Church as Bride?

The idea that the church is the bride of Christ is common in popular thinking, especially in hymns and songs.  This is based on the common metaphor drawn from the Hebrew Bible that Israel is God’s bride.  Beginning in Hosea, the prophets use the metaphor of a marriage relationship frequently to describe God’s relationship to his people.  This metaphor is almost entirely negative since Israel was an unfaithful bride.  Jesus employs similar language as the Hebrew prophets, calling his himself a bridegroom and comparing both his current ministry and future return to a wedding banquet (Mt 22:1-12, 25:1-14).

As the idea that the Church has replaced Israel as God’s people became dominant, it was quite easy to extend the metaphor of a marriage to the church.  Just as the idea was common in the Hebrew Bible, so too the image of the church as the bride of Christ became pervasive in medieval theology and art.  For many, the idea of the church as the bride of Christ is the dominant metaphor in their theology.  But the basis for this metaphorical transfer is a replacement theology (even if it is implicit); anyone who rejects replacement theology will also think about the usefulness of this metaphor for the church.

It remains a fact, however, that Paul describes the church as a virgin being prepared for marriage in Eph 5:21-33.  Christ’s love for the church is described in 5:25-26, 29.  Paul cites foundational text for marriage in the Hebrew Bible (Gen 2) and draws an analogy from it.  The relationship of Christ and church similar to that of the married couple – they are “one flesh” in Gen 2.  Therefore there is some intimate connection between Christ and the church which can be described in similar terms.

There is something of an eschatological perspective in this bridal metaphor in Eph 5.  Christ is the head of the church, which submits to his authority.  That all things will submit to the authority of Christ is a view of the future when Christ returns (cf. Phil 2:5-11).  But, on the other hand, the marriage is already in existence and there are aspects of a realized eschatology here. On the other hand, the idea of a splendid church (5:27) may imply a future eschatological element is present.  At some point in the future the church will finally be a pure and spotless bride prepared for the bridegroom at the Second Coming (the “wedding supper”).   I am tempted to see this as another aspect of the already / not yet tension of Pauline eschatology, but I am not sure that Paul’s topic in Eph 5 is eschatology at all, but rather the purity of the church in the prestent age.

It could therefore be argued that Paul, who took a negative approach of sexual purity (commands not do be immoral, 5:3-7), now adopts a positive argument, “reflect the love of Christ” in sexual ethics (your own partner).  The “function” of the metaphor is to get the husbands to see themselves as in some ways an “ecclesial bride,” if Christ and the church are “one flesh,” and covenant loyalty is obvious and required, then the husband ought to have the same level of commitment to their wives.

So Paul does use the marriage metaphor, but he spins in the direction of a ethical teaching on the relationship of a husband and wife in their marriage relationship.

32 thoughts on “Church as Bride?

  1. “Paul describes the church as a virgin” -P. Long referring to Ephesians 5

    I don’t think Paul does that. The context is that a man and his wife- the wife being presented to the husband “radiant, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemishes, but holy and blameless”.
    Therefore replacement theology is not so far fetched, the wife is simply being made new by the husband.

    “there is some intimate connection between Christ and the church which can be described in similar terms” -P. Long referring to the Genesis 2 quote by Paul

    Whether those connections could be described or not is debatable. Paul himself calls this a “profound mystery” and so I doubt that any similarities can be drawn beyond what Paul himself draws. Besides, the point of this passage is teaching husbands how to love their wives. The relations between the church and Jesus seem to be something everyone knew about. Jesus loved the church and sacrificed everything for it. Paul teaches that husbands should love for their wives just like that.

    This whole business about discovering new ways Jesus relates to the Church in Ephesians 5 seems to go beyond the intentions of the writer.

    • Ben – perhaps I was not clear enough with the evidence, since washing is a part of the pre-wedding rituals, this is pretty clearly a wedding metaphor. I point you to David Williams, Paul’s Metaphors, page 57, and the footnotes citing both Greco-Roman and Jewish literature on the “bridal bath.” The details seem to support this point.

      I am of course assuming that a “bride without blemish” is a virgin, I’ll give you that one.

      I am not sure what you mean by “this business of discovering new ways Jesus relates to the Church” means, since all I did was cite the text of Ephesians. Nothing new here.

