Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Metaphors for the Church: The Bride of Christ

The church is the only movement Jesus left on earth to represent Him. George Bernard Shaw once said, “If you destroyed all the churches tomorrow, people would the very day afterwards begin to build them back again. That’s true because the church stands for something vital and essential.” The church gains its significance because it is the institution Jesus Christ left on earth to represent Him to the world. It like nothing else in the Bible, other than Jesus Himself, has the stamp of God’s divine approval on it. It is to the church that Jesus committed the work of extending the kingdom of God. Jesus Christ entrusted several sacred tasks to the local church; evangelizing lost sinners, edifying the saints of God, ministering to the needs of humanity, and worshipping Him.

Jesus did not entrust these tasks to a parachruch organization, the Salvation Army, the federal government, the seminaries, or any of the plethora of humanitarian aid societies. He left these tasks to the church. Perhaps it is because we misunderstand the church and her function in the world that we so readily turn these activities over to another organization, or fail to do them altogether. How best should we understand the church? The Bible gives us several analogies by which we can better understand her and accomplish the great mission God has assigned us while we remain in the world. This will be the first in a series of posts that will explore the biblical metaphors of the church.

First, the church is the bride of Christ. A bride is a woman to whom a man has committed Himself. So, the church is the people to whom Christ is committed. Ephesians 5:22-33 is in my estimation, the single most beautiful passage of Scripture regarding the relationship of Christ to His church. It speaks of the most intimate of all relationships, that of a husband to his wife.

The idea of God related to His people in a marital relationship is rooted deep in the Old Testament. Only a brief smattering of verses reveals this truth to us.

“I will betroth you to Me forever.” Hosea 2:19

“For your Maker is Your husband.” Isaiah 54:5

“Return, O backsliding children, says the Lord, for I am married to you.” Jeremiah 3:14

“I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them.” Jeremiah 31:32

Numerous other times the prophets of old spoke of Israel as the chosen bride of God, she whom God would love forever. This imagery presses on into the New Testament, as Jesus referred to Himself as the bridegroom in Matthew 9:15. John the Baptist used the same metaphor in John 3:29. The virgins of Matthew 25:1-13 wisely met the bridegroom, having neatly trimmed their lamps.

The Apostle Paul also relied profoundly on this analogy, applying it heavily in Ephesians. He warned against false teachers who were seducing the Corinthian Christians away in 2 Corinthians 11:2. And in the Apocalypse, John writes of the glorious marriage supper of the Lamb, of which all believers will partake. The idea is that true believers, the church, are now engaged to Christ and the marriage will be consummated upon His return.

The Scriptures use the metaphor of a married couple as the model of the church and her relationship with Jesus. And from that metaphor we can derive a few principles of how we ought to be related to Jesus. As his bride we should love Him supremely. Jesus is the object of the church’s affection. Everything in the church should be centered on Jesus; why? Ephesians 5:25 is the answer: Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her. Jesus died for no parachruch organization; hence the believers’ resolute commitment to Jesus. Josh Harris recently wrote a book entitled Stop Dating the Church, and its basic premise is that people are in more of a dating relationship than a committed, monogamous relationship with the church. So many dating relationships are on again, off again, and that is the way a lot of people treat God’s church. They have a dating mentality, or worse, serial monogamy, that if this one upsets me I’ll just go down the street to another one. Simply dating the church will never cause one to fall head over heels in love with the church and the relationship will never proceed to the intimacies incumbent to marriage.

As His bride we are to be intimate with Him. Intimacy is a fundamental requirement of marriage. It speaks of that familiarity, closeness, and confidence that comes from being in a stable relationship. Ephesians 5:30-31 expresses this truth; just as the husband and wife become one flesh in the marital relationship, so we become flesh of His flesh and bone of His bone. Some Christians may know Christ, but never become intimate. Intimacy calls for transparency, a willingness to open oneself up to the other and can only be fostered in a genuine, trustworthy relationship. I have numerous friends, but only one I am genuinely intimate with; my wife. She knows my deepest secrets, my most painful hurts, my most profound joys, and my most earnest desires. I share my life with no one else in this sense; it is reserved absolutely, totally for her (and hers with me!). Moreover, intimacy necessarily leads to fidelity.

