Q – I have heard preachers say that the Church is the “body of Christ.” But, they also say that the Church is the “bride of Christ.” How can we be both? I mean, I can’t be my own mate and myself at the same time. What do you make of it?
Jim – What an interesting question. And, you’re right! I don’t think very many people have noticed the apparent conundrum. But, there is an answer. I will attempt to be succinct – a genuine challenge to verbose old men like me.
The quick answer is that Paul used the term “body” in a strictly metaphoric sense, designed to demonstrate the function of every saint within the group (or, body) with Christ as the head. For instance –
“For I say, through the grace given to me, to everyone who is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think soberly, as God has dealt to each one a measure of faith. For as we have many members in one body, but all the members do not have the same function, so we, being many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another.” (Rom. 12:3-6)
One of the difficulties that Paul continually faced in the early church was the conflict between Jewish and Gentile believers. Thousands of years of conflict and hatred made accepting each other in the faith a nearly impossible proposition. On top of that, Greco/Roman culture had a very pronounced class system. Just as Jews would never sit, eat, or worship with the heathen, so free men would never consider bondslaves as their brethren. So, in the following passage Paul continued his “one body” metaphor in order to bring unity to the Church – Jew or Greek, free or slave – because they had all been baptized by the one Spirit.
“For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body–whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free–and have all been made to drink into one Spirit. For in fact the body is not one member but many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I am not of the body,” is it therefore not of the body? And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I am not of the body,” is it therefore not of the body? If the whole body were an eye, where would be the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where would be the smelling? But now God has set the members, each one of them, in the body just as He pleased. And if they were all one member, where would the body be? But now indeed there are many members, yet one body. And the eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you”; nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” No, much rather, those members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary. And those members of the body which we think to be less honorable, on these we bestow greater honor; and our unpresentable parts have greater modesty, but our presentable parts have no need. But God composed the body, having given greater honor to that part which lacks it, that there should be no schism in the body, but that the members should have the same care for one another. And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and members individually.” (1 Cor. 12:12-28)
So, Paul’s primary use of the word “body” in these contexts was to denote unity and fellowship. He was not propounding a theology that transformed believers, individually or collectively, into the actual body of Christ, which is seated at the right hand of God. He used the word the same way we speak of an author’s “body of work” or an organization’s “ruling body.” The collective people make up a unified group – or, body – while they do not necessarily become the person they represent.
The place where Paul’s language most closely resembles the idea of genuine transubstantiation is when he speaks of marriage. But, the context makes clear that he is once again advocating unity; we are joined to Christ just as a wife is joined to her husband. But, my wife and I retained our singularity and “personhood” even though we are one in God’s eyes and in the marriage union.
You know, there’s an old joke that says when two people get married, the two become one. They spend the next ten years arguing about which one.
Anyway, here’s Paul’s take on it –
“So husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies; he who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as the Lord does the church. For we are members of His body, of His flesh and of His bones. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and 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. Nevertheless let each one of you in particular so love his own wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.” (Eph 5:28-33)
So, Paul used the union of two wedded people as an example of the Church/Christ relationship. But, we do not become Christ in any literal sense anymore than Libbie literally became me when we got hitched… although I think I’m rubbing off on her.
And finally, Paul used the body metaphor to demonstrate Christ’s superiority over His Church –
“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist. And He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the preeminence.” (Col 1:15-18)
Notice how consistent Paul is with his language. The body, the Church, is not synonymous with His body. The Church is indeed a body, a group, a fellowship of believers. But, they are a body that is ruled by “the head of the body,” who has preeminence over all things, particularly the Church. But, the Church is not the head.
If the Church, in any real sense, became the physical body of Christ, then we would be participants in our own redemption. We would be the mystical “firstborn” over all creation. But, Paul never said that. He merely used the construct of a body to argue for unity, whether in a church, in marriage, or in the Church as a whole.
Christ, on the other hand, is utterly separate and above the body of believers. He is the firstborn of all creation, He has utter dominion and all things were created by Him and for Him. Paul never argued that we share those qualities. Hence, there is distinction between Christ and His Church – a body of saved believers and the head over the body.
Meanwhile, Paul also used the “bride” metaphor. The bride of Christ language has deep historic significance. It was more than just a trick of language or instructive allegory. It spoke of the distinct and unique relationship that Christ has with His people. But, it also demonstrates the demarcation between Israel and the Church, or the Old and the New Covenants.
