Reclaiming Images of the Church

the-church-has-left-the-building-logoEph 3:8-12 LEB To me, the least of all the saints, was given this grace: to proclaim the good news of the fathomless riches of Christ to the Gentiles, (9) and to enlighten everyone as to what is the administration of the mystery hidden from the ages by God, who created all things, (10) in order that the many-sided wisdom of God might be made known now to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly places through the Church, (11) according to the purpose of the ages which he carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord, (12) in whom we have boldness and access in confidence through faith in him.

Paul Minear, in his work “Images of the Church in the New Testament” (Westminster, 1960) states there are more than eighty images of the church in the New Testament but four of them dominate powerfully. [These images are lost in the battles over who, what, and where is the Church and as a result we, the Church, are ineffective as a witnesses to the world – RAS]

I. The People of God

Php 1:1 (LEB) Paul and Timothy, slaves of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons.

These people are the people of God; God creates, calls, sustains, and saves the church. The origin of the church lies, then, in the work of the redemption through Jesus Christ. Just as the origin of Israel is rooted in the exodus event so the church is grounded in the Christ event, the primordial event of the Christian faith. For this reason, the church is designated by words that compare it with Israel. The church is “a chosen race,” “a holy nation,” “the true circumcision,” “Abraham’s sons,” “heirs of David’s throne,” “a remnant,” and “the elect.” Even the life of the church is often compared to the life of Israel. Christians are making their “exodus” to the “promised land.” They are “aliens” in a strange land, and Christ is the “bread” from heaven.

The church, like Israel, is also viewed in terms of the future. The idea of the church as a historical community moving toward a destination is common in the Bible (see Heb. 12:2; Phil. 14:1): The church is a pilgrim people that has not yet entered into Sabbath rest (Hebrews); an exiled people (Peter); a people who are at enmity with the world (James); a people who wrestle with diabolic powers (Eph. 6); and a bride (Rev. 19:8). The future toward which the church travels is the new heavens and the new earth.

This image of the people of God is highly pertinent to us in a postmodern world because it says the church is the continuation of the presence of Jesus Christ in the world and a sign of God’s presence in history. There is a people of God in the world today chosen to be a unique manifestation of God. This historical people is a community, “brought together from the ends of the earth in your kingdom.” And, as Ignatius wrote, it is to be

“a standard for the ages.”

The goal of the church is to be a divine standard, a sign of God’s incarnational presence and activity in history. In a postmodern world the most effective witness to a world of disconnected people is the church that forms community and embodies the reality of the new society. People in a postmodern world are not persuaded to faith by reason as much as they are moved to faith by participation in God’s earthly community.

II. The New Creation

2Co 5:17-20 LEB Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come. (18) And all these things are from God, who has reconciled us to himself through Christ, and who has given us the ministry of reconciliation, (19) namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. (20) Therefore we are ambassadors on behalf of Christ, as if God were imploring you through us. We beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.

The second image, “the new creation,” speaks to the nature of God’s earthly community. It is the community in which a new start in life has begun. As Paul said in 2 Corinthians 5:17: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he [or, more accurately, the community] is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come.” This new creation is to be taken in both an individual and a corporate sense—a new person, a new community of people. This soteriological concept of the church is clearly enunciated by Cyprian in his treatise On the Unity of the Church (a.d. 250). He states,

“You can not have God for your Father if you have not the church for your mother!”

This “new creation” is the context in which our journey of faith is taking place. The fellowship of the community itself nurtures and forms our pilgrimage.

III. The Fellowship in Faith

Act 4:32-35 LEB Now the group of those who believed were one heart and soul, and no one said anything of what belonged to him was his own, but all things were theirs in common. (33) And with great power the apostles were giving testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was on them all. (34) For there was not even anyone needy among them, because all those who were owners of plots of land or houses were selling them and bringing the proceeds of the things that were sold (35) and placing them at the feet of the apostles. And it was being distributed to each as anyone had need.

The church as a fellowship in faith emphasizes the divine presence taking form in a new fabric of human relationships—a fellowship of people. This fellowship shares a corporate life. For example, Luke describes the early Christians as being of “one heart and one soul” (Acts 4:32). They even sold their possessions and lived in common, although, as the rebellion of Ananais and Sapphira illustrates, this original common community was difficult to administrate. Living together was not easy, and the principles of being the church together had to be learned as each member of the community submitted to the rule of Christ. But faith in the end was to overcome the boundaries that separated people, transcending racial, economic, and sexual differences. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female” (Gal. 3:28). The character of the “fellowship in faith” is to be far different from the character of other communities.