As His bride we are faithful to Him. What this means is you forsake all others. Fidelity is the cornerstone of marriage. What if a young lady I knew in high school called me and asked to have lunch with me? She had not seen me in a really long time and wanted to get caught up. I tell my wife it is absolutely harmless, nothing to worry about. We will grab a bite to eat and I’ll be home later. We may hold hands for old time’s sake, I might wrap my arms around her for a hug, but nothing to be concerned about! Do you think my wife would settle for this kind of fair-weather relationship? As a husband is faithful to his wife, so we are to be faithful to Christ.

Fidelity is the cornerstone of marriage. Without it, a marriage will cease to be. The delight of the unbelieving world is to see a church unfaithful to her bride. As an unfaithful spouse becomes a mockery to the covenant that is marriage, so believers shame the name of Christ when they hop into bed with other lovers. Remember, you belong to Him exclusively. There are other wonderful organizations that deserve your time, influence, and your money. But Jesus died for the church; He died for you. Therefore, He has conjugal rights with you and you alone. He is to be your first love and He deserves your devotion and fidelity.

When my wife lovingly accepted my hand in marriage, she also took my name upon her. She dropped the usage of her original surname and became identified with me. She was not ashamed to be called my wife and just as the ring on her finger symbolizes her absolute faith and trust in me, so does the acceptance of my name as her own. In commitment to Christ we take upon ourselves His name, unashamedly, in absolute commitment, in total purity.

For we are members of His body, of His flesh and of His bones. For this reason, a man shall leave his father and his mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the church. Ephesians 5:30-31

Sincerely,
Tony

As always, all Scripture taken from the NKJV.

18 comments:

Anonymous said...

Tony,

Another wonderful post. I must admit, however, that I personally struggle with the bride/bridegroom metaphor. It is very difficult for me to relate to Jesus as Him being my husband and me being his wife. I have a problem relating to Jesus in a romantic way. Maybe it's a "man" thing.

Regards,

Les

Tony said...

Les,

You hit on something that I also have trouble with, but I think in our futility of mind, the exceptional relationship that we will have with Christ in heaven will far transcend any relationship we have ever known on earth, even the relationship we have with our beautiful brides!

I don't know if we are to look at it as romantic love, but rather the intensity and severity of that love that we experience in marriage, for as the Scripture says, "we will neither marry nor be given in marriage."

Thanks my friend!
Tony

Earl said...

Tony,

What a deep, delightful, edifying blog you have. I enjoyed this entry very much.

Tony said...

Earl,

Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I appreciate the kind words.

Blessings,
Tony

Headmistress said...

That's always been one of my favorite metaphors (although I might discover a new one as I continue reading your blog--I'm anxious to read more posts on this topic!), but Les hit on something that I've never thought of before--it makes sense that you "guys" might have a hard time being a "bride".

I really enjoy your posts. Blessings to you and your "tenacious" family!

Tony said...

headmistress,

Wow! Thank you so much for stopping by and reading! I will be posting again soon on the next metaphor, the Body of Christ. Incidentally, I will have four more posts regarding the metaphors, so I hope you hang around!

Also, I plan on being by your blog in the very near future to comment on your post about pro-choicers and Christian brethren...intriguing conversation!

His blessings and of course mine,
Tony

Raborn Johnson said...

Tony,

I really enjoy our interactions...nice place you got here!

A question...If you believe that the Church is made up of people who are believers in Jesus, then how can there even be such a thing as a Christian parachurch oranization? It seems like a misnomer to me.

Also, it seems that you are equivocating allegiance to an organization with allegiance to Jesus. I might be misunderstanding you here, so help me out if I am. As a believer, I believe that I am called to be united with "the Church" not just "a church".

So, if the Church is made up of all believers, everywhere, do you consider it unfaithfulness to Christ to participate with various believers in diverse places at different times? Should our commitment be to a part or to the whole? What do you define as the Church?

Thanks for the time:)
Raborn

Tony said...

