Written by: Beth Davies-Stofka
While the word "church" refers to a physical building where Christians gather, the society and fellowship of Christians is also called Church. In the Christian view, the Church is endowed with a profound spiritual reality. The New Testament texts contain a number of metaphorical references to the community of Christians as the flock, the vine and branches, or the olive tree, reflecting a belief in the Church as a living and organic body. In his letter to the Romans, Paul compares the Church to the organs and limbs of a body, and in his letter to the Ephesians he identifies Christians as members of the body of Christ, and of one another. Using descriptions drawn from the Old Testament, the first letter of Peter asserts this unity of the Christian community:
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God... (1 Peter 2:9-10).
In the Christian view, the Church is catholic, meaning that it is universal, extending throughout the entire world and all of time, past, present, and future. To be the "people of God" is to be united in one family of God, despite denominational divisions or differences in language and nationality. When Paul called Christians "the body of Christ," he emphasized the oneness of the Church. Just as a person's body has many parts that work together as one, so the diverse communities of Christians are all called to work for the unity and health of the body of Christ (Romans 12:4-5). God's presence is experienced when they gather to worship, their fellowship renewed just as on the day of Pentecost. Pentecost, described in the Acts of the Apostles, celebrates the birthday of the Church, when the followers of Jesus were transformed into a missionary community by the actions of the Holy Spirit and began to spread the new faith.
The Acts of the Apostles and the letters of Paul concur that believers become members of the Church through the rite of baptism. Other New Testament texts, such as Titus 3:10, emphasize the importance of community cohesiveness, suggesting that a divisive person who offends the community should be shunned. The second letter of John warns people against letting heretics into their homes (2 John 1:10).