    • “This whole business about discovering new ways Jesus relates to the Church in Ephesians 5 seems to go beyond the intentions of the writer” (Ben). I think that Paul’s intention in Eph. 5 was in fact to explain the relationship between the church and God. The profound mystery is not the relationship between the church and God, but the profound mystery is relationship between and man and wife. Paul states directly: “but I am talking about Christ and the church” (Eph. 5:32). Therefore, I do not think it is ‘beyond the intentions of the writer’ to say marriage is a metaphor for the churches relationship with God, because the author states it as his intention.

      • I would agree about your mystery conclusion Zach, the “but” Paul uses seems to be a good enough break in thought. He goes on to specify his discription of Christ and the people of God. As for Ben’s comment, the intentions of the writer is what is being discussed as the “marriage” scenario and completely biblical.

  2. Without a doubt Paul does use the marriage metaphor, but not in the sense of Israel’s relationship to God as has so often been misunderstood bringing about replacement theology. The metaphor was one that could easily be understood by almost any audience, which bring me to the question of why so many people have stretched this metaphor to bring about replacement theology. It is clear that Christ and the Church (which is His body) are ‘one flesh,’ but why take this to mean that the BoC is spiritual Israel? Polhill describes the metaphor as follows: “In fact, the major focus of the passage is not on human marriage but on Christ’s union with the church. Paul used the marriage relationship as an analogy to portray Christ’s relationship to the church. The passage is thus a doctrinal exposition of the Christ’s union with the church, which uses the household order as a point of departure.” (371). Furthermore, Polhill goes on to describe the present reality of the church’s relationship: “Already the reality of the church’s relationship to Christ was outstripping the human analogy that Paul was employing. In no sense is a husband the wife’s Savior; only Christ is.” (371). The focus was the union that the BoC had with Christ and then its outworking in the relationships of husbands and wives.

  3. I have to admit that when I have read this passage I always stopped at verse 29, so to add 30-33 is a mystery to me (to partially play off the “great mystery” of verse 32). When reading the whole chapter over, it seems like this portion is preluded in part by verse 21 “…submitting yourselves on to another in the fear of God”. (Sorry for the KJV I’m in Altoona and I left my other bibles at College…I didn’t want to be burned at the stake…)

    Even just sighting this verse seems adhoc, so I will try to expound. The chapter opens with Paul telling his readers they are to walk in love because Christ has loved us (v. 2). It appears he gives an example of what not to do in the following verses (3-7) and ends with “be not ye therefore partakers with them” (7), “them” of course being those who are described in verses 3-6; the ‘whoremongers’, ‘fornicators’, ‘covertors’, etc. In contrast, we are to walk in light and not in this darkness (13-17). We are to give thanks continually to God, and in this thankfulness for the love he has shown to us, submit to one another (20-21).

    In the very next breath Paul commands the wife to submit themselves to their husbands as if they were wild and unfaithful. The same is said for the husband that they are to be the heads as Christ is head, as if they were aloof. Paul seems to have addressed sexual immorality in the first part of the chapter and as a plea to the family relation to not be as the world but be as followers of Christ. Until verse 30 the love of Christ for the church is an undertone with the conduct of Christians and their relation to each other seems to be the main drive of Paul throughout. Yes, Paul sheds light on the relation between the Christ and the Church but I don’t think that it was ever meant to be his main driving point, because the whole point up until verse 30 has been conduct and behavior toward others and walking as light and not as darkness (a theme that is found throughout the Pauline epistles, Philippians comes to mind right now).

    Having said all this, verse 30-33 seem to present a problem for my reading of Chapter 5. Yes, I’m at a loss because I don’t have Polhill to be my guide right now, so I’m doing the best I can flying solo. The theme of submission doesn’t seem to jive for me with verses 30-33 because it seems that Paul is trying to draw a deeper connection between a husband and wife and Christ and the Church. Verse 33 goes right back to the point at hand, wives submitting to their husbands as if 30-32 is a rabbit trail.

    That’s all I have, it does seem like a great mystery to me, and the only way I find myself reconciling this is to read the Church as Christ’s Bride (which is Israel, which makes the Body of Christ spiritual Israel). To this my dispensational side refuses to accept as even a faint possibility.

    So my conclusion to this? Oh how I miss Polhill.

  4. “30-32 is a rabbit trail” -John Cook
    Thank you John, I thought so too.

