The Year of Saint Paul:
A 20-Part Series – Part 13: Understanding the Church with Saint Paul
The word "church" means many things to many people. To some it means a building where worship is conducted. Many think of church as their parish. Others think of the Church as a world-wide institution organized into dioceses and parishes. For some the Church is identified with her works of charity and education. Still others use the word to describe various denominations and religions. All these ways of using the word "church" are, to some degree, legitimate. However, this word signifies something more profound.
In fact, the Second Vatican Council (1962- 1965) taught extensively on the Church. It produced and published a dogmatic constitution on the Church entitled Lumen Gentium (Light of the Nations), as well as a pastoral constitution on the Church entitled Gaudium et Spes (Hope and Joy) – known as The Church in the Modern World. And in one way or another, all 16 documents of the Second Vatican Council deal with the Church.
What's more, the teaching of Vatican II on the Church drew deeply from the Scriptures and from centuries of teaching on the Church. In continuity with the Church's entire Tradition, the Second Vatican Council sought to proclaim the Church's self understanding so as to address "the joy and hope, the grief, and anguish" of our times (Gaudium et Spes, 1). The Council's teaching on the Church is summarized and presented in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and is also clearly reflected in Church law, that is, the Code of Canon Law.
Saint Paul was one of the principal Scriptural sources from which the Second Vatican Council drew in describing how the Church should be understood. Thus, in this Year of Saint Paul, it seems worthwhile to spend a little time studying what Saint Paul taught regarding the Church.
In turning to Saint Paul, we find the basic themes of the theology of the Church. Of course, in the space of a newspaper column, those themes can only be surveyed. Nevertheless, I hope this survey will help your reflection on what Saint Paul wrote about the Church and aid you in studying the Vatican II documents (see especially Lumen Gentium, chapter 1, no. 7) as well as the sections of the Catechism that deal with the Church (especially article 9, nos. 197-975). I also hope that this essay will serve as a reminder of the deep and complementary meanings contained in the word "church."
Well, where to begin? Let's start with the word itself. Saint Paul gave us the first New Testament texts that apply the Greek word for "church" to the followers of Christ, namely, those gathered for instruction and worship and committed to living the new life which the Savior made possible by His death and resurrection. This occurred in the oldest text in Christianity, the First Letter to the Thessalonians, written about 50 or 51 A.D., about twenty years after Christ's Resurrection. In Chapter One, he extends the greetings of "Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy to the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Thessalonians 1:1). In his First Letter to the Corinthians (written 55-56 A.D.), Saint Paul addresses "the church of God that is in Corinth" (1 Corinthians 1:1). In fact, Saint Paul typically opens his letters with greetings to the church in a particular place. However, it is understood that these are not independent churches but rather localizations of "the Church of God" - places where the whole Church is present. In other places, Saint Paul refers to the Church as a whole. For example, in 1 Corinthians 15:19, he writes, "I persecuted the Church of God." Thus Saint Paul clearly understood the term "church" to refer to the Church as a whole as well as to the Church as a whole localized in a particular place such as Corinth or Ephesus (what we know as a diocese).
Saint Paul's description of Christ's followers as church was by no means sheer invention. Here we need to recall again that Saint Paul was a rabbi, steeped in the law and the prophets. By conviction and training, he grew into adulthood firmly convinced that Israel was "the assembly of God." Indeed, the Greek word for "church" is "ekklīsia" which means "an assembly called together," a usage found frequently in the Greek translation of the Old Testament (see, Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 751).
From this word we derive the English word, "ecclesial" to describe that which pertains to the Church. "Ekklīsia" is also akin to the word, "sunagoge" or "synagogue," the center where Jews assembled for worship and instruction (see, for example, Deuteronomy 23:1-3; 1 Chronicles 28:9, and Numbers 16:3); as a rule, however, Saint Paul did not employ this word to refer to the Christian community.
In passing, it should be noted that the English word for church as well as the German word, "kirche," come from the Greek word "kyriake" which means "what belongs to the Lord" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 751; see J. Auer and J. Ratzinger, Dogmatic Theology, no. 8, The Church The Universal Sacrament of Salvation, Washington, DC: CUA Press, 1993, pp. 25-26). This usage is also found in Saint Paul (see, for example, 1 Corinthians 3:16 ff; below we will discuss Paul's use of the image "temple" to describe the Church).
Before becoming a Christian, Saint Paul was convinced that those who followed Christ and the "new way" had betrayed the Chosen People God had convoked and formed as his own. That is why he persecuted Christians. After encountering the Risen Lord, Saint Paul understood that Christianity was not a rejection of what God had promised and begun for the people of Israel but, rather, the fulfillment of God's promises and the extension of His saving love to all the peoples of the world.
