Metaphors for the Church
What is like a family, a bride, branches on a vine, an olive tree, a field of crops, a harvest, a temple, a group of priests, God’s house, a pillar, and a body? – US! The Bible is filled with a wide variety of powerful metaphors for the followers of Christ, their interaction with God, and their interaction with one another. As we seek to build biblical, multi-ethnic community, it is very important that we study these metaphors to learn how we are to think about our relationships with one another. A thorough explanation is found in this excerpt from the excellent book Systematic Theology by Wayne Grudem (pp.858-859):
Metaphors for the Church
To help us understand the nature of the church, Scripture uses a wide range of metaphors and images to describe to us what the church is like.12 There are several family images — for example, Paul views the church as a family when he tells Timothy to act as if all the church members were members of a larger family: “Do not rebuke an older man but exhort him as you would a father; treat younger men like brothers, older women like mothers, younger women like sisters, in all purity” (1 Tim. 5:1-2). God is our heavenly Father (Eph. 3:14), and we are his sons and daughters, for God says to us, “I will be a father to you, and you shall be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty” (2 Cor. 6:18). We are therefore brothers and sisters with each other in God’s family (Matt. 12:49-50; 1 John 3:14-18). A somewhat different family metaphor is seen when Paul refers to the church as the bride of Christ. He says that the relationship between a husband and wife “refers to Christ and the church” (Eph. 5:32), and he says that he brought about the engagement between Christ and the church at Corinth and that it resembles an engagement between a bride and her husband-to-be: “I betrothed you to one husband, that to Christ I might present you as a pure virgin” (2 Cor. 11:2 NASB)-here Paul is looking forward to the time of Christ’s return as the time when the church will be presented to him as his bride.
In other metaphors Scripture compares the church to branches on a vine (John 15:5), an olive tree (Rom. 11:17-24), a field of crops (1 Cor. 3:6-9), a building (1 Cor. 3:9), and a harvest (Matt. 13:1-30; John 4:35). The church is also viewed as a new temple not built with literal stones but built with Christian people who are “living stones” (1 Peter 2:5) built up on the “cornerstone” who is Christ Jesus (I Peter 2:4-8). Yet the church is not only a new temple for worship of God; it is also a new group of priests, a “holy priesthood” that can offer “spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God” (1 Pet. 2:5). We are also viewed as God’s house: “And we are his house” (Heb. 3:6), with Jesus Christ himself viewed as the “builder” of the house (Heb. 3:3). The church is also viewed as “the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15).
Finally, another familiar metaphor views the church as the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:12-27). We should recognize that Paul in fact uses two different metaphors of the human body when he speaks of the church. In 1 Corinthians 12 the whole body is taken as a metaphor for the church, bccause Paul speaks of the “ear” and the “eye” and the “sense of smell” (1 Cor. 12:16-17). In this metaphor, Christ is not viewed as the head joined to the body, because the individual members are themselves the individual parts of the head. Christ is in this metaphor the Lord who is “outside” of that body that represents the church and is the one whom the church serves and worships.
But in Ephesians 1:22-23; 4:15-16, and in Colossians 2:19, Paul uses a different body metaphor to refer to the church. In these passages Paul says that Christ is the head and the church is like the rest of the body, as distinguished from the head: “We are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly, makes bodily growth and upbuilds itself in love” (Eph. 4:15-16)13. We should not confuse these two metaphors in 1 Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4, but keep them distinct.
The wide range of metaphors used for the church in the New Testament should remind us not to focus exclusively on any one. For example, while it is true that the church is the body of Christ, we must remember that this is only one metaphor among many. If we focus exclusively on that metaphor we will be likely to forget that Christ is our Lord reigning in heaven as well as the one who dwells among us. Certainly we should not agree to the Roman Catholic view that the church is the “continuing incarnation” of the Son of God on earth today. The church is not the Son of God in the flesh, for Christ rose in his human body, he ascended in his human body into heaven, and he now reigns as the incarnate Christ in heaven, one who is clearly distinct from the church here on earth.
Each of the metaphors used for the church can help us to appreciate more of the richness of privilege that God has given us by incorporating us into the church. The fact that the church is like a family should increase our love and fellowship with one another. The thought that the church is like the bride of Christ should stimulate us to strive for greater purity and holiness, and also greater love for Christ and submission to him. The image of the church as branches in a vine should cause us to rest in him more fully. The idea of an agricultural crop should encourage us to continue growing in the Christian life and obtaining for ourselves and others the proper spiritual nutrients to grow. The picture of the church as God’s new temple should increase our awareness of God’s very presence dwelling in our midst as we meet. The concept of the church as a priesthood should help us to see more clearly the delight God has in the sacrifices of praise and good deeds that we offer to him (see Heb. 13:15-16). The metaphor of the church as the body of Christ should increase our interdependence on one another and our appreciation of the diversity of gifts within the body. Many other applications could be drawn from these and other metaphors for the church listed in Scripture.
Footnotes by the author:
11 For more discussion of this topic see Edmund P. Clowney, “Interpreting the Biblical Models of the Church,” in Biblical Interpretation and the Church, ed. by D.A. Carson (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1985), pp. 64-109
12 The list of metaphors given in this section is not intended to be exhaustive
13 This second metaphor is not even a complete or “proper” metaphor, for bodily parts do not grow up into the head, but Paul is mixing the idea of Christ’s headship (or authority), the idea of the church as a body, and the idea that we grow to maturity in Christ, and he combines them into one complex statement.
(Scripture quotations are from the Revised Standard Version unless otherwise noted)