The essential nature of the Church eludes precise definition. If formulated from a particular perspective, any definition of the Church can miss what makes the Church a living reality. When it is defined, for instance, from the perspective of its ministry (apostolic succession), or of election (the Church as the gathering of the elect), or of experience (the Church as a voluntary association of those who can testify to conversion), its definition loses something of the wholeness of the New Testament Church.Smedes
THE FULNESS OF CHRIST
It should be clearly understood that the Church is what it is only through a living relationship with the living Lord. When we seek to inquire into the nature of the Church we must ask what Jesus Christ is to the Church and what the Church is to Jesus Christ. As an entity in itself, the Church is of no ultimate significance and of no genuine power.
The Church becomes significant and speaks with genuine power only through a living relationship with Jesus Christ. Ecclesiology is not Christology to be sure, but ecclesiology is never but a hair’s breadth removed from Christology. The Church is the fulness of him that filleth all in all; this is the New Testament view. The Fathers put it this way: ubi Christus, ibi ekklesia. But for this reason, the Church’s nature is not something we can capture in a few sentences of definition. The Church is what she is created to be by the relationship she has to her Lord, a relationship that looks to the past, labors and worships in the present, and anticipates the future—all in Jesus Christ. We cannot confine the nature of the Church within a precise definition; we can only enter further and further by our study and service into her many-sided and mysterious inner life.
I would not want now to betray what I have just said by proceeding to delineate the Church’s relationship to Christ with dogmatic precision. We do well if we are able to suggest something that will help us get our bearings for future excursions into the mystery. An etymological study of the word ekklesia gives us little to go on. A pagan Greek, who had known and used the word before Paul, would not have known what Paul meant by its Christian meaning. The Hellenists of Alexandria adopted it as translation for the Hebrew Qahal, although the reason for this is not clear. That they did and that Paul continued the use of ekklesia for the New Testament Church underscores the continuity of the New with the Old Testament Church. Both ekklesia and Qahal designate the people called of God for his service, a distinct people set apart from the peoples of the world. But in the New Testament ekklesia becomes the ekklesia of Jesus Christ as well as the ekklesia of God (Rom. 16:16; 1 Cor. 1:2). The ekklesia becomes the habitation of God and of Christ through the Spirit. While continuity of the Qahal in the ekklesia indeed exists, there is a difference between the two: in the former Christ is promised and anticipated, in the latter Christ has come, is remembered, proclaimed, experienced, and anticipated again. The new relationship to Jesus Christ creates the fuller realization of the nature of the Church. And this relationship must hold our attention now.
RELATIONSHIP TO CHRIST
We may describe this relationship, first of all, as retrospective. As the Old Testament Church lived by promise, so the New Testament Church lives by memory. The Church is called out of the world by the proclamation of what happened in the past. The Good News of the event that took place once and for all in time past is the evangel for the world proclaimed by the Church, but is at the same time the kerygma that calls the Church into existence. Those who have been obedient to the Word that called them to faith in the Cross and Resurrection of Christ make up the Church. Whatever else shall be said about the Church’s relationship to Christ, this comes first: the living Lord of the Church is the Servant who bought the Church with his blood on the tree. What was done back there outside the gate is what makes the Church what she is. And the Church lives by faith in the memory of that unrepeatable sacrifice made for her atonement. The fact that the Church has a memory gives her a Word to proclaim, not of ideals or ideas, but of something done in history by the God of history.
Secondly, the relationship is anticipatory. The Church expects her Lord, and her expectation defines the nature of the Church. Eschatology is not a set of propositions about the ending of the world; the Church does not hope merely for a future golden age. The Church’s expectation of Christ and his completion of what he has begun through his Spirit in the Church constitutes her hope. The Church is what she is and does what she does because of what she looks forward to in Christ. Understood in this way, eschatology is the accelerated heartbeat of the Church that looks for the consummation of what she already is in Christ. Christ is in us, the hope of glory! And the Holy Spirit of Christ, given to the Church and creating the Church, is the down payment or earnest of her future (Eph. 1:14; Rom. 8:23; 2 Cor. 1:22).
Thirdly, the Church’s relationship to Christ is one of subordination. Jesus Christ is Lord of the Church. Not only is he that Lamb once slain, but he is the slain Lamb now become the living Lion, the Monarch, King, and Head. These words may paint different shadings in the picture, but they all mean that the Church lives in obedience, service, and total subjugation to him. The Church is his Kingdom, his domain, his creation. No matter what we say later of the intimacy of her union with him, the union of the Church with Christ is a union of the Lord with his subordinate people. Any Church which sets up rules, regulations, autonomy, or hierarchy that detract from the exclusive Lordship of Jesus Christ has become a sect. The true Church is that body which continually listens to and obeys the Word of the Lord.
BODY OF CHRIST
The Church’s relationship to Jesus Christ is made up of all these characteristics and more, yet these are all associated with and in a sense dependent upon the Church’s fundamental relationship to Christ—a relationship which we may call life-union. This is partly what Paul means by his metaphor—the Body of Christ. Jesus Christ has, as it were, put himself into a living union with the Church by virtue of which his life creates the inner essence of the Church. In the Church, “as in His body, the fullness of His life and glory come to existence and development” (Van Leeuwen on Eph. 1:23). “God has given to the Church the great honor of forming one entity with the Lord Christ, in other words of completing and filling Him” (Greydanus on Eph. 1:23). Jesus Christ is in heaven, the Church is on earth. Yet an umbilical cord allows the Church to live off the life of Christ though already his offspring. That cord is the Spirit of Christ, of whom our Lord said: It is the Spirit that giveth life. Whose life? Whose life but the life of him who said: “I am the bread of life … so he that eateth me, even he shall live by me” (John 6:48, 57). The Church and Jesus Christ are as closely united, as organically joined, as the body to its head.
