LEARNING FROM THE APOSTOLIC CHURCHES: THE CHURCH IN THE EPISTLE TO THE EPHESIANS (Part 2)
S. ’Jide Komolafe
(Continued from Part 1)
The Theology of the Church
Millard J. Erickson has done a great service to biblical ecclesiology by exposing the attempt of contemporary transformers to develop a doctrine of the Church based mainly on “empirical presence” in isolation of its “theoretical essence” (1998:1036-1045). It is indeed a fact that our culture is dynamic and changing fast. This, however, begs the question as to how “dynamic” the Church should be in order to keep up with our fast-changing culture? The Church is in many respects analogical to the two sides of a coin. It is a true witness when it is concretely and historically recognizable in the world (existential/empirical) and normative to the extent it remains connected to biblical truth (quintessential).
It suffices to say, therefore, that a wholly existential/empirical perspective is intrinsically iconoclastic while a wholly quintessential framework is at best provocative. Neither is the only option in developing a doctrine of the Church for the twenty-first century. Any discussion of what the Church “concretely is” or “is becoming” must be guided by what the Church “really is” or “ought to be.” Our insights need to be guided and correlated by a theological understanding of the Church. There is no better place to begin than to allow the imagistic language of Ephesians to inform our understanding of the nature and function of the Church.
The Case for a Metaphorical Ecclesiology
What are the criteria for distinguishing the true Church in the face of changing times? This is a highly complex issue and undoubtedly involves many factors. As Hans Küng has observed, the nature given to the Church “was given it as a responsibility.” This nature must be constantly “realized anew and given new form in history [since] changing times demand changing forms” (1968:263).
The credal attributes have been the traditional point of departure for examining the “marks of the church.” While one may not dismiss this approach as improper, the fact that the creed has assumed different interpretations and understanding in different ecclesiologies undercuts the credal approach as the one way to determine the marks of the true church. This is not to suggest that the Church should not aspire to oneness, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity. On the other hand, the Church is more a community of symbolic manifestation and can only be “true” to the degree that she lives and expresses fully the reality of that which she manifests.
Speaking of the Church as a community of symbolic manifestation conjures up literary genres such as images, symbols, and metaphors. As imagistic language, they call into question their adequacy in bridging the gap between thought and life. That is to say that one expects to see the metaphoric process progress naturally from describing reality to that of constructing a corresponding reality. Therefore, the important thing is to note at how many points the symbol corresponds to the thing symbolized.
The choice of a metaphorical approach in understanding the nature or “marks of the Church” is prompted by the conviction that metaphors are like an index finger pointing to a reality or something we know little about. M.H. Abrams has said it so descriptively that I will quote him at length:
Any area for investigation, so long as it lacks prior concepts to give it structure and an express terminology with which it can be managed, appears to the inquiring mind inchoate—either a blank, or an elusive and tantalizing confusion. Our usual recourse is, more or less deliberately, to cast about for objects which offer parallels to dimly sensed aspects of the new situation, to use the better known to elucidate the less known, to discuss the intangible in terms of the tangible. This analogical procedure seems characteristic of much intellectual enterprise. There is a good deal of wisdom in the popular locution for “what is its nature?” namely: “What’s it like?” We tend to describe the nature of something in similes and metaphors and the vehicles of these recurrent figures, when analyzed, often turn out to be attributes of an implicit analogue through which we are viewing the object we describe (1953:31-32).
The concern of this series is to inquire about the nature and task of the Church. Ironically, nowhere in the Bible do we get a finite definition of the Church. However, what we do find in the Bible are images, like the ones in the epistle to the Ephesians, which “are not simply pictorial comparisons but modes of expression which simultaneously depict the reality of the Church” (Schnackenburg, 1991:295). Without any attempt to be exhaustive, I must limit myself to only a few of the images that have dominated ecclesiological thought in the development of a doctrine of the Church.
