Glorious Body, Radiant Bride

Mark Johnston Articles
There are few things that are more precious to Christ and yet more neglected by his people than the church and what the Bible has to say about it. It is his body and bride and he shed his blood for her salvation; yet churches and Christians pay scant attention to what it is and why it matters. In recent times especially, evangelical Christians have become more interested in 'personal salvation' than salvation in its grander form set forth in the gospel - Christ's coming to 'save a people for himself'.

It is striking therefore, that the Creed confesses what it means to believe in 'the church' before it goes on to speak of individual conversion and Christian experience. It states, 'I believe in the holy catholic church; the communion of saints' - eloquently capturing the way in which the corporate and the individual elements of salvation come together in this very visible and tangible way in the shared life of God's new community. At one and the same time it expresses not only the importance attached to the church by God, but also how we as Christians are to appreciate our place in it.

It is a note that desperately needs to be re-sounded today for a number of reasons - largely because of the impact of post-Enlightenment individualism on the way we have become conditioned to think. We instinctively think in terms of the individual's being the supreme reference point for everything else, instead of realising that our identity as individuals has roots that run far deeper and wider than anything we could ever be in ourselves. At the most basic level, personal identity is shaped and governed by the families into which we were born. So too in an even more wonderful way our Christian identity is shaped and governed by the spiritual family into which we have been reborn and especially by the One who is both its Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.

Sadly, this is something that many if not most Christians have lost sight of today. In broad evangelicalism Christians are so obsessed with their personal tastes and needs that 'church' has become little more than the spiritual equivalent of the supermarket - you take your pick as to which chain of stores best suits your tastes and your pocket. But the same is also true in a different way among those of a reformed persuasion. Too often those who have come to a Reformed understanding of Scripture have embraced a truncated form of Calvinism - one that is concerned only with soteriology and not that full-orbed understanding that leads to a biblical world view and, more importantly, a biblically balanced doctrine of the church. The early church fathers whose fingerprints are found all over this ancient document were Calvinists before their time! They saw the church in all her glory and sought to express that in this next clause of the creed.

They were doing nothing more than to echo what the apostle Paul was saying to the church in Corinth - a church that was also suffering from spiritually skewed vision in relation to this doctrine. They too were more concerned with individual spiritual identity than what they were corporately in Christ. So Paul speaks at considerable length expounding the definitive statement about who and what we are as Christians: 'You are the body of Christ' (12.27). In other words, he wanted them to realise that understanding what we are as Christians can never be separated from what it means to belong to the church.

If we use that statement and its larger context of the chapter in which it occurs and the letter as a whole, then it will give us a useful template to explore what lies behind this clause in the creed. Three things come to light as being of central importance in the doctrine of the church.

It is Holy

Paul raises the issue of church from the very outset in his letter to Corinth. In his opening greeting, he addresses his readers as 'the church of God in Corinth' (1.2). Even though he is addressing a congregation that was brimming over with difficult individuals, he begins by reminding them of their shared identity. They are not 'the church of Corinth', but 'the church of God in Corinth'. And, just in case the full weight of what that means did not sink in immediately, he goes on to say that they are also, 'sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy.' Belonging to God and being holy go hand in hand.

What does that mean in practice? At the most basic level it means that the church is set apart by God and for God. It belongs to him and exists for his glory. So even though we so often speak of the churches to which we belong as being 'our church', in reality they belong to God. That means that it is not up to us to set our own agenda for something that is not ours. We must always seek and serve the agenda set by God himself. To appreciate that the church is 'holy' means first and foremost to realise that God is her Lord.

If that is true, then it must have a major impact on how those who belong to the church actually live. Hence the statement about their being 'sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy'. What these people were in principle was to be worked out in practice in their daily lives. Their sanctification was on the one hand, to use Professor John Murray's expression, 'definitive'; but at the same time it was also to be 'progressive'. True holiness is not merely a state; it is an ongoing transformation in which the people of God grow to be more like God both in their individual and corporate life.

That had to be a staggering thought for the congregation in Corinth which in so many ways could not have been less like God in view of the personal conduct of many of its members and the sheer disunity that had become its hallmark. But Paul knew that and he was in no sense seeking to crush these people with the shame of their failure; but rather he was reminding them that their calling in Christ was to be different and, as he will bring out later, the reason they have been given the Spirit of Holiness is that they may actually become more holy in how they lived (6.19-20). Could it be true of the professing church of our day that its relative ineffectiveness in her work and witness - despite large numbers - is her scant concern for holy living? Robert Murray McCheyne could not have been more right when he said, 'It is not so much great talents that God blesses, but great likeness to Jesus. A holy minister [or Christian, or church] is an awful weapon in the hand of God'.

There is one more thought that links in with this aspect of what Paul has to say about holiness and the church and that is accountability. In his opening remarks he speaks of our need to be 'blameless on that day [the day of Christ's return]' and that this blamelessness is ours through Christ alone (1.8). The implication behind what Paul was saying in this was that among those who professed to be Christians in Corinth there were those who were Christian in name, but not in reality. The visible church will always be mixed. As the Westminster Divines so helpfully put it, 'The purest churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error' (WCF 25.5). But for all who are part of the church visible, there is an accountability that goes hand in hand with holiness.

It is implied in what Paul says later on in 1 Corinthians about the children and unconverted spouses of believers being 'holy' (7.14). This does not mean they are automatically regenerate; but it does mean they have a special standing in God's sight. On the one hand they are uniquely privileged to be live in such intimate communion with the gospel; but at the same time they have a responsibility for how they respond to it that is greater than those who live outside the church community. In the same way as the liability of Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum will be greater on the day of judgement than that of Sodom, Tyre and Sidon (Mt 11.20-24), so it will be for all who are part of the holy community visibly, but not spiritually.

