Here I just want to pose a question that I’ve reflected on for a while. In many textbooks on ecclesiology, or constructive theological ecclesiologies it’s common to organize the material in a “trinitarian” way under the rubrics of three biblical “metaphors” for the Church, namely the church as the people of God, the body of Christ and the temple of the Holy Spirit.
Now, as a heuristic way of organizing a textbook, perhaps this has some merit, and at least some good intentions. However, I submit that this way of dicing up an ecclesiology is fundamentally flawed. I’ll leave aside for the moment the apparently modalistic mood it bestows simply by nominating three images for the church based on the three persons of the Trinity. What I find more troubling is the fact that such a heuristic presupposes that these three “metaphors” occupy the same semantic and theological universe of meaning. Why is it immediately apparent that “people of God” and “body of Christ” are in any way two members of the same semantic method of speaking about the church?
What I want to question in particular is the assumption that these three images of the church are “metaphors” as commonly conceived. Literarily speaking, a metaphor is an indirect comparison between unrelated subjects that typically uses “is ” to join the first subjects. In other words, a metaphor describes a particular subject by that which it is not. Now, surely the image of the church “the people of God” is anything but a metaphor. That comes as close to a empirical description as we’re likely to be able to produce. Similarly, “temple of the Holy Spirit” is not technically a metaphor because what that term communicates is precisely that the Holy Spirit is present, that he indwells – tabernacles in – the church-community. The Church is the place of the Spirit’s presence, and thus is literally, not metaphorically his temple.
Now, the question I really want to raise though, is in regard to the image of the church as “the body of Christ.” In Scripture, obviously this term is used for a variety of things, namely the physical human body of Jesus of Nazareth, the bread of the Eucharist, and the church-community itself. Now, the question I want to pose is simply whether or not this stream of biblical language is a metaphor or not. What does it mean to talk about the church as the “body” of Christ? Is there any real, organic, physical reality that is expressed by this image? Or is it simply a metaphor for something else? If so what is it?
What does it mean for us to call the church Christ’s body?