The New Testament Church: One Body in Christ

Albrecht Dürer, Adoration of the Holy Trinity (1511) (<a href="http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Adora%C3%A7%C3%A3o_da_Sant%C3%ADssima_Trindade.jpg">Wikimedia</a>)

Albrecht Dürer, Adoration of the Holy Trinity (1511)

Last time, we examined how, in the usage of the New Testament authors, especially Paul and Luke, the churches of Christ were often referred to in the plural, not as a single body — giving rise to a common Protestant claim about the independence of the New Testament churches — yet how Paul’s frequent exhortations to be of one mind betray a certain sense of unity among all Christian believers. This is made clearest in the words of Christ Himself: “I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You, that they may also be in Us” (John 17:20–23).

Many Protestants tend to read these appeals to unity as references to a vague, undefined, invisible “unity” that somehow contains all believers “in the Spirit,” regardless of the depth of their actual division and disagreement. But such notions of “unity” do not fit with or maintain the biblical call for a true oneness in mind and spirit; they are not the reality of the Church Jesus founded or Paul exhorted.

One Body

Jesus prayed that all who believed in Him would be one, just as He and the Father are one: that is, not just in a loose, spiritual affiliation, but completely, indivisibly One in Christ, of the very same substance and being. Paul tells us that we are one not only spiritually, but corporately:

I therefore beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all. … Speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 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 upbuilds itself in love. (Ephesians 4:1, 3–6, 15–16)

These words go beyond exhortation: Paul describes the oneness of the Body not merely as a worthy model to strive for, but as a transcendent reality: There is One Body, One Spirit, One Lord. This oneness applies not only within each local body of believers, but across all believers, the entire, whole Body of Christ: the Epistle to the Ephesians is generally thought to have been a circular letter, circulated among a network of churches if not all churches. And lest there be any question that this Body of Christ to which Paul refers is to be understood as the Church, he tells elsewhere in the same letter:

[God] has put all things under His feet and has made Him the Head over all things for the Church, which is his Body, the fulness of Him who fills all in all.” (Ephesians 1:22–23)

And in other letters:

He is the Head of the Body, the Church; He is the beginning, the first-born from the dead, that in everything He might be pre-eminent. (Colossians 1:18)

One Church

All Saints

Fra Angelico. The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs (about 1423-24).

The Greek word usually translated “church” in the New Testament is ἐκκλησία (ekklēsia). Most literally it means a calling out of people into a gathering or assembly or congregation; it was a standard word in Greek for a legislative assembly. I have heard Protestants seek to argue that the New Testament only understands the church in this general sense (the “little-c” church) and not as a single, corporate, universal body (big-C Church). But the verses already cited should leave little doubt to the fact that, just as we (even Protestants) today make a distinction in English between those two usages (the local church and the body of all believers), the New Testament authors and even Jesus Himself also saw a higher meaning of the word ἐκκλησία:

“On this Rock I will build My Church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18)

The use of that word ἐκκλησία had an even deeper meaning for a Greek Christian: ἐκκλησία was the common Greek translation the Hebrew קהל (qahal), that appeared in their editions of the Hebrew Old Testament, commonly translated in English as assembly — the assembly or congregation of the Israelite people. The ἐκκλησία, in the mind of a New Testament Christian, was not merely a local assembly of believers: the word evoked striking imagery of the Exodus, the calling out of God’s covenant people out of bondage and into promise.

And so, Jesus’s words echo even more powerfully when He said, “I will build My Church”: not a building, not an institution, not a mere gathering of people, but a calling out of His people, a covenant people of His own. Here He laid its foundation, built on His apostles and prophets, destined to become a holy temple for the Lord (Ephesians 2:20). Here is the One Body of Christ, the Church.

Next time: “The Universal Church”: how the One Body of Christ proceeded whole and undivided; and how it came to be identified as the Catholic Church.

7 thoughts on “The New Testament Church: One Body in Christ

  1. Good afternoon!

    I have never seen the claim of “independence” that you speak of. Can you cite something or clarify? If this is merely a call to recognize papal authority or a specific set of adiaphora, then I don’t see the point.

    Thank you.

    • Hi, Harold. I have read many statements arguing to varying degrees that New Testament churches were “independent” of one another, all the while suggesting the sort of “invisible” unity with other believers that you have mentioned. Most of these arguments have to do with “the New Testament model of church polity” as Protestants present it, which relates mostly to government within churches, but presumes a priori that there was no higher authority to which churches looked than the local plurality of elders. “Independent” may have been the wrong word for me to use above; most of the arguments I’m finding upon googling refer to the New Testament churches as “autonomous.” (I have, for what it’s worth, mostly heard these arguments from Baptists, since that is whom I’ve been around the most, and I think most of the arguments below are from a Baptist perspective.)

