The Ecclesiology of St. Paul – Part 1
Fr. Andrew Younan
It is impossible to know Christ, the Incarnation, the Son of God, without knowing the Church. Why this is the case will hopefully be shown in the course of these two classes on the Ecclesiology, the Church-Study, of St. Paul the Apostle.
St. Paul was the first to struggle, in his writings, with the question of What the Church is. There was a reality present before him, a community of believers, which had a special personality, a certain spiritual identity that, even from its earliest existence, was difficult to grasp. In other words, as Christ’s identity is ultimately a mystery beyond our comprehension, so similarly the Church that adheres to him is also a mystery, something that lies beyond our total comprehension.
We will see, in the first hour of this course, how St. Paul expressed his developing understanding of the identity of the Church in various images and metaphors; secondly, we will look more closely at two of these images: the Body of Christ and the Bride of Christ; thirdly, next week, we will examine the organizational structure of the Church in the writings of St. Paul; finally we will learn how St. Paul understood the authority of St. Peter.
I. Images & Symbols of the Church
A. Historical Survey
This section will examine the most important initial images of the Church in St. Paul’s writings and their development over time, leaving the images of Body and Bride to the next section. Not every epistle will be discussed, since some of the images are repetitive.
Early Assumptions and 1 Thessalonians (50-51 AD)
By the time of the composition of the first book of the New Testament (1 Thessalonians, 50-51 AD), the Greek term ekklesia, which we translate into “Church” had already been in standard use among Christians. This is clear since St. Paul uses it without hesitation or explanation, knowing he will be understood by his audience:
“Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, to the Church (ekklesia) of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: grace to you and peace.”
– 1 Thessalonians 1:1
From this simple greeting, we can make some initial conclusions about the understanding of the word ekklesiain the earliest Christian communities: it is, first, a body that is able to be addressed as if it were one body: Paul does not write to any individual in the Church, but “to the Church” of the Thessalonians as a whole; second, it is tied to a particular locality: it is the Church of the Thessalonians; finally, it has certain characteristics: it is the Church in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
This is a sophistication that is partially derived from the original usage of the term Ekklesia, which was, in ancient Greek culture, an assembly of citizens within a particular city. Thus there was an ekklesia “of” Athens, Ephesus, etc. where people gathered to meet with one another and discuss the things of the city.
But what is it that makes such a gathering a “Church” in the Christian understanding? The first mention of such a qualification is a few verses later in the same letter:
“And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit; so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia.”
– 1 Thessalonians 1:6-7
Far from being a later development in spiritual piety, the “Imitation of Christ” is in fact the very earliest characteristic of the Christian Church. Being like the Lord and (what is, remarkably, mentioned first) his saints (St. Paul particularly here) is the first written description of what it means to be a Church, and secondly, along the same vein, to be an example for others.
This participation in spiritual qualities through imitation continues, where it is not only the Church imitating Christ (and the saints), but even one Church imitating another:
“For you, brethren, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus which are in Judea; for you suffered the same things from your own countrymen as they did from the Jews.”
– 1 Thessalonians 2:14
This verse gives us two new concepts: first, that there are “churches of God” in Judea, that is, that the Christian community is multiform and has various locations, as every city had its own ekklesia, and secondly that the members of the Church in Thessalonica are called “brethren,” making them a family for St. Paul. A few chapters later, St. Paul calls not only the Thessalonians, but the entire Christian community by this name:
“But concerning love of the brethren you have no need to have any one write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another…”
– 1 Thessalonians 4:9
We should notice that this term, “brethren,” is the very first name that St. Paul uses to describe not simply one community (“the Church of the Thessalonians,” “the believers in Macedonia”) or a group of particular ones (“the churches of God”), but the whole of Christianity.
