The Church: Creed, Communion, and Community

Introduction: The Divinely-Human Community

Hundreds of years before the advent of Christ Jesus, God called Abram out of his home in Ur of the Chaldeans, promising to make of him “a great nation,” through whom “all the families of the earth would be blessed.”[1] And “Abraham fathered Isaac,” as we continue reading this ancient narrative, and “Isaac fathered Jacob; Jacob fathered Judah and his brothers,”[2] the twelve tribes of Israel. Much later, then, Israel was called “up out of the land of Egypt,” where they had been enslaved, suffering for generations, in order to be a unique and holy people of God. To them the Lord especially revealed himself, according to the Judeo-Christian understanding of divine revelation and interaction with humanity. God revealed something of the divine nature, character and personality; and to this kingdom (nation), the Lord God bequeathed the holy law, “the law of life and knowledge,” through Moses.[3]

Out of this whole striking, revolutionary and (when rightly understood and appreciated) beautiful law, Jesus of Nazareth taught that the two greatest commandments were to love God and neighbor; that in fact, everything hitherto revealed and instructed by God rested, or depended, upon these two precepts. Later in his ministry, Jesus added a fresh dimension by combining these two commands into a “new commandment” to his followers: “Love one another just as I have loved you.”[4] And this ended up being the summation of the entire, divine goal from the calling of Abram to Moses, down through the ages, up to the coming of the Messiah, Yeshua bar Yoseph, the only and eternally-begotten Son of God – that is, the complete reconciliation of humanity with God, and humanity within itself in an unbroken, unsullied, holy communion[5] of perfect love. Community – dynamic, creative, Spirit-filled, divine-human community[6] – the Church, the “household of God;”[7] conceived in the tomb of Christ Jesus, birthed and animated by the resurrection of Jesus the Christ and the coming of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. (Indeed, as we have noted before, there would be no Church apart from the resurrection of Christ or the coming and indwelling of the Holy Spirit.)

What exactly is the Church, though? This is a question that has troubled some of the best minds in the world (even outside of the Christian faith-religion) for hundreds of years, (presumably not being completely satisfied with the above description.)

Defining the Church: The Body of Christ

Theologian and patristic scholar, Thomas Oden, explains that “the Church is from the outset defined as a single living organism, an interdependent body with every member depending upon the community of faith made alive by the Son through the Spirit,” by the will and to the glory of the Father.[8] This perspective is shared by Eastern Orthodoxy, as A. S. Damick explains:

Orthodoxy does not regard the visible Church as an organization or institution, although it has those aspects. Rather, the Church is an organism, which has both exterior, visible elements and interior, invisible elements, all governed by the Head, who is Christ. We must remember that Christ did not found a philosophical or ideological movement called ‘Christianity,’ but rather a concrete, historical community called the Church…

Or an organic “body,” as the Apostle Saint Paul refers to the Church.[9] And since the church is apostolically referred to as “the Body of Christ,” then proper understanding of the Church…

… depends entirely on the articles (in the Nicene-Constantinople Creed) concerning Christ Jesus. The Church has no other light than Christ’s; according to a favorite image of the Church Fathers, the Church is like the moon, all its light reflected from the sun. (Importantly, too, the article of the Nicene-Constantinople Creed regarding the Church) also depends entirely on the article about the Holy Spirit, which immediately precedes it. ‘Indeed, having shown that the Spirit is the source and giver of all holiness, we now confess that it is he who has endowed the Church with holiness.’ The Church is, in a phrase used by the Fathers, the place ‘where the Spirit flourishes.’[10]

So the Church is the divinely ordained community called out from the world;[11] redeemed and sanctified by Christ; enlivened, guided and directed by the Holy Spirit; and is, thus, “the ground and pillar of truth.”[12] The Apostle St. Paul says as much, of course:

We are all one body, we have the same Spirit, and we have all been called to the same glorious future. There is only one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and there is only one God and Father, who is over all and in us all and living through us all[13]

