The Bride of Christ

(Posted by Paige)

A friend and I were discussing this biblical metaphor this morning, and I thought to cast this question out to all of you as well: Do you think it is in keeping with biblical intent to speak of the marriage of God or Christ to individual believers as well as to the Church corporate?

In his preaching and writing, my friend will speak in terms of both individual and corporate marriage as rich expressions of God’s/Christ’s relationship of union with believers. I am not sure that he is wrong to do so, but I am personally less comfortable speaking of the individual’s “marriage relationship” with Christ (or calling the individual believer the “Bride” of Christ), simply because in both OT and NT usage God and Christ are never (as far as I can see) said to be “married” to individuals, but only to the corporate bodies of Israel or the Church (cf. Is. 62:3-5; Jer. 2; Eph. 5; Rev. 21). On the other hand, there are plenty of relational metaphors available in the Bible that express the individual’s relationship to God and Christ: child, sibling, friend, sheep, servant (even slave), soldier, citizen, etc.

Is the application to individuals of this “marriage” metaphor a fair implication of the corporate picture of Christ’s Bride, or do you think it is beyond the intent of the scriptural witness? If the latter, do you perceive any harmful or misleading influence in speaking this way?

If, on the other hand, you think it is a fair way to picture Christ’s union with the believer, how can it be framed in teaching and preaching so that the individual does not lose sight of the corporate nature of being the Bride of Christ?

Thanks for your thoughts!

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27 Comments

  1. John Knox said,

    June 25, 2011 at 8:15 pm

    In strictly keeping with the intent of scripture, I think it seems best proper not to refer to individuals as married to Christ. Doing so, in my understanding, would confuse the entire role of the church. We, in America, are surrounded and immersed in a culture of individualism and self absorption, and I think part of the beauty of keeping in mind that we are one body and one bride is precisely that we do not lose focus of the importance of the role of church catholic. We might come to Christ on our own, but we thrive and succeed and grow and get nourished as a corporate body in corporate worship. I am of the opinion that taking the marriage symbol of Christ and his bride and making that Christ and each individual believer undermines the community of believers. I’m not sure it is _wrong_ to do so though. I just find it more healthy when refering to individuals use children, servants, co heirs, something that has a meaning for each person. I just think it might do harm to lose sight of the special unique place of the corporate nature of the church by blurring the lines with an individualistic focus.

  2. Dale Olzer said,

    June 25, 2011 at 8:33 pm

    From my reading of the Bible and the “tradition” and theologians I’m most familiar with; it seems the term “Bride of Christ” is exclusively associated with the corporate body of the Church, all of the elect from eternity past. As individual believers the Bible seems to speak of our union with Christ, being adopted into the family of God with God as our Father and Christ(who is God) as our elder brother.

    Just a perspective from a pilgrim on a journey which has a certain destination.

  3. Larry Wilson said,

    June 25, 2011 at 11:08 pm

    Check out what Francis Schaeffer said here — http://opc.org/nh.html?article_id=72

  4. paigebritton said,

    June 26, 2011 at 6:17 am

    Thanks for the article link, Larry.

    Schaeffer turns up Rom. 7:4, in context of v.2-3, as support for the idea that individuals, too, are married to Christ. He was using KJV, I think, which employs the word “married” in v.4, where the analogy of remarriage (v.2-3) is applied to make sense of the positional situation of the believer re. the law (v.4). But here are these three verses in ESV, which is more faithful to the Greek verbs:

    (2) Thus a married woman is bound by law to her husband while he lives, but if her husband dies she is released from the law of marriage.
    (3) Accordingly, she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law, and if she marries another man she is not an adulteress.
    (4) Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God.

    So what do you think, all? Is this passage a strong enough support for us to speak biblically of the individual’s relationship of union with Christ as marriage? Does “belong to” indicate marital union, and “bear fruit” refer by analogy to spiritual “children”? (Does it complicate matters that Paul is speaking to his “brothers,” that is, 2nd person plural? Does he mean this to apply to each individually, or all corporately?)

  5. rcjr said,

    June 26, 2011 at 7:18 pm

    While I agree that the intent of the language is likely corporate that doesn’t mean there is no overlap. Though I am not the bride of Christ, I am nevertheless confident that Jesus loves me as faithfully as a husband loves a bride, that He is as intent on my individual sanctification as a husband is called to be a means to his wife’s sanctification. The danger of modern American individualism is real and potent. The temptation to miss out on the reality that I am adopted as the Father’s son, and loved, one by one by the Son is likewise a temptation. Jesus loves me by name, though it is the church that is His bride.