In Ephesians, four metaphors are used for the Church: the Church as a building, the body of Christ, the bride and wife of Christ, and as a brotherhood. These metaphors are distinct yet interconnected. More importantly, they are clearly used as a corresponding formulaic motif to bring the doctrine of the Church closer to our understanding. For the purpose of this series, I will explicate the metaphor of the Church as the “Body of Christ.” This does not mean that the other three are any less significant. Rather, as the most distinctive metaphor that is related to reality and filled with reality, an understanding of its use can secure for us an appreciation of the other metaphors. Even then, it would be a bold claim to think that one can exhaust the depth of ideas that the “body” metaphor offers us in our attempt to better understand the meaning of the Church as the body of Christ.
The Church as the Body of Christ
Although there are wide-ranging theories regarding the exact source of the concept, “the body of Christ,” it is beyond any doubts that it is the most pervasive metaphor for the Church. In the indisputably authentic Pauline letters, the body of Christ refers to the individual congregations with a call to Christian solidarity (Rom. 12 and 1 Cor. 12). In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul draws upon the metaphor of the Church as the body of Christ to establish the need for unity and Christian harmony. The Church is one body but composed of individual parts that are uniquely endowed for specific tasks. In Romans 12, Paul reinforces the same principle of Christians’ relation to one another, but the relationship to Christ is expressed in more intimate terms. Here, believers are not just “the body of Christ,” but are now “one body in Christ” (Rom. 12:5). This emphasizes not just the connection of the Church with Christ, but “stresses the fact that Christ is the source of its unity” (Robert Banks, 1994:61).
In both cases, the metaphor is incidental and emphasizes the primacy and continued affirmation of the corporate body above any individualism or self-enhancement. The importance of the metaphor of the Church as the body of Christ, therefore, stresses a fact that there is a horizontal relationship that connects every member of the “body” one to another, as well as a vertical relationship “with Christ who is the ‘body’ that they are all members of” (Barbara Field, 1992:90).
In Ephesians, however, there is a new dimension which puts a different spin on our understanding of the metaphor of the Church as the body of Christ. Unlike Romans 12 and I Corinthians 12 where the congregation is the total body “of Christ,” Ephesians injects a new line of thought that gives the Head a special, characteristic position with regard to the body. This differentiation of Christ as head of his body, the Church, suggests a new reality in our attempts to understand the mark of the Church. The accent is not on the Church as the body which represents the head, but on Christ as the head who imparts the body, the Church, with the power to grow. Two important insights are identifiable from the use of this metaphor in Ephesians: the differentiation between the Head and the body and the conditional growth of the body in relation to the Head.
First, the specific differentiation of the superiority of the head over the body corrects the misunderstanding that the body constitutes the head and is primary vis-à-vis him. There is truly a relationship between the head and the body, but it is a relationship of faith in which the body’s position is more precisely a subordinate one. To describe the relationship between the head and the body in an exclusively organic way is also to undermine the preeminence of the head. There is no ontic identity since the head is not a member of the body as any other member but one that occupies a place of pre-eminence. The body is totally dependent on the head for its existence, vitality, and growth.
It is imperative to apply theological understanding to this head-body image since in Ephesians 1:22-23, Christ is the head, and he remains the head at every level of reality. The connection between Christ and the Church is one to be understood theologically as Lord over the Church. This way, Hans Küng’s observation is an accurate one when he declares, “the Church receives from Christ its life and at the same time his promises and his direction, or rather his promises and his direction, and therefore its life” (1968:236-237).
Implicit in this notion of head-body relationship is the complete dependence of the Church upon Christ for its ministry in the world. It follows from the understanding that the domain of Christ’s headship has both ecclesiastical and cosmic realities (Eph.1:21). Consequently, as Christ’s body, the Church also receives the “fullness” (plērōma) of his Spirit and power so that it becomes the instrument of Christ in the world.
This spiritual endowment does not mean that Christ has abdicated his ecclesiastical and cosmic headship to the body, the Church. Neither can the Church play the continuing life of Christ or a permanent incarnation. Rather, the head has endowed the Church, with the “fullness” (plērōma) of himself so that through the activities of the Church in the world, his established reign is continually revealed in its “fullness” both to the world and to his defeated celestial adversaries. To this end, Küng’s advice is worth emphasizing that “it is of vital importance for the Church that it allows Christ to be its head; otherwise it cannot be his body [nor function effectively as his body]” (ibid.).
