The notion of the church as the totus Christus, a notion commonly connected to the image of the body of Christ seems to imply that the church is an entity, a subject. However, is this the case? Volf says no:
The church, both as the universal communio sanctorum and the local church, is not a collective subject, but rather a communion of persons, though the latter are indeed not self-contained subjects, but rather are interdependent in a twofold fashion. First, they live only insofar as Christ lives in them through the Spirit (see Gal. 2:20; 1 Cor. 6:19). Second, the Christ lives in them through the multiple relations they have with one another (see 1 Cor. 12:12-13). Yet even though Christians are bound into this complex network of relationships, they still remain subjects; indeed, their being subjects is inconceivable without these relationships (see Gal. 2:20). This is why one must conceive the “one” who Christians are in Christ (Gal. 3:28; see Eph. 2:14-16) not as a “unified person” who has “transcended all differentiation,” but rather precisely as a differentiated unity, as a communion, of those who live in Christ.
Accordingly, the universal church is not a subject that is actualized and acts within the local church, nor is it indeed identical with the local church. Christ, however, who is present in the local church through his Spirit and in this way makes it into the church in a proleptic experience of the eschatological gathering of the entire people of God, connects every local church with all other churches of God, indeed with the entire communion of those who through the Spirit are “in Christ.”
In other words, on this view, the church is not a collective subject, let alone a sort of “total person” co-constituting Christ. Rather the church is a nexus of relationships actualized by the gracious presence of Christ in the Spirit that is an eschatological anticipation of the final union of of all created reality in Christ (cf. Eph 1:10). Thus the church is seen as a Trinitarian event (of the radical outpouring of grace), which always takes the form of persons being given to one another in and through Christ’s own agape.
So, given what we’ve seen from Volf, how does he ultimately describe the church as the body of Christ? In a rather trinitarian way:
Christ cannot be identical with the church. An element of juxtaposition obtains between Christ and the church that precisely as such is constitutive for their unity. Only as the bride can the church be the body of Christ, and not vice versa. To be sure, one should not understand the genitive Christos (“of Christ”) exclusively in the possessive since (“the body that belongs to Christ”), but rather must also interpret it in and explicative sense (“the body that is Christ”). Otherwise the church and Christ would be merely juxtaposed and their specific oneness suppressed (see 1 Cor. 6:15; 12:1-13). The identification of Christ and the church however — “your bodies [are] members of Christ” — derives from the union between Christ and Christians, a union that cannot be conceived in physical categories, however articulated, but rather in personal categories, and a union for which the enduring distinction between the two is of decisive importance. Thus the identification of Christ and the church stands for the particular kind of personal communion between Christ and Christians, a communion perhaps best described as “personal interiority”; Christ dwells in every Christian and is internal to that person as a person. Rather than being thereby suspended, the specifically Christian juxtaposition of Christ and Christians is actually first constituted through the Holy Spirit. If this is correct, then Paul’s statement that “all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28) does not mean that this “one” is “Christ himself”; they are “one” insofar as they are “in Christ” or insofar as “Christ” dwells “within” them.
Thus, for Volf, to call the church the body of Christ is to speak of the personal indwelling of Christ, by the Spirit in all Christians, thus binding them together relationally as a communion of persons. The language of the body is thus one of divine indwelling and relational giving. We are the body of Christ in that Christ, in the Spirit dwells in us and gives us to one another in the same mode of descending, self-giving love that Christ himself embodys as the ikon of the Trinity in the world.
The notion of the body of Christ seems to point towards and organic connection between Christ and the members of the church as constituting some sort of monopersonal identity. The notion of a body and its members seems to imply such a relation of organic oneness. However, this is not necessarily the case, and Paul’s language 1 Corinthians actually doesn’t seem to lend itself in this direction.
As Volf observes, the need to view the metaphor of the body organically is bound to understanding the metaphor exclusively through physicality. Thus, “if the physical nature of the body is eliminated, then the idea of the body no longer contains its organic character.” Here Volf cites Robert Gundry’s critique of J.A.T. Roberson who argues that the body of Christ in Paul must be understood in a non-physical manner. Thus, as Paul argues, “the Christian is ‘one spirit with” the Lord (1 Cor. 6:17), and precisely as such is a part of his ‘body.’” The nature of the body of Christ is profoundly qualified by the role of the Holy Spirit who brings about a miraculous spiritual union between persons bound together in relation to Christ.
So what then does the language of the body of Christ express then if not a physical, monopersonal identity? According to Volf, it expresses
certain soteriological and strictly ecclesiological relations that shape the very being of Christians; it stands for an inward and personal communion in the Holy Spirit between Christ and Christians (see 1 Cor. 6:17) or between Christ and the church (see Eph 5:22-33), and thereby also between Christians themselves (see Rom. 12:4-8; 1 Cor. 12:14-26). Precisely this metaphorical usage makes it possible for every local church to be called “the body of Christ” in an original sense. (p. 142)
This is not to say that the metaphor does not use organic or physical language, only to observe that what the metaphor indicates is not a monopersonal identity that fuses Christ and the church. Rather, the imagery, taken in the context of 1 Corinthians as a whole, speaks to the radical and intimate nature of the Spirit’s interpersonal indwelling of all Christians and the church as a whole which unites the church with Christ in a dynamic interpersonal relationship.
Miroslav Volf’s excellent volume on ecclesiology, After Our Likeness has a number of helpful and important comments about the nature of the imagery of the body of Christ. One all-important point that is often glossed over in ecclesiological discussion is about the metaphor’s, well, metaphorical character:
Every interpretation according to which the church is not strictly identical with the earthly body of Christ is construing the body of Christ as a metaphor, including the interpretation according to which the church as the body of Christ is identical with the resurrection body of Christ [. . .], since a body consisting of a multiplicity of human, corporeal persons can be called a “body” only in a figurative sense. The question whether or not Paul is using the body of Christ metaphorically is falsely put; the only correct query concerns the referent for that metaphor in Paul’s use. (p. 142n. 61)
This is a crucial point in relation to the common instance where one person accuses another having an “insufficient” ecclesiology because they resist understanding the body of Christ in a strongly physical manner. Everyone, whether they admit it or not views the church as the body of Christ as a metaphorical mode of theological speech. The question is which interpretation of that metaphor is most persuasive.