Throughout his life, however, Saint Paul would remain deeply concerned, even conflicted, over the question of the Jews who had not accepted the way of Christ (see, for example, Romans, Chapters 9 and 11). Nonetheless, Paul did not hesitate to refer to the followers of Christ, Jewish and Gentile converts, as the assembly of God, that is, the Church of God who now share in Israel's inheritance (see, for example, Ephesians 1:14).
Indeed, both Jews and Greeks had been "called together" by God to share in the redeeming work of His Son by the preaching of the Word and by the Sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist. This community, gathered together by God, became the Church of God.
Let us linger over this question a bit longer. Following the Second Vatican Council it was common to refer to the Church principally as "the people of God" (see Lumen Gentium, Chapter II). Saint Paul refers to the Church as the "laos theou" – the people of God — in several instances — for example, in Romans 9:24 and 1 Corinthians 6:16. This title originally belonged to the people of Israel but Saint Paul shows how God, in fidelity to His own Word, has conferred this distinction on those who have been called together in Christ.
Thus it has been suggested that Saint Paul, as well as the evangelists (authors of the Gospels), saw the Christian community "as the ancient people of God reconstituted, Israel renewed and revivified" (Eric C. Jay, The Church: Its Changing Image through Twenty Centuries, London: S.P.C.K., 1977, p. 12). This impression is reinforced by Saint Paul's tendency to use the term "Church of God" or "churches of God" in place of "the people of God," as we noted earlier in this column. To repeat, this phrase refers to the redeemed and worshipping community on the local level but as part of the overall Church of God which comes from Christ. We find this phrase in 1 Thessalonians 2:14; 2 Thessalonians 1:4; 1 Corinthians 1:2; 10:32; 11:16; 15:9; and Galatians 1:13. These communities are comprised of "the elect," that is, those who are chosen (see Romans 8:33) and those who are called (Romans 1:6).
Saint Paul often refers to members of these communities as "the holy ones" (see, for example, Ephesians 1:18). This does not mean that they were an elite group, far removed from struggle, but rather that they were part of that people whom God the Father "delivered from the power of darkness and transferred... to the kingdom of his beloved Son" (Colossians 1:13).
And we know this from our own experience. As members of the Church we already share in holiness of Christ – but not yet fully. We still struggle with temptation, sin, and other obstacles. Nonetheless, we trust in the final triumph of Christ's truth and love in the Kingdom of Heaven.
We now turn to what is regarded as Saint Paul's principal way of describing, even defining, the Church, namely, the Body of Christ. We began to deal with this image in the last installment of this series. It expresses the actual union of Christ, the head of the Church, with His body, that is, the members of the Church. And it is Saint Paul's way of describing the solidarity of the members of the Church, one with another.
Christians form "one body in Christ" (Romans 12:5). Christ's Spirit is the animating principle of His Body. The next column in this series will cover Saint Paul's teaching on Baptism and Eucharist; there we will make the link between the Church as the Body of Christ and the Eucharistic Body of Christ in the writings of Saint Paul.
For now, let us note in passing that Saint Paul may have borrowed the image of the Church as a body from Stoic philosophy which understands the state "through the image of an organically structured body" (see J. Auer and J. Ratzinger, op. cit., p. 41). Saint Paul first described the Church as the Body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12, a chapter on the variety of spiritual gifts which Holy Spirit has given to the members of the Church.
Saint Paul shows how various roles of service and gifts of the Spirit work together for the common good of the Church. Among other things, Saint Paul is trying to curb that all-too-human tendency which he detected in the church at Corinth to use spiritual gifts for one's self-aggrandizement. But at a deeper level, he is expressing our oneness with Christ and through Him our solidarity with one another in the Church. Thus, he reminds the Corinthians that a single body has many parts which need to cooperate with one another: "If a foot should say, 'Because I am not a hand I do not belong to the body,' it does not for this reason belong any less to the body" (1 Corinthians 12:15). After describing at length how the parts of the body cooperate, Saint Paul adds: "Now you are Christ's body, and individually parts of it" (1 Corinthians 12: 27) and he goes on to describe various gifts and roles of service within the community.
Saint Paul further develops his description of the Church as the Body of Christ in Ephesians and Colossians. In Ephesians 4:15-20, Saint Paul says: "...living the truth in love, we should grow in every way into him who is the head, Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, with the proper functioning of each part, brings about the body's growth and builds itself up in love." Here we have a compact yet nicely worked out description of the Church as the Body of Christ. Paul exhorts the Ephesians not merely to know the truth but to live it so as to add to the number of Christians and thus build up the Body of Christ.
