The Church as Body and Building
We know that the Church is a divine institution. In fact it almost seems sacrilegious to even call the Church an “institution”. The Church is just the Church, and the New Testament analogies fall largely within the categories of architecture and anatomy. The Church is the Body of Christ with Christ as the head, and the Church is a new Temple building with Christ as the chief cornerstone. One analogy seems to emphasize the organic nature and diversity inherent in the Church while the other stresses the permanence, stability, and unity of the structure. The temptation has always been to lean toward either one or the other conception at various points in history. In many ways these analogies reflect the simple reality of both one and many within God’s people. But consider how these conceptions might be reflected on issues of discipline. A more organic/anatomical leaning church or theologian would probably tend to be more flexible and forgiving to lapsed Christians who denied the faith and/or sacrificed to the emperor during persecutions in the early centuries of the Church. Other tendencies might be that ceremonies (while important) might vary to some extent, and polity/government/authority may be conceived of in broad terms, a succession of offices of leadership flowing down from Christ and the apostles. A modern ‘anatomist’ would be fairly catholic, liberal minded, perhaps emphasizing things like open communion, the inherent goodness of diversity, perhaps celebrating doctrinal development, and stressing lifestyle piety and morality. On the other hand, the ‘structuralist’ –the church or theologian with a more architectural view of the Church—might see apostasy with an eye more toward the damage caused to the church, generally considering repentance with more skepticism. These might also emphasize the details of ceremony, the mechanisms of spiritual transformations (e.g. the sacraments, and other sacramental rites), and doctrinal purity. A modern ‘structuralist’ might tend to emphasize things like apostolic succession, the longevity and significance of doctrine and dogma, and the inherent authority of the Church. Notice that with these two tendencies there is also an inherent picture of healing: the ‘structuralist’ sees deviation as an automatic problem and one doesn’t tend to reuse old materials. The ‘anatomist’ assumes difference in the body and a more natural self-healing mechanism in cases of harmful deviation with the necessity of amputation or surgery only in extreme circumstances. Where the problems are real or lethal, one hopes for the pessimism of the ‘structuralist’ approach, but where problems are perceived or transitory one hopes for the patience and optimism of the ‘anatomist’.
Of course having both of these principles explicit in Scripture indicates that the two are equally necessary conceptions of the Church. And we can see that no one church has only tended in one direction. Most traditions of the church have leaned in different directions on different issues. While we might point out that the East has leaned toward the anatomical picture of the church and the West has leaned toward the structural picture of the church, exceptions abound. One view may be that Protestantism has been an attempt to steer a middle course, certainly not without failings. But the earliest reformers and protestants were Christians who felt the weight of necessity to be connected to the Church of Jesus Christ and His Apostles and yet the simultaneous obligation to preserve faithful practice and doctrine. These tendencies are witnessed in the tendency for some traditions to highlight the work of the Holy Spirit while others underline the centrality of the work of the Jesus Christ, the Son. Other segments of the Church have accentuated freedom while others have stressed the proper forms. And the list could go on an on. But the fact that this discussion has been around since the time of the apostles is encouraging. It means that this is a constant part of the conversation. The on-going call of the Church to be the Church means living, worshiping, thinking and arguing with an awareness of these two realities that the Church is called to reflect.