THE CREATIVE SPIRIT
We may recall that in the New Testament, being a Christian and being a member of the Church are shown to be two sides of the same coin. Only the modern “individualistic” mind can conceive of a Christian outside the Church. To the New Testament mind, however, becoming a Christian and joining the fellowship were parts of the same thing. A Christian, being what he was, and the Church, being what it was, made up together essentially the same thing. They comprised one body because of their common possession of the Lord Jesus Christ.
A Christian was a person born again of the Spirit. He was a new creature with new life, the life of Christ, the second-Adam, Head of the new race. This life which the Spirit generated was the life of Him from whom the Spirit came. Thus, when the Spirit is in a man it is virtually the same as Christ being in a man. Paul confirms this truth when in Romans 8:10 and 11 he makes no distinction between the Spirit and Christ. For Christ has become, as it were, the life-giving Spirit (1 Cor. 15:42–47). Hence, though Paul uses a variety of expressions—Christ in you, I in Christ, Christ dwelling in our hearts by faith, and having the Spirit—he has one intent and that is to show that the new life of Christ in the believer turns the old man into a new man, the new creature in Christ.
The same Spirit indwelling the Christ is the Spirit that informs the Church. He does not dwell in the Church as an abstraction. He indwells her as she indwells the members. As members share Christ’s life, therefore, they form one body, Christ’s body. Conversely, each has a share in the life only as each is a member of the body. We are one body because we are all baptized into one Spirit. We partake of one loaf which is Christ. The Spirit brings Christ into the body; and the members become organs of the body because of the one life which they share. The body as a whole and the members as organic parts have life-union with the incarnate Lord in heaven through the Spirit that has taken permanent residence in them. Christ is the essence of the Church. Aside from her transitory, historical, and often tattered appearance, the essence of the Church, her inner selfhood and identity, is nothing less than the life of Jesus Christ crucified and living in heaven, but translated into the Church through his creative Spirit.
What we often call the institutional Church is the tangible embodiment of this her inner life. The institutional aspects of the Church—her dogmas, her ministry, sacraments, and mission—are concrete, earthly expressions of her heart, the center of her existence which is spiritual and heavenly. But these external things are not less than essential to the inner life of the Body. They are the Body in its outward manifestation. Paul never makes a clear distinction between the spiritual life and its tangible expression. He never divides the inner, organic life from the outward, institutional life of the Church. There is only one ekklesia. It may come to expression as the ekklesia of Jerusalem, the ekklesia of Ephesus, the several ekklesiae in all parts of Judea, or the tiny ekklesia in the house of Nymphas or of Philemon. But all are equally the Church because all share equally in the whole of Christ. The particular ekklesiae are tangible expressions of the one Spirit who brings the one Life into the Body.
TENSION OF DIVISION
The oneness of the Church’s inner life with the institutional expression of that life brings us into almost unbearable tension today. The tension is caused by our institutional divisions. On one hand, we confess that the Church cannot be divided in its inner, spiritual life, for there is only one indivisible life of Christ shared by all. On the other hand, the painful disunity of the outward manifestation of that life is all too real. Yet, the essence, we have said, is inseparable from its manifestation. How is it possible for the essential life of the Church to be one, while the manifestation of that life is grotesquely divided? One way to escape this tension is to live in the illusion that the outward forms or institutions are not significant and therefore can be divided without disrupting the inner life. But this is not the apostolic way; to the apostles, the inner life and outward form are inseparable as the essence and its manifestation. Another way to escape the tension is to say that, since the inner life is the essential thing, we can heal the divisions even at the sacrifice of what we feel to be necessary to the true manifestation of the inner life. (For instance, we can heal the divisions, according to this method, at the cost of doctrinal integrity.) But this is not the apostolic way either; to the apostles, the outward expressions are to be kept pure simply because they are the manifestation of the Church’s inner life.
HEALING THE WOUND
Neither comfortable acceptance of institutional divisions nor compromising solutions to them will do as ways to ease our tension. We shall have to live with our terrible contradiction and never allow its painfulness to tempt us to take the easy way out. The tension is terrible; in seeking the purity of our Lord’s Church we seem involved in a denial of the Church’s real and essential self. We shall have to seize every opportunity of healing the wound. We shall have to be much in prayer that our Lord will hasten the day of restoration. Meanwhile, we are able to take courage in the faith that our divisions are not the last word about the Church. The last word will be said when our Lord brings the institutional life of the Church into harmony with the essence of the Church. And the essence of the Church is Jesus Christ in us, our hope of glory and our hope of unity.
Lewis B. Smedes is Professor of Bible at Calvin College. He holds the Th.B. from Calvin Theological Seminary, and Th.D. from the Free University of Amsterdam. He is author of The Incarnation: Trends in Modern Anglican Theology.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.