Both Protestants and Catholic often refer to the Church as a Body: you’ll frequently hear Protestants use the term “body of believers,” while Catholics use terms like “the Mystical Body of Christ.” Despite using the same (or similar) terms, I think we mean different things.
Princeton’s WordNet has these as the top two definitions of “body”:
- body, organic structure, physical structure (the entire structure of an organism (an animal, plant, or human being)) “he felt as if his whole body were on fire”
- body (a group of persons associated by some common tie or occupation and regarded as an entity) “the whole body filed out of the auditorium”; “the student body”; “administrative body”
Roughly speaking, Catholics mean something near the first definition, and Protestants mean something near the second. The phrase “body of believers” draws up images quite similar to “student body,” as if all the faithful might crowd into a gymnasium for the Final Judgment. But describing the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ is drawn much more directly, and more faithfully, from Scripture.
Paul spells out the Mystical Body of Christ at length in 1 Corinthians 12:12-31, and it’s quite clearly an organized, structured institution, not simply a mass of people. The NIV version of 1 Cor. 12:12 is good, in that it begins, “The body is a unit,” a phrase which is far more apt for the first definition than the second. Here’s the NAB’s translation of this passage:
As a body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons, and we were all given to drink of one Spirit.
Now the body is not a single part, but many. If a foot should say, “Because I am not a hand I do not belong to the body,” it does not for this reason belong any less to the body. Or if an ear should say, “Because I am not an eye I do not belong to the body,” it does not for this reason belong any less to the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God placed the parts, each one of them, in the body as he intended. If they were all one part, where would the body be? But as it is, there are many parts, yet one body.
The eye cannot say to the hand, “I do not need you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I do not need you.” Indeed, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are all the more necessary, and those parts of the body that we consider less honorable we surround with greater honor, and our less presentable parts are treated with greater propriety, whereas our more presentable parts do not need this. But God has so constructed the body as to give greater honor to a part that is without it, so that there may be no division in the body, but that the parts may have the same concern for one another. If (one) part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part is honored, all the parts share its joy.
Now you are Christ’s body, and individually parts of it. Some people God has designated in the church to be, first, apostles; second, prophets; third, teachers; then, mighty deeds; then, gifts of healing, assistance, administration, and varieties of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work mighty deeds? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? Strive eagerly for the greatest spiritual gifts. But I shall show you a still more excellent way.
The references to organization and structure in this passage are too many to name: Paul even numbers the positions which are most important (“first, Apostles…”), and talks at great length about the different roles and responsibilities each of us are called to within the Body. In Colossians 2:18-19, Paul describes the Body of Christ in relationship to Her Head, Christ:
Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you for the prize. Such a person goes into great detail about what he has seen, and his unspiritual mind puffs him up with idle notions. He has lost connection with the Head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow.
So the Church is a Body supported and held together by God, and which grows at the will and pleasure of Our Lord. This isn’t a passing metaphor: Paul comes back to this particular vision of the Body in Ephesians 5. In Eph. 5:1-7, Paul says:
As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called— one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it.
And then, picking up in verses 11-16,
It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.
So the Body is formed by Christ, who has a proper place intended for each of us within the Body, and the Body is held together; we should therefore “keep the unity of the Spirit” since just as there is only one Holy Spirit, there is only one Church. Paul makes this point as well in Colossians 3:15. This particular point is vital: when church X claims it’s being “called” to do something in contradiction of what church Y claims it’s being called to do, that’s an attack on both the Oneness of the Church and on the Oneness of the Spirit. Since the Holy Spirit never contradicts Himself, and since He leads One Church, He’s obviously not urging disunity or factionalism. Early Protestants understood this, and argued that the Catholic Church was no longer even a Christian Church. They had to argue this, because if we are a Christian Church, splitting from the Church is a grave offense against the Holy Spirit.
The fundamental thing is this: when we refer to “the student body,” we’re not meaning to suggest that the students mystically form the body of the SGA president, or the Dean of the University. We simply mean that they make up a bulk of people, a “body of students” not unlike the Protestant “body of believers.” But when Paul says we are the Body of Christ, He does mean that somehow, we form Christ’s Body, and not simply a “body of believers.” So the understanding often taken by Protestants of this term, “Body of Christ” falls apart completely when you go back to the original text.
Two final points. First, one might balk that Catholics often refer to the Church as the “Mystical Body of Christ,” but this, too, is Biblically-derived. Paul refers to the Church as Body and Bride of Christ as a “mystery” (Ephesians 3:6) and a “profound mystery” (Eph. 5:32). Second, if you’re interested in what else Paul has to say about the Body of Christ, you should check out (in additions to the chapters I quoted from above), Romans 12:4-8, Ephesians 1:22-23, and Ephesians 2:19-22 (seriously, Paul talks a lot about the Body of Christ in that epistle). Finally, in 1 Corinthians 10:16-17, he explicitly ties the Eucharist (Communion with Christ’s sacramental Body) with participation in the Church (His Mystical Body). That’s a foretaste of 1 Corinthians 11 (about the Eucharist) and 1 Corinthians 12 (about the Church).
Once you read that, I think you’ll agree with me that at none of those points does Paul use “body” to just mean “group.” By way of contrast, check out 1 Timothy 4:14, “Do not neglect your gift, which was given you through a prophetic message when the body of elders laid their hands on you.” That’s a verse in which Paul probably means “body” simply as “group.” He’s not suggesting that priests make up a separate Body of Christ (obviously).