  6. iain duguid said,

    June 27, 2011 at 9:14 am

    Attractive though the individualistic interpretation of the bride of Christ may be to modern American culture, it is a mistake to think that it comes from there. You can easily track this kind of language in the Puritans (Samuel Rutherford’s letters would be a classic example) and before them in medieval interpreters like Bernard of Clairvaux. Giving it an added twist, their language is often more erotic than even the most problematic “Jesus is my boyfirend” contemporary song. For example, Rutherford writes, ‘I confidently believe there is a bed made for Christ and me, and that we shall take our fill of love in it’

    The Scriptural entry point to this kind of language is undoubtedly the Song of Songs and Psalm 45, interpretedly allegorically. So perhaps the question is whether the Song of Songs can be appropriately interpreted as speaking about a believer’s individual relationship with Christ, whether it has to do with the relationship of Christ and the church alone, or whether it’s just about human relationships and sex. I think that most pastors who want to preach the book in a way that is more than just a sex-and-relationship manual are going to make some kind of connection (often allegorical) between the believer as individual and Christ as their husband. Most OT scholars, who have obviously never read Bernard of Clairvaux or Rutherford, think that the Song of Songs is self-evidently just about sex because who can imagine speaking of religious subjects in language that has erotic overtones. Is there a way of doing justice to both? I think there probably is, though I’m not sure that it’s out there at the moment. I’d love to hear of anyone who does a good job of preaching Christ in a way that is thoroughly consonant with the meaning of the text itself, without allegory.

  7. June 27, 2011 at 10:23 am

    I guess the question would be – how is it possible for the church to be the bride of Christ; married to Christ; without each individual believer also being married to Christ? The church is simply a large amount of individuals after all. A nation may have a king, and each citizen can exclaim that the king is the king of the entire nation, but each citizen can also rightly say, “the king is my king.”

  8. paigebritton said,

    June 27, 2011 at 11:20 am

    Todd —
    I’m not sure the metaphors compare. Kings generally do have more than one citizen; but is Christ married to more than one “Bride”? There is undeniably diversity in the unity of the corporate Bride, but biblically speaking the relationship is always with “the Bride,” not “Brides.” Again, it may not be wrong to extend the intimacy of the metaphor of marital union to the individual believer, but as it does not seem to be a biblically developed idea, maybe we should tread lightly here.
    pb

  9. paigebritton said,

    June 27, 2011 at 11:23 am

    Iain —
    Have you encountered the understanding that the Song of Songs is written as a denunciation of Solomon’s habit of wife-collecting, and is not an allegory after all? I can’t remember who reads it this way, but it’s a compelling idea.
    pb

  10. Joshua W.D. Smith said,

    June 27, 2011 at 12:14 pm

    The question here might be a logical one: is the status of bride one that can be distributed, or one that only exists collectively, and thus runs the risk of the fallacy of division? To illustrate by example:
    -Enemies of Christ will be judged. This person is an enemy of Christ. Therefore, this person will be judged.
    This is a legitimate deduction.
    -Americans have the right to remove their leaders. This person is an American. Therefore, he has the right to remove his leader.
    This is the fallacy of division: just because a property belongs to a group does not mean that it belongs to each individual of that group.
    So, which type of argument is the one in question? It would seem to be the fallacious one. Consider:
    -The Church is the bride of Christ. This person is a member of the church. Therefore, this person is the bride of Christ.
    This is an improper syllogism, since the term “the Church” is not equivalent to the term “a member of the Church.” If we make the terms match up, we either have “This person is the Church,” which is clearly false, or “All members of the Church are the bride…” which begs the question under consideration.

    All that is to say that it doesn’t look like we can properly conclude that the bride status is distributable to individuals, based on the clear premise that the Church as a unitary collective has that status.

  11. Joshua W.D. Smith said,

    June 27, 2011 at 12:21 pm

    That, by the way, also addresses Todd’s point in #7: just because a status is held by a collective does not mean that every member of that collective has that status. The session of elders, for example, has the authority to put someone out of the church, but no individual elder has that authority (all legislative bodies, boards of directors, etc. work this way). Or, if America is substantially in debt to China, that does not mean that the Chinese government can demand money from me on the basis of that debt.

