By Philip S. Moxom, Boston
It is the purpose of this paper to set forth, in certain chief aspects of it, the Christian doctrine of the pre-eminence of Christ in His relation to the Church. It is necessary, at the beginning, to present an exegetical basis for the doctrine, and to indicate the broad, true conception of the Church. The first chapter of Paul's letter to the Colossians furnishes sufficient material for our exegesis. In that chapter the apostle declares, in most impressive language, the supremacy of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. That supremacy is shown, as Lightfoot suggests, First: With reference to the natural creation, and Second: With reference to the spiritual creation, that is the Church. To the Son are ascribed successively, the manifestations of the invisible God, the precedence of all creatures, the creation of all things and beings in heaven and in earth, the sustentation of all creatures, and absolute pre eminence in all things as head of the Church which is His body. There is a marvellously close logical sequence in the apostle's thought as expressed in the 15th to 18th verses. The Son is " the image of the invisible God." This is His eternal function, to body forth and manifest the unseen and ineffable Godhead. The allusion here is not to the Incarnation and Christ's revelation of God in the flesh; but to the realization and concretion of the divine nature and personality in the Logos, who in the beginning " was with God and was GOD." Being "the image of the invisible God," he is therefore before all creatures, in the inadequate, laboring speech of the apostle, "the first-born of every creature." As the concrete and executive embodiment of deity, the Son is the Creator, giving existence and life to all creatures, celestial and terrestrial. Therefore "He is before all things, and by Him all things consist." Then, by His incarnation, and by His love triumphing over sin and death, He becomes the Head of the resultant spiritual creation — the Church which He has redeemed and wrought out of the chaos of a sinful race.
The thought of the apostle has an elevation to which it is difficult for us to rise. He is in no way hampered, as most thinkers often are, by the merely historical aspect of the Christ and of redemption. The appearance of Christ in time does not hide from his eye the eternal significance and grandeur of Christ's essential nature. The Jesus of Nazareth who, as the Messiah, draws to himself the faith and allegiance of his followers, is revealed to the apostle's mind as the Word whose glory was veiled for a time in the Messiah, but who, by the Ascension, has re-entered the deific state in which He dwelt before the world was. What He was before the period of His humiliation He is again, only with a new power and in a new relation. Before He was Creator; now, He is the Prince of Salvation, and the Head and Lord of a new humanity. He has ascended to the right hand of the Majesty in the heavens, and resumed His timeless mode of existence, being no more subject to death or any limitation, as when in the flesh; so that henceforth He is no longer the historical son of Mary, but the ever-living, ever-present Lord of the ages, ruling the world from the throne of heaven, and completing through the mediation of the Spirit His great work of salvation.
Upon earth is His Church, the body of His believing followers. He is in heaven, guiding and teaching and perfecting His Church. Yet earth, the sphere of the Church, and heaven, the sphere of His presence and glory, are not separated by spatial distance. In the heavenly state Christ is yet in His Church, the author and object of its faith, the life of its life, the Lord of its activity, and the norm and mould of its character. The Church is His body; He is the Church's head. As the head rules the body, inspires it, sustains it, produces and determines its activity, and is the seat of its life, so Christ is " all in all" to the Church.
Leaving now, for a moment, the exegetical basis of the doctrine to be unfolded, we must consider briefly the true conception of the Church.
A careful study of the New Testament in the light of Christian history makes it plain that the Church of which Christ is the Head is not simply the local company of " professed believers," nor that aggregation of local societies and sects which constitutes the " visible church," as it appears to the world; but the whole number of faithful souls who, under all symbols of doctrine and all forms of ecclesiastical polity, or under no manifest creeds and polities, have a true spiritual life in God, whom Christ specially and "dispositional^" reveals. The body of which Christ is Head is not limited by the bounds of any or all organizations, nor by the knowledge which we possess of the spiritual life of men. This term, " the Church," in a perfectly legitimate and even necessary use of it, expresses a comprehensive spiritual idea to which there corresponds a spiritual fact, which is a re deemed humanity whose extent no mind but the mind of God can measure, for the redeemed are "a great multitude which no man can number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues."
The redeemed humanity, which is the true spiritual church, has imperfect and fragmentary representation in the visible church, but it is vaster than the visible church, and is inclusive of all who, in the visible church or out of it, are Christ's in quality and tendency of life. The true Church and the Church visible are identical just so far as the latter corresponds inwardly to the New Testament idea of " the body of Christ." Christ is thus the head of the Church visible, whether we designate by that term the local organization, or the affiliated churches of a certain district, or the aggregate of all Christian organizations in the world.
