Vatican II On the Nature of the Church Lumen Gentium


The Second Vatican Council was an earthquake that started the process of the Roman Catholic Church awakening from its medieval slumber. The Lumen Gentium, promulgated by Pope Paul VI and delivered on November 11, 1964, brought clarity to Roman Catholics on the nature of the Church and how they deal with those of other Christian traditions. This essay will review sections six, seven, and eight of the document providing critical analysis of the ideas presented in the sections and highlighting vital theological concepts. The essay will conclude with a ministerial reflection.

Section Six

Section six of Lumen Gentium focuses on the symbols or metaphors the scriptures offer to describe the Church. The symbols are presented with proof texts from scripture as well as examples and explanations. Most of the symbols that the document presents would be familiar and defined so that Protestants, Orthodox, and Coptic could nod their heads in agreement. However, some symbols are defined in a distinctly Roman Catholic way. Below is a table that lists the different metaphors in the document, their scriptural basis, and comment[1]:

Symbol/ MetaphorScriptureComment
SheepfoldJohn 10:1-10A gateway to Christ
FlockIsaiah 40:11; Exodus 34:11-12; John 10:11-16; 1 Peter 5:4God is the shepherd (also there are human shepherds) led by Christ the Good Shepherd who sacrificed Himself for the sheep
Cultivated field1 Corinthians 3:9; Romans 11:13-26Unity of Jews and Gentiles
Choice VineyardMatthew 21:33-43; Isaiah 5:1-2; John 15:1-5Planted by God, the true vine is Christ who gives and life and fruit to the branches and is dependent on Christ
Building of God / Household of God in the Spirit / Dwelling place of God / Holy Temple (New Jerusalem)1 Corinthians 3:9, 11; Matthew 21:42; Acts 4:11; 1 Peter 2:7; Psalm 117:22; Ephesians 2:19, 22; Revelation 21:1-3; 1 Peter 2:5Christ is the chief cornerstone and foundation on which the apostles build “solidity and unity.” The members are living stones built into the building.
Our motherGalatians 4:26; Revelation 12:17 
Spotless spouse of the spotless lambRevelation19:7; 21:2, 9; 22:17; Ephesians 3:19; 5:24, 29;  2 Corinthians 5:6; Colossians 3:1-4Christ sacrificed himself for her and is united through him. She is purified through him. While on this side of eternity, she wanders in exile but seeks heavenly things.

Through all of these metaphors, the central theme is a special relationship between God and His people. Even more, God’s people are utterly dependent on him. Interestingly, the document did not comment further on the idea of the Church being seen as a mother. The proof texts for that symbol are dubious to the metaphor. Galatians 4:26 compares the two mothers: Sarah (mother of the promise) and Hagar (mother of slavery). It is a far stretch to think that Paul was calling Christ-followers to think of the institutionalized Church (such as it was at the time) as a mother in the letter’s context. Also troubling would be a reference to apostleship building the Church. 1 Corinthians 3:11 clearly states it is Christ, not the apostles, that builds the Church. If anything, the passage, and the verses surrounding it in context, point to the futility of humanity’s efforts.

Aside from these issues, there is much in the sixth section that all Christians can take. The symbols presented are rich in their meaning and their scriptural depth. By using the picture of symbols, the concept of the Church is clarified. Still, the mystery of how Christ relates to the Church, but the symbols help us meditate on the depth of Jesus’ love for his people.

Section Seven

In this section, the document presents an argument of unity through Christ and his “communicating the Spirit.”[2] Two requirements to be a part of the body life of Christ are belief and unification through the sacraments. Using 1 Corinthians12:13 and Romans 6:4-5, it is argued that joining the body of Christ is a death/resurrection scenario reflected in baptism. Similarly, the eucharist is essential for this unification (1 Corinthians 10:17; 12:27; Romans 12:4). Again, the proof-texts provided are debatable. Most Protestants (although some Anglicans and indeed Eastern Orthodox would have a great deal of agreement) would find the need for sacramental participation as a requirement for salvation – membership in Christ’s universal Church – troubling.

