It is a very basic reality for the Christian that he or she will want to know his or her place in the world as a Christian. And as the Church is the visible and invisible gathering of said Christians, the question of what the Church’s role or place in this world will come up as well. Various metaphors have been used to answer this question, with some metaphors being more successful than others.
The first, and most successful, metaphor is that the Church is the Bride of Christ. This is the best metaphor because it is the most Biblical! The image of the bride is found in Jesus’ parables, notably the parables of the wedding banquets and the ten maidens, each told in several Gospels. Revelation 19 – 22 also contain a number of explicit references, like this one from Revelation 19: “‘Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure’— for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints. And the angel said to me, ‘Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.’”
Paul famously picks up on this theme in Ephesians 5 as well: ”Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.” The relationship between Christ and His people, then, is as close as a married couple, and the sacrifice that Jesus made for her Church sets the stage for a life of sacrificial – and yet joyful – giving we will offer to Christ. All of the important virtues of marriage – faithfulness, honor, love, and respect – are also virtues in the relationship of Christ and Christian. So being the Bride of Christ is a good and wholly Biblical metaphor.
Other metaphors have been adopted as well. The hospital metaphor is one I hear quite often. As sick or even dying patients go to a hospital to receive healing, so do sick and dying people come to church to receive spiritual healing. Week after week we bring our wounds from worldly encounters into the Church and expect to find the cure.
There is truth in this metaphor, but it has several limitations. One is that hospital stays are temporary. Usually, we don’t go to them over and over again. Upon being healed, we leave and carry on with our life’s work. Another limitation is that it constantly puts the Church in a position to “make members well,” as though Christians are only ever sick or wounded, and perhaps even powerless or helpless. Yes, the wages of sin are death and sometimes we need to be nursed back to spiritual or even physical health. But we see in apostolic preaching not only comfort, but exhortation and challenging words as well. If the Church is only a hospital, it can become only about our private needs of healing, and we can lose the communal encouragement that the Church can offer.
Which brings me to our next metaphor: a military outpost. What is a military outpost? Well, within a kingdom or conquered land, forts or outposts would be built to keep watch. If an attack took place, soldiers were dispatched to defend the land. You can see how congregations can be seen in this light: the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it (Ps. 24), and congregations act as outposts in His Kingdom where we, his soldiers in this spiritual battle, are trained, encouraged, and (as outposts would have had a sick bay), healed when needed.
The outpost represents a more offensive point-of-view than a hospital to be sure, so it will likely rub some the wrong way. After all, if we are called to love our neighbor and dine with sinners, should we really see ourselves in a militaristic light? I happen to like this metaphor because it represents more positive, outward engagement. It is about engaging the world and defending the faith, more than nurturing our own souls. And if we understand the way a military medic heals the soldier, there is still room for seeing the outpost as a one-stop-shop for the Christian ready to engage the world.
I also have thought of an embassy as an interesting metaphor for the church. Even though the Earth is truly the Lord’s, we often live as strangers in a strange land, surrounded by those who do not share our values or our commitment to worship and life in the Church. But in the Church, you are home even in a strange land. You have allies in the Church, and you have advocates. You can’t stay in the embassy forever, but whenever you are there, you are safe.
How do you think of the Church? I think these three extra-biblical all have merit. But the metaphor you are most drawn to will say a lot about what you expect to get out of the Church and how you see the Church in the world.