What does it mean that the church is the “fullness” of Christ in Ephesians 1:23?

“And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.” Ephesians 1:22-23 (emphasis added)

“An unsolved enigma”, so says one commentator on the final phrase of Ephesians 1:23: “the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.” That’s how I have felt for the past several weeks puzzling over this text.

My tension arose from the face-value implication that the church somehow “completes” Christ. From a systematic theology perspective, this seems to contradict the principle that God (and therefore Christ) is self-existent. Christ does not need to be “completed” and his work is fully sufficient. I guessed I was misunderstanding what Paul was saying, but I wasn’t exactly sure how.

Before we get to the key question, the meaning of “fullness”, it might be helpful to see the overall structure of these verses. At this point in Paul’s prayer of thanksgiving (1:15-23) Paul is exalting Christ. He describes Christ as the “head over everything.” Elsewhere Paul specifically describes Christ as the head over the church (4:15, 5:23, Colossians 1:18, 2:19) but here Christ is the head over everything, including “all rule and authority, power and dominion” (1:21). His headship here primarily denotes a position of rule and authority. But He exercises this position, specifically “for the church.”

The church is then described as “his body.” This is a common image for Paul. Sometimes it describes the unity, diversity, and interdependence within the local church (1 Corinthians 12:12-27) but here and in the rest of Ephesians it relates to the universal church’s unique and special relationship with Jesus. Again, as the body, it stands under the authority of Christ the head. But more than that it is given life and existence by Christ, being filled “filled to the measure of the fullness of God” (3:19). Like other images Paul uses to describe the church – God’s field, God’s building, Christ’s bride – this need not be taken to mean that the church is literally Christ’s physical body, an extension of the incarnation. Paul himself distinguishes between the glorified body of Christ present at the right hand of the Father, and the ecclesiological “body of Christ.”

So far, then, we see that Christ stands in a special relationship with the church. The church is united with Christ (see also Eph. 5:31-32). The church stands under the authority of Christ. And, the church receives its life and power from Christ.

But what should we make of the final phase “the fullness of him…”? Some have suggested that perhaps “the fullness” is not referring to the church, but to Christ. This would resolve theological problems and is syntactically possible, but is also unlikely. The commentaries which I consulted offered this up as a way to resolve the tensions, but then quickly dismissed it.

The next question is whether we should understand “fullness” in a passive voice or an active voice. In other words, should we understand it to mean (active) “the church fills us Christ” or (passive) “the church is that which is filled up.” There’s a lot of technical discussion behind this, but the weight appears to be in favor of the passive voice. First, while “fullness” is more frequently used in an active voice, there are many clear examples of its use in the passive. Unlike the first syntactical “out” offered by referring to “the fullness” as “Christ”, this one, on balance, is likely. Second, this passive understanding matches the rest of Paul’s theology. For instance, in Paul’s prayer in Ephesians 3:14-21, he prays that “Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith” and that the church “may be filled to the measure of the fullness of God.” Likewise, in Colossians 1:27, Paul describes the mystery as “Christ in you, the hope of glory.”

How, then, should we understand Ephesians 1:23? We could rephrase it as such: “And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, that which is filled up with him who fills everything in every way.”

We should not miss, though, the exalted status that Christ gives to the church. Christ is the head/authority of all things. He fills all things with his sovereign strength. But his relationship with his people is one of intimacy. He exercises his power for the church, filling it up with the fullness of God, first to wash and cleanse it from sin, and then to equip it for ministry and service to God.

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