St. Paul’s letters were written to different people and/or Church communities of his time. Within these writings one can see many statements about the Church, such as what the Church is, how one ought behave in the Church, and doctrine. A poignant doctrine of what the Church is and how it is manifest is seen in St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. We see that the Church and Christ are inextricably bonded. St. Paul gives us a mission statement, which is to share, “insight into the mystery of Christ”. (Ephesians 3:4) It is in the Church that, “all men see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God Who created all things.” (3:9)
St. Paul opens his letter and immediately begins to expound on the effect of Christ on humanity and to the individual. He tells us that Christ gathers together “that which is in Heaven and which are on earth in Him.” (1:10) As this letter continues, the reader will see that in the Church, the heavenly and earthly things are gathered together.
In the Church, we are no longer strangers, Paul states, but we are all fellow “citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (2:19). St. Paul explains that, “having been built on the foundation of the Apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone in whom the whole building being fitted together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord in whom you also are being built together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit” (2:20-22). We see the parallels here with the Old Testament and the Chosen people going to the Temple, because it was the place where God dwells.
After the Resurrection, the Church became the New Israel and where two or more of its members are gathered together in Christ’s name, God dwells with them. We also see that the Church is “Apostolic” as we declare in the creed with each Liturgy.
The Church is the body of believers in Christ. “All things are under his feet and gave him to be head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (1:22-23). So we see that the Church is the body of Christ and is the fullness of him who fills all and is in all. These verses from St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians gives us major insights into the modern doctrine of what the Church is to Christians and what it means to them.
Commenting on the Church and St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, Fr. Thomas Hopko explains, “In the Church of Christ, with each part of the body knit together and functioning properly in harmony and unity, man grows up in truth and in love ‘to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (The Orthodox Faith, p. 42).
The body of the believers of Christ now celebrates Sunday as the holy day of worship, though Saturday still has high regard in the Church. This is the eighth day, the day of the new creation. This is a parallel of when God created the first man without sin. Because this man sinned and brought death and sin into the world, it was necessary for mankind to be created anew or from above. St. Paul indeed refers to the Church, as it is the Body of Christ, as a new creation in Him, “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17). He also stated about the Church, “we have a building from God, a house not made by hands, eternal in the heavens” (2 Corinthians 5:1).
It is seen by this last statement that St. Paul regards the Church as eternal and in the heavens and therefore inextricably tied to that which is heavenly with that which is earthly. The two have indeed been knit together by that thread, which is Christ Jesus, our Lord. Christ indeed holds the Church in the highest regard as is shown by St. Paul to be not only the body of Christ, but also His Bride. We read in the wedding service from St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians of how husbands and wives should take example from our Lord in how to behave with one another, “the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the Church; and He is the Savior of the body. Therefore, just as the Church is subject to Christ…love your wives, just as Christ also loved the Church and gave Himself for Her.” (Ephesians 5:23-25)
Likewise, because Christ has such love for His Church, it is necessary for those of us in the Church to regard each other, as members of the One Body, with respect and high regard. “For as we have many members in one body, but all the members do not have the same function, so we being many are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another.” (Romans 12:4-5) It is necessary then to have unity in the Church for it to achieve its function. The members of ‘the body’ must allow each other to fulfill their place in it.
As the Church is the body of Christ, the god-man, the Church is also a theandric entity and not entirely a human social organization. It is important to understand what is written by St. Paul and discussed in this present essay. That unifying of heaven and earth make the Church both earthly and heavenly, both human, yet divine. This is a new creation, the Kingdom of God on earth. It is indeed, “the household of God, which is the Church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth.” (1 Timothy 3:15) The Church then should be shown the awe and respect it deserves. “The new and abundant life given by God to man through Christ and the Holy Spirit in creation and redemption is the life of the Christian Church. The life of the Church is the life originally willed for man and the world by God. It is the life of God Himself originally given in creation. It is the spiritual life.” (The Orthodox Faith iv, p. 23) Fr. Hopko continues to say that those people in the Church only “live to the extent that they live the life of the Church.” (Hopko, p. 24)
Further expounding on this subject of the people’s life in the Church Fr. Georges Florovsky teaches, the Church gives us not a system, but a key; not a plan of God’s City, but the means of entering it. Perhaps someone will lose his way because he has no plan. But all that he will see, he will see without a mediator, he will see it directly, it will be real for him; while he who has studied only the plan risks remaining outside and not really finding anything. (The Catholicity of the Church, pp. 50-51)
As St. Paul says, “for the Law made nothing perfect” (Hebrews 7:19), but through Christ and His Church, we can be made perfect in Him. The above discussions by St. Paul on the Church say nothing of the divine mysteries of which the Church dispenses. We are in unity with one another and the Church through the dispensation of her mysteries. We pray liturgically and gather together in worship and praise to eat the heavenly meal in the Kingdom on Earth. We see then by St. Paul that we must hold to Her doctrines, treat Her members with respect, so that they can do their individual job as members, and receive liturgically of Her mysteries as we communally offer up praises to Her Head, Christ.
Through history there is witness to these things spoken of by St. Paul and bestowed upon by the Holy Spirit. The people of the Church can be seen holding to the doctrines taught by Christ and St. Paul. The first episode is read about in chapter 15 of The Acts of the Apostles. This is regarded as the first council of the Church. It is an example of the members of the body coming together in unity to decide doctrine. Further, this has continued as the Church had many councils, many of which have come to be known as Ecumenical. The Church has continued Apostolically as was important in the eyes of St. Paul through her bishops. The bishops have been ordained by the laying on of hands with continuity traceable to the Apostles themselves. Not only have they continued in their line, but also they have hearkened to their teachings through their unity in the councils and led by the Spirit.
For the Life of the World, Schmemann, SVS Press 6th ed.1998
The Orthodox Faith vol. iv, Hopko, Dept. of Rel. Edu., NY 1976
The Catholicity of the Church, Florovsky, Bellmont Mass., 1972