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The Church – Family and Bride

by André Schwartz last modified Jul 23, 2014 03:51 PM
Back to Biblical Basics (BBB)

We have come to the last article in our series on the Church. We saw that a church is the physical gathering of people under God’s authority and for His sake because of the work of God in Christ through the Holy Spirit. It is also a cosmic reality that transcends ordinary space and time that encompasses far more than a single gathering of believers.

It’s a “subversive” community; it’s a body with Christ as its head; it’s an army defending the truth and conquering this world for Christ; it’s a court that disciplines its own; it’s a plant, rooted in Christ, a field yielding God’s harvest; it’s a temple housing our God and constantly being built to His glory but it is also a family and a bride.

In the context of the OT, family relationships describe the wider relationships of government, society, and religion. The patriarchal family, with a strong father-figure, meant that elder or distinguished men were given the honorific title “father”, while leading women could be thought of as “mothers in Israel” (Judg 5:6-7). God’s otherness means that He is not a “biological” father (Hos 11:9, “I am God, and not man”). However, to accommodate us, God uses human images so we can understand Him better.

God as Creator is the Father of Israel who loves (Jer 31:1‑91), protects (Ps 89:23‑26), and disciplines the nation (2 Sam 7:14) and adopts them as his own (Ex 4:23). Israel is described as children, daughters and sons of God. On occasion God is seen as mother. God gives birth to Israel (Deut 32:18; Isa 42:14) and declares, “As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you.” (Isa 66:13).

In the NT this continues. God is the Father (Matt 23:9; Mark 14:36; Rom 8:15; Gal 4:6), Jesus is Brother (Rom 8:29; Heb 2:11‑12), and believers are thought of as related to one another as siblings. Early Christians met in homes and mirrored the extended family of the patron or patroness of the group. This meant that the relationships of the family were a natural source on which to draw in understanding relationships within the church. The household codes of the NT, which provide guidance for groups in the Christian household, suggest that early Christians both thought of their life within the church in terms of family and also distinguished their identity as believers from their identity as members of households. The claims of the church family are higher even than those of the blood one. We see this example from Christ: He identified Himself with his disciples: “Here are my mother and my brothers” (Luke 8:21).

For Paul, this becomes a profound theological declaration. God is the Father of every family in heaven and on earth (Eph 3:14‑15). It is through the atoning work of Christ that those once alienated from God and each other become members of God’s family. The intimacy of the family meal is reflected around the table of the Lord, where the hard-won unity of the Church family is celebrated (1 Cor 10:16‑17).

The Church must therefore reflect all that is noblest in human family life: attitudes of caring and mutual regard; understanding of needs, whether physical or of the spirit, and above all, the sense of “belonging” to a unity in which we find acceptance without pretence or make-believe. If we do this, we revive the pattern of early Christians to live out the High-priestly prayer of Jesus Himself (John 17).

This family metaphor in the NT is developed and specialised so that the Church is the Bride of Christ. Again, this metaphor has its origin in the OT: It starts as mere references in the Pentateuch (Gen 1‑2; Exod 34:11‑16; Lev 17:7; Num 15:38‑40; Deut 31:16) but becomes a loud cry and accusation in the prophets (Hosea; Isa 1:21; Micah 1:7; Jer 2‑3; Ezek 16; 23). This is echoed in the apostolic teaching (John 3:28‑30; 1 Cor 6:15‑17; 2 Cor 11:1‑3; Eph 5:21‑33; Rev 14:4; 19:6 9a; 21:1‑3,9‑10).

In 2 Cor 11:1‑4, Paul views the ekklesia in Corinth as the betrothed bride of Christ. He is the best man of the bridegroom, Christ. In drawing them to faith, he has arranged the betrothal, the legal equivalent of marriage, and he looks toward the Second Coming of Christ as the moment when he’d be privileged to present the Corinthian believers to Christ as his bride: “I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy. I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him.” In the time between the betrothal and the marriage-presentation, he worries that they may become adulterous to others and “be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ.” This certainly brings back the vivid pictures of the same image in the OT.

The metaphor wants to show “the need for devotion to Christ” and the vehicle, the marriage imagery, is used to accentuate the betrothal as a time of risk. The same metaphor also points out that all workers in Christ’s Church (but especially the ministers and elders) are to be jealous for Christ’s bride to present Her as faithful (not adulterous) to the bridegroom.

Paul uses the metaphor more idealistically in Eph 5:21‑33, where he modifies it, as part of an exhortation to husbands in the household code, with a distinctly Christological focus. A number of elements and roles of wedding ceremony are taken up in Christ. He is not just the groom, but He is also the bride price (He “gave himself up for her”), the one who administers the bridal bath (“to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word”), and the one who presents the bride (to Himself!). All of these are very radical usages of the ancient wedding practice but the stretching of the metaphor serves only to emphasise the importance of Christ for the Church. The passage underlines the past and present cares of the bridegroom toward the bride but it also holds an important element of eschatological expectation in the future “presentation”.

The identity of the Church through the metaphors of family and betrothed says much about the doctrine of the church (ecclesiology). None of the previous discussed images or metaphors (community, body, army, court, plant/field) can compete with it: it offers such an accessible and intimate portrait of relationships among fellow believers and the relationship between the Church and its Lord. With such accessibility and intimacy, it presents important warnings about the present but also offers great hope for the future in its portrait of Jesus Christ as the Bridegroom returning to lay claim to His bride.

It also challenges our understanding of the church’s mission. Christianity was and grew because it was a great fraternity. The name “brother” vividly expressed the real fact that a Christian would find wherever he went, in the community of his fellow-Christians, a welcome and hospitality. Are we true brothers and sisters?

Although much more can be said about the Church, I believe we have covered most of the main Biblical facets of it. May I challenge you?

  • Seek the Scriptures for your understanding of any subject, particularly the church — do not rely on other sources that may mislead.
  • Make sure that you are part of the community of Christ, a structured body that physically meets to worship.
  • Be really part of that body, fulfilling your function, always looking to Christ as the head.
  • Be willing to be pulled back in by the discipline of the court of the Church.
  • Keep growing, implanted in Christ the vine, to bear much fruit.
  • Be part of God’s temple, be a living stone; be a builder too!
  • Live as a family with God as Father and be prepared as the bride of no other than Christ Himself.

In all things remember: BBB!