The Holy Trinity and the Church: You Can’t Have One Without the Other

Jesus and the Father: Distinct, but Inseparable

Yesterday’s Gospel is a great one, and one line of it is pretty famous. It’s John 14:1-12, in which Jesus said to His Disciples:

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You have faith in God; have faith also in Me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If there were not, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to Myself, so that where I am you also may be. Where I am going you know the way.”

Thomas said to Him, “Master, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?Jesus said to him, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me. If you know Me, then you will also know My Father. From now on you do know Him and have seen Him.”

Philip said to him, “Master, show us the Father, and that will be enough for us.”
Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you for so long a time and you still do not know Me, Philip? Whoever has seen Me has seen the Father. How can you say,‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I speak to you I do not speak on My own. The Father who dwells in Me is doing his works. Believe Me that I am in the Father and the Father is in Me, or else, believe because of the works themselves. Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever believes in Me will do the works that I do, and will do greater ones than these, because I am going to the Father.”

This concept that Jesus and God the Father are inseparable is something He comes back to repeatedly.  Note what He’s not saying: that He and the Father are indistinguishable.  There’s a heresy, called Modalism or Sabellianism, that says the Trinity is simply One Person operating under different forms or masks: that God the Father is God the Son is God the Holy Spirit.  This is false.  In fact, Jesus begins this teaching by distinguishing Himself from His Father: “You have faith in God; have faith also in Me.” So you can coherently speak of the Father and the Son as distinct Persons of the Trinity.  But the fact that they are distinct and distinguishable does not mean that they can be severed. Jesus makes it clear to Philip that you can’t have Jesus without the Father, or the Father without Jesus.  The Trinity is a package deal.

God and the Church: Distinct, but Inseparable

So far, everything I’ve said it pretty non-controversial to mainstream Christians.  But what Catholics see Christ doing in Scripture is drawing the Church into that package deal. And this is problematic for those folks who claim that they’ve got such a great relationship with Jesus that they don’t need the Church. Let’s look at the Scriptural evidence.  First, there’s Luke 16:10, where Jesus says to the seventy-two, “Whoever listens to you listens to Me; whoever rejects you rejects Me; but whoever rejects Me rejects Him who sent Me.” So just as you can’t reject Jesus without rejecting the Father, you can’t reject the Church without rejecting Jesus.  That’s a straightforward, but provocative, claim.

Next, there’s John 17. Like John 14, this is from the Last Supper discourse, in which Jesus imparts some final words of wisdom before His Death.  By John 17, however, He’s switched from speaking to the Apostles to praying for them, and in doing so, prays for us as well:

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in Me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as You are in Me and I am in You. May they also be in Us so that the world may believe that You have sent Me. I have given them the glory that You gave Me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and You in Me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that You sent Me and have loved them even as You have loved Me.

Father, I want those You have given Me to be with Me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory You have given Me because You loved Me before the creation of the world.
Righteous Father, though the world does not know You, I know You, and they know that You have sent Me. I have made You known to them, and will continue to make You known in order that the love You have for Me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.”

That’s pretty blatant, and pretty extreme: “May they also be in Us” is a radical prayer for God the Son to ask of God the Father.  It’s easy to gloss over it in when we read this just as a prayer for unity. It’s something far beyond that.

There are a variety of other passages on point, too.  Paul describes the relationship between Christ and the Church as that of a Husband and Wife who have become One Flesh, then summarizes it as a “profound Mystery,” the Greek word for sacrament (Eph. 5:32).  Elsewhere, He describes the Church as Christ’s own Body (1 Cor. 12:27).  This last analogue is a helpful one for understanding the Mystery. We can distinguish between ourselves and our bodies – we can have a willing spirit and an exhausted body, for example (Mark 14:38) – but we can’t be separated from our bodies during our time on Earth. Where we go, our body goes.  You and your body are a package deal, and your body is a part of who you are.

That’s why when Saul “began to destroy the Church” (Acts 8:3), Christ says, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute Me?” (Acts 9:4), and says of Himself: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” So you can’t persecute the Church without persecuting Christ.  Scripture’s pretty clear, then. Just as you can’t accept Jesus or the Father, and reject the other, neither can you accept God or the Church and reject the other.  Jesus has drawn the Church into the Trinity, into the Us He refers to in John 17.

The early Church was also really clear on this point.  Notice that the first passage above  is where Jesus famously calls Himself, “The Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:6). Then look at what the early Christians called themselves: “The Way” (Acts 19:9; Acts 24:14; Acts 24:22). So from the time of the Apostles, the Church was declaring Herself indispensable to salvation. To reject the Church is to reject the Way, the only way to the Father.