    To Zach: I think verse 32 could be taken that way but at least see that it could be taken the other way as well (that verse 32 refers to 30-31 and not the passage as a whole). Nothing you said disproves the opposite.

    A direct and common sense reading of the passage leads me to take from this passage that a husband should love his wife just as Christ loved us- to the point of death.
    I understand that taking a common sense view is somewhat looked down upon in by the very wise, but it is good to say it anyways.

    To Caleb who said: “The focus was the union that the BoC had with Christ and then its outworking in the relationships of husbands and wives.”

    As already stated, I polity disagree- you have a very well constructed post.
    To argue what you say, I sight the continuing theme after this portion is the relationships between people. Child to parent (6:1) and slave to master (6:5).
    The context points toward a focus on relationships between husbands and wives, using the example of love shown by Christ.

    To P. Long: I don’t have the time to look up David Williams but I’m sure he is a lot smarter than I am- although let me say that just because something was true in other places does that mean it is true everywhere? I’m a man who clings to the odds no matte how thin, so I will admit that even if your argument has more merit- you cannot state it as 100%.

    Any takers?

    • “A rabbit trail?” We could explain away the context of any verse with that kind of argument. But, context rules interpretation. It is the context of a verse that tells you if you have interpreted it correctly. [LA 331?]

      • Thank You Zach people seem to get so caught up in there feelings and what they think that they try to read the passage to fit what they think. It does not matter what we think it only matters what God’s word says.

    • “A direct and common sense reading of the passage leads me to take from this passage that a husband should love his wife just as Christ loved us”

      To invoke common sense is a very dangerous game. As far as common sense goes, it seems that we should look at the passage to see what is mentioned. “I sight the continuing theme after this portion is the relationships between people.” If it is only relationships that are mentioned, common sense says that it is only relationships that are being addressed. However, you cannot ignore the fact that it blatantly says “as the church” multiple times in this passage. Common sense mandates that there must be a correlation going on here. The correct quoting of Eph. 5.25 is “husbands love your wives, as Christ loved the ‘church'”

      Whether or not I am reading you correctly on the above subject, I have to agree with Zach on the idea of a ‘rabbit trail’ in Scripture. That is a very slippery slope to say that this little section doesn’t necessarily fit with the rest of the passage, or anything else around it.

  5. If something cannot be stated as 100% than it is good to have an open mind to other perspectives.

    • sometimes having too open of a mind can be equally as dangerous as being close minded. Not necessarily here, but in life in general.

  6. “The metaphor was one that could easily be understood by almost any audience, which bring me to the question of why so many people have stretched this metaphor to bring about replacement theology.” (Caleb)
    I really appreciate what Caleb said because I agree 100%. Once again I will state my opinion of how we continually try to confuse God’s word so that only a select few can understand!
    Coming from a girl that looked forward to getting married since…my elementary school days, I remember finding this passage in junior high, and putting hearts around the heading. I understood the basics of this passage, and looked forward to becoming a wife. What I am trying to say, is that Paul is straight forward in this passage. I like how Zach brought up the fact that verse 32 states the intentions of the author. If we are reading the Bible literally, then I do not understand why we think this could be replacement theology.

    • That’s why I think my way makes more sense, and that’s why Zach thinks his way makes more sense- beyond presuppositions of theological background I think this verse is open to interpretation so far.

  7. Just to throw in my 2 cents… Looking at Eph. 5.22-33, mainly the issue with vs. 31, I suggest that this has something to do with the mystery surrounding the two becoming one body and how this comparison is obviously a parallel between Jesus and the Church, and a husband and wife. It is blatantly saying that they both love each other (25,28,29) as each other. Giving of themselves, their desires, needs, etc. for the benefit of their “other half”. IT is all about the definition of marriage and how Jesus gave up so much on the Church’s behalf, because of love and the Church needs to submit and reciprocate that love back. It reminds me of God’s Will verses God’s Plan. You cannot escape God’s Plan, but you choose daily to pursue his Will. The same is true in marriage, ideally once you “tie the not” you cannot get out of it and you’re still married when you wake up on the next day, but how you respond to that marriage is the challenge. How you love your wife. How you cherish your wife. The same is true in/of Christ.