Raborn,

Thanks for dropping by. I was hoping I might find you out this way sometime soon. You always ask great questions! I know that our opinions are going to diverge a little here, so I thought I would point that out before I begin my answers. :)

I would see a parachruch organization as a separate entity, apart from the church, and when I say church, I mean the institutional church. They have similar goals as the church yet in my understanding of a parchurch organization, they often perform tasks that Christ specifically gave to the church, which my point in the post is that most church members are more than willing to allow parachurch organizations to do those, often usurping those tasks from the local body of believers, tasks they should be doing themselves.

A good example would be Promise Keepers. Many Christian men are more than willing to go and fellowship at a Promise Keepers rally, but negligent in church attendance. I hold no ill will against such organizations for they have done much to advance the cause of Christ, but in some ways they do indeed defeat the purposes of Christ’s church and they often see themselves as more effective than Christ’s church. So, I see no misnomer, at least in my understanding.

I think I did come across in the post as equivocating allegiance to the church as allegiance to Christ. Yet I believe that it necessarily follows that if one loves Jesus he will also love the church and want to be part of one; institutional, simple, or otherwise. As a believer, you are called to unite with God’s universal “Church,” and also a local body of believers. No man is an island unto himself, and the Bible knows nothing of a solitary believer.

And I would in no way consider it unfaithfulness to participate with various believers in diverse places at different times! Should our commitment be to a part or to the whole? Yes and yes! We should be committed to the part, by participating in a local body, and the whole by our participation in God’s worldwide enterprise, however He leads you to do so.

And how do I define a church? Wow! What a question! I think a church is two-fold: In its true spiritual reality, it is the fellowship of all genuine believers, all those who have trusted Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, accepted His atoning sacrifice on the cross as sufficient to pay the price for their sins, turned from their sins in repentance and in faith asked Jesus Christ to be Lord of their lives and are fellowshipping daily with Him. 2 Timothy 2:19 says, “the Lord knows those who are His,” so the universal church or invisible church is the church as God and God alone sees it.

Secondly, in its true practical reality, a church is the local expression of the universal church, the “church” we can see. It is the church as Christians see it, including all those who willingly unite under the banner of Christ, having professed faith in Christ and given evidence of that faith working in their lives. I think it can be applied to a group of believers at any level, ranging from a very small group meeting in a private home all the way to the group of all true believers all the world around.

I hope this answers your questions! If not, you know where I am!!!

BTW, no shame in seeing Pride and Prejudice, I actually liked it, too. Just don’t tell the other guys, OK?? ;-)

Blessings multiplied, brother!
Tony

Raborn Johnson said...

A good example would be Promise Keepers. Many Christian men are more than willing to go and fellowship at a Promise Keepers rally, but negligent in church attendance.

Not trying to be nit-picky, but what is "church attendance"? If we are the Church, then how do we go to church? Is it a place or an identity?

Would not a group of Promise Keepers getting together to study the Bible, pray and fellowship be considered a local expression of the Church? If not, why? If not, then why the following...

a church is the local expression of the universal church...I think it can be applied to a group of believers at any level, ranging from a very small group meeting in a private home all the way to the group of all true believers all the world around.

Does the above differ in some way from the Promise Keepers example?

As a believer, you are called to unite with God’s universal “Church,” and also a local body of believers. No man is an island unto himself, and the Bible knows nothing of a solitary believer.

Amen! However, when Paul wrote his various letters to the "churches", weren't they simply addressed to "the church at Corinth", "the church at Ephesus", etc.? Wouldn't this mean that each city/region really only contained one valid "church"; not referred to by a certain assembly, but rather by a connection with Jesus and every other believer in that region?

Should our commitment be to a part or to the whole? Yes and yes!

Great answer!

Tony said...

Raborn,

Again, good questions! And again, I know our opinions will diverge; just a disclaimer. :)

what is "church attendance"? Forgive me brother, but you are being nit-picky. I think you draw a false distinction between being the church and going to church. I am not meaning to be impertinent, but unless church is at the Johnson household, do you not get in your car and go to church? I am sure in the same way you do, I believe that I am the church; I am the hands that reach out for Christ, the feet that go in ministry and service for Christ, the mouth that testifies and witnesses for (and to) Christ, etc. and so on. Yet I also go to a church, a local gathering of believers, gathering at an appointed time for the express activities of corporate worship, discipleship, ministry, and fellowship.