The only way a person can be sure they will indeed be 'blameless on that day' is when they look to Christ alone for their standing before God. The holiness that is the mark of the church is a holiness that is found in Jesus.

It is Catholic

When the Creed says the church is 'catholic' many people instinctively read that as meaning 'Roman Catholic'. But that is not at all what was in view. The term 'catholic' is used in the Creed to speak of the church in its totality, or what is sometimes called, 'the church universal'. It picks up on what Jesus said in that defining moment of his earthly ministry at Caesarea Philippi: 'I will build my church and the gates of Hades will not overcome it' (Mt 16.18). Jesus did not say, 'I will build my churches...' but rather 'my church' because there is ultimately but one. There is one church of Christ that is found in many places and in many different expressions throughout the world, across history and linked into eternity. So even though individual congregations each have their own flavour and distinctives, they are all ultimately part of the one church universal. It cuts across all denominational and cultural boundaries and leads us finally to what the church will be in her perfected state in the glory of the world to come.

Grasping the catholicity of the church has enormous implications for how individual churches see themselves and how they relate to other churches. No church is allowed to be parochial in its outlook. We are part of something that is infinitely bigger than anything we could ever be in ourselves, so our horizons of church life must always be reaching out to that larger body to which we belong. It means too that we must guard ourselves against the 'not one of us mentality' for which Jesus chided his disciples so severely (Mk 9.38). We can become so blinkered by the particular concerns and distinctives of our own congregations and denominations that we lose sight of the 'sheep that are not of this fold' that belong to Jesus every bit as much as us (Jn 10.16).

It is tempting to restrict our understanding of the church's catholicity to what is in macrocosm; but it has a dimension that relates to what the church is in microcosm as well. Just as unity within diversity characterises the church in its universal expression, so too those same features should define every local congregation. If we go back to Corinth and what Paul says to the church there, he reminds them not only that they all together are the body of Christ [in that place]; but also that 'each one of you is a part of it' (12.27).

Those words carried a particular resonance for that particular church. Paul has already spoken of the party spirit which was disrupting the fellowship of the church and which had become the talking point in the gossip columns of the Christian world of their day. It was not just that the church community in Corinth reflected the amazing breadth and diversity of the local community - from a former synagogue ruler to converted prostitutes - but that this newly-formed church family was becoming fragmented. People were being excluded because they did not fit into particular groupings in the church.

Paul could not have been more forceful in the way he addressed this situation. He speaks in graphic terms of a mutilated body and uses that as a reflection of what the spiritual body in Corinth had become (12.14-28). Their failure to embrace one another in Christ was a violation of Christ himself.

The challenge to be catholic Christians runs to the very heart of what it means to be truly Christian and ironically it can often be those Christians and churches that we are closest to geographically that we find it hardest to embrace. If we face the prospect of sharing heaven with them for eternity, then perhaps we need to think again about cultivating fellowship with them on earth.

It is a Communion
Following on from what we've said already, the third thing we learn from what Paul says about the church is that it is ultimately a communion. We see it in the extraordinary way in which Paul speaks interchangeably about Christ and his church:

The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ (12.12).

In other words, if we are joined to Christ in saving union, then we are simultaneously joined to all his blood-bought children in the full breadth of that union expressed in the communion of saints. All that we are and have as his people we share together with all his people. As we share the same baptism of the Spirit and 'drink' of one Spirit, so we share the same spiritual DNA and enjoy one and the same salvation.

The full depth of what that means brings us back to what went wrong with our race at the very beginning and to God's intentions for humanity as it was meant to be. As man was made uniquely for union and communion with God, so his union and communion with his fellow human beings was contingent on that primary relationship being intact. When relationship with God was broken through the fall, the immediate second casualty was the relationship between Adam and his wife and thereafter with his whole family. The glory of the gospel is that in salvation God reverses the damage of the fall on both planes.

We rightly emphasise the importance of communion with Christ as lying at the heart of healthy Christian living; but we cannot do that honestly without putting equal stress on cultivating the communion we enjoy together as his people. It reflects the fact that we are joined together in the same family of God.

The problem Paul was addressing in Corinth was the fact that the church in that city was behaving like the ultimate dysfunctional family and in so doing was damaging the credibility of the gospel. So he comes back again and again to what it means for them corporately as much as individually to be 'in Christ Jesus'.

It can hardly slip our notice that in the prayer he offered on the eve of his arrest and crucifixion, Jesus prayed at length and repeatedly that his followers 'may be that the world might believe that you [the Father] have sent me' (Jn 17.20-24). There is no greater visible proof that the gospel really is good news than the fact that it really does rescue and transform relationships - cutting across barriers of race, class, culture in a way that shocks the watching world. Jesus only ever identified one mark of a true church: 'By this all men will know that you are my disciples: if you love one another' (Jn 13.35). The earthly communion of saints is God's great billboard that advertises the power and glory of the gospel.

Almost 40 years ago Michael Griffiths wrote a book about the church, the title of which described it as Cinderella with Amnesia - the princess who had forgotten who she was. There is a certain timelessness about that description because it seems so many Christians and churches have simply forgotten who we are and what we have become in Christ. We are his glorious body and one day will become his radiant bride.

Mark Johnston is Senior Minister of Grove Chapel in Camberwell, London.