  12. todd said,

    June 27, 2011 at 12:27 pm

    Paige,

    Yes, I wouldn’t want to extend it very often to the individual, but I don’t think it is illegitimate to ever do so. The prophets at times speak of God wooing his new Isreal back to him in faithfulness. He does this of course one person at a time through his effectual gospel call. While I would usually leave the marriage mataphor of bride and groom for Christ and the invisible church as a whole, (as Scripture usually does), if a single woman in our church said she never wants to be married because she is content with her heavenly husband, I wouldn’t argue or correct her.

  13. iain duguid said,

    June 27, 2011 at 1:42 pm

    Iain Provan takes the three character view in his NIVAC commentary: the Shulammite has actually been pressed by Solomon into his harem against her will, and the song celebrates her continuing love for her shepherd boy. It then becomes a condemnation of Solomon’s power-driven acquisition of wives in favor of the power of true love.

    I must confess I think Provan’s view impossible to preach without multiplying your counseling caseload. On this view, the woman’s marriage to Solomon may be legal but she is entirely justified in pursuing an extramarital sexual affair because the legal system is unfair and unjust and she really, really loves this other guy who she would have married if she could. I also think it rests on making some very sharp demarcations in referent that are not obvious from the text (so “the king” in 1:12 is someone completely different from “my beloved” in 1:13).

    I also think you have to be careful in applying the rules of strict logic to metaphors. If Israel was the Lord’s bride, what happened when she split into two kingdoms? Did the Lord them have two brides? (Ezekiel 23 suggests that the answer is yes, by the way). Does that mean that this becomes a proof text that polygamy is fine because after all the Lord is a polygamist? Clearly not.

    In addition, you have to bring into play not merely texts that talk about Israel as the bride of Christ but also passages that speak of spiritual adultery. It is meaningless to talk about Israel committing spiritual adultery without at the same time asserting that individual Israelites committed spiritual adultery. In the same way, when Paul desires to present the church as a pure virgin to her one husband, Christ, he is not thinking of the entire worldwide church but the group of believers in Corinth (2 Cor. 11:2). If Christ is the husband of the church (as a whole), then he is also the husband of each individual church (e.g. in Corinth); can he not also be the husband of each individual believer, loving us individually in a way that provides a model for Christian husbands? A similar idea exists in terms of the church being corporately a temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Pet. 2:5) yet at the same time each individual believer’s body is also a temple of the Holy Spirit, which is why we should not join our bodies to prostitutes (1 Cor. 6:15-20).

  14. paigebritton said,

    June 27, 2011 at 4:14 pm

    LOL — you certainly highlight a difficulty with that reading of the “Song.” I guess I heard it softened to “Shulammite gets kidnapped, fiance rescues her before harem status becomes legal.” :)

  15. paigebritton said,

    June 27, 2011 at 4:17 pm

    Great discussion so far, folks.

    BTW, is there any difference between Protestant and Catholic use of the metaphor, historically speaking?

  16. paigebritton said,

    June 27, 2011 at 5:02 pm

    Todd (#12) wrote —
    if a single woman in our church said she never wants to be married because she is content with her heavenly husband, I wouldn’t argue or correct her.

    Is this a generally amenable response for all of you? I am wondering [not as a comment on Todd's pastoral choice, but to keep probing the metaphor]:

    1. does speaking this way imply (or reinforce the idea) that single believers are somehow “more” married to Christ than married believers?

    2. does speaking this way reduce the marriage relationship with Christ to an individualistic experience, rather than properly casting it as a corporate one? (Do people who speak this way usually remember to rejoice in the corporate aspect, too?)

    3. is it significant that in Rom. 7:32-35 Paul contrasts being humanly married to being unmarried (and therefore “undividedly devoted to the Lord”) — that is to say, he does not, in so many words, contrast being humanly married to being spiritually married?

    pb

  17. todd said,

    June 27, 2011 at 5:10 pm

    Paige,

    I wasn’t implying any of the 3 above, only that in my experience single women who never marry often think in these terms concerning their relationship with God, and I would do nothing to discourage it.

  18. paigebritton said,

    June 27, 2011 at 5:16 pm

    Sure, Todd. I think that’s a sensitive pastoral choice, and I didn’t mean to imply otherwise. I’m just trying to think thoroughly about the metaphor.

    pb

  19. Zrim said,

    June 28, 2011 at 6:54 am

    Todd, have you ever had a man say that he never wants to marry because he is content with his heavenly husband? Somehow I doubt it. But just as a thought experiment, if a man said as much, and assuming we all would have the same furled brow for the same obvious reason, I wonder if it might cause one to re-think the legitimacy of applying the metaphor individually. Or, maybe it works for women but not men? Which raises more questions.

