Biblical Theology Articles

The Biblical Theology of the Church (3/4)

Edmund P. Clowney


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C. God's New Nation

C. The Body of Christ

Many figures are used for the church in the New Testament. It is pictured as a bride, a flock, a vine, a field, a temple. But Paul emphasizes a figure unique to his writing. The church is the body of Christ. In the Hellenistic world of the Apostle it was possible to speak of any organization as a body of people. Our term 'corporation' means just that: a group of people joined as one body by a legal fiction. But Paul speaks of the church, not as a body of people, but as the body of Christ. Evidently he is not simply saying that the church is a Christian corporation. Certainly we should not be surprised to find Paul joining Christ to the figure of the body. Every other figure for the church is related to Christ. If the church is a bride, Christ is the Bridegroom; if the church is a flock, Christ is the Shepherd; if the church is a temple, Christ is the Builder, the Foundation, or the Cornerstone. The figure of the vine makes the union of Christ and the church even more intimate. In the prophecy of Isaiah, God describes Israel as the vine he planted, 'the garden of his delight' (Is. 5:7). Jesus said to his disciples, 'I am the vine; you are the branches' Jn. 15:5). Christians are joined together by being joined to Christ. They are a body because they are Christ's body.

1. Representative Union with Christ

To grasp the force of Paul's figure, we must recognize the extraordinary importance the physical body of Christ his Lord had for him. As Saul the Pharisee, persecuting the church, Paul was confronted on the road to Damascus by the risen Lord. He became a preacher of Christ and the resurrection (Acts 17:18). In his First Epistle to the Corinthi­ans, he strongly opposed the Greek denial of the resurrection of the body. When he wrote to the church at Philippi, he said of Christ that he 'will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body' (Phil. 3:21) - the body he had seen on the Damascus road.

Christ's Body on the Cross

But it is not only the risen body of Christ that is important for Paul. Even more frequently he speaks about the crucified body of Christ. In Colossians 1:22 he tells of our 'being reconciled by Christ's physical body through death'. In Romans 7:4 he says that we have 'died to the law through the body of Christ'. As Peter puts it, Christ 'bore our sins in his body on the tree' (1 Pet. 2:24). Our sins deserve the death penalty, but the penalty was paid by Christ who died in our place. Paul reflects profoundly on the representative union with Christ that causes his death to have a saving outcome for us. So closely does he identify the figurative with the literal body of Christ that it is sometimes difficult to say which he has in view. In Ephesians 2, for example, Paul writes that Christ in his death broke down the wall of partition between Jews and Gentiles, that he might 'reconcile both of them to God through the cross' (Eph. 2:16). Does 'one body' here mean the one body of the church, into which Jews and Gentiles are joined as they are made one new man (v. 15)? Or does 'one body' mean the one body of Christ on the cross by which they are reconciled ('in the blood of Christ', v. 13)? Either interpretation is faithful to Paul's thought. The unity of the church as Christ's body rests on the unity of the body of Christ on the cross. The church is one body in Christ (Rom. 12:5); it is a body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:27); it is the body of Christ (Eph. 4:12).

Representation: the Church not a 'Continuing Incarnation'

This closeness of identification does not mean that Paul is caught in a naive or mystical realism in which he cannot distinguish between the physical body of Christ and the figure of the body applied to the church. Even less does Paul think that Christ died in the body of his flesh, to be raised in the body of the church. Paul does not think of the church as continuing the incarnation. Paul did, after all, see the risen body of the living Lord. He was told, to be sure, that in persecuting the church he was persecuting Christ, but he never imagined that he saw the church on the road to Damascus. [19] On the contrary, nothing is more fundamental for Paul's thought than the literal resurrection of Jesus Christ. The resurrection sealed the finished work of Christ with divine approval; he was declared to be the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead (Rom. 1:4). But more than that: in both his death and his resurrection, Jesus represented those who are united to him. The identifi­cation that Paul sees between Christ and the church is first of all representative.

The Parallel with Adam

The Apostle makes this clear by the parallel that is estab­lished between the first and second Adam (Rom. 5:1-21; 1 Cor. 15:22). When Adam sinned, all men sinned in him, and death, the penalty of sin, passed upon all men (Rom. 5:12). Those who are in Christ are related to the Head of the new humanity in the same representative way. When Christ died, they died; when he rose from the dead, they rose with him, and are now in the heavenly places because Christ is there as their great Representative (Rom. 4:25; 6:8, 9; Col. 2:20; 3:1; Eph. 1:3).

