The metaphors regarding the church are numerous throughout the witness of the New Testament. God’s people are likened unto a building, a house, a body, a family, a temple, a priest-hood, an olive tree (and the list goes on). Each symbol entails precious truths which enliven both our understanding of the Gospel and our comprehension of the love of God towards us.
Arguably the most sublime metaphor of all is that of the ‘bride.’ It comes to the forefront in Ephesians 5:22-33 where Paul employs the imagery of a man and his wife as a representation of the love with which Christ has loved His church. The Greco-Roman world in which Paul lived had all but done away with God’s high-esteem of marriage. Seneca wrote that, in his generation, women married to get divorced and divorced to get married. Prostitution and matrimonial infidelity were run-of-the-mill. Family life was all about extinct. Women became an object to be used rather than a companion to be loved.
Nevertheless, Paul’s revolutionary teaching regarding marriage (based on the creation account in Genesis) centred on one fundamental and radical premise: love. He demanded that the men love their wives zealously and relentlessly, saying, “So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife loveth himself” (v. 28). The supreme example of this love was the Lord Jesus Himself, who gave his life for His bride. It was a love that translated itself into the realm of actions.
Surely the bride of such a gracious Husband is the most blessed of all! What security! What peace! What bliss! Should we not be the most grateful people of all? To know that the One we love loves us is a thought too marvellous to leave us indifferent. The Pauline ‘love’ was no cheap affection or momentary sentiment (as it has come to be considered in the twenty-first century), it was a fiery, fierce, loyal and colossal force that could not be extinguished by many waters. Real men love! And they love with all their heart! Wimps walk out!
In the light of the mighty love of Christ, there was to be a corresponding affection from the bride. Paul calls the bride to be submitted (vs. 21, 24) which, in the Greek, can be rendered ‘obedient’ or ‘subordinate.’ We recognize, then, that we are under divine authority; and that has always been the key factor of any true church. Let’s be clear. Not everything that calls itself a church is a church. Just take a look at what we’ve got around us in the mess of a world called ‘religion’ today: pro-abortion ‘Christian’ denominations that ordain homosexuals, marry rabbits and preach a false Gospel of universalism based on man’s whims and not the standard of the Word of God. I’m sorry to break you the news, but this is not the bride of Christ!
How do we define the bride? How can we recognize her? In first place, it would be important to point out that since the days of Augustine Christian theology has always accepted that there is an element of mystery regarding the true bride. That man of God was clever enough to distinguish between the invisible church and the visible church. What does this mean? The visible church is the bride as man sees it; the invisible church is the bride as God sees it. In other words, not everyone wearing the ‘Christian’ label is a son (or daughter) of God. There are plenty of wolves within the visible church, but they are not a part of the bride. Matthew’s Gospel, for example, is violently anti-hypocritical. He sees the visible church as a corpus mixtum (mixed body) of true born-again believers and a bunch of actors that don’t know the first thing about God. He speaks to us of false prophets, wolves and vipers that only had an external appearance of holiness. He presents several parables which illustrate this truth in illuminating fashion: the wheat and the tares (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43), the good and bad fish (13:47-50), the marriage feast (22:1-14), the good and wicked servants (24:45-51) and the ten virgins (25:1-13). Matthew faces the reality of religious hypocrisy and demands his readers to examine their own lives to see if they are giving, “fruits meet for repentance” (3:8).
Therefore, we can define the bride of Christ then as the true church of God. “The Lord knoweth them that are His” (2 Timothy 2:19). These are the ones who thirst after Christ and press on in Him with greater holiness, purity, consecration, love and submission. There are the real-deal. They have the witness of the Holy Spirit that they are the children of God.
Any true church will always have two essential features: 1) the exposition of the sound doctrine of the Word of God; 2) the correct bestowal of the sacraments (namely, the Lord’s Supper and baptism). The Lutheran Augsburg Confession (1530), drawn up in the heat of the Protestant Reformation, defined the church as, “the congregation of the saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the sacraments are rightly administered.” In the same spirit, the systematic theologian of the Reformation, John Calvin, saw all as believers those who, “by confession of faith, by life-style, and by participation in the sacraments, profess the same God and Christ as us.” It is just another way of saying that the bride is submitted to her Husband. Wherever the Word is not preached and wherever the sacraments are not administered, it is not the true church.
Another question raises itself before closing. If we are the bride of Christ, how are we to act? How is the bride to be?
Above all, we were called out by God to worship Him. Adoration of God is the chief end of the church. As Sara submitted to Abraham and called him ‘lord’ so we too submit to the lordship of Christ and lovingly follow His steps of guidance and counsel. We exist to praise Him. You were born to glorify Him.
Secondly, we are to minister to others who are also His bride. The bride is to take care of herself to be found without spot, wrinkle or blemish (Ephesians 5:27). Esther smelt of sweet perfume and was elegantly dressed. She kept herself clean. This is done by the refreshing work of ministry and service to others. In this fashion, we are edified as the bride of the Lord and well-pleasing in the sight of our Lord.
And thirdly, we are to evangelize, that is, we are to speak to others about the glory of our Husband as the overflow of our satisfaction, joy and delight in God. Ruth spoke of how kind Boaz had been and the Shulamite could not withhold herself from breaking forth with praises for the love of her life. If you love Christ with all your heart, how can you be silent about the goodness of your faithful, loving Husband who never ceases to protect, preserve and provide for you?
Let us be the bride that our Bridegroom desires to be.