In his relation to the Church the pre-eminence of Christ appears in the following particulars:
1. He is the original and perpetual source of the church's being. Christ gave the Church existence. Historically it rests on Him. But for His coming into the world it could not have been. Its faith rests primarily on a basis of facts which are supplied by His person, and by His life on earth, culminating in His death on the cross, His resurrection from the grave, and His ascension into heaven. Its organization is properly determined, both as to its outward form and its internal relations, by His teaching and spirit. Its ordinances are symbols of the supreme redemptive aspects of His mission — His self-sacrifice, His acted revelation of life over coming death, and His continuous spiritual sustentation of the race. Apart from Him these ordinances have no meaning that should or could perpetuate their observance. Christ created the Church. He gave it the enduring reason of its existence. That the Church is is evidence of the historical basis on which it rests. The records of its genesis are the biography of Jesus of Nazareth.
But the Church, as it is not only a visible but also a spiritual and invisible fact, does not rest on a simply historical Christ. The Church lives, not alone because Christ lived, but because Christ lives. "He ever liveth" is the declaration of the apostles which all the Christian centuries have verified. In a true sense the Church antedates the birth at Bethlehem and the death on the cross. But the historical Head and the everliving Head of the Church are one. They cannot be separated. "This JESUS whom ye crucified," said Peter to the Jews, " God hath made both Lord and Christ." The Son of God, who smote Saul of Tarsus with his appalling glory, declared, "I am JESUS whom thou persecutest." And the closing vision of the Apocalypse has this heavenly authentication: " I JESUS have sent mine angel to testify unto you these things in the churches."
The foundation of the Church is in the past, but it is also in the present. It follows, then, that loss of vital faith in Christ involves the death of the Church. Apart from Christ there is no Church. The persistence of the Church — a persistence that has overcome all obstructions, all resistance "without and all hindrances within, through nearly two thou sand years — is a constant witness of the perennial life which it possesses in an indwelling Christ. We have seen the rise of religious organizations, calling themselves churches, that make a dogma of their denial of Christ. They are bodies without head; but the Church has a living, ruling Head in Him who was given "to be the head over all things to the Church which is His body." If faith in Christ as the Son of God be lost, then the ground is cut from under the feet of the Church. It has no guarantee of permanence. It loses at once its peculiar distinction as the organism and instrument of a living, divine personality, and descends to the level of ordinary social and political bodies. The existence of the Church is not dependent on a mere doctrine as to the metaphysical nature of Christ, but it is dependent on a spiritual perception of Him as the Son of Cod and the Son of Man in one, and the doctrine is a more or less adequate expression of that perception. If we believe in Christ as the supreme revelation of God in time, then we believe in the Church; not in the Roman Church, or the Protestant Church, but in that spiritual body of which the Divine Spirit is the vital principle, the informing and con trolling power. A true faith in Christ issues at once in a "Christed" humanity; that is, a humanity which has its creative and regulative head in Christ. As faith in Christ tends naturally and inevitably to become explicit, that is, as it seeks expression for itself in an open confession and manifest "service of Christ, so belief in the Church naturally seeks expression in an outward as well as an inward union with the Church. Luthardt has well said: "We do not believe in Christ because we believe in the Church; but we believe in the Church because we believe in Christ;" and we may add, our belief in Christ determines our conception of the form of the Church, just in proportion as that belief is intelligent through acquaintance with the teaching of Christ in the New Testament. Diversities of form must, therefore, be transient. The one spiritual faith must create, in the lapse of ages, a oneness of essential form, and that form will be the fit body of the faith. The perfect form is suggested in that apocalyptic vision of the city that "lieth four-square," that majestic symbol of completed organization, the New Jerusalem of which the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are the Temple and the Light.
Whether, then, we look backward to the historical beginning of the Church, or inward to the ground of its present continuance and life, or forward to its heavenly completion and glory, we see that Christ, the manifest deity, is its ever- living head — the reason of its being, the foundation of its perpetuity, the creator of its form, and the fountain of its eternal blessedness.
