Evolving Church Images

I am always fascinated by how ideas and concepts originate. Knowing the original circumstance helps contextualize meanings and beliefs. Connecting the past with the present, here is a brief history of the changing understandings of church through the centuries.These texts track the history of Christian self-understanding as Christian beliefs and practices are introduced to new communities and the inevitable tensions as new contexts influence divergent interpretations.

It is important to note that they emphasizes the plurality of understandings that were (are) available and the illustrative nature of their offerings. Hinson wants to be sure that we recognize “that there was no dingle definition either within the great church or among the various sects on the periphery” (Hinson, 1). This continues today.

A Jewish Sect
Jesus was a Jew. So were the majority of his first followers. This simple fact is often overlooked within the broader Christian community.  As Hinson notes, “Christianity began as a sect of Judaism, and the first Christians had to interpret their existence in terms of this parentage (Hinson, 2).”

The People of God
Viewing themselves as God’s chosen people, Hebrews 4:9 (particularly relating to the Sabbath) and 1 Peter 2:9-10 (chosen race, royal priesthood, holy nation, God’s own people) reflect Jewish origins as heirs to God’s promises (Gal 3:29 Abraham’s offspring).

Body of Christ
When implicit and explicit references are combined, the Body of Christ is likely the most prominent image of the church in the Christian Testament. Paul often uses phrases that include “in Christ” (1 Thes 1:1 and esp Romans 3:24, 6:11, 6:23; 8:1-2, 12:5), “with Christ” (esp Rom 6:1-11), and “into Christ” (Rom 6:3, Gal 3:27; 1 Cor 6:15) to express the corporate nature of belief.

The earliest explicit reference is 1 Cor 12:12-27 in which Paul uses the Body of Christ. Scholars differ on whether this image functions as a simile, metaphor, or analogy and whether it is meant literally or ontologically. Underlying each is a corporate understand which suggests that by joining together, each offering their particular gifts, Christ is tangibly present and active in the world.

This concept is also tied to the Lord’s Supper and the Eucharistic celebration of the body of Christ using bread and wine.

The New Zion of Jerusalem
Based on passages like Revelations 21:2 which gives a vision of “the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God,” these images view the church as the perfect kingdom of God of the future or the present anticipation of that final future. It is a mystical concept offering eschatological hope.

A Third Race
When Paul wrote “neither Jew nor Gentile,” he was highlighting the division of the world in the time of Christ into two segments: those who followed the Abrahamic tradition focused on a covenantial relationship with a single God (with all the beliefs and practices that evolved as a result) and those who were pagan, either followers of other traditions or non-believers. With the agreement that new members did not have to be circumcised and follow ritual laws to become Christian, some suggest that a “third race” emerged. Though he did not like the label, Tertullian reflected on the pagan query that Christians thought they were a “third race” in To The Nations. (Hinson, 12)

God’s Building
Allusions to God’s people as a building, a house, a temple, or a sanctuary abound in the four Gospels, Acts of the Apostles, the Pauline Epistles, 1 Peter, the Epistle to the Hebrews, and Revelations. Incorporating concepts from the Hebrew Scriptures, these references suggest both a stable structure (the cornerstone) where the “building is complete and perfect in Christ” as well as a process, “incomplete and growing in Christ.” (Jay, 22) When viewed through Mark 15:38, the ekklesia becomes God’s dwelling place and replaces God’s temple in Jerusalem when the veil was torn in two.

The New Israel
Clement of Rome developed this notion as he developed the doctrine of apostolic succession.  According to Jay, “this doctrine affirms that it is essential that the ministers of the Church be appointed in a succession from the apostles” because he believed “the apostles foresaw the possibility of discord about the exercise of rule in the church. (31). For Clement, the words bishop (episkopos) and presbyter (presbuteros) referred to the same ministry; later, Ignatius of Antioch distinguishes between them and elevates bishop. Clement is also one of the earliest leaders to distinguish between clergy and laity.

“Born Again” Children of God
Clement of Alexandria repeatedly used the image of the church as the “born again” children of God in an Exhortation to the Greeks (critiquing paganism and calling for conversion) and The Instructor (laying down the golden rule for converts). His writing reflects the Johannine concept of new birth after baptism in the Spirit and urged the connection between faith and gnosis (mystical knowledge). (Hinson, 11)

Army of Christ
Clement of Rome, possibly drawing on military inferences in Ephesians 6:10-7 and Timothy 2:3-4, introduces the idea of a Christian army. “Let us serve in our army, brethren, with all earnestness, following his faultless commands.  Let us consider those who serve our generals, with what good order, habitual readiness, and submissiveness the perform their commands….”  This is likely the origin of Christian military images (including songs Onward Christian soldiers, and organizations like the Salvation army) throughout history.

Patristic Images:
* Mother of the Faithful – Tertuillian (Our Lady, Mother of the Church)
* Communion – Tertullian – Communion of Saints
* Holy Society of the Righteous – Hippolytus (excludes sinners)
* Church on High – Clement of Alexandria – “true Gnostics who have given themselves to unending contemplations of God, rising above earthly things” (Jay, 60)
* True Church – Origin – holy and without blemish
* One – Cyprian – unity, solidarity, college of Bishops
* Mystical Body – Cyril – membership through series of rites and initiation
* City of God – Augustine

Eric G. Jay in The Church: Its Changing Image through Twenty Centuries (London: SPCK, Vol 1 1977, Vol 2 1978); E. Glenn Hinson in Understandings of the Church (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986); Joseph Komonchak, Mary Collins, and Dermont Lane, general editors, The New Dictionary of Theology (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991); Michael G. Lawler and Thomas J. Shannahan, Church: A Spirited Communion (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical PRess, 1995)


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