Explaining the Church: The Per Mixta Ecclesia

There is some notable disagreement with our definition, though, especially as we refer to the visibility of the Church. Extreme, or radical, Protestantism has spoken of the genuine Church as the invisible Church, whose true members are known only to God, but this begs the two-part question: Since we cannot know, this side of heaven, who are the “true members,” then what are we to make of the Church practically speaking, and what affect does the idea of invisibility have on visible, tangible relationships within the Church? First, we have only the visible Church with which to deal and, after all, it was to established communities St. Paul and others wrote (and preached, taught, etc.), membered by quite visible, flesh-and-blood humans. Read the epistles, though, and you quickly realize that from the beginning the Church was blemished (on the whole, at least), hence the need for sanctification:

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.[14]

And the beautiful, powerful doxology by St. Jude speaks to the same reality:

Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.[15]

The whole argument for an “invisible” Church smacks of arrogance and anti-authoritarianism, not sensibility; it also has the very unwholesome effect of denigrating relationships – communion within community – and the unity we share in Christ, by the vivifying and sanctifying power of the Spirit, to the glory of God the Father, who willed the birth of the Church … which leads to another point: Contention for an invisible Church is also dualistic and, furthermore, betrays a proclivity toward Gnosticism – that is, the belief that the visible, physical is innately evil, while the invisible, spiritual is inherently good.[16] Plato shared this view:

‘Then, being thus, it (the soul) goes away into the unseen, which is like itself, the divine and immortal and wise, where on arrival it has the opportunity to be happy, freed from wandering and folly and fears and wild loves and all other human evils, and, as they say of the initiated, really and truly passing the rest of time with the gods. Is that what we are to say, Cebes?’

‘Yes indeed,’

‘But if contrariwise, I think, if it leaves the body polluted and unpurified, as having always with it and attending it and in love with it and bewitched by it through desires and pleasures, so that it thinks nothing to be true but the bodily – what one could touch and see and drink and eat and use for carnal passion: if what is darksome to the eyes and ‘unseen’ but intellectual and to be caught by philosophy, if this, I say, it is accustomed to hate and fear and flee; do you think a soul in that state will get away pure and incorrupt in itself?’

‘By no possible means whatever,’ he said…

‘A heavy load, my friend, we must believe that to be – heavy and earthy and visible – and such a soul with this on board … cruises about restless among the tombs and graves, where you know shadowy apparitions of souls have often been seen, phantoms such as are produced by souls like this … compelled to wander about such places as a penalty for their former way of life, which was evil; and wander they must until by desire for the bodily, which is always in their company, they are imprisoned once more in the body.[17]

There is that in Plato with which we might agree: Supplying “the Church” in the above quote, we would certainly agree that the Church on earth looks forward to being “freed from wander and folly and fears,” as the saints on high – part of the same, one Church – already have been. We should also agree that there are those members of the Body, who are “polluted and unpurified,” (and I myself am convicted at this point!) “bewitched … through desires and pleasures.” And there are consequences for this, of course, but this is not an indictment against physicality.

God created the physical world and, according to the first creation narrative in Genesis, pronounced creation “good.” God also created humanity – body, mind, and soul – and ordained human communion, which incorporates the physical as well as the mental and spiritual. Such is true for the Church, too, so that when one moves away from the “visibility” of the Church as if that concept, indeed that reality, were evil, then one is effectively calling God evil … or, at least, calling this particular creative act of God evil. This is not to say those who rally around the idea of the invisible Church consciously do this, or even begin to realize this is what they are doing, but doing it they are, nevertheless. Besides, in terms of relationship, what could be worse than constantly wondering whether so-and-so is truly a member of the genuine, though invisible, Church? Or whether or not you are yourself? Or having to endure the constant critical appraisal of others? This assuredly has no place in the Body of Christ, who came to seek and to save the lost.

However, if we insist on the visibility of the Church, with inner and invisible qualities, then what do we actually see? The Church founded by Jesus the Christ and his Apostles seems to be fractured into literally thousands of pieces, or is this not true? Some would contend that their tradition and/or denomination is the Church, complete unto itself, but this is extremely difficult to reasonably sustain. For example, the Eastern Orthodox communion largely makes this claim, but can its proponents really effectively argue that, say, the Roman Catholic faithful who stand week after week proclaiming the Apostles’ Creed with complete integrity, worshipping God, and receiving the Sacraments at the hands of priests and bishops in apostolic succession are not legitimately part of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church? Can Protestants, even those with a low view of the Church, really point to the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox faithful and condemn them as being outside the Body of Christ? On what grounds? These believers have a deeper and broader view of salvation, which perspective includes the centrally important understanding of being saved by grace through faith in Christ. And “if they confess with their mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in their heart that God raised him from the dead,” then are they not saved?[18] The Apostle St. Paul seems to think so, and if they are redeemed from darkness, sin and death, and justified before God, then are they not members of the Body of Christ?

