The Church as the Perfect Male
“… UNTIL WE ALL ATTAIN TO THE UNITY OF THE FAITH AND OF THE KNOWLEDGE OF THE SON OF GOD, TO MATURE MANHOOD, TO THE MEASURE OF THE STATURE OF THE FULLNESS OF CHRIST …” (EPH 4:13).
When Paul speaks of believers reaching “mature manhood,” he utilizes an intriguing image that most readers probably pass by without notice. Sometimes they miss the image because it is underappreciated in the translation they are using. Here in the ESV, Paul’s original image is actually obscured. To attain to “mature manhood” could simply mean to “grow up.” Other modern translations are even further from a word-for-word rendering of Paul’s image. Believers will “become mature” (NIV), or “be mature” (NLT, CEV).
But Paul is more specific than this. The NASB comes closer to the original Greek text with the words “mature man,” and the KJV even closer with “perfect man.”
In the original text, Paul anticipates the day when the church reaches the stature of aner telios. The word aner is not merely man (anthropos), but “male.” The word telios means complete or perfect, and appears in the attributive position in the phrase. In other words, this is a male that has the attributes of full maturity. Not just a mature person, but a robust, fully formed man. A perfect male.
In a brief series of posts, I would like to investigate Paul’s metaphor in this verse. My first question is, to what does Paul refer, exactly when he descries the “all” attaining unto this perfect male?
This metaphor has been taken in various ways in the history of NT interpretation. Some theologians have taken the “perfect male” to refer to Christ himself, or the totus Christus—Christ in union with his church. For instance, Augustine, in his treatise on the Gospel of John, writes,
Let us rejoice, then, and give thanks that we are made not only Christians, but Christ. Do you understand, brethren, and apprehend the grace of God upon us? Marvel, be glad, we are made Christ. For if He is the head, we are the members: the whole man is He and we. This is what the Apostle Paul says: “… Until we all come together into the unity of faith, and to the knowledge of the Son of God, to the perfect man, to the measure of the age of the fullness of Christ” (Eph 4:13).
More commonly, however, interpreters have taken the perfect male to refer to the church, either individually or corporately.
This interpretation goes back at least to Clement of Alexandria who, in his Stromataequates the aner telios in Eph 4:13 with the Gnostic (gnostikos, or Christian intellectual), the believer who has attained a deep, pious, more knowledgeable walk with God (e.g., Stromata 7.11). Other church fathers followed Clement, those such as Origen, Gregory of Nazianzen, Gregory of Nyssa, and John Cassian.
Both Luther and Calvin also follow the individualistic interpretation of aner telios. Luther says that believers grow in their spiritual lives until they “come out as perfected people, as we have it in Ephesians” (Lectures on the Minor Prophets I) and that “daily tribulations … produce its effects so that we grow into a new and perfect man” (Lectures on Genesis: Chapters 31–37).
In his own commentary on Eph 4:13, Calvin says that Paul is asking the question,
What is the highest perfection of Christians …? Full manhood [aner telios] is found in Christ; for foolish men do not, in a proper manner, seek their perfection in Christ. It ought to be held as a fixed principle among us, that all that is out of Christ is hurtful and destructive. Whoever is a man in Christ, is, in every respect, a perfect man.
Nevertheless, I would argue that Paul does not have in mind individual Christians coming to maturity in this verse. Rather, he has the whole church as a corporate entity coming to maturity; not a totus Christus, but a totus corpus, a complete person, a fully-formed, mature male.
E. F. Scott expressed it well in his 1930 commentary:
There is no reference here to individuals attaining their Christian maturity. The thought is that of the Church as a single organism, growing to its full strength, reaching maturity, and so becoming entirely adequate to the purpose for which God intended it.
Scott’s interpretation follows that of John Chrysostom, Desiderius Erasmus, and Jonathan Edwards. Edwards, for example, explains Eph 3:14 in this way:
That is, till we all come to agree in the same faith, which is fully conformed to Christ, and therein are come to his rule and measure; and in faith, and perhaps in other graces, the body of Christ becomes complete, being completely conformed to Christ. The Church is the completeness of Christ, “the fullness of him that filleth all in all” [Eph. 1:23]. But this body is not complete, and but an imperfect embryo, till it is perfectly conformed to his mind in faith and to his image in other graces. Christ and his Church, as here, so elsewhere, being as body and soul, are called one man. ‘Tis as if he had said, “Till Christ’s body is complete in stature.” The Church, the body of Christ, is called a man (Eph. 2:15) (The Miscellanies).
In order to interpret the perfect male as the whole church, Edwards rightly draws upon the entire message of Ephesians. Most important for our understanding of Eph 4:13 is Edwards’s allusion to Eph 2:15. In this passage, Paul shows that Christ has reconciled unbelievers by calling the two most unlikely people groups—Jews and Gentiles—and uniting them into one body. Paul explains that Jesus offered his blood so that “he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace” (Eph 2:15). Here, for “man” Paul uses the general term anthropos, or “person.” But in Eph 4:13 Paul looks forward to a day when this “man” will be grown, fully formed, with a build and stature that is like that of Christ himself.
I think that taking the perfect male as the whole church (and the local church as an expression of the whole, true church) is most consistent with Paul’s language and his theology. Paul does not say that we all are attaining to perfect persons, but unto one perfect male (cf. H. Hoehner, Ephesians, 2002: 555). Furthermore, as Paul continues to describe this image in the text he depicts this “male” as a single body, “grown up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (Eph 4:15–16).
Now, if the whole church, as a corporate entity is to become the “perfect male,” to what per se does this is metaphor refer? How do we know when the body of Christ is grown up? That is the question I will take up in my next post.