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THE ONE UNIVERSAL ECCLESIA IN THE EPISTLES OF THE FIRST ROMAN CAPTIVITY.
WE now enter on that period of the Apostolic Age which begins with St Paul’s arrival at Rome. His long-cherished hope was at last fulfilled, though not in the way which he had proposed to himself. He had met face to face the Christian community which had grown up independently of all authoritative guidance in the distant capital; and, on the way, the Gentile offering which he carried to the Christians of Jerusalem had been accepted by their leaders, and he had escaped, though barely escaped, martyrdom at the hands of his unbelieving countrymen. Delivered from this danger, and shut up for two years at Cæsarea, probably with great advantage to the cause for which he laboured, he had reached Rome at last as the prisoner of the Roman authorities. Here he spent another period of two years in another enforced seclusion, which still more evidently gave 136him a place of vantage for spreading the Gospel such as he could hardly have had as a mere visitor (see Lightfoot, Phil. 18 f.). The four extant Epistles belonging to this period are pervaded by a serenity and a sense of assurance such as are rarely to be found in their six predecessors, even in Romans, and this increased happiness of tone is closely connected with St Paul’s thoughts and hopes about the various Ecclesiae and about the Ecclesia.
The Epistle to the Philippians.
We begin with the Epistle to the Philippians. The last words of the opening salutation (i. 1) σὺν ἐπισκόποις καὶ διακόνοις, “with the bishops (or overseers) and deacons” (R.V.), will be examined to better effect after we have considered the usage of the same words in the Pastoral Epistles.
The special joy which fills the Apostle’s mind in his outpourings to the Philippian Christians is called forth by their warm and active fellowship or communion with him, not simply as the messenger of truth to themselves at a former time, but as now and in the future the chief herald of the Gospel to other regions4343See i. 5-7; 12-20; 25 f.; ii. 17-30; iv. 3, 10, 14-19.. Their sympathies and aspirations were not shut up within their own little community.
St Paul has likewise much to say to the Philippians on the inward relations of the Ecclesia, for this is the purport of his varied and strenuous exhortations to 137unity, and that on the basis of a corporate life worthy of the Gospel of Christ. Such is doubtless the force of the pregnant phrase in i. 27 [R. V. Mg.] ‘behave as citizens worthily of the Gospel of the Christ’ (μόνον ἀξίως τοῦ εὐαγγείου τοῦ χριστοῦ πολιτεύεσθε), πολιτεύομαι, at retaining its strict sense4444This strict sense is similarly the right one, in the only other place of the New Testament where the verb occurs, Acts xxiii. 1, St Paul there using it of himself as one who had loyally lived the life of a true Jew. Various places in some books of the Apocrypha, in Josephus, and nearly a century later in Justin’s dialogue with the Jew Trypho, shew that it must have been commonly used by the Jews in this familiar sense.. ‘to live the life of citizens’, not merely the weaker late sense [R. V. text] ‘to behave, conduct themselves’. It is thus closely connected with the familiar ‘citizenship’ (πολίτευμα) of iii. 20, the new commonwealth having its centre in Heaven, to which Christians belong, being implicitly contrasted with the terrestrial commonwealth centred at Jerusalem, resting on laws about mere externals such as circumcision and distinctions of meats. And the same contrast underlies this exhortation to live a community life (πολιτεύεσθε) worthy of the Gospel of the Christ, one directed not by submission to statutes but by the inward powers of the spirit of fellowship; as St Paul himself explains within the same sentence, “that ye stand fast in one spirit, with one soul wrestling together through the faith of the Gospel” (the faith which it teaches and inspires); and more fully still in the following section (ii. 1-11).138
The Epistle to the ‘Ephesians.’
We now come to the three Epistles which the same messenger carried into Asia Minor, the Epistles to the ‘Ephesians’, to the Colossians, and to Philemon.
The Epistle to Philemon concerns us only by the speaking testimony which it bears to the reality of the Ecclesia as a brotherhood as shown in the new footing on which it was possible for master and slave to stand towards each other without any interference with the status and legal conditions of servitude.
