Thus the apostolic church appears as a free, independent, and complete organism, a system of supernatural, divine life in a human body. It contains in itself all the offices and energies required for its purposes. It produces the supply of its outward wants from its own free spirit. It is a self-supporting and self-governing institution, within the state, but not of the state. Of a union with the state, either in the way of hierarchical supremacy or of Erastian subordination, the first three centuries afford no trace. The apostles honor the civil authority as a divine institution for the protection of life and property, for the reward of the good and the punishment of the evil-doer; and they enjoin, even under the reign of a Claudius and a Nero, strict obedience to it in all civil concerns; as, indeed, their heavenly Master himself submitted in temporal matters to Herod and to Pilate, and rendered unto Caesar the things that were Caesar's. But in their spiritual calling they allowed nothing to be prescribed or forbidden to them by the authorities of the state. Their principle was, to |obey God rather than men.| For this principle, for their allegiance to the King of kings, they were always ready to suffer imprisonment, insult, persecution, and death, but never to resort to carnal weapons, or stir up rebellion and revolution. |The weapons of our warfare,| says Paul, |are not carnal, but mighty through God.| Martyrdom is a far nobler heroism than resistance with fire and sword, and leads with greater certainty at last to a thorough and permanent victory.
The apostolic church, as to its membership, was not free from impurities, the after-workings of Judaism and heathenism and the natural man. But in virtue of an inherent authority it exercised rigid discipline, and thus steadily asserted its dignity and holiness. It was not perfect; but it earnestly strove after the perfection of manhood in Christ, and longed and hoped for the reappearance of the Lord in glory, to the exaltation of his people. It was as yet not actually universal, but a little flock compared with the hostile hosts of the heathen and Jewish world; yet it carried in itself the principle of true catholicity, the power and pledge of its victory over all other religions, and its final prevalence among all nations of the earth and in all classes of society.
Paul defines the church as the body of Jesus Christ. He thus represents it as an organic living system of various members, powers, and functions, and at the same time as the abode of Christ and the organ of his redeeming and sanctifying influence upon the world. Christ is, in one view, the ruling head, in another the all-pervading soul, of this body. Christ without the church were a head without a body, a fountain without a stream, a king without subjects, a captain without soldiers, a bridegroom without a bride. The church without Christ were a body without soul or spirit -- a lifeless corpse. The church lives only as Christ lives and moves and works in her. At every moment of her existence she is dependent on him, as the body on the soul, or the branches on the vine. But on his part he perpetually bestows upon her his heavenly gifts and supernatural powers, continually reveals himself in her, and uses her as his organ for the spread of his kingdom and the christianizing of the world, till all principalities and powers shall yield free obedience to him, and adore him as the eternal Prophet, Priest, and King of the regenerate race. This work must be a gradual process of history. The idea of a body, and of all organic life, includes that of development, of expansion and consolidation. And hence the same Paul speaks also of the growth and edification of the body of Christ, |till we all attain unto the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a full-grown man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ.|
This sublime idea of the church, as developed in the First Epistle to the Corinthians, and especially in the Epistle to the Ephesians, when Paul was a prisoner chained to a heathen soldier, soars high above the actual condition of the little flocks of peasants, freedmen, slaves, and lowly, uncultured people that composed the apostolic congregations. It has no parallel in the social ideals of ancient philosophers and statesmen. It can only be traced to divine inspiration.
We must not confound this lofty conception of the church as the body of Christ with any particular ecclesiastical organization, which at best is only a part of the whole, and an imperfect approach to the ideal. Nor must we identify it with the still higher idea of the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven. A vast amount of presumption, bigotry, and intolerance has grown out of such confusion. It is remarkable that Christ speaks only once of the church in the organic or universal sense. But be very often speaks of the kingdom, and nearly all his parables illustrate this grand idea. The two conceptions are closely related, yet distinct. In many passages we could not possibly substitute the one for the other without manifest impropriety. The church is external, visible, manifold, temporal; the kingdom of heaven is internal, spiritual, one, and everlasting. The kingdom is older and more comprehensive; it embraces all the true children of God on earth and in heaven, before Christ and after Christ, inside and outside of the churches and sects. The historical church with its various ramifications is a paedagogic institution or training-school for the kingdom of heaven, and will pass away as to its outward form when its mission is fulfilled. The kingdom has come in Christ, is continually coming, and will finally come in its full grown strength and beauty when the King will visibly appear in his glory.
The coming of this kingdom in and through the visible churches, with varying conflicts and victories, is the proper object of church history. It is a slow, but sure and steady progress, with many obstructions, delays, circuitous turns and windings, but constant manifestations of the presence of him who sits at the helm of the ship and directs it through rain, storm, and sunshine to the harbor of the other and better world.