The nature of the church

The following post excerpts a lecture from Dr. Michael Morrison, dean of faculty and professor at Grace Communion Seminary. For a second post on this topic, click here.

Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem (public domain, Wikimedia Commons)

Ekklesia

What is the nature of the church? We learn a lot from the epistles of Paul where the apostle uses the Greek word ekklesia in referring to the church. Ekklesia comes from the Greek preposition ex (meaning out of) and the verb kaleō (meaning to call). In the first century, ekklesia was used to refer to town meetings in which citizens of a city were called together for a political purpose (e.g. Acts 19:39). By using the word ekklesia, Paul is viewing the church as a group of people who are called together. It may be that Paul's use of ekklesia was facilitated by the Septuagint's use of this Greek word to correspond to the Hebrew word qahal, referring to the assembly of Israel. This does not mean, however, that Paul saw the gathering of Israel and the church as theological equivalents. We have to turn elsewhere to understand how Paul viewed the nature of the ekklesia

Metaphors that define the church

We learn a great deal about how Paul viewed the church (the ekklesia) by noting the following metaphors (images) that he used in writing about the Christian assembly.

Body of Christ

In writing to Christians in Corinth, Paul says this concerning the elements of Communion: "Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ?” (1 Cor. 10:16). Here Paul seems to be referring to the flesh of Jesus, and the blood of Jesus, noting that we participate in the benefits of what Jesus did in his life and death. But in 1 Cor. 10:17, Paul alludes to something else: “Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf.” He is sliding from one meaning of “body” to another – from the physical body of one person, to a group of people. It seems to be a play on words, rather than a technical meaning for the phrase “body of Christ.”

When Paul first uses the phrase, in verse 16, the Corinthians would think that he was referring to the flesh and blood of one man. When he then moves from that meaning into the concept of the group of believers, he changes the terminology to “one body.” This was a metaphor found in earlier Greek literature, too; the word body could simply mean a group. We have a similar use in English when we talk about a student body – it refers to the group as a whole.

In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul describes the assembly of believers as a body having different parts. This idea was also found in earlier Greek literature – Paul is saying that the believers, although diverse, form a society of mutual respect and service. Then in verse 1 Cor. 12:27, Paul states, “You are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.”

Is Paul suggesting that believers are the hands and feet of Christ, by which Christ works today? That may be a useful analogy, but it isn’t his point here. He is stressing the respect we should have for one another rather than the work we are doing for the outside world. He is saying: you form a body of believers, and should function as a cohesive whole – and this body of believers belongs to Christ. Just as all the slaves of a household ought to work together in harmony, so also the members of this new group of people who belong to Christ Jesus.

Paul uses a similar metaphor in Romans 12:4-5: “For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.” He is stressing the need for mutual concern; he is not describing a new metaphysical category.

Two of Paul's prison epistles also use the idea of “body” for the church. In Ephesians 4, he says that God gives the church leadership “to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up” (Eph. 4:12). He develops this as an analogy of a person, who begins as a baby (Eph. 4:14), who grows up (Eph. 4:15), matures and achieves a final height (Eph. 4:13). But Paul often mixes his metaphors, and in this case he interweaves this picture of a growing person with reference to Christ as the measure of maturity.

Paul concludes the passage with more images of a human body: “From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (Eph. 4:16). This verse has a parallel in Colossians: “…the head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow” (Col. 2:19).

In these passages, Paul uses the phrase “body of Christ” to refer to the church. It may not be a technical term with exact meaning, but the repeated use of the metaphor suggests that he sees a useful parallel between the human body and the group of people – and this metaphor emphasizes internal operations, not external works. Paul would not object to external works, but he is not using the body metaphor for that purpose.

We see a subtle development in Paul’s thought in the way he describes the church as a body. In 1 Cor. 12:16-17, he refers to parts of the body that are on the head – eyes and ears – as corresponding to believers here on earth. But in Ephesians and Colossians, he describes Christ as the Head of the body. Some commentators see this use of “head” as source; some see it as being the person in charge. Arguing against the latter is that the ancients associated a person’s decision-making ability as residing in the heart, not the head. The idea may be that Christ is conforming us to be like he is – he is both the source of growth and the goal of our growth.

Paul calls the church the body of Christ again in Ephesians chapter 5: “The husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior” (Eph. 5:23). This passage is primarily about marriage, but Paul uses the church as an analogy, and we can therefore see some of Paul’s thinking about the church. He states two basic aspects of the relationship between Christ and the church: First, Christ gave himself for the church, and the church submits to Christ (Eph. 5:25, 24).

What does this have to do with “body”? Paul uses that part of the analogy in Eph. 5:28-30: “In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church—for we are members of his body.” Just as Christ loved his body, the church, by dying for it, so also husbands should give themselves sacrificially to their wives.

Our starting point is that believers form a group of people who belong to Christ. What does Paul’s use of “body” add to that foundation? He seems to be consistently concerned with relationships between believers – unity, mutual respect, and cooperation.

Bride of Christ

Paul does not specifically call the church the bride of Christ, but the passage we have just looked at in Ephesians 5 supports the concept: Paul uses bridal imagery when he says that “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her… to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless” (Eph. 5:25-27).

Paul uses a betrothal metaphor in 2 Cor. 11:2: “I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy. I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him.” Paul’s purpose here is that he wants the Corinthian believers to be faithful to Christ (as evidenced by their faithfulness toward his apostle, Paul). Paul is trying to motivate purity in their devotion to Christ (2 Cor. 11:3). The passage in Ephesians 5 is also concerned with purity, but there Paul stresses Christ’s role in bringing about that purity. Purity involves not only the work of Christ, but also the response of the people.