However, this does leave us in a bit of a conundrum, to say the least; after all, what is a dismembered body except a dead body? Too, we must consider that Christ himself prayed for unity among his followers – believers, members of his Church – and that prayer has apparently been thwarted. We cannot accept the fallacious idea of an “invisible” Church, nor can we sustain an argument for the exceptionalism of any one church, i.e. the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Lutheran, Reformed, etc. What are we to say, then, especially in light of the traditional description of the Church as “one, holy, catholic and apostolic?” This is ninth article of the Nicene-Constantinople Creed, so the Church (alongside our above definition) may also be defined as “the divinely instituted community of the faithful in Christ, who hold fast to one Faith, who believe in the same dogmas, who have the same worship, who partake of the same holy Sacraments, and who are governed by their lawful pastors, the bishops, who are the successors of the Apostles.” The Church also consists of both the living and the departed, which is an intrinsic aspect of its unity.

Furthermore, by “one” is meant “one spiritual body,” which has only “one Head,” who is Jesus the risen Christ, “and is animated by one Spirit of God.” By “holy” is meant that the Church “is sanctified by the holiness and passion of Jesus Christ, its founder; it is holy because it teaches his holy doctrine; it is holy because the Holy Spirit works in (people) through the Holy Sacraments of the Church. The Church is also holy because of the great holiness displayed by the multitude of its Saints and by many others of the faithful as well.” The Church is “catholic, or universal, because it is not limited to any place, or time, or people, and because it maintains within itself all truth.” This also, obviously, points to the unity, or oneness, of the Church, which incorporates the departed as well as the living. Finally, the Church is apostolic “because without break or change the Church has received from Christ’s Apostles its doctrines and the lawful succession of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, through the laying on of consecrated hands.”[19] This is ideal, but not in actuality the case.

Perhaps the Belgian Roman Catholic theologian, Edward Schillebeeckx, points us in the right direction with an eschatological perspective balanced with what we might call the faith-reality of the Church:

In Ephesians, the distinction between justification (at the baptism of believers) and sanctification and even sōtēria or salvation as an eschatological event (the physical resurrection), which is so important for Paul, vanishes into the background. Christians are already risen with Christ through faith and baptism (Colossians), and Ephesians explicitly adds that they are already sitting with their Lord at the right hand of God (2.6). Ephesians therefore speaks of sesōsmenoi (2.8-10): we are already redeemed: ‘by grace you are saved’ (2.5, 8), with a strong emphasis on God’s action. In Christ God has blessed us (1.3), chosen us (1.4), given us grace (1.6), bestowed forgiveness (4.32), and involved us in resurrection…

However, the creation of the new man (through baptism) does not bring everything to a conclusion. This new creation must now come to life and begin its new history: development and growth, the maturing of the ‘perfect man’ (4.13) in the sense of the ‘mature man’ (in contrast to the man who has not yet come of age): ‘to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ’ (4.13b). The author once again expressed this in spatial terms: God has appointed a certain place in his plan for the church which has already been exalted to Christ in the heavens; the final extent of the church is so to speak already established in the apocalyptic pre-existence of salvation. The church must develop on earth to this extent … the extent of the perfect age of the church as the ‘fullness of Christ.’ This is the vision of the future which brings strength on earth; it is a process which can be slowed down, but which will be realized from the vision – a promise – as long as there are ‘new men.’ Ephesians is thinking directly of a process within the church, not only, or primarily, of the individual. Because the church is already exalted, its growth is not a spatial movement upwards, but an inner extension. Spatially it is ‘the heavenly city’ (2.19ff; 2.5ff; 3.18), which as it were needs to be filled with ‘new men.’[20]