2. The pre-eminence of Christ over the Church appears in this, that He is the ground of its unity. If we conceive of the Church as a spiritual fact, apart from its ecclesiastical form, we see at once that it has its unity in Christ. But as a visible, multiform organization the Church has a real and demonstrable unity in Him. The Church has many forms, all of them more or less imperfect, all of them " broken lights " of the ideal. To the superficial eye it is segregated into innumerable sects and parties. No single branch of the Church, as the Greek, the Roman, or the Protestant, is a unit in form. There are endless division and difference in ritual, in polity, and even in formulary. It is evident, then, that the unity of the Church is not ecclesiastical. It is not the unity of formal organization or creed. Nor is its unity tribal or national. Its lines run across all boundaries of race and language. Judaism was conterminous with a race. Christianity dissolves all barriers of race-difference, and contemplates humanity in its entirety. In the church spiritual there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither bond nor free, neither male nor female. In the church formal there are a thousand distinctions. It presents the aspect of intricate and confusing diversity. And yet the visible church has a fundamental unity. That unity appears in its relation to Christ, and the place which Christ holds in its creeds, its worship, and its enterprise. Everywhere Christ appears as actually or professedly pre-eminent. The universality of the cross is symbolical of the supremacy of Christ. Around the cross of Christ all sects and communions gather. In His redemptive function all place their trust. His Lordship all acknowledge. If we look beneath the externals of Christianity, into its real heart, we find that the supremacy of Christ, too often a mere profession in the discordant life of sects, is there a constant spiritual fact. The real Church — the multitude of those who, in all communions, and some times out of all communions, are living the life of the spirit — has its unwavering point of unity in Christ. The faith of the heart turns wholly to Him often when the conceptions of the reason fall short of His true nature.1 Through all the changes which history has witnessed in the Church, it has witnessed no changes here, except that change which is progress. More and more the theologies of the Church are coming into unity, and the center of this unifying movement is the person of Christ. More and more the ethics of the Church are taking the form of interpretation and statement of man's relation to Christ as the supreme Revealer and Exemplar of righteousness. The churches disagree as to organization, ritual, formal creed — indeed, as to many things; they are at one in their confession of Christ as Teacher and Lord.
Here is a significant fact which it would be well for opponents of Christianity to consider, and that is, the essential unity of faith which underlies all diversities of sects. That unity is vital and continuous, because it centers not in a proposition, but in a person; not in a dogma, but in a sentiment; not in a logical deduction of the reason, but in a spiritual perception of the heart. The differences that separate men in every other important matter are greater than those which separate Christians in their essential faith. The strifes of Calvinist and Arminian, of Catholic and Protestant, of churchman and dissenter, of Baptist and Pedobaptist, are all relatively superficial; the harmony of Christians in their spiritual apprehension of Christ as Saviour and Lord is as deep and strong as the harmony of planets and sun.
As already suggested, this essential unity of the Church in Christ is both the result and the witness of the supremacy of Christ. It declares Him " head of the body." More than that, this unity in the spirit is the pledge of a final unity in form. The present external differences of churches are transient. They will disappear, perhaps not wholly in time, but at last, when the Church shall shine forth in her finished beauty, as a bride adorned for her husband, " without spot or wrinkle;" for at last Christ will be all in all, and humanity redeemed will be complete in Him.
3. The pre-eminence of Christ in relation to the Church appears also in this, that He is the source of its law. It should be remarked here that while the Church visible has always recognized with clearness and unanimity that Christ is the cause of its being and the ground of its unity — acknowledging the latter in theory even when contradicting it in practice through a false conception of unity as inhering in outward form rather than in essential spirit; it has not always recognized with the same clearness that Christ is the sole source of its law. It has at times assumed powers of legislation which it does not possess. It has arrogated to itself an authority which belongs only to Him; and in this direction it has fallen into its gravest errors. Christ said: " Call no man your father upon the earth, for one is your Father which is in heaven. Neither be ye called masters, for one is your Master, even Christ." The authority which He claimed for Himself He has never delegated. But churches have departed from the word of Christ in that they, at times, have made themselves, or a pope, or a tradition, or a creed supreme. This has been done practically in spite of the universal, unabrogated article of faith that Christ alone is Lord. Because they have done this they have made a history of follies and strifes and persecution that still brings a blush of shame to our cheeks as we read. The assumption by man of authority over the consciences of his fellows has been the prolific cause of tragedies written in blood, and crimes whose blackness no apologist can relieve. The growth of religious liberty is but the slow-coming ascendancy of the truth that man has but one master of his conscience and his faith, and that master is Christ. No king may pre scribe how any one shall worship. No Council or Bishop shall determine what he must believe. No man shall legislate for another man's spirit in its relations to God. The personal liberty of the individual is grounded in his personal dependence on Christ and personal accountability to Him.
This idea of the sole supremacy of Christ is to be realized in the church before the church ceases to contradict its own fundamental belief. The function of the church is not to legislate, but to execute the law of Christ; and in the execution of the law of Christ it is debarred from the use of carnal weapons or the exercise of physical constraints. In the kingdom of God law is love, and loyalty, or the soul's true answer to law, is also love. Love incarnate is the true law-giver, and His mandates can be fulfilled only through the reincarnation of Himself in his followers. The church cannot rightly create its own law. It cannot prescribe un changeable formularies. It cannot lay the stress of external authority on reason or conscience. It can only interpret and illustrate the word of Christ, and hold itself true to that word. If Christ gave the church truths, these, and not the speculations of metaphysicians or rabbis, are the doctrines which it is to hold and teach. Its one duty is obedience; and in simple, unswerving obedience to Christ, in the spirit of Christ, the church finds its true liberty. In liberty thus found it secures to itself power, and the inexhaustible impulses of spiritual progress.