The second important insight that is unique to Ephesians in the head-body metaphor is what I have identified as the conditional growth of the body in relation to the head. Just as precisely as the body depends on the head to exist, so also does it depend on the head for nourishment that brings growth (Eph. 4:15-16). This explicates the interior life of the body in two ways. On the one hand, the body grows towards its head as she comes closer to him in everything, grows into him, reaches towards Christ in love (4:16; 5:24). This means that the growth of the body, the Church, is only possible in obedience to Christ who is her head. The body cannot move in flagrant disobedience to the head and expect to grow. It can only dry and wither away. As Küng has observed, “the Church does not grow automatically and ontologically . . . real growth in the Church occurs when Christ penetrates the world by the activity of his Church in history” (1968:238).
On the other hand, not only does the body derive nourishment by being obedient to the head, it is also important that “the members interchange their blood, their energies, their assistance [so that] by the life-giving virtue of the Head, the whole body has within itself its own principle of development and of growth” (Emile Mersch, 1938:119). The importance of this “interior life,” by implication, is that the body increases unto its own up-building but not without assistance from Christ who is the source of its growth and up-building. As the Church moves in faith in Christ and in love toward one another, the reign of Christ is not only established within her, but it also becomes a distinctive mark that differentiates the Church from other well-meaning institutions. What we can infer, therefore, is that the Church is not to be confined to the strictures of an organization (no matter how convenient and tempting this might be) but must be considered an organism. Even then, its unity, whether with Christ or its constitutive membership, should not be perceived as merely organic, but as one that is distinguishable by its spiritual dimension.
These past series have focused on the Church during the apostolic age as documented in the New Testament. The churches in Jerusalem, Corinth, Rome, and the universal ecclesiology of Ephesians present the framework, not only for understanding what the Church is, but of all other questions regarding the introduction of theology and our practice of church today. I have shown the individual environment from which these apostolic churches arose as the temporal framework and the material from which they gained forms of expression. Overall, I have expressed that despite being influenced by diverse contextual situations, apostolic responses upheld a community that was still separate, thus disrupting any direct continuity with an old way of life both in thought and in practice. Apostolic theological claim has revealed that the Church is true to the extent that it functions in obedience to Christ. Biblical understanding gives us but one major hermeneutical approach. The ecclesiology of the New Testament is founded on its central focus on Christology. In Christ alone is summed up the totality of what the Church should be and can ever aspire to be. The Church is not only incomplete without Christ, but more precisely, without Christ there would be no Church at all.
Two thousand years on the Church is still advancing and in such a forward momentum that is as remarkable as the missionary optimism of the apostolic era. In Nigeria, as in most of Africa for example, the pattern of church expansion is out of the ordinary: the exploding numbers, the scope of the phenomenon, the cross-cultural patterns of encounter, the variety and diversity of styles and forms, the wide spectrum of theological views and ecclesiastical traditions represented, the ideas of authority and styles of leadership that have been developed, the process of contextualization that fosters liturgical renewal, and the production of new religious art, music, hymns, songs, and prayers. All of these are featured on Christianity’s breathtaking African face today. Despite this phenomenal growth, we do well to pause and reflect whether or not our contemporary understanding or practice of church depicts the reality expressed during the apostolic era.
Perhaps, a good starting point is to revisit the humorous reappraisal of the church during the petrol price hike embroilment in Nigeria early in the year. The incongruous and unexpected association of the normally unrelated contexts (church and subsidy) in semantic contortions such as “Jehovah El-Subsidy Ministries,” “Ijo Mimo Subsidy Lati Orun Wa,” “CAC, Oke Subsidy” reflects the state of the church in relation to the deeply conflicted subsidy removal itself and the associated corruption of our environment. As I have said before, the proliferation of churches in Nigeria, embodied by these distinctive church name variations, becomes the humorous reappraisal distancing authentic apostolic Christianity from the upsetting scenario of today. This presents a serious challenge and a transformational change that can be found only in turning to the apostolic churches as hermeneutical key to biblical and contextual ecclesiology. In the next few weeks, I will be turning my theological searchlight on the new paradigm of post-denominational Christianity in Nigeria, looking particularly at its distinctive contours in our quest for a biblical, contextual and missional ecclesiology.
(Next series, "You Must Be Born Again": Revisiting Nigerian Pentecostal Rhetorics)