Nor will it be worth our while to give time separately to the Epistle to the Colossians, nearly all that it contains directly pertinent to our subject being contained likewise in ‘Ephesians’.
On the other hand ‘Ephesians’ is peculiarly rich in instructive materials and would repay a much more complete examination than could be attempted within our limits4545See further in Hort’s Prolegomena to Romans and Ephesians.. He would be a bold man who should suppose himself to have fully mastered even the outlines of its teaching: but even the slightest patient study of it must be fruitful, provided we are willing to find in it something more than we have brought to it. On the other hand it is only too easy to exaggerate its exceptional character. Its teaching is, so to speak, the culmination of St Paul’s previous teaching, not a wholly new message divided by a sharp line from what had been spoken before. If we enquire into the cause of this culmination, it is not enough to try to 139account for it solely by mental progress in St Paul; by ampler experience and riper thought. Such progress, wrought by such causes of progress, must of course have existed in the case of a man in whom the free flow of inward life was so little hampered by languor or obstruction; and, if so, it would naturally reflect itself in his writings. But we have also to remember the significant hint given us in 1 Cor. ii. that the teaching which he addressed to unripe communities was purposely cut down to be proportional to their spiritual state, and that all the while he was cherishing in his own mind a world of higher thoughts, “a wisdom”, he calls it, which could rightly be proclaimed only to maturer recipients; though here and there, for instance in some passages of Romans, he could not refrain from partially admitting others to these inner thoughts. This being the case, he might well desire to make some Christian communities depositaries of this reserved wisdom before he died, and the Ecclesiae of Ephesus and other cities of that region may have seemed to him to have now reached a sufficiently high stage of discipleship to enable them to receive with advantage what he now wished to say. The primary subjects of this higher teaching may be described as the relation of the Son of God to the constitution of the Universe, and to the course of human history, and in connexion with such themes it was but natural that the Ecclesia of God should find a place.140
But there were other reasons why St Paul should think and write about the Ecclesia at this time, reasons arising in part at least out of concrete contemporary history. We have already seen how in the period preceding his two captivities his mind was filled with the antithesis of Jew and Gentile within the Christian fold, and with the steady purpose of averting division by his dangerous last journey to Jerusalem, after which he hoped to crown his missions, as it were, by friendly intercourse with the Christians of Rome. The abiding monument of this aspiration is the Epistle to the Romans, and ‘Ephesians’ is a corresponding monument of the same thoughts from the side of fulfilment instead of anticipation. It is hardly a paradox to say that neither of these two great Epistles is really intelligible without the other. To a Jew, or a Christian brought up as a Jew, there could be no such cleavage among mankind as that between the people within the old covenant and the promiscuous nations without it. A Christian who understood his own faith could not but believe that the death on Calvary had filled up the chasm, or (in St Paul’s figure) dissolved the middle wall of partition. But all would seem to have been done in vain if the work of God were repudiated by wretched human factiousness, and if Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians renounced and spurned each other. This worst of dangers was now to all appearance averted, and so St Paul could expound to the Gentiles of Asia Minor 141the uniting counsel of God without serious misgivings lest perverse human facts should frustrate the great Divine purpose.