Here is the high source of true ethics: the person and acts and words of Christ. Conduct has its regulative principle, not in Pharisaic rules, but in the living Exemplar of men. Words and deeds, desires and choices, impulses and thoughts, are to be tested by their conformity or want of conformity with His spirit. Life, not rules, is the guide of life. What has Christ said? or, What is the suggestion of His spirit? That is the determinative question which is to shape conduct and direct the trend of character. He is to furnish the broad, sufficient law for the sanctuary and the market, the home and the highway. Thus Christ's relation to the church is not different from His relation to the individual soul. As the church, spiritually conceived, is a re deemed humanity "created in Christ Jesus unto good works," so the law which flows from Him for the governance and guidance of the church is also the law of individual life. There are no obligations on the church which are not on every man. The difference between the real Christian and the real unchristian man is radically this: that the one measurably recognizes and seeks to fulfil the will of Christ, and the other does not. The one sees and feels the persistent duty of righteousness and responds to it with more or less perfect obedience; the other repudiates or ignores the duty which he dimly sees and faintly feels. Humanity redeemed finds both its perfect law and its perfect liberty in Christ; and humanity redeemed is the completed church, the realized " measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ."
4. Finally, the pre-eminence of Christ in relation to the Church appears in this, that He is the mould of its life. In the love of Christ the Church finds its supreme motive. As the creature and instrument of His love, its idea is to reveal and reproduce His spirit among men. The body is for the use and service of the head, therefore the relation of the Church to Christ determines its functions and end. It is not a mutual insurance society. It is not a "close corporation" for comfortable religious purposes. It is a refuge and protector of souls hunted and hurt by sin. It is a nourisher of the weak and the poor. It is a Saviour, not simply of the souls of men, as if the soul were something separable from the man, a sort of man within the man, but of the entire per son. Its mission is the continuation and extension through out the world of the mission which Christ began when He taught and fed the multitude, and pitied and healed the sick, and preached the gospel of divine love to the poor, and spoke words of pardon and peace to the guilty and troubled. In thus carrying on and fulfilling Christ's mission, the Church re-embodies Him in all His blended humanity and divinity. He is not in a far-off heaven, but here, shining in the eye that sparkles with his deep kindness, speaking in the voice that is tremulously eloquent with His tenderness, working afresh His ministry of help and healing in the hand that sup plies the needs and serves the weaknesses of men. The true aim of the Church, therefore, is not to be a vast and splendid organization, to clothe itself with pomp and power, to be an institution rivalling and competing with the institutions of secular life. It is not to be something apart from human society, but a power penetrating and pervading and purifying and elevating society. It is to express Christ, to embody and represent Him to the eyes and heart of the world. As an institution the Church has nothing to do with civil laws and governments. As a spiritual power it has everything to do with them, for it is to transform humanity by the truth and love of Christ, until all laws shall express Christ's will, and all governments shall execute His behests. The Church must have organization and ministries and methods of work, but it looks forward to a time when it and humanity shall be one, and all shall be Christ's as Christ is God's.
Looked at in the light of its relation to Christ's Lordship, the Church is an absolute monarchy, finding in Him its final and sufficient law. Looked at in the light of its relation to men, the Church is the " Republic of God," in which all are brethren, no one being master of any other. Looked at in the light of its relation to Christ's purpose in the world, it is His body and instrument, bearing in its bosom the resources, and fulfilling in its work the impulses of His love. Its guide of conduct is not the regulations of councils and synods, but Christ, the ever-living Head. He is the spring of its activity, the goal of its aspiration, and the mould of its life.
Thus, from whatever point of view we consider the relation of Christ to the Church, we witness fresh illustration of His pre-eminence ; and this pre-eminence is not arbitrary and formal merely ; it is vital and essential. It is not temporal, but eternal. It is not the supremacy of a sovereign only, but the supremacy of a head in which humanity re deemed finds its unity, its law, and its life.
To Christ, then, as the "image of the invisible God," the creator of "all things in heaven and in earth, visible and invisible, "the author and finisher" of faith, and "the Lord of life and glory," let praise forever be given by the Church, for in that song of praise all voices shall at last join, when "every knee shall bow, and every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father."
Philip S. Moxom.
1) See, for example, the remarkable book by P. C. Mozoomdar on The Oriental Christ.