The church is “the description of an event,” according to Barth, the gathering of a people by “the living Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit” (IV.1, 650). The church is thereby always a miracle. She does not exist or thrive by the ingenuity of man, even though she is susceptible to all of the standard historical tools of cultural analysis at our disposal. The Christian knows what the anthropologist could never discern – that the church is always freely given by grace. The sola gratia of the Reformation applies to the church just as much as it does to our justification and sanctification. Indeed, the true splendor of the church is “the glory of the Lord justifying man and of man justified by the Lord” (657). All other collectives or societies, political or otherwise, seek to maintain and promote some human good. This “society,” the church, is where God seeks and maintains our human good. It is not our achievement, and this society publicly confesses her incapacity to discern this good, much less to maintain it amidst our pride and rebellion.
The purpose of Christ’s work of reconciliation is that a people may be sanctified and brought into a familial relationship with the Father. Thus, our salvation is not individual but communal: “the collective is the purpose” (688). There is no salvation without this entry into a community of “saints,” as Paul addressed his churches. There is no salvation that may bypass our entry into the church. The real presence of Christ is found in the church, and Barth even goes as far to say that the church is “the earthly-historical form of the existence of Jesus Christ Himself” (661). The Christian discovers Christ in his “body,” the church, and she is thereby constituted in this body for the sake of witnessing to Christ in this world. It is in this sense that the church is “essential.” But the “body” remains his body. The church does not guarantee this essence from its own authority, as if Christ “handed over” this responsibility to the church. We can trust that the church shall always prevail against the darkness at her borders (Mt 16.18), but this is not the church’s own doing – indeed, it is very much in spite of the church’s own doing! It is God’s good pleasure that alone ensures the continuing existence of the church. Christ sustains his bride, the church, from his heavenly throne, so that the freedom of his grace may be established on earth as it is in heaven.
The church as the bride of Christ and the body of Christ are fascinating images, seemingly in contrast. As bride, the church is distinct from Christ; as body, the church is identified with Christ (indeed, “as” Christ in some sense, though Protestants are rightly wary at this point). Yet, if we follow the nuptial union (à la Ephesians 5) then the bride and the bridegroom are united in “one flesh,” and this allows us to bring both the “bride” and “body” images together. The church is the body of Christ because she has been joined with Christ as his bride, forming “one flesh” out of two.
Image: “Beato Angelico Annunciazione” by Fra Angelico (1395-1455), San Marco Museum, Florence