The Bible sometimes describes the church, the assembly of God’s people, as “our mother” (see Galatians 4:26 and 6:16).
What kind of “mother” was the church of your childhood?
I’ll give you seven options to consider. Was she a …
Maybe the church of your youth had a humanitarian focus that took her outside of the walls of the church building and into the community.
She was like a Mother Theresa or Elanor Roosevelt, who worked with the Red Cross and championed universal human rights.
Or, maybe she was more of a …
Like a June Cleaver or Marge Simpson, her main emphasis was on taking care of her own, because charity starts at home.
She might look at the humanitarian mother and wonder if she was neglecting her own household.
The humanitarian might look at the homemaker and wonder if she was too narrowly focused on her brood.
Maybe she was like Oprah or Dr. Ruth?
She didn’t plan fellowship meals or start social ministry projects.
However, like the homemaker mom, she was focused on your family.
Like the humanitarian, she was focused developing you to serve in the world.
Perhaps she was more like a …
Similar to a Life Coach, she wanted to develop you. But, instead of focusing on skills, she focused on knowledge. She wanted to pass on her doctrines to you. She taught you many important things, although sometimes she sounded a like Charlie Brown’s teacher—whah, wah, wha…
Maybe your mother church was more like Whitney or Dolly?
She captivated your attention.
Her greatest fear was to bore you, so she was always finding ways to be relevant, funny, and engaging.
If someone criticized her for lacking depth, she would reply,
“My children invite their friends over to my house. Do yours?”
Everybody wants to hang out at the fun mom’s house.
Ok, maybe none of these are resonating with you.
What about this one?
Like Judge Judy and Judge Lynn, she tells is like it is and doesn’t put up with your lame excuses. You didn’t put your feet up on her table. She kept order in her court.
Maybe these don’t resonate because your church mother was …
Somehow, early on, you two got separated. You never really got to know her.
Thinking of church as mother is a powerful metaphor.
It helps us remember that the church is not a building. She’s personal, the embodiment of God’s people. But here’s how those images might lead us astray.
Thinking about the church that way, we could become like young women trying to solve their mothers’ problems, without having first-hand experience of what it’s like to be a mother. Talking about the church in this way leads us to focus on what the church does or fails to do.
The New Testament, however, puts a greater emphasis on who the church is in relation to Jesus.
She has many failings. Nevertheless, she is the beloved bride of Christ.
This image for the church has its roots in the Old Testament. When the people of Israel were failing in their calling, the Lord called the prophet Hosea to marry a prostitute. Why? Because this “land, has practiced prostitution by turning away from the Lord” (Hosea 1:2).
The Book of Hosea attributes to the Lord raw emotions, as raw as can be experienced by any human being.
A friend of mine recently called me. His wife was cheating on him.
He felt disemboweled … like someone had ripped out his guts.
Go listen to the book of Hosea read aloud. It will make you uncomfortable.
These emotions sound unseemly for God. Yet, they express his jealous love for his people, the church. These passages use graphic images of prostitution and sexual promiscuity, but that’s not what they’re about. They are about idolatry. When the church trusts in other gods, she’s cheating on her husband. She’s ripping out his guts.
Listen to these excerpts from Hosea chapter 2:
The Lord says, “Go, plead with your mother—plead with her, because she is not my wife, and I am not her husband—plead with her so that she may put away her whoring … Upon her children, I will have no mercy, because they are children of a whore. For their mother has played the whore … I will punish her, she went after lovers and forgot me, declares the Lord.
Therefore, I will allure her, I will speak tenderly to her … And in that day, declares the Lord, you will call me, “My husband,” … And I will betroth you to me forever.”
These and other passages form the backdrop for Paul’s words in Ephesians chapter 5:
“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church—for we are members of his body. For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.”
Who is the church?
Before we ask about what the church should do, we need to ask, who is she?
She is the Bride of Christ. By baptism, she was brought into such a profound union with Christ, that we must also call her the Body of Christ. Jesus has washed her with water through the Word.
She is not merely a mother we criticize. We are her. We are her members.
We are not members of the church when we get our names on the roster of some local congregation. We are members of the church by faith in Jesus. The Holy Spirit brings us to this faith, keeps us in this faith, and matures us by leading us into a local, visible congregation, which, in due course, may involve practical things like names on a roster.
But it’s not the roster that makes the church. Jesus, the Word, makes the church.
Where is the church?
Another way to get at this is to ask not who is the church, but where is the church?
Wherever the Gospel is proclaimed—audibly in preaching and in the mutual encouragement of the saints, as well as the visibly proclaimed Word in Baptism and the Lord’s Supper—wherever these are going on, there you will find the Bride of Christ, the Church.
What does the church do?
Now we can ask what the church does. She represents her husband.
Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of President Franklin Roosevelt, is an example of a wife who represented her husband well. She campaigned for him. She helped make him famous. She suffered alongside him. For better or for worse, she was faithful to him.
The Church represents Jesus in the world. She may take on the role of a humanitarian or a homemaker, a coach or teacher; she may even do some entertaining. She may be called to judge, speaking the truth in love, always with the hope that such judgment will turn secure sinners into broken sinners, enabling them to hear the Gospel, which creates the church.
The Bible uses many metaphors for the church. The Apostle Paul loves to multiply and mix the metaphors—the church is God’s field and building (1 Cor. 3:9), God’s household, nation, and temple (Ephesians 3:19–22). Jesus calls his gathered followers his sheep (John 10), his branches attached to him, the vine (John 15), and also his brothers (John 20:17).
The multiplying of metaphors suggests that God wants to emphasize the many dimensions of the church. Just as the complex cuts of a diamond engagement ring cause it to sparkle in the light, so also does God shine his multifaceted wisdom through his church (Ephesians 3:10).
The church is not a problem to solved.
She is a beloved bride.
She is dazzling, sparkling, radiant mystery to embrace.
This approach to the doctrine of the church follows The Book of Concord, “Augsburg Confession,” Articles 5–15, and “The Smalcald Articles,” III.4–7.
The photo of the Roosevelts is from the The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project.
The stained glass pictured is installed at Lansdowne Church, Glasgow, Scotland.