      A few examples from the top of the Google results. These arguments are typical:

      With regard to the translation of ἐκκλησία: Many Protestants do indeed actively reject the concept of a universal Church or any sort of visible unity between believers, and make arguments proceeding from that word and its literal meaning as “assembly.” For example:

      His peace be with you!

      • This is fascinating! Thank you.

        I guess I see right and wrong in their approaches. I firmly believe in the invisible Church that crosses denominational barriers and exists into eternity. We are called to that body. I like the way CS Lewis characterizes it in Screwtape:

        “One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do riot mean the Church as we see her spread but through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes I our boldest tempters uneasy. But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans…When he gets to his pew and looks round him he sees just that selection of his neighbours whom he has hitherto avoided. You want to lean pretty heavily on those neighbours. Make his mind flit to and fro between an expression like “the body of Christ” and the actual faces in the next pew.”

        Their answer to denominations seems to be proclaiming each congregation a denomination of one with unique beliefs that you can evaluate per scripture. Should those beliefs coincide with another gathering, that only shows the power of God in calling His church. On that note, I disagree with them.

        I was raised to believe that there is a necessary concord, an agreement at heart, with essential doctrine and that this is what creates the church. If we do not come together and submit together to these central doctrines then we are not acting as the church.

        From Lutheran doctrine:

        “Also they teach that one holy Church is to continue forever. The Church is the congregation of saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered.

        And to the true unity of the Church it is enough to agree concerning the doctrine of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments. Nor is it necessary that human traditions, that is, rites or ceremonies, instituted by men, should be everywhere alike. As Paul says: One faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of all, etc. Eph. 4:5-6.

        Although the Church properly is the congregation of saints and true believers, nevertheless, since in this life many hypocrites and evil persons are mingled therewith, it is lawful to use Sacraments administered by evil men, according to the saying of Christ: The Scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat, etc. Matt. 23:2. Both the Sacraments and Word are effectual by reason of the institution and commandment of Christ, notwithstanding they be administered by evil men.

        They condemn the Donatists, and such like, who denied it to be lawful to use the ministry of evil men in the Church, and who thought the ministry of evil men to be unprofitable and of none effect.”

        We must be mindful that the RC church has never conformed to the rites and forms of the Greek churches and that the following of a single patriarch above the others has never been a point of agreement. therefore, there has never been, in the history of the church, a single hierarchical authority.

        We see the early churches sharing apostles, pastors, teachers, sending funds where needed, not by command, but by voluntary agreement. We also see pastors rejected by churches, others called, and the practical operation given to deacons, elders, etc. we do see governance at the congregational level, collections of congregations under bishops, etc. But this is for practicality and administration, not for reasons of doctrine. If anything, the ante-Nicene fathers show us a lack of cohesion in doctrine and the struggle to discover true doctrines as bishops were often not in concord with each other concerning doctrine.

        We have two levels of operation, here: the nuts and bolts of operating a local church (ministries, buildings, pastoral care) and forging the identity of the church (discovering and promulgating doctrine). The second loses its way when it tries to do both. It was not meant to become an operation to be served and to micro-manage the congregations apart from bringing concordance of doctrine, a common faith identity.

        In my experience, as an LCMS Lutheran, we operate on a congregational polity. That does not give us free reign to determine the doctrines of the church. Whether on the congregational, district, synodical, or international level of association, doctrine may be discussed but the chief task is how to bring doctrine to the local congregations by training and educating clergy, by creating mission and ministry opportunities that bring local congregants together with those outside their local churches.

        In turn, local congregations support these efforts, physically and financially. when we need pastors, we issue a call, and Synod provides qualified candidates. If we need materials, they have publications. If we need money, they have funds to assist. If we need guidance, they have teachers and experts. In other words, the work of the Church is always kept closest to those whom the Church is intended to serve.

        Other Lutherans in the US and around the world operate under an apostolic polity. I am not sure how this affects them except to say that, again, doctrine would be the bond, even for their congregations, not their hierarchy.

        • Hello, Harold.

