The New Testament Church: One Body in Christ

Albrecht Dürer, Adoration of the Holy Trinity (1511) (<a href="">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.

Baptism: A Sacrament for All Christians

Rembrandt , The Baptism of the Eunuch (1626)

The Baptism of the Eunuch (1626), by Rembrandt. (

I’ve given a (very basic) scriptural explication of the Sacrament of Baptism; I’ve asked the question of why many Protestant Christians reject the sacramentality and efficacy of Baptism, if not the importance and necessity of Baptism altogether; and all the while I’ve been promising that there’s a message of love and hope buried somewhere in what seems so far to be mostly grousing. This is it. I have a lot I want to cover here — I hope I actually get to the hope this time, while maintaining a reasonable length — but I will certainly do my best.

One Baptism: An Enduring Mark of Christian Unity

St. Paul asserted firmly that we are are “one body” in Christ, baptized together into His Body by “one baptism.” He was writing in the context of division and infighting within the Church of his time, especially the Church at Corinth; he wrote to remind the believers there that they were all One in Christ through their Baptism into Him, each a part of His Body with his or her own vocation to fulfill. Although Paul could not have foreseen the sad state of our schism today, the Spirit certainly did: Paul’s words are perhaps more piercingly relevant today than they were then (1 Corinthians 12:12-13):

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 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.

He might as well have been addressing directly, I think, today’s Catholics and Protestants and Orthodox. Paul again wrote (Ephesians 4:5):

I therefore . . . urge you to walk in a manner 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 all, who is over all and through all and in all.

El Greco, Baptism of Christ (c. 1608)

The Baptism of Christ (c. 1608), by El Greco. (

The Roman Catholic Church teaches, in accordance with this scriptural teaching and with the Nicene Creed, that there is “one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.” She accepts baptisms given by even Protestant communities as valid sacraments — even if the Protestants reject Baptism’s sacramentality. I, having been baptized as a Protestant, didn’t have to be baptized again when I entered the Church.

The thrust of that is this: In the Church’s eyes, I had already been baptized into the Body of Christ. The Church believes that all Christians who are baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19) are truly baptized into the One Body of Christ — that even through our schism, the unity of His Body persists. Baptism is the “sacramental bond of unity existing among all who through it are reborn.” It is the “foundation of communion among all Christians” (CCC 1271; Second Vatican Council, 1964, Unitatis redintegratio §§2, 3).

The Unbaptized?

So what about people who aren’t baptized? Are they condemned?

Not necessarily. As the Catechism puts succinctly, “God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but He himself is not bound by His sacraments” (CCC 1257).

The Church recognizes a few exceptions in particular: First, what it calls the Baptism of blood: The Church believes that those believers who suffer death for the sake of the faith are baptized by blood and by their death for and with Christ (CCC 1258).

The desire or intention for Baptism can also bring the fruits of Baptism without actually receiving the Sacrament, if one meets death before one can. Catechumens especially who die before their Baptism, repentant for their sins and fully intending to receive the Sacrament, can be assured of their salvation, the Church believes (CCC 1259).

Guido Reni, The Baptism of Christ (1623)

The Baptism of Christ (1623), by Guido Reni. (

The Church also holds out hope for those who die never knowing the Gospel or the necessity of Baptism, but who strove for God’s truth to the best of their knowledge, ability, and opportunity, and who lived their lives in pursuit of charity and righteousness — that they can be saved, too (CCC 1260).

And most of all, in the hope of which I’ve been speaking, I firmly believe that those Christians of our separated brethren whose communities have wandered from apostolic teaching, who neglect the Sacrament of Baptism and never emphasize its necessity as Christ taught, still have the opportunity to be saved, in God’s infinite mercy. For those who love the Lord, who strive to embrace and live the Gospel, who bear the Spirit’s fruit, but through no fault of their own, are not led to Baptism — I believe and hope in their salvation. If they had but known their need for Baptism, they certainly would have sought it, and God embraces that, the Church believes.

In the end, the core truth of Catholic teaching about the Sacrament of Baptism is that it is not a legalistic requirement, a “work” that one has to do to win favor with God, but the means for our salvation provided by the Lord, a gift given by a merciful God who loves us infinitely. The Church is the “vessel of salvation,” but to be saved, one has to first get on the boat. Just so, Baptism is the door to our death and rebirth in Christ; the sharing in His Death and Resurrection, by which He washes away our sins; the way we receive His grace and salvation. And it is offered and extended to all who seek Him. But first one has to get in the water.