A phrase or two must suffice to quote from ii. 11-22, “He is our peace who made the both (τὰ ἀμφότερα neuter) one”; again, “that He might found the two in Himself into one new man, making peace, and might reconcile the both (τοὺς ἀμφοτέρους masc.) in one body to God through the Cross.” Hitherto the Acts and Epistles have been setting before us only a number of separate independent little communities each called an Ecclesia: at least this holds good for Gentile Christendom from Antioch outwards, and perhaps even for Palestine. Now however the course of events has led the Apostle to think of all Jewish Christians collectively, and all Gentile Christians collectively, and of both these two multitudes of men as now made one in the strictest sense, “one new man”. But this fusion is no mere negative or destructive process. To take away the distinction of Jew and Gentile without putting anything better in its place would have been deadly retrogression, not progress: fusion takes place because Jewish and Gentile believers alike are members of a single new society held together by a yet more solemn consecration than the old, and that new society is called “the Ecclesia”: in other words for Christians it is true to say that there is one Ecclesia, as well as to say that there are many Ecclesiae.142
It would seem accordingly that to St Paul, when writing this Epistle, “the Ecclesia” was a kind of symbol or visible expression of that wondrous ‘mystery’, to use his own word, which had been hidden throughout the ages but was now made manifest, that the Gentiles were fellow-heirs and of the same body, and partakers of the same promises in Christ Jesus through the Gospel, and hence that it was likewise a symbol or visible expression of the Wisdom, as he calls it, by which God was working out His purpose through diversities of ages and by means which seemed for the time to foil Him. This subject is in some respects more fully expounded in Rom. ix.-xi., but without clear mention of the Ecclesia. It is probably in reference to it that St Paul speaks (iii. 10) of the “manifoldly diverse” (or resourceful πολυποίκιλος) wisdom of God, as being made known to the heavenly powers through the Ecclesia, i.e. through beholding the Ecclesia and considering the light which its very existence threw back on dark places of the world’s history in the past. Nay through the Apostle’s guarded words we may probably gather that the Ecclesia, with these associations attached to it, was to him likewise a kind of pledge for the complete fulfilment of God’s purpose in the dim future. Ideally the Ecclesia was coextensive with humanity: all who shared the manhood which Christ had taken were potentially members of the Ecclesia: its ideals were identical with the ideals of a cleansed and perfected 143humanity. In ascribing glory to Him who is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think according to the power which is inwrought in us, he lets us see (iii. 20 f.) what present facts were inspiring this reaching forward of hope, by adding “in the Ecclesia and in Christ Jesus (the Divine Head of the Ecclesia) unto all the generations of the age of the ages.”
But if the securing of the union of Jewish and Gentile Christians on equal terms was one cause of St Paul’s distinct recognition of the Ecclesia as one at this time, his position at Rome must have been another. Although his language in Romans shews that he had no intention of treating the community at Rome as having no legitimate position till he should give it some sort of Apostolic authorisation, he evidently did naturally feel that his function as Apostle of the Gentiles had a certain incompleteness till he had joined in Christian work and fellowship in the capital of the Gentile world, and brought the Roman community into closer relations of sympathy with other Christian communities through the bond of his own person. Writing now from Rome he could not have divested himself, if he would, of a sense of writing from the centre of earthly human affairs; all the more, since we know from the narrative in Acts xxii. that he was himself a Roman citizen, and apparently proud to hold this place in the Empire. 144Here then he must have been vividly reminded of the already existing unity which comprehended both Jew and Gentile under the bond of subjection to the Emperor at Rome, and similarity and contrast alike would suggest that a truer unity bound together in one society all believers in the Crucified Lord. Some generations were to pass before the Christian Ecclesia and the Roman Empire were to stand out visibly in the eyes of men as rivals and at last as deadly antagonists. But even in the Apostolic age the impressiveness of the Empire might well contribute to the shaping of the thoughts of a St Paul about his scattered fellow-believers.
Besides these two causes for the transition from the usage of applying the term Ecclesia only to an individual local community to this late use of it in the most comprehensive sense, we must not forget the biblical associations with the Ecclesia of Israel which were evidently suggestive of unity, and perhaps a similar mode of speech as regards the Christians of Palestine before the Antiochian Ecclesia had come into existence. But apparently these influences did not affect current usage till changed circumstances pointed to the use of a collective name.
The image of the body.
‘Ephesians’ contains however other definitions of the Ecclesia which are in like manner led up to by 145corresponding language in earlier Epistles. The most important of these is the image of the body. The cardinal passages are two, in 1 Cor. xii. and in Rom. xii.: the interesting but difficult allusion in 1 Cor. x. 16, 17 may be passed over. In 1 Cor. xii. St Paul deals with the vexed question of spiritual powers, and counteracts the disposition to treat the more exceptional and abnormal kinds of powers as peculiarly spiritual, by treating all powers as merely different modes of manifestation of the same Spirit, and each power as a gift bestowed on its recipient, with a view to what is expedient (πρὸς τὸ συμφέρον). From the Spirit and its manifestations he then descends to the recipients themselves. The reason, it is implied, why they have received different powers is because there are different functions to be discharged answering to these several powers; and the meaning of this difference of functions is explained by the fact that together they constitute a body, of which each is a different member “for (v. 13) in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether bond or free, and were all made to drink of one Spirit.” He points out that in a body the whole is dependent on the diversity of office of the several members, and that each member is dependent on the office of the other members. Then he adds, “But ye are a body of Christ (σῶμα Χριστοῦ), and members severally.” (The next verses we must come to presently.) Here evidently it is the Corinthian 146community by itself that is called a ‘body of Christ’: this depends not merely on the absence of an article but on ὑμεῖς, which cannot naturally mean “all ye Christians.”