We can conclude, therefore, that the first written name used for what we now call “the Church” as a whole is “the brethren” or “the Brotherhood.” The term “Church” has not been used, yet, to refer to the totality of the Christian community, at least in writing. Paul, in fact, uses the term “brethren” 17 times in the 5 short chapters of 1 Thessalonians:
“Brethren, pray for us. Greet all the brethren with a holy kiss. I adjure you by the Lord that this letter be read to all the brethren. ”
– 1 Thessalonians (50-51 AD) 5:26-27
Galatians (55 AD)
Assuming that our dating and ordering of the Pauline letters is accurate, the earliest reference to the entire community of believers (“the brethren”) as “the Church” is in the letter to the Galatians, in the context of Paul’s conversion story:
“For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the Church of God violently and tried to destroy it.”
– Galatians 1:13
We now have, officially, the Christian community as a whole, rather than one particular community, being called “the Church,” and specifically here “the Church of God.” This is a shift, made in the four years between the composition of the second letter to the Thessalonians and that of the Galatians, that opens the door for Paul to speak later in deeper terms. Even in Galatians, Paul hints at an image that will receive a marvelous fulfillment in the letter to the Ephesians:
“But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother…So, brethren, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman.”
– Galatians 4:26…31
Paul is here not talking about the Church on earth, but of “the Jerusalem above,” but still the image is a potent one – that of a mother to these “brethren,” a mother who is their source and who keeps them all together.
The family is filled in more explicitly in regard to its Father, and St. Paul will utilize this image more and more fully as his writings proceed:
“And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba, Father!’ So through God you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son then an heir.”
– Galatians 4:6-7
1 Corinthians (55 AD)
The First Letter to the Corinthians contains a rich development of new images which give Paul the raw material with which he eventually synthesizes his full ecclesiology. The first images used, in unison, are those of a field and a building:
“For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building.”
– 1 Corinthians 3:9
What manner of building we are is quickly explained:
“Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If any one destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and that temple you are.”
– 1 Corinthians 3:16-17
Having first used a familial image for the Church (“brethren”), and then a secular, Greek one (“ekklesia/assembly”), Paul moves now to an ancient Hebrew idea – that of the temple of God. How this concept of the Church being the new temple replaces the temple of Jerusalem is not our concern here; the point is that whatever the temple was, we as the Church now are – that is, something holy in which God dwells and is worshipped.
Finally, the first letter to the Corinthians gives us three short insights in passing as to the reality of the Church:
“Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard without eating any of its fruit? Who tends a flock without getting some of the milk?”
– 1 Corinthians 9:7
Reading behind these images, we can see that if Paul is a soldier, the Church is an army; if Paul is a gardener,the Church is a vineyard; if Paul is a shepherd, the Church is a flock.
Romans (57 AD)
In the letter to the Romans, Paul returns to his oldest image, that of the family, and develops it into deeper insights:
“For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of Sonship. When we cry ‘Abba! Father!’ it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.”
– Romans 8:14-17
From being “brethren,” and, what is mentioned in passing, having a heavenly mother in the Jerusalem above, we also, as a Church, have a Father. Similar to the passage quoted from Galatians, this sonship has legal ramifications: if we are sons of God, then we have the right to the Divine Will, we are inheritors of his kingdom. Moreover, what till today sounds bold even to pious ears, Christ himself is our Brother:
“For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the first-born among many brethren.”
– Romans 8:29
The family, then, is becoming more complete: God is the Father; we are the children through Christ; Christ is our Brother. As we will see later, as tightly-knit as this family is, it is still not close enough for Paul; he is still dissatisfied that the Church itself does not have an image, a persona, of its own.
Paul makes an attempt to describe the Church as a single being near the end of the letter to the Romans:
“But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in their place to share the richness of the olive tree, do not boast over the branches…For if you have been cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these natural branches be grafted back into their own olive tree.”
– Romans 11:16-24
In this fascinating discussion of the relationship between the Jews and the Gentiles, Paul unites the whole Church into image of a tree cultivated by God.
Ephesians (61-62 AD)
It is in his letter to the Ephesians that Paul seems most concerned and fascinated with our question: What is the Church? Again developing earlier ideas, Paul brings several of them together thus:
“So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.”
