Sunday, October 20, 2013


The Church as the Mystical Body of Christ

Originally my term paper for Catholic Distance University

These days many people believe that Jesus can be taken separately from his Church - that "religion" distracts us from our relationship with the Lord - but this varies drastically from St. Paul's understanding of the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ. It is very popular, especially in our modern era, for many Christians to insist that the best way to know Christ is to reject "religion". For instance, a very popular video on the Internet in 2012 showed a young man insisting that he loves Jesus, but hates religion - and much to the approval of those around him. Although I am sure he is being sincere, it is important to understand that this system of thought attempts to create a non-sacramental system devoid of Scriptural and historical backing. To many in the modern era, “religion” - specifically the Church - is a man-made system of rules and traditions that has very little to do with Jesus. Pope-Emeritus Benedict XVI acknowledged this attitude when he said, “Many people perceive Christianity as something institutional - rather than as an encounter with Christ - which explains why they don't see it as a source of joy.”1 When the Church is perceived as merely an institution telling us what to do, we can understand the complaints of those who reject “religion”. However, through an examination of the letters of St. Paul we can see that the Apostle to the Gentiles was convinced - starting at the moment of his conversion on the road to Damascus - that the Church is indeed the mystical Body of Christ and that the two cannot be separated.

Before he was St. Paul, the Jewish world knew him as Saul, a zealous Pharisee who spent his time persecuting the followers of Christ, dragging them from their homes, throwing them into prison, and condoning their execution (Acts 7:54-8:3). And yet, when Christ appeared to him on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-6) he didn’t ask Saul, “Why are you persecuting my followers?” Jesus asks him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? (Acts 9:4)” From the beginning Christ was revealing to Saul that the Church and the Messiah were one.

St. Ignatius of Antioch, a student of the beloved apostle John, wrote that “Where there is Christ Jesus, there is the Catholic Church”.2 St. Paul agrees and explains to us that there is only one Christ, and therefore there is only one Church (1 Cor 12:12-31). He tells us that the People of God are to remain in one body, one faith, one baptism, and one Spirit (Eph 4:1-6). “By communicating His Spirit, Christ made His brothers, called together from all nations, mystically the components of His own Body (LG 7)”. As one Body, we are united with the saints and with the entire household of God (Eph 2:19). Although a human body is made up of many parts, all with different functions, they are still united as one body; likewise, St. Paul tells us that even though we are one body with many parts (Rom 12:4), we should also be of one mind and one voice (Rom 15:5-6) and avoid those who would cause schism (Romans 16:17) by confusing the masses through their trickery and deceitful scheming (Eph 4:14). St. Paul exhorts us to reject the divisions amongst us (1 Cor 1:10-13), imploring us to preserve the unity that Christ prayed for during the Last Supper (John 17:21-23). Being united in the Body of Christ, we should have the same love and care for one another that we have for our Lord, being ready and willing to always show one another the same mercy and forgiveness that the Head shows the Body. We enter into this union with Jesus and with one another through the sacrament of baptism, which St. Paul says is “the circumcision of Christ” (Col 2:11). We proclaim this unity between the Head and his Body most perfectly through the liturgy in the sharing of the Lord’s body and blood (John 6) in Holy Communion:

“The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one Bread.” (1 Cor 10:16-17)

Striving for unity, we ask the Lord at every Mass that those “who are nourished by the Body and Blood of your Son and filled with his Holy Spirit, may become one body, one spirit in Christ.”3 When we receive our Eucharistic Lord in a state of grace (1 Cor 11:27-30), he abides in us and we in him and therefore all with one another: “Abide in me, and I in you (John 15:4). He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him (John 6:56); if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever (John 6:51).”

When we remove ourselves from this unity of the Body through our sins and divisions, we are no longer proclaiming the Gospel with one voice. Jesus encouraged us to be united – one flock and one shepherd (John 10:16) – and never intended for there to be so many denominations and competing theologies in the Christian faith. “Such division openly contradicts the will of Christ, scandalizes the world, and damages the holy cause of preaching the Gospel to every creature” (UR, 1).

Throughout the writings of St. Paul, the faith is consistently described in a communal manner and not as the private, individualistic interpretation that many people currently adhere to; in fact, St. Paul routinely emphasized that the faith is a public one and that we should be working together as the People of God to evangelize the world, as well as to help one another during our pilgrimage on earth. St. Paul’s writings reject the idea that one person’s sins and trials are their own business and have no effect on the rest of us, telling us that “if one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together (1 Cor 12:25-26)”. Therefore, as one Body of Christ each member is united to one another in our achievements as well as our failures:

“Thus Christ unites all of us with himself and all of us with one another. In communion we receive Christ. But Christ is likewise united with my neighbor: Christ and my neighbor are inseparable in the Eucharist. And thus we are all one bread and one body. A Eucharist without solidarity with others is a Eucharist abused. And here we come to the root and, at the same time, the kernel of the doctrine on the Church as the Body of Christ, of the Risen Christ.”4

To reject the reality of a Church is to reject the very purpose for which Christ came to this world – to save all generations from the death of sin. To insist on the divisions of Christianity that exist today is to reject the writings of St. Paul and the priestly prayer of Jesus himself who asked that we all be one, united in one faith, one baptism, one Lord. “The Church, then, is God's only flock; it is like a standard lifted high for the nations to see it: for it serves all mankind through the Gospel of peace as it makes its pilgrim way in hope toward the goal of the fatherland above” (UR 2).