And the Bible does know something of believers meeting at a particular place at a particular time. In Acts 3:1 Peter and John were going up to the temple (a place) at the ninth hour (a time), the hour of prayer (a spiritual activity, done in this context corporately). Granted it was the temple, and not a church as we know it, nevertheless, many of the synagogues were “sanctified” for Christian use and in this verse we see that even the temple itself was being “Christianized” (probably not the best word choice).

I don’t think the PK’s could be considered a local expression of the church, and I emphasize the word local. Neither do the PK’s themselves consider themselves a local expression of the church. They are a ministry that exists to augment the ministries of the local church. Here though is my problem with the PK, and I don’t mean to pick on them specifically but I have attended PK rallies and was part of a PK group several years ago.

We would gather on Tuesday mornings at 6:00 at Denny’s over breakfast and “share.” That is fine; its just after a certain length of time, these same men who claimed great commitment to Christ began slacking off in going to church. Statements were made such as, “I get so much more out of our men’s meetings than going to church.” That may have been nonetheless true, but answer me this, were those men still not “affiliated” with an institutional organization or with a local expression of the church? In their minds, the church had become a non-essential, hardly the Bride of Christ. The PK’s had replaced church. This was the point of my illustration in the original post about me having lunch with a young lady from high school, my having been married now for twelve years.

Maybe a close examination of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association would suffice instead of the PK’s. Billy Graham himself will admit that their weakness as an evangelistic crusade ministry is follow-up and assimilation. His autobiography documents this. Several thousands of people have been saved as a result of his ministry, and you and I agree that No man is an island unto himself, and the Bible knows nothing of a solitary believer yet the ministry of the BGEA has taken the role of evangelism to the masses out of the hands of the local church; and I do not indict the BGEA nearly as much as I do the local church because she willingly has handed that task over to them.

But unto what does the BGEA assimilate new converts? They do follow-up the best way they can, recommend local church bodies, but nevertheless, those new converts, if saved outside of the local church (not inside the church building, mind you, but in some way connected to that local body) are more unlikely to assimilate and become part of a local expression of the body of Christ. They essentially have nothing and no one to identify with save the church invisible, which is absolutely correct, but the BGEA is not the best expression of the local church; only the local church herself is.

So this is my point; the parachurch organizations are ministries that exist to augment the ministry of the local church and they are not meant to replace it. Therefore I do see a distinction between the local church and a parchurch organization; again, in my mind, no misnomer there.

Wouldn't this mean that each city/region really only contained one valid "church"; not referred to by a certain assembly, but rather by a connection with Jesus and every other believer in that region? Once again, forgive me, but I think you are begging your own question here. What we see on the pages of the NT is the visible expression of the church at that time. It does not mean that those were the only churches during that time. If the Apostle John was unable to record all the things that Jesus Himself said and did, John 20:30, does it not stand to reason that neither did Paul or any of the other apostles for that matter?

What of all the other apostles that do not have NT epistles attributed to them? If Peter and John were unable to cease speaking of what they had seen and heard, Acts 4:20, I think we can without much imagination, draw that same conclusion about the other apostle’s missionary and ministry activities. Moreover, Colossians 4:16 speaks of the lost letter to the church at Laodicea, so we know there was a church there, also from Revelation 3, as well as the other churches mentioned in Revelation 2-3. 1 Thessalonians 1:7 speaks of the churches at Macedonia and Achaia. Paul also had great plans to go to Spain; need we conclude that there would have been only one valid church in Spain (or Rome for that matter, considering her size)? Which, a question to you, what makes a church valid?