– Ephesians 2:19-23
The images of “brethren” and “temple” are brought together here into the one concept of “household,” a building meant to house a family. The new concept here is that of “citizen,” implying that the Church is likened to a city.
Paul’s fascination with the Church herself is made clearest in this letter, in which he makes this bold declaration:
“…through the Church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places.”
– Ephesians 3:10
This is a powerful answer to those who consider the Church an unnecessary reality, or one which might even get in the way of one’s union with God. Far from being an obstacle to knowing God as an individual, Paul is saying, without reservation, that the angels of heaven learned about God through the Church! The most potent images in Ephesians, those of Body and Bride, we will reserve for the next section.
Concluding Remarks: 1 Timothy (63-64 AD)
In writing to Timothy near the end of his life, Paul continues his fascination with the reality of the Church and its importance in salvation history:
“…if I am delayed, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the Church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of truth.”
– 1 Timothy (63-64 AD) 3:15
B. Body vs. Bride
For St. Paul, the Church is many things: a brotherhood, an assembly, a holy temple of God, an army, a vineyard, a flock, a tree cultivated by the Lord, a city in which we are all citizens. But in the multitude of images St. Paul uses, one begins to see a unity coming through, and just as Christ is one Being though he is understood in many aspects (the Good Shepherd, the Wise Doctor, the Son of God, the Son of Mary, the Messiah, the Son of David, the High Priest, etc.), so the Church, though she may have many titles, is in the end a single institution, in some sense a single being, which is understood through several aspects.
In order to understand Paul’s synthesis of his many ideas in his later writings, we need to clarify exactly what his concerns are in using so many metaphors. Looking at what have seen above, it is clear that Paul’s main concern is unity, and this in two forms: Paul wants to connect all the members of the Church to each other, and he wants to connect them all to Christ.
When he calls us “brethren,” for example, his concern is that we behave as one family, and not as individuals, each seeking his own interest; but he does not only connect us to each other; he develops this family to have a Father in heaven and a Divine Brother. He connects us to each other and to God through Christ. The same is true with the concept of the Temple, though here the primary concern is to show our connection to God: our bodies are places where God dwells; and so on with the other images.
It is not enough, of course, for us to simply “be together.” That is not what makes a Church. An “assembly” (ekklesia) can be an assembly of anything – from Christians to doctors to pagans to Roman citizens to goats. Our connection to each other does not make us a Church unless we are all, together, connected to Christ. Perhaps the best way of describing it is to say that the Church is the assembly that has assembled because of Christ. Christ is primary, and our unity with him is the definitive factor; and yet our unity with him cannot come about by any individual effort: he did not save any one soul; he saved the Church, and we cannot grow closer to him without growing closer to each other.
This dynamic reality which combines unity with Christ and unity with each other becomes the catalyst for the two images which become the most important in St. Paul’s writings, and indeed in the history of the Church: the Church as the Body of Christ, and the Church as the Bride of Christ. How each of these images, in its own way, expresses a beautiful understanding of this twofold unity is the topic of this section.
The Church as the Body of Christ
It is not enough, for Paul, for us to be simply members of the same spiritual family; even the most intimate closeness in an earthly family is not close enough to describe the reality before us when we examine the Church. This is why he is dissatisfied with “brethren” as a term and moves on to more intense analogies. The Church cannot be simply a gathering of individuals, no matter how close, even as close as children of the same parents. Somehow, the Church has to be one person, one collective being, such that its individual members are essentially incomplete without one another. This is the eventual concern behind the image of the Body of Christ.
The initial concern of St. Paul when he first used this image, however, was not so theological. It was moral:
“Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Do you not know that he who joins himself to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, ‘the two shall become one.’ But he who is united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. Shun immortality. Every other sin which a man commits is outside the body; but the immoral man sins against his own body. Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God? You are not your own; you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.”