Here’s what I mean. In the Old Testament, God spoke of Israel as an unfaithful wife –
“The time is coming,” declares the LORD,”when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the LORD.” (Jer 31:31-32)
The book of Hosea is a typification of God’s dealings with Israel. They had chased after other gods until God declared –
“Bring charges against your mother, bring charges; for she is not My wife, nor am I her Husband!” (Hos. 2:2)
Still, God predicted the return of Israel under His sovereign hand and unfeigned love –
“She will chase her lovers, but not overtake them; Yes, she will seek them, but not find them. Then she will say, ‘I will go and return to my first husband, for then it was better for me than now.’ ” (Hos. 2:7)
“And it shall be, in that day,” says the LORD, “That you will call Me ‘My Husband,’ and no longer call Me ‘My Master,’ For I will take from her mouth the names of the Baals, and they shall be remembered by their name no more.” (Hos 2:16-17)
“I will betroth you to Me forever; Yes, I will betroth you to Me in righteousness and justice, in lovingkindness and mercy; I will betroth you to Me in faithfulness, and you shall know the LORD.” (Hos. 2:19-20)
So, the relationship between Israel and God is likened to a marriage where the wife was unfaithful, but the husband’s lovingkindness, mercy and faithfulness restores their relationship eternally. He punished the faithless spouse for her adulteries, which is why Israel is scattered and without the covenant relationship at this time. But, he never utterly destroyed the marriage contract –
“Thus saith the LORD, Where is the bill of your mother’s divorcement, whom I have put away? or which of my creditors is it to whom I have sold you? Behold, for your iniquities have ye sold yourselves, and for your transgressions is your mother put away.” (Isa. 50:1)
And, throughout the OT Scriptures the promise of restoration rings loud and clear.
So, along came Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, to His own – the Jews – but His own received Him not. Many of His followers honestly believed that after His resurrection He would bring about the promised and long-sought restoration. Two of His apostles said as much as they talked with Him along the road to Emmaus –
“And He said to them, “What things?” So they said to Him, “The things concerning Jesus of Nazareth, who was a Prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how the chief priests and our rulers delivered Him to be condemned to death, and crucified Him. But we were hoping that it was He who was going to redeem Israel. Indeed, besides all this, today is the third day since these things happened.” (Luke 24:19-21)
In fact, the last question He was asked before He left this world was –
“Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6)
So, the Messiah had a unique and specific relationship with national Israel. However, He also had a specific and unique relationship with the Church, those that His Father promised Him before the foundations of the world. Just as the Father was betrothed to national Israel, Christ is said to be preparing a place for His bride.
“For I am jealous over you with godly jealousy: for I have espoused you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ.” (2 Cor 11:2)
Paul wrote those words to Gentile Christians who would never have known, or been any part of, the ancient Hebrew covenants. Gentiles were not brought into the Old Covenant of works and law, they were brought into the New Covenant of salvation by grace through faith. So, their “marriage relationship” was not with God through Moses, but rather through Christ, their husband/redeemer. In fact, that relationship of the “kinsman redeemer” is typified in the book of Esther as she is betrothed and redeemed by Boaz, her near kinsman.
Jesus used that bride/groom relationship parable of the ten virgins awaiting the bridegroom. And, when Jesus was asked why His disciples did not fast, as the Jews did with ceremonial regularity, He answered –
“And Jesus said unto them, Can the children of the bridechamber mourn, as long as the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken from them, and then shall they fast.” (Matt 9:15)
He used the marriage language, referring to Himself as the groom, and then told parables of the bride awaiting the bridegroom’s return. Even John the Baptist used this language –
“Ye yourselves bear me witness, that I said, I am not the Christ, but that I am sent before him. He that hath the bride is the bridegroom: but the friend of the bridegroom, which standeth and heareth him, rejoiceth greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice: this my joy therefore is fulfilled.” (John 3:28-29)
The contrast should be obvious at this point. God spoke of Israel as His unfaithful wife. But, Jesus speaks of a marriage to come. He is the bridegroom who went to prepare a place for His beloved, so that they could ever live together. And, when He returns for her (the “catching away” of the Church), He will take her to His home. And, of course, the final joining of Christ and His Church is referred to as the “marriage supper of the lamb.” (Rev. 19:9)
Only after that event do you see the change of status where the Church ceases to be the bride in waiting and is referred to as the wife –
“And there came unto me one of the seven angels which had the seven vials full of the seven last plagues, and talked with me, saying, Come hither, I will shew thee the bride, the Lamb’s wife.” (Rev 21:9)
But, the distinction between the wife of God and bride of Christ is consistent. That’s why the language exists. We are not merely typologically His wife. We are the called body of believers who will ever be joined to Him in the marriage union, becoming one with our husband, our redeemer.
So, to make a very long explanation much shorter…
Paul used the “body” as a metaphor for unity within the Church. But, the “bride” language defines our relationship with Christ, our current state of anticipation for His return, and our promise of being eternally joined to Him. It also signifies the distinction between God’s dealings with Israel and our relationship with Christ.
I hope that was not overly complicated. I have a gift for complicating the obvious. 🙂
Thanks for such a good, interesting question!
Yours for His sake,