Colossians 1:18, a text which is part of a hymn celebrating the preeminence of Christ's redeeming work, refers to Christ "head of the body, the Church." In Christ, the head of the Church, there is found the fullness of divinity; and those who are members of Christ's body are also filled with His divine life (see Colossians 2:9; Ephesians 3:19). This sets the notion of the Church within the whole panorama of creation and salvation history. So while the Church is, for want of a better term, a sociological group, it reaches far beyond the confines of space and time.
Indeed, Ephesians, Colossians, as well as First and Second Timothy, place the Church squarely within the realm of "mystery," that is, God's overarching plan of salvation originating in His secret counsels but revealed in history through Christ (a theme dealt with in an earlier column).
Scripture scholars have debated whether Saint Paul's phrase, "Body of Christ," was merely a figure of speech or a comparison somehow grounded in reality. Today, most scholars believe that Saint Paul was not just employing a simile. Rather, his phrase, "Body of Christ," functions almost as an essential definition of the Church in Paul. By this image, Saint Paul indicates a mystical, though real, identification among Christ's Body in which He lived, died, and rose from the dead, the Eucharist, and the Church (see L. Cerfaux, The Church in the Theology of Saint Paul, New York: Herder and Herder, 1959, pp. 278-279). In other words, Saint Paul is speaking about our actual incorporation into Christ; this is the Church's deepest reality.
Let us touch on two further images which Saint Paul uses to describe the Church. First, in 2 Corinthians 11:2 and Ephesians 5:22-23, Saint Paul speaks of the Church as "the bride of Christ." In using this image, Saint Paul draws on Old Testament passages which speak of the Lord's spousal love for His people, Israel (see, Hosea 1-3; Isaiah 54:1-8; the Song of Songs) as well as references to Christ as "the bridegroom" (see Mark 2:19). The reference from Second Corinthians is, indeed, to the local church at Corinth.
The reference to Ephesians, however, is to the whole Church. Saint Paul situates the mutual love which spouses owe one another in the context of the life-giving and redeeming love of Christ for the Church. It reads, in part: "Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the Church and handed himself over for her to sanctify her, cleansing her by the bath of water with the word, that he might present to himself the Church in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish" (Ephesians 5:25-27).
The "body" imagery seen above also comes into play in this passage. Most importantly, this passage taps into the rich and beautiful theology of the covenant by which God weds Himself to His people and by which His people understand themselves as partaking in the paschal wedding feast. As members of God's people, we share in a love that is faithful, perpetual, and fruitful. We are part of the intimate union between Christ and His Church.
The final image to be considered here is the Church as "God's building" or "temple." In various places, Saint Paul speaks about "building up the Church," especially in his letters to the Corinthians. This is the work of every member of the Church.
In Ephesians, Paul combines the idea of building up the Church with the notion of the Body of Christ: we are to build up the Body of Christ (see Ephesians 4:12; 4:16). In both First Corinthians and Ephesians Saint Paul refers to the Church as "God's building." Consider, for example, Ephesians 2:19-22: "So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the holy ones and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the capstone. Through him the whole structure is held together and grows into a temple sacred to the Lord; in him you are also being built together into a dwelling place for God in the Spirit."
This passage brings together many strands. It makes reference to the notion of the people of God: "you are fellow citizens." It makes reference to the members of the Church as "the holy ones." It speaks of the Church as built upon "the foundation of the apostles and prophets" but held together by Christ, as did the image of the Body of Christ. And it references the fact the Church is, indeed, a worshiping community.
Of course, individual members of the Church can betray the Church's holiness and undermine her mission. In all these images of the Church there is the clear sense that the Lord has founded His Church, poured His divine life into her, and endowed her with the message and the means, most especially His holiness, to continue His mission.
But there is also the sense that the Church is not yet complete as she journeys through history and is disfigured by the sinfulness of her members. As Saint Ambrose wrote, "the Church is wounded not in itself but in us" (see Avery Dulles, "Should the Church Repent?" First Things, December, 1998; see also the Catechism, no. 825).
In that light, we understand the initiative of Pope John Paul II in the Jubilee Year of 2000 to undertake what he called a "purification of memory" leading to repentance for those things in the Church's history which are opposed to the holiness of Christ at the heart of her own being.
Viewed through the lens of Saint Paul, the Church is a paradoxical union between the human and divine. The Church is human and thus journeys through time, subject to the forces of history. But because the Church is divine, she presses ahead, full of hope, toward a goal beyond history. In her prayer and travail, the Church keeps her eyes fixed on that Kingdom where God will be all in all (see 1 Corinthians 15:28; see also Henri de Lubac, The Church: Paradox and Mystery, New York: Alba House, 1969).