– 1 Corinthians (55 AD) 6:15-20
Amazingly, what eventually develops into a rich theology uniting all the members of the Church into one single body begins as a plea to individuals in regards to their sexual morality. Paul is admonishing the Corinthians to avoid sexual immorality because their very bodies are incorporated into Christ, and so belong to him. He does not even say they are members of “the body of Christ,” but that their bodies are “members of Christ.”
A few chapters later, however, Paul takes what is implicit and makes it explicit. It is not simply that our bodies belong to Christ, but that we are parts of him:
“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body — Jews or Greeks, slaves or free — and all were made to drink of one Spirit. For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the organs in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single organ, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the parts of the body which seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those parts of the body which we think less honorable we invest with the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior part, that there may be no discord in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.”
– 1 Corinthians (55 AD) 12:12-31
This is a sublime way of discussing how the members of the Church should work together; not as individuals, each seeking their own good, but as parts of one single body. Each member of the Church is to do his own job, and aid all the other members to do theirs, one respecting and caring for the other, not simply out of friendship or favoritism, but as if his life depended on it! The eye cannot live without the heart, or the heart without the stomach. We are not doing anyone else a favor when we care for the rest of the Church; we are doing ourselves a favor, because without them, our life has no purpose or meaning, the way an eye has no purpose apart from the rest of the body. And it is Christ who gives identity to each individual part, since it is his own body that we are parts of.
But one is forced to ask the question: Where did St. Paul come up with this image? It has no Old Testament precedent (as we will see the image of Bride does); it seems strange and even shocking at first; it even implies (were one to take it too far) that we as individuals have no identity at all, and that Christ is the only real person. Where did this image come from? Our answer is in the immediate context of the passage we quoted above. Just before discussing the varieties of ministries and functions within the Church, the body of Christ, St. Paul discusses, in very dramatic terms, another, more immediate and literal meaning, of the phrase “Body of Christ:”
“For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.”
– 1 Corinthians 11:23-30
The first time Paul describes the Church as the Body of Christ in any detailed way occurs directly after discussing the institution and importance of the Eucharist. It is from his understanding of the Eucharist, the Body of the Lord because of which we gather together and which binds us to Christ and to each other, that St. Paul derives his first understanding of the Church as the body of Christ. In other words, we, the Church, are the body of Christ because we receive the Eucharist, the Body of Christ. The Eucharist is primary Body of Christ; it is first in the order of nature; it is the cause, the reason that, the Church is the body of Christ.
But there is still something missing that Paul has not yet mentioned. He discusses the members of the Church being body-parts of the same body, above in the context of the Eucharist and once more in the letter to the Romans, which was written around 2 years later, but nowhere has Paul yet named Christ as the Head of this Body! It is not until the composition of the Letter to the Collosians that Paul does so, first in a Christological hymn:
“He is the head of the body, the Church; he is the beginning the first-born from the dead.”
– Colossians (61-62 AD) 1:18
Again, a chapter later, in more detail:
“…holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.”
– Colossians 2:19
He repeats this in Ephesians, which was written around the same time:
“…and he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the Church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”
– Ephesians (61-62 AD) 1:22-23
But later in Ephesians, Paul uses language that hints at another dilemma in his Ecclesiology, one that can only be solved by the use of another metaphor:
“…to him be glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever.”
– Ephesians 3:21
Yes, there is glory due to God “in the Church,” and “in Christ Jesus,” but this introduces another question, one which we mentioned earlier: if the Church is Christ’s body, are the Church and Christ the same person? Is there an absolute identity, such that there is no personality at all for the Church? And if this is the case, how can the Church relate to Christ, since there must be, in some sense, two beings if there is to be any relationship? Christ cannot relate to himself, or learn from himself, or obey himself. As close as the Church is to Christ, it must be a distinct being, and there must be an image to describe it as such. Body of Christ does not accomplish this task.
The Bride of Christ
The first time St. Paul suggests the image of the Church as the Bride of Christ, he is more than hesitant:
“I wish you would bear with me in a little foolishness. Do bear with me! I feel a divine jealousy for you, for I betrothed you to Christ to present you as a pure bride to her one husband. But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ.”