Covenantal Headship

The background of Paul's concept of forensic representation is in the covenantal headship of the Old Testament. God makes his covenant with Abraham and with his seed after him (Gen. 12:3; 18:18). God redeems Israel to fulfil the promises he had made to their fathers (Ex. 3:6, 15; Deut. 7:8). The tribes of Israel are blessed in their fathers (Gn. 49). The prophets, priests, and kings that God raises up serve as mediators of God's covenant, representing the people before God, as well as representing God to the people. Israel is called to be God's servant, but Moses also is the servant of the Lord: Israel trusts in the Lord and in his servant Moses (Ex. 14:31). Representative headship is strongly presented in the figure of the suffering Servant in Isaiah. The Servant of the Lord is distinct from Israel, yet can be identified with Israel (Is. 49:3, 5, 6). Because he is the Representative in whom God's covenant is fulfilled, his sufferings are vicarious and redemptive (Is. 53).

It is the concept of covenantal headship that leads Paul to speak of Christ as the Head, and the body as his members. Paul does not think of Christ the Head as constituting only the top member of the body. This is clear from the fact that when Paul speaks of the members of the body he includes ear, eye, and nose (1 Cor. 12:16-21). It is also clear from the fact that Paul uses headship in a way distinct from the body figure. His usage is shaped by the Greek Old Testa­ment, where kephale is associated with arche in translating the Hebrew rosh. Primacy, origination, honor, authority, and summation are signified by headship in the Old Testa­ment. [20] In this sense Paul speaks of the husband as the head of the wife as Christ is the Head of the church. Christ is the Head of every man (Rom. 7:4; Eph. 5:25-32; 1 Cor. 11:3). Christ is the Head of the principalities and powers (Col. 1:22), and has universal dominion as the head of the church (Eph. 1:20-23). Paul thinks of the church as a body in terms of one whole new man in Christ, or, alternatively, as the bride of Christ, springing from him as Eve was taken from the body of Adam, and united to him as a wife to her husband (Eph. 1:15; 5:23-32). We would distort Paul's figure beyond recognition were we to speak of Christ as a head, helpless without a body. The body of Christ is not to be divided at the neck! Even when the two figures are put side by side, as in Ephesians 4:15,16, the distinction remains. We are not to suppose that Paul is imagining a strange physiology by which the body grows up into the head and is nourished by it.

2. Vital Union

When Paul speaks of our union with Christ, representative union is always in view. Because Christ died, we died. Our death in Christ has paid the penalty of sin and freed us from the chains of sin. Because Christ rose, we rose, and we now enjoy the freedom of new life in Christ. But while this representative relation is always in view, Paul's understand­ing of our union with Christ is richer than forensic relation.

Paul's Phrase 'In Christ'

This is apparent from Paul's use of the phrase 'in Christ'. On the one hand, Paul speaks of our being 'in Christ' representatively. When Paul writes, 'Therefore, there is now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus' (Rom. 8:1), he is referring to the representative relation that he has been expounding. 'In Christ' also refers to the representative status of believers in passages that speak of God's saving action or gift to us in Christ (e.g. Eph. 1:3, 6, 11; 2:13, 14; 4:32; Rom. 6:23; Gal. 3:14; 2 Cor. 5:19, 21). This is true also of passages that use 'in Christ' to designate believers as they sustain a saving relation to Christ (e.g. Phil. 1:14; 3:9; 4:21; Rom. 16:7, 11; 1 Cor. 1:30). But in other passages the phrase carries a fuller meaning. Paul speaks of 'the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ' (1 Thes. 1:1). Unless Paul meant more than simply a representative union with Christ, he could not have joined the Father to Christ in the same phrase. Because we are united to Christ, we are not only in Christ representatively, but also vitally. Christ is in us by the presence of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:10, 11). The resurrection life of Christ is not only reckoned to our account, it is a living power transfor­ming our existence. We grow up into Christ (Eph. 4:12-16; Col. 2:6, 7), being conformed to his image (Rom. 8:29). Christ gave his body once for all on the cross; in the sacrament of the Lord's Supper, we remember his sacrifice. As we commune with him in the sacrament, however, we also feed upon him spiritually by faith, and our living fellowship with him is sustained (1 Cor. 11:24-29; cf. 1 Cor. 12:13).

This vital union 'in Christ' is mystical in the sense that it far surpasses the relation possible between finite persons, yet it is not an impersonal mysticism. We are not immersed in Christ as in the air that we breathe. We misunderstand Paul's language if we think of our vital union with Christ in spatial terms. [21] Yet Paul does use the language of the temple to describe Christ's dwelling with (in) us, and moves easily to the figure of our dwelling in him as the other side of the personal communion that his indwelling represents (Col. 1:27, 28; 2:9f.).

