What Is “the Church”?

The current state of the Church is, to put it mildly, troubling. The realization of how sin is possible for even the most devout, has led me to ponder and to examine what is my personal attitude toward what we call “Church.”

For me, answers about the nature of Church have come mostly through the writings of St. Paul. I lean on him since he is responsible for the initial conversion of thousands of gentiles, now grown to billions, as he taught about Jesus and Jesus’ message. He most often refers to him not as “Jesus of Nazareth,” but as the Christ. Surely this is because “Jesus of Nazareth” associates him with only one small community, whereas Christ signifies the one anointed to teach the Gospel of the Kingdom to all people everywhere.

“Church” might be thought of as a building or parish as, for example, “I attend St. Mary’s Church.” Or it might be a kind of organization or institution as, for example, “the Pope is the head of the Church.” I believe these narrow meanings are far from St. Paul’s. He plunges us into his mystical understanding of the word “church” as nothing less than “the body of Christ.” He details this concept especially in his letters quoted below, where we learn that the Church has these spiritual characteristics:

  1. It is one: For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body. (1 Cor. 12:13)
  2. It is diverse but egalitarian: Whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons, … we were all given to drink of one Spirit.
    Unity does not mean conformity!

    Diversity is necessary to serve a variety of needs, to equip the holy ones for the work of ministry  for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of faith and knowledge of the Son of God. . . so that living the truth in love, we should grow in every way into him who is the head, Christ. (Ephesians 4:16)
  3. Christ is the head of the Church and our model. His teachings must be at the root of our actions. All authority is his. The rest of us (even the least, even the self-proclaimed greatest) must be servants to one another, and through this service, we “grow in every way into him who is the head, Christ.”
  4. Since St. Paul refers to the Church as the Body of Christ, we know it is neither an institution nor an exclusive organization. We fall in love with a Person, not an institution. The Body, the Person is Christ, Jesus of Nazareth who brought hope to the oppressed and an open invitation to sinners of all stripes; who invited all of us to share a heavenly feast.
  5. Just as a body is a living organism, the Church is a growing entity, changing and developing as the current age needs and understands. It grows and is built up by love. The proper functioning of each part, brings about the body’s growth and builds itself up in love.
  6. Individual responsibility. The Church is made up of individuals with unique gifts for evangelization. Christ is in each of us. Each of us is, in a way, the Church.

Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body . . . the church, of which I (individually) am a minister in accordance with God’s stewardship given to me to bring to completion for you the word of God, the mystery hidden from ages and from generations past. . . it is Christ in you. (Colossians 1:24-27)

The Church, Christ’s Body, is composed of individuals. Each of us, no matter what our position or “title,” has a unique responsibility to bring Christ to both believers and non-believers.  I have made myself a slave to all so as to win over as many as possible. We who have been given to know Christ must bring Christ to all. In fact, we must be Christ to all. Each of us claiming to be Christian is uniquely responsible for living the commands of the Kingdom, not just for our own salvation but also for the sake of others.

Just as St. Paul imitated the life of Christ, including his afflictions, so  are we called to do the same. Because Christ lives in us, he is seen through us, and every generation of disciples must re-experience in some way the afflictions of Christ.  

Christ invites us to show others how our life is the continuation of Christ on this earth. He is visible to others only through what our life reveals. This is the mystery of Christ in us as we offer the world its hope for glory.