Rethinking Church #4: The Body of Christ

In the previous essay (#3) I argued that the origin and continued existence of the church is God’s act. This aspect of the church is an essential feature apart from which there is no church. Now we will consider a second essential feature: the church exists as a reality in the world only “in Christ” (Rom 8:1, 10; Eph 2:6-7, 10) as “his body” (Eph 1:23; Col 1:24). Apart from and outside of Jesus Christ there is no church. Christ is the sphere within which the church lives and the form that gives it identity. The church is visible within the world only as his body. Now let’s explore the implications of this dense statement.

Reconciliation in Christ

Jesus Christ is the place within the world where “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14) and “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor 5:19). The events of incarnation and reconciliation unite creation to God in a way more intimate than does the act of creating and sustaining the creatures. In Jesus Christ, God takes one human being through life and death into eternal life through the resurrection. Jesus is both the first truly saved and glorified human being and the Savior of all who follow. Paul speaks of the resurrected Christ as the “last Adam” who has become a “life-giving spirit” (1 Cor. 15:45). Just as in Adam we inherit mortal life, in Christ we inherit eternal life. As Paul puts it, “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Cor. 15:22). Or again, “And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man” (15:49).

The Church Exists in Christ

Christ who now lives as the life-giving spirit is the sphere within which God is reconciling the world to himself and transforming human beings into images of Christ. To be “in Christ” is to be in communion with him, empowered by him, protected by him, directed by him, and transformed by him. By establishing this spiritual space and gathering people into it, Christ establishes and maintains the thing the New Testament calls “church.”

The Church Exists as the Body of Christ

The New Testament uses the term “body” in reference to the church in more than one way. In 1 Corinthians 12:12-31, Paul uses the unity and diversity within the human body as a metaphor for the unity and diversity within the Church. Ephesians 1:23 and Colossians 1:24 speak of the church as the “body of Christ,” a body that functions in a way similar to how our bodies function as visible expressions of our persons. Christ manifests himself, speaks, and works visibly, audibly, and palpably in the world through the church. Christ is the head—that is, the governing principle—and life of the body. Apart from the governing principle, the body has no unity or direction. Apart from the life principle, the body has no power to accomplish anything.

“In Christ” is an Essential Feature

An institution where God is not or is no longer reconciling the world to himself in Christ is not the church whatever else it may be. A group through which Jesus does not or no longer manifests himself in a visible, audible, palpable way within the world is not the church. And a “gathering” that does not or no longer understands itself as existing in Christ and drawing its life from him has forgotten its essence.

Next Time: The church is by definition Spirit filled and Spirit led.

5 thoughts on “Rethinking Church #4: The Body of Christ

  1. nokareon

    All seems sensible—even self-evident—in this post! I only wonder about adding that the word for Christ as the ‘head’ of the church can be glossed as the ‘source’, the fountain from which the Church flows, as distinct from being head as a governing structure. If glossed as ‘source,’ this would enhance your point that a ‘church’ that is not rooted in Christ has quite literally forgotten its essence. Perhaps both meanings are present simultaneously; personally, I have found the ‘source’ reading more helpful to emphasize. The Church just is the set of people who have been recreated through Christ as the source of new life, flowing out into the world like the river of Ezekiel 47.


  2. ifaqtheology Post author

    Okay…it will work either way. But I wonder whether it’s the modern discussion of husband/wife relations that dirives the “source” interpretation. And it seems to disturb the paralelism between Christ/church and husband/wife central to the point of the text. If it should be translated source in the second instance, it would have to refer to Adam and the rib story in Genesis. For how could a living husband be the source of his wife? And the text speaks ethically not ontologically in what follows. I interpret it as using the same language but subverting the Greco-Roman household code in the same way that Christ’s cross-guided ethic subverts the Greco-Roman notion of deity and emperor. Peace.


  3. nokareon

    It seems to me to depend on the passage in question. In the vast majority of uses, the word signifies only the body part head, without much room for metaphorical meaning. That makes the metaphorical uses (which seem only to be in Paul’s Epistles, as far as I can see) something of a hermeneutic puzzle; what rhetorical point is Paul trying to make with the imagery of a head and body? Since we don’t have independent examples of metaphorical meaning for head, it seems to me to be on a case-by-case basis rather than conventional (or, at most, consistent throughout Paul’s corpus, but I don’t think that pans out either).

    In your reply, you referenced Ephesians 5, where the subject is social ethics. I can affirm the necessity of reading a ‘governance’ meaning in this passage, though I think the ‘source’ strand can also be seen (end of v. 23, v. 26-27) and contributes to the ethic of mutual love and submission described. However, in 1 Corinthians 12, Colossians 1, and Ephesians 1, I see a stronger strand of ‘source’ present (1 Corinthians 12 does not actually use “head”, but the ‘source’ theme is so strong in v.12-13 that I felt it worth mentioning). The Colossians hymn certainly has Christ’s ‘source’-ness (of all things, and especially the church) in view, and ‘governance’ would seem to be ancillary. The metaphorical strand of Christ as ontological source of every recreated person in the church is a powerful justification for the ethic of the church as a body unified in Him.


  4. ifaqtheology Post author

    Well argued. Just one point of rebuttal. Take Ephesians 1:22, for example:”And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church…” Putting everthing “under his feet” comports well with “head” understood as as ruler. And how could Christ be “appointed” as head if head means source? Thanks!


    1. Dr Jonne Smalhouse

      Hi Ron.
      Regarding this thread (also with Nokareon) Ephesians 1: 9-10 mentions head with some clarity.
      I’m agreeing of course. Though i’d like to mention something else about ‘ heads’ and indeed the mind of Christ at the finish. The Jews’ ideas and concepts of physiology were very different from our modern ones. In fact, their ideas are fundamentally Egyptian in origin, and the ancient Egyptians had no knowledge of a brain ( in fact it was the only organ discarded at burial since they believed it to be a simple nose gland). And so when Paul talks about hearts, minds and souls he is a pioneer!
      Similarly with the mind or ethos of Christ- my memory is poor but i can remember the word “pleasant” and so when i welcome Christ inside, i pray whatever is ” pure, lovely, excellent, admirable, sensible, adorable, noble and true”.
      Finally, i’m very partial to Isaiah, and with your upcoming essay, may i share some of the prophet’s ideas of the spirit of Christ: paraphrazing,
      ” wisdom laid down in the spirit with understanding,
      Courage (counsel) magnified with the spirit by fortitude,
      And knowledge (divine Piety) exercised in the fear of the Lord; all through the Power of the Holy Spirit”. Wow.. what a mind, and what powers of Reason.



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