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.

By Scripture Alone; Alone with Scripture

(I am afraid this one gets a little preachy; possibly a little critical. As always, my heart is not to attack, but to rebuild.)

Gutenberg Bible

The Gutenberg Bible, the first printed Bible. (Wikipedia)

So continuing from my thoughts yesterday:

One of the most strident cries of the Protestant Reformation, and of Protestants to this day, is sola scriptura: by Scripture alone. Scripture, the Bible, was to be the sole rule and authority of faith and doctrine.

From an academic standpoint, I can respect this. It holds Christian doctrine and tradition to a very high, legalistic standard of proof. It demands that all belief and practice be absolutely attested to in inspired writing and stamped with divine approval. It demands written attestation by the Apostles — or by God Himself — before Christians put any element of faith into action. But is this a reasonable expectation?

As I wrote yesterday, nothing in our New Testament represents itself as a compendium or catechism of the Christian faith. No book claims to contain the sum of Christian truth. There is no demand or expectation in the New Testament that the New Testament writings alone should support, nourish, instruct, or guide the Church. At the time these documents were written, there wasn’t even any such collection as the New Testament. How could Paul, at the time he wrote his letters, have expected that his words, with those of a few others, would be the sole rule of the Church’s faith? Arguably, he and the other writers were aware that their writing was inspired by the Holy Spirit; but it is doubtful that they at the time would have understood their words to be Scripture — which to them referred to the Old Testament (though St. Peter in 2 Peter 3:15-16 apparently places St. Paul’s writings on the level with Scripture by the end of their lives, ca. A.D. 63–67).

It is evident throughout the New Testament that the Apostles’ primary mode of transmitting the teachings of Christ was through spoken preaching and teaching, not writing. Most of the Apostles were too busy doing other things, like evangelizing to the ends of the earth and dying martyrs for the faith, to write much. That Paul was such an effective writer as well as a tireless preacher surely had a lot to do with why Christ chose him. On every page of Paul’s epistles, he refers to what he taught to the churches in person, teachings that he does not repeat in writing. The Early Church, living prior to the New Testament being collected, received their Christian faith directly through the oral teaching of the Apostles and their successors, and could not have even comprehended an insistence on “Scripture alone.” It is a little ironic that a faith so focused on sermons and preaching should at the same time reject the oral tradition of the Apostles.

Some Protestant sects take this rejection further than others. Especially some of the older groups, such as Lutherans and Anglicans, have retained many of the external trappings of the Church’s traditions. I speak only anecdotally, I confess — I have a lot of reading to do about these churches — but I often hear Anglicanism referred to as “Catholic lite.” Many more conservative and traditional Anglicans are making the journey back to the Mother Church by the parish. I’ve never been a part of a Lutheran church, but through following Ken Ranos and talking to my friend Heather (who attends an ELCA church in California), I’m frequently nodding in agreement at all the similarities and parallels between our traditions. They take the attitude, it seems, that many of the traditions of the Church are valuable and beautiful and praiseworthy, and ought not to be discarded as long as they don’t hinder the Gospel of Christ.

Other churches, especially those descending from the Calvinist tradition, take the rejection of tradition much further. Here I’m on much more familiar ground, having been a part of Baptist and Presbyterian churches. The iconoclasm of Reformation Calvinists toward religious images is well known. It is evident to anyone who has ever seen or set foot in an evangelical church the extent to which their sects have rejected the artistic, ornamental, and architectural aspects of tradition. In doctrine, to a further point than Lutherans or Anglicans, these churches reject anything that is not written explicitly on the face of Scripture. The Sacraments of Confession and Confirmation are completely absent, for example — if not the notion of sacramentality itself. The veneration of saints, the very idea of sainthood, is gone. The attitude here, as I’ve heard from many Protestants, is that the absence of a tradition from Scripture is reason in itself not to do it.

This can, and has, been taken to extremes. The Seventh-Day Adventists and their ilk reject Sunday worship — which has been practiced by the Church since the earliest days — because it is not commanded by Scripture. The Churches of Christ reject the use of musical instruments in worship because there is no evidence of it in the New Testament. I encountered a “new wave” church in Alabama that had no pastor but professed to practice a “New Testament model of church organization.” I am not quite sure what that means, since the New Testament never lays out a model of church organization; but presumably it included elders and deacons. It is common to hear of Protestant churches that try to reconstruct the New Testament Church — but the New Testament gives only glimpses of the faith and practice of the Early Church; most evangelicals reject the authorities that would shed the most light, the Church Fathers. Some churches are even rejecting the traditional doctrine of the Trinity, and returning to such ancient heresies as Sabellianism and Arianism. I’ve talked to Protestants who readily acknowledged that some of the traditions of the Church are good things to do and hold, and have value and merit — but that their churches nonetheless reject them because they can’t find them in Scripture.

This seems to me to be an awfully lonely and barren place to be. By their strictness in living by Scripture alone, these churches are left entirely alone with Scripture. They have shorn themselves of all of the beautiful and wonderful things that have clothed and ornamented the Church over the ages: all of the history, all of the scholarship, all of the art, all of the music. They have spurned the fellowship of the heroes and martyrs, the great cloud of witnesses, who are a part of our spiritual communion in Christ. Even more seriously, they have cast away elements of the faith — the Sacraments, Holy Orders, Apostolic Succession — that make the Gospel work, that guide and nourish the Church, that protect her teachings and sacraments, and that keep her in communion with the Holy Spirit.

Most tragically, with these nuts and bolts and hinges removed, the Church has lost her unity. Since the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, the breakaway Protestant sects have split, and split, and split again, until there are estimated to be upward of 33,000 distinct Protestant denominations (and this is a conservative estimate). There have been more new denominations formed in the past century than have ever existed in all the prior centuries combined. Many churches — the hundreds of thousands of independent or nondenominational churches — really are completely alone. Only the Catholic Church remains one and coherent in the face of this disintegration. The Protestant churches beyond are splintering.

But wasn’t the Reformation supposed to restore the Church? Wasn’t sola scriptura supposed to bring the Church back to the Gospel? Whatever may be said about the doctrine’s aims, without any kind of magisterial authority to guide the Church, disagreement about the interpretation of Scripture only multiplies. Sola scriptura is the linchpin of the whole Reformation, without which it would not have been possible to reject the Catholic Church, its hierarchy, or its Sacraments. It, more than any other doctrine, is the root of our continued disagreement, and our failure to reunite the Church. And it has fostered the individualistic, private interpretation of Scripture, which to this day has been more divisive than any other element in Christian spirituality.