    • Well, after quaking in fear of an inevitable reply by Ben Tacoma, I decided to post. I really like what Caleb said about Israel’s marriage aspect. The replacement theology is certainly not the description given in Ephesians 5, but the relationship between the Church and Christ. “And to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.” The metaphor of Marriage fits, because of this union between between Christ and his people is like a man and woman in a marriage relationship, and Paul tries to get across the powerful similarity in his narrative.

  8. Feel free to lay into me after this post…you won’t hurt my feelings.

    Caleb, “The metaphor was one that could easily be understood by almost any audience.”

    Thank you for this insight. However obvious it seems thank you for stating it. We know Paul likes to use metaphors that people can relate to and understand. Why wouldn’t he be using one here?

    Ben, “the point of this passage is teaching husbands how to love their wives”

    Slightly agree with you, but I think I disagree a little bit more. I say this because I agree with Zach.

    ““but I am talking about Christ and the church” (Eph. 5:32). Therefore, I do not think it is ‘beyond the intentions of the writer’ to say marriage is a metaphor for the churches relationship with God, because the author states it as his intention.”

    Paul states his intention, and sadly it was not to teach husbands to love their wives…..or was it…

    Is it possible that 1 of two things happened here.

    1) Paul was fully aware of what he was writing and new there would be two teaching points in it. The first one being his stated intention in 5:32, the second being that people would undoubtedly read the passage and glean good marital advice as well?

    2) Paul was completely oblivious to the absolute gem of marital teaching he was writing and only intended it as he stated in 5:32 and when people read it they said, “Hey, this husband and wife stuff is good advice.”

    so Ben I agree that the passage definitely teaches husbands how to love their wives, and if I had to bet I would bet that Paul by way of understanding what he was writing intended for that to happen. But since Paul himself states what his purpose was for the passage I would say his primary purpose was to use this as a metaphor as Caleb said and to teach about marital things as a secondary teaching.

  9. To turn that whole thing on its head-

    What if verse 32 refers to verses 30-31? (this is the question I posed to Zach)

    I can read it both ways. It makes me think of an eye puzzle I once saw. One way it looked like a wine glass, another look and I saw two faces staring at each other. The picture never changed, only my perception changed.

    I’m asking that some of us change our perspective and see the other way.

    • It seems unlikely that the mystery that Paul is referring to here is solely contained in actually one verse. (vs 30 is the end of the thought begun in 29)

      Even if it does refer to verse 31, doesn’t it seem like common sense that 31 comes as a result of the previous 9 verses, there by default causing 32 to reference 31, which references the whole metaphor?

  10. When I was growing up and I read this passage I always though that it was just about husbands and wives. But then my brother told me that I should not read it at a wedding because it does not really mean what everyone thinks that it means. I was always taught that it was only talking about how husbands and wives should treat each other, but he told me that it did not mean that. Then it made more sense to me. That Paul was not only talking about husbands and wives, but also the church. How Christ is the head of the church and we are his bride. Paul is using a metaphor to help explain how we should relate to Christ, but also to other believers. I think that it is amazing how Paul describes it. Being married is one of the greatest honors (I think) that you can take part in. It is also one of the greatest honors to be in God’s family.
    Elyse, I love what you said about it. Also being a girl I can relate to that too.

    • I love how you guys are describing this! This passages is giving us a glimpse of how we are to love Christ and the Church. It is such a great way of showing us how to love each other. We understand…well, some understand the depth of loving a spouse and it is great. It does mean to put that person in front of your own interests and to look to please them instead of yourself. It is 1 Cor. 13 and that is what we should be doing to each other in the Church. What if we did act like we truly loved each other? What would the church look like? It would transform lives and bring revival. Paul’s words here are not only good advice for a marital relationship but more importantly show us the key to living as the Body of Christ.

      • Nice Brent. After your post, I can’t help but go to a passage in Romans 12:9-11 which says:

        “Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord.” This is foundational, not only in marriages, but in our lives as Christians!

        After reading this passage, it is incredible to see the light in which Christ gave himself up for us. It seems that this verse which says,
        “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” [Ephesians 5:32 (ESV)] is referring back to “this hidden plan of God that has come to fulfillment in Christ Jesus” [ESV Study Bible]. It goes on further to say that Paul had the Genesis 2:24 verse in mind, which he also quotes in verse 31. All this to say is that marriage from the beginning was created by God to be a reflection of and patterned after Christ’s relation to the church. The commentator in the ESV Study Bible concludes this section by saying this is why Paul commands the roles of husbands and wives to reflect God’s purpose and will for how marriages should be, as exemplified by the relationship between the bride of Christ (the church) and Christ himself [ESV Study Bible].