          There is certainly a transcendent sense in which all baptized Christian believers are “baptized into Christ” (Galatians 3:27, etc.) — but I’ll ask you again: is this “invisible” unity really the extent of the unity Jesus desired for us (John 17:21)? At one time when I was a Protestant I would have agreed with your position ardently. It is only since coming to the Catholic Church that I’ve come to understand even an inkling of what true Christian unity means: a sharing not only in vague sense of purpose, not only in doctrine, but in spirit, mind, and flesh, in the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of the Lord, and in His Word; and not only with one’s local Christian brethren, but with every believer in all the world sharing in the same Body and Blood and the same Word, and every believer who has ever lived and now rejoices with Him in heaven. It bowled me over the first time I experienced it and still does.

          A few pickings at your historical droppings:

          We must be mindful that the RC church has never conformed to the rites and forms of the Greek churches and that the following of a single patriarch above the others has never been a point of agreement. therefore, there has never been, in the history of the church, a single hierarchical authority.

          As you’ve said yourself — “rites” and “forms,” externals, are not what makes the Church. 🙂 But in fact it appears that both the Greek rites and the Roman rite descend from a common form and liturgy (see, for example, Adrian Fortescue’s history of the Mass). And though it’s clear that in the earliest centuries of the Church, each local church was under the leadership of its own bishop, this never amounted to “autonomy” (churches in each region met in frequent consultation with other regional bishops). And though there was no formal hierarchy, there is every indication — and the Eastern churches acknowledge to this day — that the bishop of Rome was always held as the “first among equals,” and the Church of Rome the church to which “it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies III.2).

          If anything, the ante-Nicene fathers show us a lack of cohesion in doctrine and the struggle to discover true doctrines as bishops were often not in concord with each other concerning doctrine.

          On the contrary, I would say that especially Irenaeus’s work and his exhortations exhibit a very clear regard to a certain orthodoxy and to the adherence of each bishop one to another in doctrine. We find much the same in the writings of Cyprian (who likewise finds the seat of unity in Rome).

          His peace be with you.

          • There truly were bishops struggling fro unity in the early church but, the church was never entirely cohesive, even then. Eastern and Western, Coptic, Oriental – even without the major heresies, concord did not exist. It cannot be taken lightly that the Eastern partriarchs rejected Rome’s claim to primacy. that aside, it took many meetings and councils to arrive at conclusions and define orthodoxy. Finally, the Eastern church split over filioque.

            “…but in spirit, mind, and flesh, in the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of the Lord, and in His Word; and not only with one’s local Christian brethren, but with every believer in all the world sharing in the same Body and Blood and the same Word…”

            I don’t think we differ, here. To be part of the church is to be part of the Body of Christ. that is, by definition, ” spirit, mind, and flesh, in the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of the Lord, and in His Word”. These are the things that a living body has.

            I was taught that Catholics did not receive the blood of Christ because, in the olden days, they were only given the host. So, they were deprived, ironically, of the sacrament they most revered. But, I was never taught that their being wrong on this issue meant they were not with us in the Body of Christ. The Body is there when we gather and act in, of Christ, and for Christ.

            How about I give you a real world example of Christians acting together, as the church, in the world? Showing love to the community? I can provide ones. After all, we can agree that faith without work is dead (if only because it dies of starvation). I want to add that I saw in some of the sites you referenced a disapproval of people from different denominations working together without being in full accord on all things. Naturally, I do not agree:

            Each year, we celebrate a Faith in Action Sunday with several churches from the area (Lutheran, Methodist, non-denoms, Baptist, Presbyterian, Episcopal). We have abbreviated worship in our own churches, then descend on the community in mixed teams to do things in service – plant flowers, paint, yard cleanups, visit the sick, studies and concerts in nursing homes, fix up houses, wash windows, food drives, work in the animal shelter, as many things as we can think of. Not that we don’t do these things ll the time, but here, we witness the love of Christ doing the things that needs to be done, out of love, and we do it together, in bright orange t-shirts putting our denomination distinctions aside. Christ shines, not our disagreements. We wrap up with song, prayer, and food, a big picnic for everyone. Generally, we field about 500 volunteers. No RC church will join us. this year, I’m inviting them to skip mass and live faith in the open (or, maybe they can do the Saturday cheat thing;) – just kidding!)

            The world needs to see Christ coming to them to be part of their everyday lives, not sitting back and waiting for them to come in. that’s not how Jesus operated, He came to us. They need to see that He works his good in spite of us and our differences, that we are all His. When we are asked why we are working (and we are asked), we all say it is because Christ loves you and we are His hands in this world.