The holiness of the Church does not come from its sinful members, but from Christ himself. “As the nerves extend from the head to all parts of the human body and give them power to feel and to move, in like manner our Savior communicates strength and power to His Church” (MCC, 49). If Jesus wants us to be perfect like his father in heaven (Mat 5:48), the only way we can hope to respond to that commandment is through the graces he gives us, which are most fundamentally distributed by the Holy Spirit through the Church (CCC 1997). Christ established his Church on the rock of St. Peter (Mt 16:18-19), but this does not contradict the fact that Christ is still its Head. “For Peter in view of his primacy is only Christ's Vicar; so that there is only one chief Head of this Body, namely Christ, who never ceases Himself to guide the Church invisibly, though at the same time He rules it visibly, through him who is His representative on earth [the pope] (MCC, 40)”. Devoted to the teachings of the apostles’ (Acts 2:32), Christ assured that whoever hears them hears him (Luke 10:16). In animating his Church through the Holy Spirit (John 20:22), Christ gave his apostles and their successors (CCC 77) the authority to act in his name (Mat 28:18-20): such as to bind and loose (John 20:23), to excommunicate (1 Cor 5:5, 16:22, 1 Tim 1:20, Gal 1:8), to interpret Scripture (2 Tim 3:16-17, 2 Peter 1:20 ), to hear confessions (Jas 5:16), etc. Since we are of one Spirit which guides us in all truth (John 16:13), St. Paul refers to the Church as “the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15) and he implores Christians to hold onto the traditions he and the other apostles have passed on “whether by word of mouth or by letter” (1 Cor 11:2, 2 Tim 2:2, 2 Thess 2:15). In light of all of these things, St. Paul tells us to obey our leaders and submit to them “for they are keeping watch over [our] souls” (Heb 13:17). To insist that we can have Christianity without a Church, sacraments, and hierarchy would therefore contradict the writings of St. Paul.

Many people mistakenly see the Church’s teachings as only a mean, joyless set of rules, but that is a mistaken notion. It is out of love for God and for one another that we must live our lives according to the teachings of the Church. We try our best to live our lives a certain way because we’re no longer our own; as St. Paul writes, our "body is a temple of the Holy Spirit" and we should "therefore glorify God in [our] body" (1 Cor 6:12-20). St. Paul’s writings announce these truths with the call for Christians to conform their lives to Christ so that Jew & Gentile can live united as the holy people of God. “Paul’s description of the people of God confirms that they derive from every nation, that their faith is apostolic, that they are united together in one body, and that the Church is the holy temple of God.”5

Because Christ is holy, all members of his Body are called to be holy (Eph 5:25-27). “Holiness begins from Christ; and Christ is its cause. For no act conducive to salvation can be performed unless it proceeds from Him as from its supernatural source. (MCC, 51).” Since we are his Body, the Church becomes the holy people of God (LG, 12) because the Holy Spirit is her soul (CCC 797). “Christ alone can constitute the Church. Christ is the true giver of the sacraments.”6 It is Christ who through the Church baptizes, teaches, rules, looses, binds, offers, and sacrifices (MCC, 54):

“All sacraments are an encounter with Christ, who is himself the original sacrament. Baptism joins us with Christ. Confirmation gives us his Spirit. The Eucharist unites us with him. Confession reconciles us with Christ. Through the Anointing of the Sick, Christ heals, strengthens, and consoles. In the sacrament of Matrimony, Christ promises his love in our love and his fidelity in our fidelity. Through the sacrament of Holy Orders, priests have the privilege of forgiving sins and celebrating the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.”7

Our ability to love and sacrifice for one another is never through our own merits, but through the generosity and mercy of the Head to his Body. “He continually distributes in His body, that is, in the Church, gifts of ministries in which, by His own power, we serve each other unto salvation (LG 7)”; in this way we can live and die in Christ for one another (Rom 14:7). In doing Christ’s will and lovingly sharing with the entire Church the spiritual gifts he has given us, we unite ourselves to the Head in order to build up the Body (Eph 4:15-16).