        It seems interesting to me that marriages that are modeled after this are such a beautiful picture of sacrificial love and demonstrates the life we are to have with Christ Jesus and His Body. You essentially put their needs above yours, because you desire to indeed “outdo one another in love.”

        Side note – Can this picture of Christ and His Bride be seen in a relationship that’s non marriage? How does that look?

  11. I could not help but think of this idea when it comes to Eph. 5. It seems that Paul is making it a point to tell the people to not commit any sexual immorality, idolitary, and etc. to make sure or re-inforce these virtues that so often Israel did not follow.

    As the idea that the Church has replaced Israel as God’s people became dominant-P. Long

    Paul seems to making sure that he is trying to help lead the church away from the path that so often the Israelites fell down into. It seems that not only is Paul teaching about how the family in a house hold shoul dbe run but then teaching the “church” to take these lessons; and live it out under Christ.

  12. When I think of church as a “bride” I think of Christ’s relationship with the church in that it is reminisce of a marriage relationship. But for me the beginning of the church is still kinda hazy. Mid-acts dispensationalism has some solid points but I still don’t see when the church officially became the Church.

  13. Josh, I really liked your two points. However, I find it funny that everyone is so focused on vs. 32. Paul has just painted a wonderful picture of submission, in verses 5:21-6:9. He did not just leave a picture of marriage, but of child/parent relationships and slave/owner relationships as well. It seems to make more sense to me to say that Paul was demonstrating the idea of Christ and the Churches submission as how we should submit to each other.

    • nice Shaun, I really like that observation! The whole discussion that we are having does remind me of Bible scholars that get so worked up with just a couple of words and their grammar that they forget the big picture and fail to work together to build up the body instead of tearing it down. It reminds me of James 3:13-18 where it says that wisdom from man destroys and provides strife, but the wisdom from above is pure, peace-loving, CONSIDERATE, SUBMISSIVE, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. We do lack that attitude when we come to these arguments (I am NOT saying that this is how this discussion is going, just that it SOMETIMES goes this way…at least this is what happened at Moody).

      Moving on from that, it is really interesting to see how Ben is all over these posts. Im sorry Ben, but I am going to have to disagree with you on a couple of things. I do agree that we need to ALWAYS keep an open mind when it comes to theology and that is why we learn, it is to adapt our thinking to make it better, but to not accept what is there before you is ignorant. The metaphor that we see here, especially with the issue of the bride being prepared is obvious. Their culture did that and we can assume with pretty good odds that they are right.

      Also, faith is never 100%. If we had 100% then it would not be faith anymore but sight. We are called to live in faith. I guess this point is more of an agreement more than anything, but take it whatever way you want. All I know is that we do need to keep open minds but we do have minds for a reason and we should use them to think critically and go with what is best.

  14. I like the duality of this passage of scripture, the metaphor of the church’s relationship and responsibility to Christ the head of the spiritual family (body of believers as bride) and as P Long put it, the “spin in the direction of a ethical teaching on the relationship of a husband and wide in their marriage relationship”. This also makes me think of Ted Dekker’s The Circle Series where he uses a lot of this kind of symbolism for the relationship between Christ and the church.

  15. Brent and Shaun- awesome way to grab a hold of the rest of the passage surrounding these few verse that we are discussing. That is one thing i noticed that it is not just focused only on marriage but again with the child/parent, slave/master submission deal. As i was reading this (because i am so late) I also saw the Bible scholars getting worked up over a few words.

    I can see where both ben and zach are coming from and i would have to say that i agree with zach. the “but i am talking about Christ and the church (NIV)” in verse 32 makes the difference. Paul uses a way that the people he is speaking to will be able to understand. using it as something like “husbands and wives you should do this and this and this…. now let’s apply it in a different way as Christ and the church”

    p.s. did anyone mention verse 33? I dont remember… but anyways after the big “BUT” in verse 32… there is a “however” in verse 33 that i see as Paul saying, even though i was referring to Christ and the church this IS how you should love and respect each other.

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