Temple

To Christians in Corinth, Paul writes, "Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple [a plural people forming a single temple] and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple" (1 Cor. 3:16-17). The context here is that Paul is battling factionalism in Corinth. Some people were enamored with Apollos, some with Peter, some with Paul. We are not out to get a following for ourselves, says Paul – we are servants of God. “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow” (1 Cor. 3:6).

After developing this agricultural analogy for a while, Paul suddenly switches to another. In the middle of 1 Cor. 3:9 he says this: “You are God’s field, God’s building.” It seems to be a generic building at first; it is only in 1 Cor. 3:16 that Paul specifies temple. But he does nothing with the concept – in 1 Cor. 3:18 Paul moves on to yet something else. His point is that the factionalism in Corinth was destroying the building, destroying the temple of God, and so the Corinthians ought to stop. Paul does not even say that the temple of God is a place of worship (though that might be assumed in the metaphor) – his point is that people should not destroy the building by segmenting into factions. The church, like a building, is to be a unity.

Paul may have had a much grander concept of the church as a temple, but he applies only the part of the concept that was needed by the Corinthians at the time, and that is a message of unity. It’s hard to know what all was involved in Paul’s thinking at the time, for it seems to be an off-hand comment. Paul is just offering one metaphor after another. Whether he sees the temple primarily as a place of worship, or as a place in which God lives, cannot be determined from this passage.

In 1 Cor. 6:19, Paul says “Do you not know that your bodies are temples  of the Holy Spirit, who is in you [plural], whom you have received from God?” Paul sees the entire group as a place of God’s presence, as is seen in the next passage: “What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said: ‘I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people’” (2 Cor. 6:16, quoting a combination of Lev. 26:12 and Ezek. 37:27). Note that Paul uses the word “we” rather than “you”; this suggests that Paul saw all believers, no matter where they were, as part of the one temple. He did not see separate temples in separate cities. Paul wants unity even though several groups of people are involved – although the groups are dispersed, they are one people.

Once again, the context here is purity. Paul does not want the Corinthian believers to visit pagan temples. We do not agree with idols, he says, so come out from those assemblies, because God is living in us. Just as the presence of the Holy Spirit is a reason for an individual to be sexually pure (1 Cor. 6:19), the presence of God in the church as a whole is also a reason for believers to be religiously pure.

A different image is in Ephesians chapter 2. Paul starts with a political metaphor – “fellow citizens with God’s people” – and moves rapidly to a domestic image – “members of his household” (Eph. 2:19). We are servants, but more than servants – we are children promised an inheritance. But he shifts the metaphor yet again when he says that this household, this family, is built on a foundation, and it “rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit” (Eph. 2:21-22).

By using these images, Paul is trying to assure Gentiles that they have all the rights of Jewish believers. God is with the Gentiles just as much as he is with the Jews. The stress here is on the presence of God in his people – that Gentiles are accepted as Gentiles; they do not have to become Jews in order to be accepted. In Ephesians, the stress is on the reality of God’s presence; in Corinth it is on the ethical responsibilities that should follow from that.

Family of God 

As we just saw, Paul calls the church “God’s household.” Family imagery is common – Paul’s favorite term for the believers is adelphoi – brothers and sisters. All the believers are children of God; God is their Father. Peter O'Brien writes this:
The theme of family relationships is particularly prominent in 1 Timothy, where the church is described as “the household (oikos) of God, and the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15; cf. Heb 3:1-6). The purpose of this letter as a whole is to indicate “how one ought to behave in God’s household” [1 Tim 3:15] .The order of the church is analogous to that of a human household. Members are to treat one another as they would the members of their own family (1 Tim 5:1-2). They are to care for one another in need (1 Tim 5:5, 16), while overseers are to be skillful at managing the household of God, as demonstrated by their skill with, and care for, their own immediate families (1 Tim 3:1-7). (“Church,” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, 128)
What is the practical importance for this kind of language? Is a church elder like the head of a household, and the believers are like children and servants in that family? Why then would Paul call the believers adelphoi, siblings, as if they were his equals? This leads to the question of leadership roles and functions in the church, which we won't address here but you can find an article on this topic at https://www.gcs.edu/mod/page/view.php?id=4253.

People of God 

Paul’s use of people (laos) is found predominately in quotes from the Old Testament and in reference to the Jewish people (Rom. 9:25-26; 10:21; 11:1-2; 15:10-11; 1 Cor. 10:7; 14:21; 2 Cor. 6:16). Titus 2:14 is the only exception: “who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.” This suggests that Paul saw the church as analogous to the Old Testament people, and the Jewish people. Whether this means a continuation, a reconstitution, or a replacement, cannot be determined from this context.

Kingdom of God

Paul does not seem to equate the church with the kingdom of God. His most common use of the word “kingdom” is to talk about people who “will not inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6:9-10; 15:50; Gal. 5:21); this seems to refer to the future. So does 1 Cor. 15:24: “Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father.”

Nevertheless, Paul (like Jesus) could also talk about the kingdom as a current reality. “The kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit…. The kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power” (Rom. 14:17; 1 Cor. 4:20). These could be construed as referring to the future, but it would not be the most natural way to refer to a future reality. Colossians is clear about the present reality of the kingdom: “The Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light. For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves” (Col. 1:12-13).

The church may not be the kingdom, but people in the church work for the kingdom. Does that mean that we are trying to bring it about, or instead, that we work in service to the kingdom, in the same way that we work for God? I would opt for the latter; I do not see evidence that Paul would say that we are working to bring the kingdom about, or working to expand it, or anything like that. He would see that as being done by the Father, Son and Spirit.

Nevertheless, the kingdom makes a difference in the way we in the church are to live: “the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17). We are to live in a way that is appropriate for God’s domain, God's rule. The people of the church are also the people of the kingdom, but it seems that two entities are involved. One is perfect, the other is not.