Christ and his Church are therefore one and the members of his Body must live lives of holiness as Christ commanded us (Mat 5:48). “It is the will of Jesus Christ that the whole body of the Church, no less than the individual members, should resemble Him” (MCC, 47). As visible members of his Body, St. Paul reminds us how we were created in Jesus for good works (Eph 2:10) so as to serve one another and bring more people to him. If we are truly members of the Body of Christ, then our words and actions should reflect that we belong to him. St. Paul warns us that if we live lives of debauchery through acts such as adultery, fornication, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, heresies, and the like, then we will not inherit the kingdom of heaven (Gal 5:16-26) – this is because sinful acts cut us off from the graces of God. "Recognize, O Christian, your dignity, and being made a sharer of the divine nature go not back to your former worthlessness along the way of unseemly conduct. Keep in mind of what Head and of what Body you are a member" (CCC 1691).

Living a sinful life also damages our relationship with one another, causing us to focus more on ourselves that on loving our neighbor. When we treat one another as either objects for our amusement and pleasure, or as impediments to our success or happiness, we have attempted to destroy the dignity that each person holds as being created in the image and likeness of God (Gen. 1:26-27). We sever that unity which Christ prayed for and we choose our own selfishness over serving our brothers and sisters in the faith. Instead of this focus on the self through our sinfulness, as one Body of Christ we are to glorify him by our lives through the faith, love, and unity we share with one another and all mankind. “We really become united with the Risen Body of Christ and thereby are united with one another. The Church is not only a corporation like the State is, she is a body. She is not merely an organization but a real organism.”8 We therefore try to live the moral teachings of the Church, not to tell people what to do, but to reflect to the world a godly love for one another that exists within the Mystical Body of Christ.

The unity of one faith in one Body reunites the human race that was born of our first parents in Eden and separated from God and one another by sin. In following Christ through the Commandments he has entrusted to his Church, we become his brother and sister and mother (Mat. 12:50) because we have become part of him. As one human family, and especially as members of the one Mystical Body of Christ, we should therefore be “seeking the face of God in everything, everyone, all the time…and adoring the presence of Jesus, especially in the lowly appearance of bread, and in the distressing disguise of the poor.”9

After reflecting upon the teachings of St. Paul, we can see that those who believe “religion”, the Church, and the Scriptures can be separated from faith in Jesus are confused and sadly mistaken. It is unfortunate that the letters of St. Paul have been distorted so as to reinforce a rejection of the unity of faith that should be found in the Mystical Body of Christ, just as the first pope had warned us about (2 Peter 3:15-18). It is clear from the writings of St. Paul that he taught that the Church is the one Body of Christ and that our faith should not be divided. We believe that the Lord’s Church is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic because Christ and his Church can never be separated by mankind. “These four attributes belong only to the one Catholic Church because the existence of a second Church would deny the unity of the one Body of Christ.”10 Our care and love for one another should be our testimony that we belong to Christ and that we live united in him as his body. Through the Scriptures and Tradition of the Church, the same faith that the Apostles taught is passed onto us and all generations until Christ comes again. Through prayerfully studying the writings of St. Paul, we can come to a deeper appreciation for the faith and our duty as Christians to live united as one Body, one Church. All of St. Paul’s theology on the Body of Christ can be summed up by a statement from St. Joan of Arc that she made at her trial: “About Jesus Christ and the Church, I simply know they're just one thing, and we shouldn't complicate the matter” (CCC 795). St. Paul couldn’t have said these words better himself.

1. Benedict XVI, “The Mystical Body of Christ Comes Alive in the Sacraments” (10 December 2008, accessed 5 April 2013); available from
2. St. Ignatius of Antioch, “Epistle of Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans” (circa 110 AD, accessed 5 April 2013); available from
3. Missale Romanum, 3rd Edition, “Epiclesis, Eucharistic Prayer III” (2002, accessed 5 April 2013); available from
4. Benedict XVI. Ibid.
5. Taylor Marshall, The Catholic Perspective on Paul (Dallas, TX: St. John Press. 2010), 45.
6. Benedict XVI, Ibid.
7. Youth Catechism of the Catholic Church (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press. 2011), 193.
8. Benedict XVI, Ibid.
9. Blessed Mother Teresa (A. Bojaxhiu), “In the Heart of the World: Thoughts, Stories, and Prayers”, (16 March 2010, accessed 5 April 2013); available from

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Bojaxhiu, A. (2010). In the Heart of the World: Thoughts, Stories, and Prayers. Retrieved from
Catechism of the Catholic Church (2011). Retrieved from
Decree on Ecumenism (1964). Retrieved from
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Ignatius (110). Epistle of Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans. Retrieved from
Marshall, T. (2010). The Catholic Perspective on Paul. (Dallas, TX: St. John Press. 2010).
Missale Romanum (2002). Epiclesis, Eucharistic Prayer III. Retrieved from
Pius XII (1943). Mistici Corporis Christi. Retrieved from
Youth Catechism of the Catholic Church (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press. 2011).