that sanctification is the progressive realization in the moral realm of the change that was made in the ontological realm by baptism, that incorporation into Christ is incorporation into the Church, since the Church is in its essence simply the human nature of Christ made appropriable by men, that all the thought, prayer and activity of Christians, in so far as it is brought within the sphere of redemption, is the act of Christ himself in and through the Church which is His body-these are the ideas that I have tried to expound; and the thread that unites them all is the doctrine of the permanence of the manhood of the glorified and ascended Christ.

True Christian spirituality is this: the life of Christ communicated to the Body of Christ through the Spirit of Christ.[7]

 

 

  1. This Tract draws heavily from my book, Love Me, Love My Wife: Ten Reasons Christians Must Join a Local Church. Love Me, Love My Wife is a brief, biblical discussion of ecclesiology and what the Scriptures say about the nature and significance of the Church. It’s only about 50 pages and is written in an easy-to-read style to make it accessible by all. The year 2020, with its temptations toward virtual church, has made it more relevant than ever.
  2. John also refers to this as the Marriage Supper of the Lamb (Rev 19:9).
  3. Corpus Christi, 9.
  4. For example, Ephesians 5:23 and Colossians 1:18
  5. For example, Romans 12:4-5 and 1 Corinthians 12:12-13. In Ephesians 5, Paul appears to employ both images in the same passage: “For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body” (5:23), and “For we are members of His body, of His flesh and of His bones” (5:30).
  6. This section on the Mystical Body of Christ is a revision of material from my book: Take This Cup: How God Transforms Suffering into Glory and Joy.
  7. See my Tract #4 “What is Christian Spirituality?”.
  8. Images of the Church as God’s building or temple occur in 1 Corinthians 3:9-17, Ephesians 2:21, and anywhere the imagery of edification or “building up” is employed.
  9. The image of adoption occurs in Romans 8:15, 23; Romans 9:4; and Ephesians 1:5.
  10. Corpus Christi, 20.

 



Charles Erlandson

Fr. Charles Erlandson served as rector of St. Chrysostom’s Reformed Episcopal Church in Hot Spring, Arkansas. In 2009, God called him back home to Tyler and Good Shepherd Church and School, to teach high school and serve as assistant rector. He teaches at Cranmer Theological House and is the Church History Department Head. Fr. Erlandson also writes a daily Bible devotional, available online or through e-mail subscription, called Give Us This Day. He has written several recent books: Orthodox Anglican Identity, Love Me, Love My Wife, and Take This Cup.


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