            There is joy in service and there is powerful witness in using actions to speak God’s love. Culturally, Lutherans, like most Catholics, can be focused forward on the altar and are very comfortable being in church. But the least and the lost are not sitting next to us, they are outside looking everywhere but in. If we are to carry out our commission to make disciples of all nations, we have to go to them.

            Pope Francis, I know, understands this:

            “When the Church is self-referential, inadvertently, she believes she has her own light,”
            The Church then “lives to give glory only to one another” and not the rest of the world
            “When the Church does not come out of herself to evangelise, she becomes self-referential and then gets sick,”
            “The evils that, over time, happen in ecclesial institutions have their root in self-referentiality and a kind of theological narcissism.”

            Peace!

          • Hello, Harold.

            There truly were bishops struggling for unity in the early church but, the church was never entirely cohesive, even then. Eastern and Western, Coptic, Oriental – even without the major heresies, concord did not exist.

            Concord did not exist — when? I don’t know what “concord” you are looking for that wasn’t there, or what “entirely cohesive” is supposed to look like, but in the first centuries of the Church, there was no such thing as “Eastern and Western, Coptic, and Oriental.” These divisions — like all divisions — were the result of schisms in the Church, the first major one, which resulted in the “Oriental” and Coptic churches you name, occuring at Chalcedon in 451. These divisions were not there in the beginning. Christ did not found a divided Church. Until Chalcedon, all churches affirmed a common faith and unity, and they strove constantly to affirm and maintain that agreement. The bishops of the Church could not have come together in council to oppose heresy unless they affirmed that there was a single, common, orthodox faith to uphold: Unless they commonly held and agreed on most articles of doctrine, they could not have agreed to reject novelty and heterodoxy. I don’t know what “cohesion” you are expecting to find, but given the problems of distance and communication in the ancient world, and that the Christian Church was spread over most of the civilized world, the bishops of the early Church did make a strenuous and concerted effort to maintain “cohesion.” There is no scriptural or patristic evidence to suggest doctrinal or practical “autonomy” among early churches: in fact, everything suggests just exacty the opposite, with the very earliest authors (Clement, Ignatius) arguing for an orthodox and established faith secured by apostolic succession and railing against the heterodox who would depart that faith. 

            The most basic and glaring fact is that in the early centuries of the Church, all the Church’s bishops could meet in council, while today, the vast majority of the world’s diverse sects do not even have bishops, let alone would they be willing to sit down with the bishops of every other sect and strive for real unity and agreement. There are now divisions that were not there before. The Church has lost something that was there before.

            It cannot be taken lightly that the Eastern partriarchs rejected Rome’s claim to primacy.

            They rejected it, only after having affirmed it consistently for many centuries. It cannot be taken lightly that the majority of Eastern bishops did not reject such claims until the tenth and eleventh centuries — after which, yes, there was division, where it had not existed before. Is your argument really that the Church should not have a full, visible unity in Christ because it never had that in the first place?

            It took many meetings and councils to arrive at conclusions and define orthodoxy.

            Once again, the bishops of the Church could not have met to resolve questions of doctrine if they didn’t share a common foundation and deposit of doctrine in the first place. You make it sound as if there was no orthodoxy, in anything, until it was hammered out by councils; but on the contrary, each council met to resolve a predetermined and narrow set of questions, and could only have done so because the bishops agreed on the basic substance of the faith. Don’t presume, as many secular academics do, that such questions “could have gone either way,” that orthodoxy was “made up as they went along”: just as there is only one Christ, there is only one truth, once revealed to the Apostles and saints. Athanasius and other anti-Arian writers could not have written to oppose Arius unless they already understood the orthodox position and were sure of the truth they had received. There was a true answer to these questions, and the Holy Spirit guided the Church into it.

            Finally, the Eastern church split over filioque.

            The great schism between the West and East cannot be dismissed with passing reference to a single issue. Even the filioque, as both sides now agree, was more complex an issue than the insertion of a single word, having more to do with the authority of the pope than with any real theological difference. Again: You are here arguing that there is division in the Church, after arguing that there was no division. Is your position that such division is natural, normal, and was there from the beginning — therefore we should not expect any greater unity than we already have?

            I don’t think we differ, here. To be part of the church is to be part of the Body of Christ. that is, by definition, ”spirit, mind, and flesh, in the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of the Lord, and in His Word”. These are the things that a living body has.

            No, that is not what I meant. To share in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist is a closer, more intimate Communion than anything that can possessed by a mere spiritual agreement and agreement with other believers. It is something that transcends anything we can perceive, but what I do perceive is overwhelming to the senses. I do not share that with believers outside the Catholic Church. And I long that we can all be one again in that fullness. Pretending that we have no divisions is denial, and is no way to go about healing them.