The section continues by reaffirming the Christological headship of Jesus over the Church. Members of Christ’s church work towards formation in the likeness of Jesus.[3] Although the hope is given for those in the Church that there will be eternal unity in Christ, the earthly journey is one of suffering. This suffering is associated with the sufferings of the Savior. Like Jesus, the hope of suffering is glorification (Romans 8:17). The point is that just as Jesus suffered with his whole body, so does the body of Christ suffer in unity. Individuals are built up by the body at large:

He continually provides in his body, that is, the Church, for gifts of ministries through which, by his power, we serve each other unto salvation so that, carrying out the truth in love, we may through all things grow unto him who is our head (Ephesians 4:23)[4]

This unification comes through the common factor of the Holy Spirit, which is indwelling each believer:

Consequently, his work could be compared by the Fathers to the function of the principle of life, the soul, fulfills in the human body.[5]

            The seventh section offers hope to all Christians. We are unified through Christ in the power and love of the Holy Spirit. When one part of the body is suffering, the rest of the body is there to build up and provide hope. This aspect of the Church is profoundly moving when one considers the persecuted Church in Iran, The People’s Republic of China, North Korea, and other areas of the world that are hostile to the faith. Their suffering should affect the rest of Christ’s body throughout the world.

Section Eight

This short section is the most Roman Catholic of the three. Starting with declaring Christ the “one mediator.”[6] Through this role he:

 “…established and ever sustains the here on earth his holy Church, the community of faith, hope, and charity, as a visible organization through which he communicates truth and grace to all men.” [7]

The “hierarchical organs” and the spiritual realities of the Church are not two separate things but different aspects of the same thing. They are “one, complete reality.” This “complete reality was entrusted to Peter’s pastoral care (John 21:17) to expand and “rule” it along with the other apostles.

            While Eastern Orthodox and Anglican Christians might have some affinity for this line of theology, many Protestants reject the idea of Peter being the leader of the Church and having those who follow him continue the line of apostolic “rule.” True, the Church is an “organized society in the present world,” but those outside Roman Catholicism would reject that it lies in the “Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and the bishops in communion with him.”[8]

Conclusion: Personal Ministry Reflection and Application

The Lumen Gentium provides a clear Roman Catholic ecclesiology. While there are arguments within the strictly Roman Catholic document, there is still a lot that other Christians can glean as they form their own ecclesiology. The metaphors and symbols provide ways of thinking of the Church that might be easier to communicate than strict doctrine. Thinking of the vineyard metaphor, we can imagine a vine going back to Pentecost with many grafted vines stemming from the true vine – Jesus. As believers encounter other folks from different faith traditions, this image can help overcome hidden biases if other traditions are viewed as different vines grafted in from the same vine. It didn’t mean that differences are discarded, just that the importance is with Jesus, not the tradition.

Similarly, the body is helpful to remind believers that they are essential to the whole body. For example, the eye would make a poor armpit. However, the armpit is essential to the functioning of the arms and can move the arm to where the eye sees. Similarly, roles and functions within the body of Christ are all on an equal playing field. Serving Jesus in His body is not role-dependent. No matter what the role, gift, or talent is, they are essential to body members if they are dedicated to Christ and the building of his body.

In considering the unity of the body, section seven of Lumen Gentium can help individuals understand how they incorporate into the greater body. This unity starts with belief, faith in Jesus. Entry into the body of Christ is initiated with the believer puts their faith, hope, and trust in Christ, his resurrection, his ascension, and the sending of the Holy Spirit. The second requirement, according to this section, is worded in a very Roman Catholic way. However, some faith traditions may nod their head in partial agreement. For example, Wesley’s “means of grace” stressed activities that brought one close to God. While the Roman Catholic understanding of the salvific effects of the sacraments dances close to the line of works salvation, it is still important to remember that growth in Christ involves the work of the Holy Spirit and the work of the believer.

Lastly, the distinctly Roman Catholic view of ecclesiology in section eight is essential because those who are not Roman Catholic must understand correctly what the Church teaches. So many times, those who are hostile to the Roman Catholic church distort and fabricate the actual doctrine. A Protestant may disagree with the theology of section eight, but that does not excuse them from faithfully understanding it. Until one can argue their opponent’s views faithfully, one cannot really know their own views.   

In conclusion, sections six, seven, and eight of Lumen Gentium are essential for Roman Catholics, as is the rest of the Second Vatican Council material. However, the material is also beneficial to protestants, Eastern Orthodox, and Coptic. Taking the time to read the material may not convince the reader that the contents are sound doctrine, but it will open the eyes to see clearly what true Roman Catholic doctrine teaches.

[1] The Christian Theology Reder, ed. Alister E. McGrath, 2nd Edition (Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers, 1995, 2001), 500-201.

[2] Ibid, 501.

[3] Ibid, 502.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid, 503.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

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