Many of us share a passion to see the church rise up in true spiritual dynamism, hold out its arms to a hurting world, open its doors with hospitality to the stranger and the destitute, bring fellowship and succor where affliction exists, healing where there is sickness, justice where there is violence and corruption. While we have seen evidence of these actions, many of us have also lived the deep disappointment of promised community but reality only of pretense and conformity, experienced merely a new and different type of isolation. We have perhaps experienced petty despotism, small-minded and spiteful infighting, and communal toxicity: The church is a whore, and she is my mother.1This quote is much disputed in origin, but often attributed to Saint Augustine
Yet in all the gnarled knot of our hopes, ambitions, fears, and even disgust for the church, I think we may have failed to understand many aspects of her essential nature, failed to grasp the history-long intent God has diligently been persevering in to mold and make her into something majestic and beautiful. We may have been overlooking something amazing God is doing, may have been truly blind to the actual being of the church and the glory that God is displaying through it even now to the heavenly realms. Paul chastises us for being blind to the presence of the Lord’s body, or many translations read not discerning the Lord’s body 21 Corinthians 11:29 NKJV and lists it as a cause for our feebleness as Christians:
He that eats and drinks carelessly is eating and drinking a judgment on himself, for he is blind to the presence of the Lord’s body. Careless communion means spiritual weakness: let us take due care. It is this careless participation which is the reason for many feeble and sickly Christians in your church, and the explanation of the fact that many of you are spiritually asleep.31 Corinthians 11:29-30 JB Philips
I think this is a serious call to us who believe in God to learn to discern the Body of Christ. We need to learn to perceive and recognize the church, to apprehend and to distinguish it for what it is and what it isn’t so that we can move out of our sickliness and rise up in more spiritual vitality and vigorous potency.
In Scripture we commonly encounter the church described in three ways as the Body of Christ, as the Bride of Christ, and as the building or City. We are told Christ is the head of the church, his body 4Ephesians 5:23 ESV. Christ is our head, and we—together with all other redeemed beings who have ever lived—comprise His body. We also see at the end of the age the church as the Bride of Christ 5Revelations 19:7—the one who is raised up as His lover, a worthy companion and friend to the coming King. And we have a third picture as Peter addresses as a building: you also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house 61 Peter 2:5 NKJV, and in Revelations we see a picture of the church as an entire City, coming down out of heaven as the New Jerusalem—perfect and glorious 7Revelations 21:10.
These three pictures help us to understand different aspects of the church, and they are each important and richly complex in and of themselves; however, they are each only one facet. Looking at the three pictures of Body, Bride and City is like looking at three projections or shadows of a multi-dimensional object. The shadows are easier for us to wrap our minds around; they communicate much of what is true about it because they have characteristics consistent with the original. But these three pictures are still only facets of the church that don’t communicate to us that much about how the church actually moves back and forth in the hands of God, or what the church is like when it has become mangled, and God needs to untangle it.
I am writing this blog to try to build a bridge from these our reductive understanding of the church to a more wholistic view. This new understanding is hard to wrap our minds around because it is not the shadow seen from only one viewpoint. So before reading any further, I want to invite us to open our thoughts to the idea of complexity, to the idea of having our minds stretched to begin to understand the multi-faceted being of the church. Because the church is a living person, and God is fashioning us all the time into the glorious individual we see at the end of the age. The three analogies or pictures each give us different facets of truth about the church and the combination of them, the integration and amalgamation of these ideas, offers us something more than each of the ideas individually. Though we can have a hard time understanding how the church can be both the Body of Christ and His Bride, though we can have an even harder time understanding how the church can be a City and a Bride and a Body, alone none of these pictures conveys the complexity of the church adequately. Put together they being to offer us a glimpse of an almost impenetrably complicated and multi-dimensional being.
At first I planned to write this blog in the format of individual essays delineating various aspects of the triune bride, but the material tumbled out of me in narrative mythopoesis. In this series of writings, I am attempting to draw us away from our navel-gazing tendencies—for we struggle partly because we are ever analyzing our lives and trials only from within our earthly framework—and to learn to loose ourselves from the canvas of our lives and begin to understand a larger, cohesive meaning. Hopefully we can learn to step away from and out of the tapestry of human history and gaze at the whole project of humanity from the vantage point of eternal beings and so glory in the three strands of the being of the church: Body, City and Bride.
And yet, as we take a look at the layering of truths about the church in these three pictures, as we seek to understand this complex being, we must also accept the inherent level of difficulty in dealing with these concepts. I invite you to not resist complexity, to not resist the stretching of your mind to encompass the many facets of the being that is the church; though we seek to comprehend aspects of her person, these existential concepts about the church may not be completely graspable at once—rather my hope is that bits and pieces of ideas may begin to illuminate God’s plan to our minds like dancing kaleidoscope motes. And I invite you to open yourself to contemplate bits of kaleidoscope image, to begin to piece together some of God’s passion for the church. And I invite you to open yourself to thinking about and relating to the church less as an object and more as what she is—a person, a being, whom I believe is at the very center of creation and reveals to us some of the deepest motivations of the Maker’s heart, namely that God is immersed in a project that spans the course of human history to mold and to make us into His image, fashioning our corporate entity in such a manner that conveys His manifold wisdom and demonstrates His awesome power and understanding.
References [ + ]
|1.||↑||This quote is much disputed in origin, but often attributed to Saint Augustine|
|2.||↑||1 Corinthians 11:29 NKJV|
|3.||↑||1 Corinthians 11:29-30 JB Philips|
|4.||↑||Ephesians 5:23 ESV|
|6.||↑||1 Peter 2:5 NKJV|