What comes to your mind when you think of our “Church?” Perhaps you think of the clergy, or Rome and the hierarchy, or your parish, your family and friends sitting next to you Sunday morning. Is the Church in need of new life? Is it rising or declining? We cannot even discuss such questions until we agree about what the Church really is. Our Church is beyond simple definitions, so Sacred Scripture uses images or metaphors to speak of the Church: the building raised up by Christ, the house of God, the temple and tabernacle of God, his people, his flock, his vine, his field, his city, the pillar of truth. Here are five major metaphors or “models” of the Church.
1. The Church is an Institution. Our Church is an organization like a business corporation or a government. A worldwide church requires organization, lines of authority, rules, doctrines, and social structure. We have a hierarchical structure that arose out of European history and it stands in tension with the other four models of what a church is.
2. The Church is a Mystical Communion. This model of the Church sees all Christians as the People of God and the Mystical Body of Christ. The life of grace—the interior graces and gifts of the Holy Spirit—bind us in invisible membership with all those who live the life of love of God and neighbor.
3. The Church is a Sacrament. Sacraments produce within us what they symbolize. The Church is a community that symbolizes Christ when we love one another. The Church is acting as a sacrament when we act as Christ in hope, in joy, in self-forgetful love, in peace, in patience, and in all other Christlike virtues.
4. The Church is a Herald. A herald announces the messages from the king. Our Church announces the Good News of the Gospel to us all. The Church as Herald celebrates our call by God’s Word—the Gospel– to live in love for one another.
5. The Church is a Servant. Our Church is Jesus present in today’s world. He is here to serve, to heal, to reconcile, to bind up wounds. We are the Servant Church when we live the Gospel values: freedom, justice, peace, charity, compassion, and reconciliation.
One or two models make an incomplete Church. All five together help us to see the Mystery.