What Specific Role Does the Church Play? Our Mother.

So what role does the Church play in salvation, then? The clearest answer comes from Revelation 12:1-2. There we see a Woman enthroned in Heaven with a crown of twelve stars — the Woman who gave birth to Christ. Catholics view this as a symbol of both Mary and the Church, just as the twelve stars represent both the tribes of Israel and the Disciples (Luke 22:29-30). The Woman is the enemy of the devil, identified here as a dragon (see Genesis 3:15), and we’re told: “Then the dragon was enraged at the Woman and went off to wage war against the rest of Her offspring—those who keep God’s commands and hold fast their testimony about Jesus.” So the devout followers of Christ are considered children of the Woman. This is one reason why Catholics refer to “Mother Mary” and “Mother Church” – it’s how Scripture describes our relationship with Mary and the Church! Again, this is all very much the teaching of the early Church.  St. Cyprian of Carthage, who lived in the first half of the 200s (dying in 258 A.D.), famously wrote, “he can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the Church for his Mother.

Which Church?

The early Church was clear about what She meant by “Church.” Cyprian, in the same treatise I just quoted, explains that while all Twelve were Apostles, Peter was specially chosen by Christ, “that He might set forth unity, He arranged by His authority the origin of that unity, as beginning from one.” In support, he quotes Matthew 16:18-19 and John 21:15.  Cyprian’s point seems irrefutible: if the earthly Church has numerous authorities of equal rank, there can be no lasting unity. If there were even two earthly heads of the Church, there would come a point at which the two men couldn’t agree on a direction, and the Church would split. Optatus of Milevis, writing in the 360s, makes the same point in Chapter 1 of Book II of Against the Donatists:

You cannot then deny that you do know that upon Peter first in the City of Rome was bestowed the Episcopal Cathedra, on which sat Peter, the Head of all the Apostles (for which reason he was called Cephas), that, in this one Cathedra, unity should be preserved by all, lest the other Apostles might claim—-each for himself—-separate Cathedras, so that he who should set up a second Cathedra against the unique Cathedra would already be a schismatic and a sinner.

Other Fathers say the exact same thing — the Church to which they refer is that One headed by the successor of Peter, the Catholic Church.  She is the Way, indispensable to salvation, by the mysterious design of God.

What Does All of this Mean?

What this means is that everyone who have ever been saved is saved is saved by Jesus Christ through His Catholic Church. So those who reject the Catholic Church reject God, while those who accept God accept the Catholic Church. This is a two-way street, and it leaves open the question of those who try to have Christ without the Catholic Church.  Christ captures this tension well, in Matthew 12:30 and Luke 11:23 declaring that those who are not with Him are against Him, and in Luke 9:50 and Mark 9:40 declaring that those who are not against us are with us.

Just as those Old Testament Jews who earnestly sought after God the Father were unknowingly following God the Son, so too there are those whose union with Jesus brings them into a union they don’t recognize with the Catholic Church. And just as God promised in the Old Covenant to count the faithful Gentiles as Israelites (Psalm 87:4-6, Hosea 1:11), the same is true in the New Covenant (Romans 9:25).  As Catholics, we should pray for our Orthodox and Protestant separated brethren in Christ that they are both (a) drawn into formal union with the Catholic Church, and (b) counted by God as members of His Catholic Church in spite of themselves.

Finally, remember the example of St. Paul.  As a Pharisee, he was killing Christians out of a misguided zeal for God.  In His Justice, God could have damned him.  He wasn’t just anti-Catholic, but murderously so.  But instead, Jesus Christ showed His Mercy on the road to Damascus in Acts 9. We shouldn’t write anybody off, no matter how anti-Catholic they seem. God knows their heart, and the motives for their actions.

If you want more on these subjects, I’ve written at greater length elsewhere on salvation outside of the Church, the Church as the Body and Bride of Christ, and the Woman in Revelation 12.

Update: It turns out, Carl Olson beat me to the punch with a better article.


  1. “As a Pharisee, he was killing Christians out of a misguided zeal for God. In His Justice, God could have damned him. He wasn’t just anti-Catholic, but murderously so. But instead, Jesus Christ showed His Mercy on the road to Damascus in Acts 9. We shouldn’t write anybody off, no matter how anti-Catholic they seem.”

    Nicely put.


