Ecclesial Anatomy

This weekend in prayer, I ran across this small quote from St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians: “Let us profess the truth in love and grow to the full maturity of Christ the head. Through him the whole body grows, and with the proper functioning of the members joined firmly together by each supporting ligament, builds itself up in love.” (Ephesians 4:15-16)

This is not the only place where St. Paul discusses Christ as the “Head” and the church/believers as “the body”. For example see Col 1:18 and compare with 1 Cor 12:12–27 and Romans 12:4–5 where Christ is identified with the whole body, including the head. (The full scriptural quotes are provided below for your consideration)

The imagery may derive from ancient views in medicine, the head coordinating and caring for the body, each ligament (perhaps the ministers of Eph 4:11: “And he gave some as apostles, others as prophets, others as evangelists, others as pastors and teachers“) supporting the whole. But as at Eph 2:19–22, where the temple is depicted as a growing organism, there may also be the idea here of growing toward the capstone, Christ.

So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the holy ones and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the capstone. Through him the whole structure is held together and grows into a temple sacred in the Lord; in him you also are being built together into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit. (Eph 2:19-22)

I spent a little time reading commentaries from scholars and from online sources. It was interesting to me that many of the commentaries focused on just the growth of the individual person “growing toward the capstone, Christ.”  While I think that is a valid understanding, it is an incomplete understanding. I think that “both/and” applies here. While the individualistic aspect is valid, there is also a larger point: “Through [Christ] the whole body grows, and with the proper functioning of the members joined firmly together by each supporting ligament, builds itself up in love.”  I think the “supporting ligament” is pointing to that which holds the individuals together, working together, acting as a whole even as one particular component does its part.

Consider a runner whose efforts on the track or cross-country are fluid and effortless – a joy to watch. Everyone one of us has this small ring of cartilage (labrum) that follows the outside rim of the socket of our hip joint. In addition to cushioning the hip joint, the labrum acts like a rubber seal or gasket to help hold the ball at the top of your thighbone securely within your hip socket. Simple thing; a small thing. Tear the labrum and what was once fluid and graceful becomes painful, hesitant. Swimmers, back strokers specifically, have the parallel problem of labrum tears in shoulders.

While one could make the argument that things link ligaments or labrums are others in the community, I think it is also easy to consider that such things are part of the parish, the congregation, the denomination and all the attending institutions. Every tradition has its own “ligaments” that are binding to help the whole “body” be what Christ would have it be. Every body has its own construction, its own strengths, its own peculiarities.

Certainly in the Christian tradition we would hold Sacred Scripture and its understanding as a “ligament” (excuse the poor analogy), the working of the Holy Spirit too! But perhaps beyond that we begin to diverge a bit. We Catholics understand Divine Revelation to be Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition (not every little “t” tradition we Catholics have – and we have a whole lot of them). We would add the succession of bishops including the Bishop of Rome. We have liturgical patrimony, the writings of women and men over the ages, musical patrimony (borrowed from lots of traditions these days), the Lectionary of Readings, and the list goes on. We even have our version of church discipline manuals (Methodists) called Canon Law. We are world-wide and yet organized into parishes and dioceses. The list goes on and on.

When any one particular “ligament” works well, it is never noticed. When it doesn’t the pain radiates into many parts of the Body.

Anyway…just some thoughts for a weekday morning.


Colossians 1:18 – “He is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things he himself might be preeminent.”

Colossians 12:12-27: “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.”

Roman 12:4-5: “For as in one body we have many parts, and all the parts do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ and individually parts of one another.”

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