Fellowship in Union with Christ

Paul's concept of the body of Christ is drawn from his doctrine of our union with Christ. For that reason the fellowship of the body is a sharing together in fellowship with Christ. The fundamental idea expressed in koinonia is not the link that joins Christians to each other, but the common bond that unites them to Christ. [22]

At the same time, union with Christ does bind Christians together by the ties of the Spirit. By our union with Christ, we are united to each other. The image of the body is a happy one for this purpose, since it presents a unity that is organic. An organism manifests unity in diversity, and Paul makes powerful use of this metaphor. As an organism, the church is one body. When party strife threatened to divide the church at Corinth under the names of ministers of the gospel who had laboured there, Paul cried out in anguish of heart, 'Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you?' (1 Cor. 1:13). The church of Christ cannot be divided by following human leaders, for the church is one: one in Christ's body on the cross. That oneness is symbolized at the Lord's Table: 'We, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf (1 Cor. 10:17).

Making Church Unity Evident

The unity of the body of Christ is to be evident on earth. To declare oneself to be a follower of Apollos rather than Paul, or of Paul rather than Peter, is to deny the unity of the body. The lowliness, meekness, longsuffering, and forbearance in love that are the fruits of the Spirit enable us to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Eph. 4:3). The mere fact that the church has been divided denominationally does not justify such division. A flat denial that division exists will not help; neither is it a solution to start with a clean slate, as it were, and to create yet another division in the church by establishing a group that will not be followers of Peter, Paul or Apollos, but simply of Christ (1 Cor. 1:12). Another expedient is to declare one denomi­nation to be the true church of Christ, and all others apostate or schismatic. Such efforts have succeeded only in creating further division, yet they begin from a proper premise. They rightly assume that the church should be one, not just in heaven, but on earth. When the unity that we are zealously to maintain has been broken, we cannot ignore the calamity, but must set about seeking to restore the broken fellowship. We cannot ignore deep and serious doctrinal differences. Neither can we ignore false teaching, and unite a church that is indifferent to creed, or even committed to denying the need for doctrinal discipline. The path to restoring unity requires discipline along with patient instruction and loving admonition. We are not without direction on this path. The writings of the New Testament provide us with an inspired model of how unity in the Spirit is to be sought.

3. Individual and Corporate Unity with Christ

The model of the body assumes that our relation to Christ is both individual and corporate. If the individual relation­ship did not exist, the differing gifts that make up the body would not appear. The individual saints are chosen and called of God. They have been saved by faith, and their faith stands in the power of God (1 Cor. 2:5). Salvation is an individual experience: 'The man who loves God is known by God' (1 Cor. 8:3). The same affirmations that are made about the church as the body of Christ are also made about the individual Christian. He, too, is a holy temple (1 Cor. 6:19; 2 Cor. 5:1); that temple may be defiled by one member (1 Cor. 6:15). The Christian is joined to Christ, as is the church (1 Cor. 6:15; Eph. 5:30; Col. 1:28; Eph. 5:22-23; 2 Cor. 11:2).

On the other hand, just as there is no salvation apart from Christ, so there is no salvation that does not join us to one another as members of his body. The sanctified in Christ Jesus at Corinth make up the church of God at Corinth (1 Cor. 1:2). Divisions among the saints imply that Christ can be divided (1 Cor. 1:3). There is one Christ; apostles and teachers are his servants, called by him and endued with gifts of his Spirit (1 Cor. 3:5). There is one church ­- Christ's church; apostles and teachers are given to the church as stewards of Christ (1 Cor. 3:21-23).

If the church may not be divided by the diversity of its leaders, neither may it be divided by the diverse gifts of its members. The organic figure of the body shows that diver­sity does not produce division, but unity. Not only do the gifts proceed from one Giver; they are also interdependent. The interdependence applies to both the ministry of the gifts of the Spirit and the benefit from such ministry. If a church had only teachers, the absence of ministries of order and mercy would soon destroy the one-sided fellowship. The body is not composed entirely of the tongue. All ministry in the body is therefore team ministry. We serve together as we minister to one another.

On the other hand, those who receive the ministry of others depend upon the gifts of others for their growth. Growth in Christ must take place in the church of Christ, for it is in the body of Christ that the nurturing gifts are exercised. Christian life 'in Christ' is in the body of Christ. Indeed, the steward of Christ's gifts grows through exerci­sing his stewardship just as the recipient of his ministry grows through receiving it. To deny to a brother or sister the ministry of grace given to one is to be an unfaithful steward of the manifold mercies of God (1 Pet. 4:10). In such ministry, pride cannot say that it has no need of the humblest of ministries, nor can envy refuse to perform the lowliest of tasks (1 Cor. 12:4-31).


This essay first appeared in The Church in the Bible and the World: An International Study, D. A. Carson (ed.), (Baker/Paternoster, 1987, 1993), 13-87, 303-07 and is used here with permission. No part of this essay may be copied or transmitted in any form without the permission of the publishers.

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