            I was taught that Catholics did not receive the blood of Christ because, in the olden days, they were only given the host. So, they were deprived, ironically, of the sacrament they most revered.

            No Catholic in the proper disposition has ever been denied the Eucharist. Anyone who partakes of the Eucharist, whether in one kind or both, receives the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of the Lord. No one has ever been “deprived” of the Lord.

            But, I was never taught that their being wrong on this issue meant they were not with us in the Body of Christ.

            Catholics believe Protestants are wrong on many things — most seriously, in their willful separation from the Church. We must be clear in what we are affirming: just because all believers do share some degree of spiritual communion with each other in the Lord because of their Baptism, does not mean that they are one in the fullness of the unity that Christ intended for us. Protestants, in the view of the Catholic Church, have placed themselves outside the Church of Christ. We do not share full communion. Our churches are divided. Pretending that we are not divided, and that we cannot do better, is an abandonment of the call to unity Christ gives us.

            How about I give you a real world example of Christians acting together, as the church, in the world? Showing love to the community? I can provide ones. After all, we can agree that faith without work is dead (if only because it dies of starvation).

            Yes, you mentioned this before; and I say that’s really nice. But you sound as if you’re patting yourself on the back for achieving some sort of “unity” with other churches; when really this is nothing of the sort, but exactly what you called it: Christians working together in the world. I could draw a comparison to the service projects my high school used to participate in once a year with our cross-town rivals. We would get together once a year and work for the common good, put aside our differences, affirm our common identity as students and neighbors and citizens, love one another and our neighbors and be friends — and then, after it was all over, go right back to being rivals for the remaining 364 days of the year. That’s not “unity”; that’s cooperation, a very limited one at that; and there is a real and substantive difference between the two.

            True unity would look very different. Can you worship the Lord together with all these other believers, with Baptists and Methodists and Presbyterians and Catholics? Can you break bread together, come to the Lord’s table together, share in what Scripture calls a communion in the Body and Blood of the Lord? Can you teach your children together? Can you not only work together once a year, but serve together in continuing, consistent, and concerted efforts, sharing the same leaders and funds and goals? Can you unite to confront together and agree on the serious spiritual, moral, and doctrinal issues facing the world today — gay “marriage”, abortion, women’s ordination, etc.? Your progress is admirable, compared to where divided Christians were even a century ago, but it amounts to little more than an annual service project with cross-town rivals. This is not the unity, as the Father and the Son are one, “in the same mind and judgment,” that Jesus prayed for us and Paul exhorted.

            No RC church will join us. this year, I’m inviting them to skip mass and live faith in the open (or, maybe they can do the Saturday cheat thing;) – just kidding!

            Catholics do take the whole biblical injunction, “day of rest” thing rather seriously. I think you might see different results if you moved your day of service to Saturday.

            I want to add that I saw in some of the sites you referenced a disapproval of people from different denominations working together without being in full accord on all things. Naturally, I do not agree…

            I’m not sure what you’re talking about, but I’m not responsible for the views of any of the sites I link to, and if we’re talking about the ones I linked in this thread, I obviously don’t agree with them either, 

            The world needs to see Christ coming to them to be part of their everyday lives, not sitting back and waiting for them to come in. … Culturally, Lutherans, like most Catholics, can be focused forward on the altar and are very comfortable being in church.

            I agree. But if you mean to suggest that Catholics are more comfortable in their pews than working for the kingdom, I couldn’t disagree more. I don’t know about the Catholics where you live (and I don’t know where you live), but in my experience in just the few years I’ve been here, the Catholic Church has been more service-oriented and service-focused than any church I’ve ever been involved with — with frequent homilies from our pastors and yes, from our pope, about our Christian call to service and to love, the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, the things both great and small which we can do “for the least of these.” I’ve seen more Catholics “in the trenches” on a daily basis than I ever saw as a Protestant, where most Christians were satisfied to send money to missionaries in far-off lands and, if they weren’t completely oblivious to their own poor, work in local service projects only once or twice a year as you’ve described.

            Catholics, though, tend not to trumpet their own efforts, and are more apt to serve in seemingly small ways year-round that the rest of the world doesn’t see or takes for granted — until they need it: the soup kitchens and food pantries and homeless shelters and hospitals. I’d encourage you to take a closer look at what your local Catholic diocese is actually doing before you conclude that Catholics are just sitting in their pews.

            His peace be with you.

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