In Rom. xii. 3-5 all is briefer, but the ideas are essentially the same. The central verse is, “As in one body we have many members, and all the members have not the same office (action), so we the many are one body in Christ, and severally members one of another.” Here the language used is not formally applied to the Roman community in particular: but the context shews that St Paul is still thinking of local communities, and of the principles which should regulate the membership of the Roman community, as of all others.
In ‘Ephesians’ the image is extended to embrace all Christians, and the change is not improbably connected with the clear setting forth of the relation of the Body to its Head which now first comes before us. In the illustrative or expository part of the passage of 1 Cor. indeed (v. 21) the head is mentioned; but only as one of the members, and nothing answers to it in what is said of the body of Christ and its members. And again in the rather peculiar language of v. 12 (οὕτως καὶ ὁ χριστός) Christ seems to be represented by a natural and instructive variation of the image, as Himself constituting the whole body (in accordance with the Pauline phrase ἐν Χριστῷ), without reference positively or negatively to 147the head. This limitation was the more natural in these two cases because in both the main purpose was rather a practical than a doctrinal one, the repression of vanities and jealousies by vivid insistence on the idea of diversity and interdependence of functions. The comparison of men in society to the members of a body was of course not new. With the Stoics in particular it was much in vogue. What was distinctively Christian was the faith in the One baptizing and life-giving Spirit, the one uniting body of Christ, the one all-working, all-inspiring God.
In ‘Ephesians’ and Colossians the change comes not so much by an expansion or extension of the thought of each local Ecclesia as a body over a wider sphere as by way of corollary or application, so to speak, of larger and deeper thoughts on the place of the Christ in the universal economy of things, antecedent not only to the Incarnation but to the whole course of the world. According to St Paul, as Christ “is before all things and all things (τὰ πάντα) in Him consist” (Col. i. 17), so also it was God’s purpose in the course of the ages “to sum up all things in Him, the things in the heavens and the things on the earth” (ἀνακεφαλαιώσασθαι Eph. i. 10: cf. Col. i. 20). Part of this universal primacy of His (πρωτεύων Col. i. 18), involved in His exaltation to the right hand of God as the completion of His Resurrection, was (Eph. i. 22 f.) that God “gave Him as Head over all things to the Ecclesia which is His body, the fulfilment of 148Him who is fulfilled all things in all”; or as in Col. (i. 18) “Himself is the Head of the body, the Ecclesia.” The relation thus set forth under a figure is mutual. The work which Christ came to do on earth was not completed when He passed from the sight of men: He the Head, needed a body of members for its full working out through the ages: part by part He was, as St Paul says, to be fulfilled in the community of His disciples, whose office in the world was the outflow of His own. And on the other hand His disciples had no intelligible unity apart from their ascended Head, who was also to them the present central fountain of life and power.