– 2 Corinthians (56 AD) 11:1-3
Why does Paul think of this image, at first, as so “foolish?” Why does he ask the Corinthians to “bear with him?” Does the image of the Bride not solve our problem perfectly? Is this not the precise answer to the question? A bridegroom and a bride are close, perfectly one, even (as we will see later), one body, in a way that a family in general is not, yet they are distinct individuals, and so not the same person. A relationship is possible because the groom and bride are different, and yet they are as close as conceivably possible without becoming the same person: their love is, ideally, perfect. Why, if this image is so ideal, does Paul hesitate?
Paul hesitates because, unlike the image of the Body of Christ, the image of the Bride has a precedent in the Old Testament, in many places. One example will serve well. Through the prophet Ezekiel, the Lord God says to Israel:
“When I passed by you again and looked upon you, behold, you were at the age for love; and I spread my skirt over you, and covered your nakedness: yea, swore an oath to you and entered into a covenant with you, says the Lord God, and you became mine.”
– Ezekiel 16: 6-8
This intimacy between God and his people is not optional, however. The prophet continues:
“But you trusted in your beauty, and played the harlot because of your renown, and lavished your harlotries on any passer-by. You took some of your garments, and made for yourself gaily decked shrines, and on them played the harlot; the like has never been, nor ever shall be. You also took your fair jewels of my gold and of my silver, which I had given you, and made for yourself images of men, and with them played the harlot; and you took your embroidered garments to cover them, and set my oil and my incense before them. Also my bread which I gave you — I fed you with fine flour and oil and honey — you set before them for a pleasing odor, says the Lord God. And you took your sons and your daughters, whom you had borne to me, and these you sacrificed to them to be devoured. Were your harlotries so small a matter that you slaughtered my children and delivered them up as an offering by fire to them?”
– Ezekiel 16: 15-21
For there to be anyone else in the place of the bridegroom instead of God is equal to adultery, to prostitution; this is the most potent symbol for idolatry, because the wedding is the most potent symbol for the covenant between God and his people. To answer our earlier question simply, Paul is hesitant to use the image of Bridegroom and Bride for Christ and the Church because his audience may not be prepared to hear it; to use this image is to say, without any doubt, that Jesus Christ is God. The Bridegroom-Bride image is, therefore, first and foremost a Christological declaration.
Paul hesitates only for a moment. The next time he presents this image, it is with boldness and explicit detail:
“Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. As the church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands. 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. Even so husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church; however, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.”
– Ephesians (61-62 AD) 5:21-33
Christ is the husband, and the Church is the wife, because Christ is God, and the Church is the people of God.Nor is this final image like any of the earlier ones. Paul concludes this passage by saying “it refers to Christ and the Church.” Paul never says that the real body is the Church, and that our physical bodies are symbols of it; he never says that the true family is the Church, and that our physical families are shadows of it. But here he says something different: the real marriage, the true wedding, is that between Christ and the Church, and earthly marriages should strive, as much as possible, to imitate their heavenly model. Still, St. Paul never uses the image of the Bride independently of the image of the Body; even in the passage in Ephesians, both images are united, as they were in the book of Genesis, “the two shall become one flesh.”
To summarize, then, we can say that these two images of Body and Bride are the most important in Paul; the former describing better the inner relationships of the members of the Church, the latter describing better the relationship between the Church as a whole and Christ.
Closing Prayer: Basilica Hymn for the Fourth Sunday of the Sanctification of the Church
Give thanks, O Church, O Queen, to the King’s Son who has espoused you and brought you into his bedchamber. He has given you the dowry of blood that flowed from his side for you, clothed you with the robe of splendid unending light, and placed upon your head the adorned and illustrious crown of glory. As with a pure thurible, he has perfumed your scent before all, and has increased your radiance like a flower, blossoms and the buds of spring. And he freed you, on Golgotha, from slavery to idols. Therefore, adore his Cross, on which he suffered for you and exalted your lowliness, honor the priests who extol you with their works, and cry out to him: Glory to you!