  2. But till Cyprian comes along all of this works when we define church as the collective community of the saved, that is the collective community of those who listen to the teaching of the apostles and of Christ. That group can be seen as Christ’s “body” just as easily as the Catholic Church can be. And “the Way” seems to me just to mean the faith, not the structural church.

    Or is all this addressed in the linked to posts at the bottom?

  3. HocCogitat,

    Where do you see anyone taking that interpretation of “Church” prior to Cyprian? I see a lot of Early Church Fathers who take a very structural view of the Church. For example:

    (1) Pope Clement I wrote to the Corinthians, ordering them to reinstate the priests that they discharged. This letter, called “the First Epistle of Clement,” is one of the two or three oldest Christian documents outside the New Testament — it may be older than the Book of Revelation, and some date it pre-100 A.D. In it, Pope Clement clearly speaks of a hierarchy, and talks at length about how the bishops on down to the deacons were appointed by the Apostles to continue the work of Christ, and must be obeyed by the laity (See particularly Chapter 40-44).

    (2) St. Ignatius of Antioch’s Letter to the Magnesians, written in the first decade of the second century (c. 107-110), likely within a few years of the death of the Apostle John, talks at great length about the hierarchy. In Chapter 4 he condemns Christians who act independently of the bishop, and labels this as a deadly sin in Chapter 5. Chapter 7 calls us all to follow our bishops.

    (3) Conversely, in his Letter to the Ephesians, Ignatius says, “Hence it is fitting for you to set yourselves in harmony with the mind of the bishop, as indeed you do. For your noble presbytery, worthy of God, is attuned to the bishop, even as the strings to a lyre.” In Chapter 6 of this letter, he calls for Christians to obey their bishop as they would Christ. That’s as hierarchical as you can get.

    (4) In Ignatius’ Letter to the Smyrnaeans, he writes, “Wherever the bishop appears, there let the people be; as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not lawful to baptize or give communion without the consent of the bishop. On the other hand, whatever has his approval is pleasing to God. Thus, whatever is done will be safe and valid.”

    All of this is, as I’ve said, quite hierarchical. And the other Church Fathers I’m aware of from the first three centuries of Christianity, are all the same way. Those are just four of the oldest extra-Biblical Christian texts.

    Scripture itself supports the same conclusion. Bishops are called Shepherds and Overseers (the word from which “bishop” derives), and are told that they’re put in authority by God Himself (see, e.g., Acts 20:28). Shepherd and Overseer are both Divine titles (1 Peter 2:25). And Proverbs 6:7 equates “Overseer” with “Commander” and “Ruler.” The point is, “Overseer” is a wimpy title in modern parlance, but not in the New Testament. These men are called to manage God’s Household (Titus 1:7), but to do so in a Christ-like manner. He’s to be a living embodiment of Christ for the flock.

    By the way, “Shepherd,” the other title given to bishops in Acts 20:28, is just as hierarchical, unless you think that the shepherd and sheep are equally in charge out in the field.

    What are the early Christian texts supporting the opposite conclusion – that the Church is just “the collective community,” and not an organized and structured Body?


  4. Even if Carl Olson’s was better (and its not) this was worthwhile. This topic is so, so important. The Wayne Jacobsen position is, in my experience, the primary modern American heresy. There are still protesting Protestants out there, but they seem to me far outnumbered by the ecclesial minimalists like Jacobsen who see the Catholic church as a bunch of useless and dangerous, but not necessarily evil, additions to the faith. Its hard to even discuss Catholicism with them because they are neither particularly angry with it nor at all understanding of why anybody would think it important to join it.

    The start of the rot for them, I think, is non-sacramentalism. When church is just, as Jacobsen puts it, a “gather[ing] on Sunday mornings to watch a praise concert and listen to a teaching” it is hard to imagine God being so arbitrary as to insist on our being there. There’s nothing special about the place or what they do there to distinguish it from your own living room. So I love to see it pointed out, as you do here, that the the NT model of the church is of a thing that is both the governor of the sacraments and a sacrament herself. Its hard to square non-sacramentalism with that.

  5. Robert,

    Thanks! I think there’s room on the Net for both this post and Olson’s, since as you said, it’s an important topic.

    Catholicism is easy enough to present to someone who understands that Catholicism claims to be True, and is either right or wrong on this belief. But to the folks (both Catholic and Protestant) who treat it as simply a matter of preference, it’s harder to know even where to begin.

    The point I generally start with is that Christ troubled Himself to found a Church He called “My Church” (Mt. 16:17-19), so it was clearly important enough for Him. But like you said, that the Church is, in a particular sense, a sacrament Herself is something which should immediately give pause to the ecclesial minimalists.

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