Well, I feel I am beginning to belabor these points. I appreciate the time you take to listen to me on your blog and hear me out, even though I am not the best at expressing myself sometimes. I hope I have afforded you that same courtesy. Again, you are a blessing, and you always get me to think.
If I still have not answered your questions, let me know! I am gladdened by this dialogue and it blesses me immensely. I know that we will disagree on several of these points, if not all, but I am glad we do it amiably. :)

Sincerely as your brother in Christ,
Tony

Nephos said...

tony,

Enjoyed reading (rapidly) this post. Don't want to sidetrack your on-going discussion with raborn, but I am wondering about your thoughts on the "bride" metaphor.

I can appreciate the discomfort you and les expressed earlier, but can we really think of Christ as our personal bridegroom? Isn't there a difference between our individual relationship to Christ and our corporate one as a body?

Just curious as to your thoughts on this.

Tony said...

Nephos,

I truly appreciate your commenting here and don’t worry about interrupting mine and Raborn’s conversation; I don’t think Raborn minds, do ya?

Raborn had already called me out on this in a previous comment, and I have been noodling it ever since. I think we may be overlooking the simple fact that it is indeed a metaphor and is not meant to be taken absolutely literally. Paul readily admitted it was a great mystery (Eph 5:32).

As I remarked to Les, I think it indicates not necessarily the romantic or even the “physical” aspect of that love, but rather the intensity and severity of that love. I love my wife, but I must acknowledge that Christ loves her much more than I do, or ever could. My love for her is much more profound than any conjugal relationship could ever afford, though it is the height of intimacy. I think that is where the bridegroom metaphor could be applied, that in the same way we love our wives, intensely, severely, ready to die for her (Eph 5:25), that is where this metaphor and our personal relationship with Jesus meets.

I know the Scripture doesn’t really apply the metaphor of the Bride of Christ to our personal relationships with Him, but it is quite possible that we can commit spiritual adultery. I think Jesus’ interpretation of the seventh commandment in Matthew 5:27-30 readily teaches us this; physical adultery is necessarily borne of spiritual adultery (verse 28).

Also, in my thinking on this, could John the Baptist possibly have thought about this kind of relationship personally? In John 3:29, he readily applies the bridegroom imagery to Christ; of course John does not profess to be the bride, but the friend of the bridegroom.

Plus, even though the bride/bridegroom metaphor is applied to the church, and the church is made up of individual believers, couldn’t it follow that Christ does view us individually in that way and there is no harm in us viewing Him that way either?

So I’m not sure if that equivocation is out of bounds just yet. What are your thoughts, Nephos?

I would like to echo Les’ statement, that to us, in our macho ways, it may just be a “man thing.” If there are any ladies reading, what would be your response?

Thanks Nephos, for dropping by; hope to hear a response from you. Blessings!

Sincerely,
Tony

Nephos said...

Tony,

I would say we are primarily in agreement. Several thoughts come to mind:
1) There is a danger in trying to make every point of comparison in a metaphor mean something, so we shouldn't read too much into the "bride" picture.
2) Each individual does receive the bridegroom ministry of Christ, as it is effected upon the church (gave himself for us, sanctified, present to himself), but...
3) Since the analogy is always to the "church" (corporately) I fell hesitant to use it individually.

I'm not saying one shouldn't, but just not at the point where I would.

I'm looking forward to reading your upcoming "metaphor" posts.

Tony said...

Nephos,

I must admit, I really had not given it a lot of thought until Raborn hit me with it.

I share your trepidation in applying the metaphor to believers individually and I hope I didn't come across as stretching the bride metaphor too far. That sincerely wasn't my intention; just thinking out loud.

Thanks for your thoughts on this, plus some much-needed clarification.

Sincerely,
Tony

Raborn Johnson said...

Tony,

I've been out working today, thus the delayed response.:)

Forgive me brother, but you are being nit-picky. I think you draw a false distinction between being the church and going to church.

I apologize if I came off as being nit-picky. I am just trying to think "outside of the box" a little bit. Sometimes I have a tendency to do so through what seems to be word-games or semantics, but this is not my intention. I just think that we need to stop taking anything for granted, and truly think about why we believe what we believe, do what we do, etc.