There is, then, the present reality of the Church – originated by divine ordinance, and blessed with grace, forgiveness, and the present reality of spiritual resurrection with the attendant promise of physical resurrection – and there is yet that which will be completed only when the Body of Christ is grown up into “the fullness of Christ,” perfected in the coming age. Until the consummation of all things, in heaven and on earth, believers are joined together in the per mixta ecclesia, where the tares grow with the wheat.[21]

Seeing the Church: The Bride of Christ

It is the Christian hope and belief that the day will come when the Church is purified and everlastingly glorified, and, indeed, it is the anticipation of the whole cosmos…

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now[22]

Until when? Until the maturation of a community of people in which no one is self-seeking or critical toward others; in which people are not jealous and hold no grudges; in which no one boasts about being better than anyone else; in which no one even considers what belongs to them or someone else because it really matters so very little anyway. Envision, if you can, a community of people where joy, peace, confidence and generosity are common fare; an open and warm and welcoming community in which every member is important and respected and cared for; in which each individual truly feels an intimate sense of belonging. That the Church does not presently measure up to this ideal standard is beyond question; it seems as if the Body of Christ has been infected with some systemically cancerous disease, which has been growing for centuries, weakening its entire physiology and diminishing its cognitive faculties. Yet Schillebeeckx is right: It is the promise, “the vision of the future, which brings strength on earth,” the glorious eschatological vision of St. John of the Church as the Bride of Christ, “clothed with fine linen.”[23]

Until that day, and despite the reality of the many imperfections of the per mixta ecclesia, St. Ambrose is surely right:

We are united with each other and have become members of the same body of Christ since he has raised us and bound us together through the one Holy Spirit, who is in all of us and whom we have also been given to drink like a life-giving cup[24]

Sinners saved by grace through faith in Christ, reconciled to God the Father and filled with his all-holy, good and life-giving Spirit; sharing one common faith in one Lord; living in the everlasting light of his perfect love, in one everlasting community, which is the one Body and Bride of our Lord Jesus the Christ… This is the Church in its being and becoming, in its temporal existence and everlasting promise, on earth and in heaven, both now and forevermore.

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[1] Genesis 12. 1-3 RSV

[2] Gospel of St. Matthew 1. 2 NJB

[3] Cf. Numbers 11.45

[4] John 3. 34 NJB

[5] Cf. Mounce on κοινωνία, Complete Expository Dictionary, 247

[6] Thomas Oden, Systematic Theology, vol. 3, 280-281

[7] Cf. Ephesians 2.19; J. Stott, The Message of Ephesians, 146

[8] Oden, Op Cit, 3.279

[9] Andrew Stephen Damick, Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy: Exploring Belief Systems Through the Lens of the Ancient Christian Faith, 93

[10] Catechism of the Catholic Church: Revised in Accordance With the Official Latin Text Promulgated by Pope John Paul II, Second Edition, Article 9, 748-749 (Note: parenthetical mine)

[11] For the definition of ekklesia as a “called out” assembly, or community, see Strong’s Lexicon of Hebrew and Greek words, 1577

[12] Cf. I Timothy 3. 15

[13] Ephesians 2. 19

[14] Ephesians 5. 25-27 RSV

[15] Jude 1. 24-25 ESV

[16] This sort of dualism can be traced back, in the West, at least as far back as Plato. Cf. Jennifer Trusted, An Introduction to Knowledge, 25-46 passim

[17] From Phaedo, Rouse trans., as quoted by J. Trusted, Op Cit, 40-41

[18] Cf. Romans 10. 9 ESV

[19] Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of All North America, A Catechism of the Christian Doctrine of the Holy Orthodox Catholic and Apostolic Church, 22-24

[20] Edward Schillebeeckx, Christ: The Experience of Jesus as Lord, 211 and 214; Note: Emphasis in original

[21] Cf. Matthew 13. 26-30; Note: It is at the harvest, i.e. the eschaton, that the Church will be completely purified and gathered up into the heavenlies, or the new heaven and the new earth, the redeemed and recreated cosmos.

[22] Romans 8. 19-22 NRSV

[23] Cf. Revelation 19. 7-8

[24] As quoted by Judith Kovacs, First Corinthians: Interpreted by Early Christian Commentators, 206

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