Church: Hierarchy or People?
Ecclesiology is the theological study of the church's identity. The word derives from the Greek ekklēsia (G1577; literally, "called out"), which better translates as "assembly" or "congregation." Over time as Christianity evolved into a world religion, theologians linked the notion of church to a hierarchy of bishop, priest, and deacon with the people as its subjects. Ignatius of Antioch (c. AD 35–107) opined, "Where the bishop appears, there let the people be, just as where Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic church." Simply put, individuals are only part of the church if they subject themselves to a bishop when worshiping God. Ignatius also implied Christ remains with the bishop and the people must approach him via this intercessor. However, Luke used the word "church" to describe the people of the early Jesus movement when he arranged the Acts of the Apostles. For example, his narrative about the Council of Jerusalem details how Paul of Tarsus and Barnabas happened upon the church at the same time they met elders and other apostles (Acts 15:3-5). In this case, the entire congregation with laity and their leadership comprised the church.
Old Testament Church
In order to establish who the church is, it is imperative to research its origins. Because the writers of the Septuagint employed the word ekklēsia about Israel, clearly the church predates the incarnation of Jesus. The church began with the exodus of the Israelites from their Egyptian taskmasters. The narrative purpose of the Hebrew scriptures was to establish Israel as the nation that would restore God's created order. From the time Abraham left Ur for Canaan, God set aside his descendants from Sarah according to his sovereign will. Later, Abraham's grandson Jacob successfully grappled with God and received a new name: Israel—one who wrestles with God. Thus, the entire nation derived from the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob became Israel. Implied in this label is the overall failure of humankind to seek God, a problem of which both David and Paul lamented: "There is no one who is righteous, no one who seeks God" (Ps. 53:2-3; Rom. 3:11). Israel was supposed to be different—a group of human beings after God's own heart. The arrival of Jesus as God incarnate in the world expanded Israel from a nation limited to Judea toward one available for everyone. Just as the original Israelites fled the exploitive rule of an Egyptian pharaoh, the church flees from the bondage of sin. The church's origin lies with the Exodus, from which it departs from the world toward a heavenly province flowing with milk and honey.
Jesus and the Church
Understanding the correct identity of Jesus concerning the church is important. Whereas the church is a product of the material world, Jesus has always been eternal. As God incarnate, he bridged the spiritual essence of God with the material creation of which humankind is part. Even if human beings did not fall into evil, God the Father still would have sent his only-begotten Son, Jesus, into the world in order to intercede on its behalf. The intercessory role of God the Son is not a response to sin, but one that allows humankind to commune with the divine essence without being intrinsically part of it. Rather, God made human beings in his image (Latin: imago Dei); that is, a copy of his substance. Jesus is both the actual essence of God and the material vessel that typifies it. His purpose is to intercede on behalf of the church, the people God trusts to accomplish his goals and to communicate with him. Any christology that relegates Jesus to a mere creature lower than a timeless expression of God also concludes the church is a pointless endeavor. Without the divine Logos (G3056)—Jesus as intercessor—the church would be nothing more than a group of people promoting their own standards of truth and righteousness. The church is holy because God himself sets it apart, not because the human community within it can perform good works on its own.
New Testament Church
Prior to his arrest, Jesus promised his disciples that he would send another Advocate (Greek: paraklētos; G3875) to them (John 14:16). Implied in this vow is Jesus' own claim of being an advocate for the church to God the Father and the ability to dispatch the Spirit. However, the Son does not send the Holy Spirit according to his own designs, but from the Father (John 14:26). It is impossible for Jesus to send the Spirit by himself because doing so would result in two different wills for creation. Instead, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one God in three persons; the first is the source of purpose for the other two. Therefore, the Son dispatches the Spirit from the Father and not from himself (see "Chalcedonian Definition"). The church receives counsel and advocacy from Son and Spirit according to the Father’s will, of which they never violate. In his second epistle, Simon Peter wrote how the church participates in the divine nature by communing with God (2 Pet. 1:4). The church is only one with God because of the Son, who guides it by sending the Spirit from the Father in his stead. It can never be one with the divine nature in composition, only by reciprocating faith, hope, and steadfast love (1 Cor. 13:13). The Holy Spirit tells the church exactly how to walk by faith and not by sight; how to persist in hope against all odds; and how to love unconditionally. He also advocates for the church when it fails to do these things, as human beings are prone to do.
Although God made human beings in his image, they are still inferior and subordinate to him. In this case, "image" is synonymous with "copy" or "shadow." Humankind is not divine in and of itself, but requires a hybrid intercessor such as Jesus to intercede for it. God created it to be inferior to his substance, which is not a result of the fall or original sin. Human beings, like all creatures, were once "good" by nature (Gen. 1:31). The image of God was not lost after Adam and Eve disobeyed, but finds its perfection in Jesus. Therefore, matter is not evil in a Platonic sense. The very incarnation of God the Son in human flesh implies that human nature is "good." If the doctrine of original sin was true, Jesus would not have entered human flesh and into an evil nature by default. Human beings sin because God created them with free will, or the freedom to make decisions against his advocacy and counsel. On the other hand, the church represents a humanity restored. Whereas most people decide to sin against God, the church is a community that seeks his guidance continuously. It forgoes free will to honor the purpose of God, a goal realized by the intercession of Jesus and the comfort of the Spirit. When Paul lamented how no human being seeks God (Rom. 3:11), he was talking about sinners outside of the church. He also understood how free will enables individuals to join the church and to seek God's counsel by faith, not just to disobey him.
The church is simply the people of God to a world that has abandoned him. Jesus is its high priest; it does not require any other priest. The author of the letter to the Hebrews carefully delineated who Jesus is and who he is not. He is not an angel (Heb. 2:5-9) nor a priest who makes temporal sacrifices to cover human wrongdoing. Instead, Jesus is God incarnate who sacrificed himself once as the only high priest capable of doing so (Heb. 4:14). He taught the church not to call anyone rabbi, instructor, or father because the Lord is the only one who instructs and fathers it correctly and honestly (Matt. 23:9). Paul called the church the "body of Christ" because it accomplishes his purpose in the world (1 Cor. 12:27). However, the church needs Christ to intercede between humankind and God, so it is not one with him in any mystical sense. The church partakes of the divine nature by grace through faith, never by its own works. Likewise, no ecclesiastical hierarchy represents the church to God, nor God for the church, but both commune via the divine person of Jesus.
Blessed are you, LORD our God, King of the universe, we pray for your holy church. Fill it with all truth, in all truth with all peace. Where it is corrupt, purify it; where it is in error, direct it; where in any thing it is amiss, reform it. Where it is right, strengthen it; where it is in need, provide for it; where it is divided, reunite it; for the sake of Jesus Christ thy Son our Savior. Amen.
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