As to believers "meeting at a certain place, at a certain time", I believe there has been an unfortunate lack of distinction between the Church at Jerusalem and the Church at Antioch (and the establishment of the Church in other places as a result of the Church being in Antioch). The Church at Jerusalem was steeped in Judaism and saw itself not as something separate, but as an advanced form of Judaism. This is evident from passages such as Acts 15 (the Jerusalem Council). Paul talks alot about the reconciliation of Jew & Gentile, etc. into an assimilation of One New Man. Paul vehemently opposed many of the practices promoted by those who came from the Church at Jerusalem. He even rebukes Peter for going along with what was expected by the Church at Jerusalem.

It is interesting to note that Paul was very adamant about the origin of his Gospel. He explained that he did not receive it from anyone but God Himself! He goes out of his way to document the fact that he was not influenced by any of the believers in Jerusalem, including those of the highest reputation (Peter, James).

This brings me back to my original point. If the first believers could be wrong regarding belief and practice, what makes us think that we are immune from the same? If we don't question the what and why of what we believe and do, then we are no better off than the "Christians" of the Dark Ages, who bought indulgences and let someone else tell them what to believe.

its just after a certain length of time, these same men who claimed great commitment to Christ began slacking off in going to church. Statements were made such as, “I get so much more out of our men’s meetings than going to church.”

Why do you think that these men said this? Could it be true? Instead of trying to squeeze these believers into the mold of church as usual, should we actually be listening to what they are saying? I think that this is one of the biggest downfalls of the institution. Instead of actually asking why believers seem to thrive more in these kinds of environments, we stop our ears and instead tell them that it should not be so. If we believe that the Church is anywhere "two or more are gathered", what keeps fellowships such as the above from being considered a local expression of the Church?

Which, a question to you, what makes a church valid?

I have no answer for a church, as I hold to no such entity.:) As for the Church, I think that you stated it pretty well yourself:

In its true spiritual reality, it is the fellowship of all genuine believers, all those who have trusted Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, accepted His atoning sacrifice on the cross as sufficient to pay the price for their sins, turned from their sins in repentance and in faith asked Jesus Christ to be Lord of their lives and are fellowshipping daily with Him.

I ask for your forgiveness if you feel that I have taken this quote out of context. I realize that you added a 2nd part to this definition. My definition though, for now at least, would only include the first part.

Thank you so much for your patience with my comments. I know that there are things which we do not agree upon, but the tie that holds us together is way stronger than any idea that would cause us to diverge!:) So fun to discuss these ideas in a "safe" environment. Unfortunately, not everyone is as amiable as you, and instead of dialoging on these issues, simply reduce an idea to a straw-man that seems easy to burn! Thank you for your considerate dialogue.

Bless you bro,
Raborn

Tony said...

Raborn,

There is no need to ask for forgiveness! I sincerely appreciate you as my brother in Christ. We disagree; and that is OK. The common thread that binds us together is that we both own and are owned by the same Lord, the King of kings, forevermore, Jesus Christ.

I do want to respond particularly to this comment. Why do you think that these men said this? Could it be true? I think I did acknowledge that what they said was nonetheless true, and I think I may have misstated my point. Why is the church not meeting those needs? That is the perennial question and you and I do agree there. We do have that tendency to stop up our ears and overlook the obvious.

I think our solutions to this problem diverge, but at least you and I see those problems and are willing to address them, just in different contexts.

About "getting out of the box," just be careful you don't end up in another box, yaknowhutimeen?

Oh, and btw, about those straw men, you have burned a few of mine and I am grateful.

Blessings multiplied!
Tony

Raborn Johnson said...

Tony,

I just finished watching Oprah. (Another unmanly admission which has the potential to get a man flogged!:) Bill O'Reilly was on the show debating with people in the crowd on politics. As I watched people try to drown each other out, the thought came to my mind, "It's so nice to dialogue with Tony in a civil/loving manner without having to try to out-shout each other just to be heard". Oh that all dialogue would be as gracious as this!

Thanks,
Raborn

RaptureReady said...

Is it possible that the bride is a woman who symbolizes the body of Christ--the church? When she is spotless and without blemish, it is a sign that the church is ready. She will marry or is already married to JESUS and we (the church) will attend the wedding supper.

Any thoughts?