Here, at last, for the first time in the Acts and Epistles, we have “the Ecclesia” spoken of in the sense of the one universal Ecclesia, and it comes more from the theological than from the historical side; i.e. less from the actual circumstances of the actual Christian communities than from a development of thoughts respecting the place and office of the Son of God: His Headship was felt to involve the unity of all those who were united to Him. On the other hand it is a serious misunderstanding of these Epistles to suppose, as is sometimes done, that the Ecclesia here spoken of is an Ecclesia wholly in the heavens, not formed of human beings. In the closest connexion with the sentences just read St Paul in both Epistles goes on to dwell on the contrast between the past and the present state of the Gentiles 149to whom he was writing (and in Eph. ii. 3, in the spirit of the early chapters of Romans, he intercalates a similar contrast as true of Jewish converts like himself), and describes these Gentiles as now “made alive with the Christ, and raised with Him, and made with Him to sit in the heavenly regions in Christ Jesus”; — difficult words enough, but clearly turning on the spiritual union of men actually on earth with One called their Head in the heavens. Moreover this passage of Colossians, by what it says (i. 20) of His making peace through the blood of His Cross, compared with Eph. ii. 13-18, shews that this new language about the Ecclesia was really in part suggested by the new assurance that Jew and Gentile, those near and those far off, were truly brought together in the one Christian brotherhood.
Once more the identity of the Ecclesia before spoken of as ‘the body of the Christ’ with actual men upon earth, is implied in Col. i. 24, when St Paul says, ” Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake (i.e. assuredly, for the sake of you Gentiles), and then goes on “and fill up on my part that which is lacking of the afflictions of the Christ in my flesh for His body’s sake which is the Ecclesia, whereof I was made a minister, according to the dispensation of God which was given me to youward” etc.150
Husband and Wife.
Again the unity of the Ecclesia finds prominent expression in various language used by St Paul on the relation of husband and wife (Eph. v. 22-33). The conception itself he inherited from the later prophets of the Old Testament, especially with reference to the covenant established between Jehovah and His people at Mount Sinai, e.g. Jer. ii. 2; Ez. xvi. 6o; Is. liv. 5 “Thy Maker is thine husband; the Lord of hosts is His name and the Holy One of Israel is thy Redeemer; the God of the whole earth shall He be called.” Language of this kind would easily fit itself on in due time to the Ecclesia of Israel for Greek-speaking Jews, or the ‘ēdhāh (fem.) for Hebrew-speaking Jews: it is involved in the allegorical interpretation eventually given by Jewish commentators to the Book of Canticles, but there is no reason to think that this interpretation was as old as the Apostolic age. St Paul had already applied the prophetic language or idea to single local Ecclesiae, that of Corinth (2 Cor. xi. 2 “I espoused you to one husband to present you to him a chaste virgin, even to the Christ”), and implicitly that of Rome (Rom. vii. 4). He had also in 1 Cor. xi. 3 expressed the relation of husband to wife by the image of the head, associating it in the same breath with a Headship of the Christ in relation to each man or husband, and a Headship of God in relation to Christ. The lowest of these three headships 151was probably suggested by the story of the origin of Eve in Genesis; and the intermediate Headship was a natural application of the idea of the Christ as the second Adam, the true spiritual Head of the human race and so of each member of it: the word ‘κεφαλὴ’ doubtless borrowing for the purpose something of the largeness and variation of sense of the Heb. rō’sh.
Now, in Eph. v. these various thoughts are brought together in order to set forth what high duties were by the Divine constitution of the human race involved in the relations of husband and wife. That Headship of the human race which was implied in the Christ’s being called the Second Adam carried with it a fortiori His Headship of the Ecclesia, that chosen portion of the human race, representative of the whole, which is brought into close relation to Himself, and is the immediate object of His saving and cherishing and purifying love, attested once for all by His willing self-sacrifice. St Paul’s primary object in these twelve verses is to expound marriage, not to expound the Ecclesia: but it is no less plain from his manner of writing that the thought of the Ecclesia in its various higher relations was filling his mind at the time, and making him rejoice to have this opportunity of pouring out something of the truth which seemed to have revealed itself to him. If we are to interpret “mystery” in the difficult 32nd verse, as apparently we ought to do, by St Paul’s usage, i.e. take it as a Divine age-long secret only now at last disclosed, 152he wished to say that the meaning of that primary institution of human society, though proclaimed in dark words at the beginning of history, could not be truly known till its heavenly archetype was revealed, even the relation of Christ and the Ecclesia, which just before has been once more called His body, and individual Christians members of that body. Taking this passage in connexion with the various references to the Ecclesia which have preceded in the Epistle, it may be regarded as morally certain that the Ecclesia here intended is not a local community, but the community of Christians as a whole.153
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