The difference is rooted in a common slavery to Jesus Christ. The image of a slave, so often overlooked, is an image that Paul often used of himself in relation to other believers, “For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Cor. 4:5). A slavery to God immediately transforms relations on the horizontal level. No longer can one person “lord it” over another. All God’s people are equal before God and each other. For this reason the church is called the “family of God” (1 Peter 4:17). We all serve in God’s house under God’s authority. Thus, the church is a fellowship in faith, a corporate existence under God, a mutual slavery to each other.

The church as the realized experience of the “fellowship of faith” will break down our extreme individualism. Modern individualism is something different from a personal relationship with God in Christ. It is a form of Christianity that fails to understand the integral relationship that exists between the members of Christ’s body. We need to reflect on the teaching of Ignatius, bishop of Antioch (a.d. 110), who wrote to the Ephesian church:

“your accord and harmonious love is a hymn to Jesus Christ.”

When the “fellowship in faith” is actualized, the church as a true fellowship makes Christianity real to the individual, as Ignatius indicated when he described the church

“as a choir able to sing in unison and [with] one voice.”

The mandate to break through the façade of individualism and create dynamic Christian relationships is demonstrated in this new fabric of human relations.

IV. The Body of Christ

1Co 12:4-27 LEB (4) Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit, (5) and there are varieties of ministries, and the same Lord, (6) and there are varieties of activities, but the same God, who works all things in all people. (7) But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for what is beneficial to all. (8) For to one is given a word of wisdom through the Spirit, and to another a word of knowledge by the same Spirit, (9) to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, (10) to another [miraculous powers], to another prophecy, to another distinguishing of spirits, to another kinds of tongues, to another interpretation of tongues. (11) But in all these things one and the same Spirit is at work, distributing to each one individually just as he wishes. (12) For just as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of the body, although they are many, are one body, thus also Christ. (13) For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free persons, and all were made to drink one Spirit. (14) For the body is not one member, but many. (15) If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I am not a part of the body,” not because of this is it not a part of the body. (16) And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I am not a part of the body, not because of this is it not a part of the body. (17) If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? (18) But now God has placed the members, each one of them, in the body just as he wanted. (19) And if they all were one member, where would the body be? (20) But now there are many members, but one body. (21) Now the eye is not able to say to the hand, “I do not have need of you,” or again, the head to the feet, “I do not have need of you.” (22) But by much more the members of the body which are thought to be weaker are necessary, (23) and the parts of the body which we think to be less honorable, these we clothe with more abundant honor, and our unpresentable parts come to have more abundant presentability, (24) but our presentable parts do not have need of this. Yet God composed the body by giving more abundant honor to the part which lacked it, (25) in order that there not be a division in the body, but the members would have the same concern for one another. (26) And if one member suffers, all the members suffer together; if a member is honored, all the members rejoice with it. (27) Now you are the body of Christ, and members [of it individually],

The image of the body proclaims that the people of God are a physical body of people who truly are the continuation of the presence of Christ in the world. In Paul “the body of Christ” is understood as antithetical to the “body of death.” This contrast is expressed in Romans 5:12–21, a recapitulation passage. Here, there are two humanities: those who stand in solidarity with Adam and constitute the body of death, and those who stand in solidarity with Christ and constitute the body of life.

Paul’s reference to the church as the body of Christ is therefore not a mere metaphor containing social and psychological value, but a statement about the relationship that exists between Christ and his body. It says that Christ is one with the church, that the existence of the church is an essential continuation of the life of Jesus in the world; the church is a divine creation which, in a mystical yet real way, coinheres with the Son who is made present through it.

This incarnational motif regulated the early Christian perception of the church. For them, the body image of the church is that of a revolutionary society of people. The church is a new order, a new humanity, which has the power to be an explosive force in society and in history. It is called not to contain its message but to live its message, calling all people to repentance from the old body into the new body.

These four images—the people of God, the new creation, the fellowship of faith, and the body—describe the connection that exists between the Christ victorious over sin and the Christ immediately present in the church. It is a new society that acts as the sign of redemption to the world. The power of this recovered tradition results in a new commitment to the church as the people of God, a love both for Christ and for the church, a recognition that Christ and the church cannot be separated from each other, for they are intrinsically linked. The emphasis is not so much on the church as an institution or a denomination, but on the church as the people, that community of people created by God in whom and through whom Christ is present in the world.

[Taken from Webber, R. (1999). Ancient-Future faith : Rethinking Evangelicalism for a Postmodern World. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.]

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