  20. paigebritton said,

    June 28, 2011 at 7:22 am

    I kind of have to agree with Zrim. (There’s always a first time for everything.)

  21. todd said,

    June 28, 2011 at 7:24 am

    Zrim,

    Yes, it is very subjective, and though men like Rutherford and Bernard were comfortable speaking this way, most men (including me) are not, but women seem more comfortable, which may only show they naturally identify with the bride metaphor more than men. Not something I would often preach, but not something I would correct either is my only point.

  22. Zrim said,

    June 28, 2011 at 11:05 am

    Todd, I’m not sure a man making such a metaphor rises to a level that requires correction either; I think it probably stays at the level of bewilderment. If so, my only point was to suggest that if it’s odd for a man to make the metaphor, and if it’s true that in Christ there is no more male nor female but we are all one in Christ, maybe it is odd for a woman as well, even if on some level more natural. After all, one upshot of the metaphor, though surely unintended, seems to be that women can enjoy a closer walk with Christ than men, which suggests the sort of piety one sees in pietism. That said, now I am wondering whether it does rise to correction…

  23. Cris Dickason said,

    June 28, 2011 at 12:42 pm

    Great round of discussion. FWIW my previous pastor used to quip: if you want to “get in touch with your feminine side” then take your membership in, and responsibilities towards, the Church seriously.

    All told, I see it as a corporate metaphor or figure of speech, in the same way as “body of Christ.” No one takes Christ as head and believer as individual as “body of Christ”, right. When Paul writes of the husband as head of the wife (in the context of the church as the body of Christ) he does not push the language to say husband = head/wife = body. Scripture is never that wooden with its language (even if the NASB is employed).

    I think Schaeffer reads too much into Romans 7:1-6. If the marriage relationship was the main point Paul would have said our first partner, the law, died,, freeing us to be joined to Christ. But Paul says we died, not the Law. That’s the amazing twist in the paragraph. We died, that severs the relationship to the law, so that we could be raised in Christ/joined to Christ in resurrection life. It’s not only that Paul doesn’t want to say, “the law died” (who wants to go there), but he wants to again show that we are alive Spiritually by means of Christ’s resurrection life. Insert a Dr. R. B. Gaffin paragraph here!

  24. paigebritton said,

    June 28, 2011 at 1:58 pm

    Good thoughts, Cris. I was also thinking that even though the Romans 7 passage might allow for the analogy of marriage to Christ to apply to the individual, it’s only an incidental possibility; in any case, Paul was concerned with legal issues here, not intimacy/union issues.

  25. iain duguid said,

    June 28, 2011 at 2:04 pm

    With the “body of Christ” metaphor, though, there is still an individual dimension to it: the fact that our individual bodies are members (limbs?) of Christ is what makes it unthinkable that we should join part of the body of Christ to become one flesh with a prostitute (1 Cor. 6:15). As I pointed out earlier, the church as a whole is the temple of the Holy Spirit, but so are our individual bodies (1 Cor. 6:19).

    As for why you are less likely to hear a single man appeal to the comfort that he finds in his status as married to Christ, that’s surely not that hard to explain. What a single woman lacks in being unmarried is a spiritual head, which is exactly what she finds in Christ. What a single man lacks in the same situation is a helper corresponding to him. Now we could certainly say that God fills that hole since he is our helper, but that wouldn’t evoke the image of Christ as husband in the same way. Not every Biblical metaphor works as well for everyone in every life situation. A fatherless child may find the image of God as father especially precious, while someone with an abusive father may struggle with it, even though it is true that God is just as much the father of both. Women may be temperamentally and situationally less likely than men to invoke the Biblical metaphor of the Christian as a soldier, but that doesn’t make it an invalid metaphor. Metaphors are complex things that work on multiple levels and cannot simply be reduced to the referent (what the image “actually says”).

  26. greenbaggins said,

    June 28, 2011 at 2:50 pm

    Great thoughts, Dr. Duguid! And welcome to my blog, by the way.

  27. John Knox said,

    June 29, 2011 at 2:30 am

    Dr. Duguid,

    (Totally Personal Post)

    We have not met, but I have heard many great things about you. One of my friends goes to Grove City, and also to your church. If you remember signing “Living In The Gap Of Promise And Reality” and “Living In The Grip Of Relentless Grace”, those were for me. Thanks for signing them and, as soon as I finish the books I’m in now I look forward to reading them.

    Anyway, thanks for your thoughts, some points worth considering.


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