“Behold, how good and pleasant it is
when brothers and sisters dwell in unity!”
By Stephen W. Hiemstra
The word for church in Greek commonly used in the New Testament is: ecclesia (ἐκκλησίας; Jas. 5:14 BNT) The word literally means called out ones.2 The Apostle Paul, for example, writes:
“To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours.” (1 Cor. 1:2)
Paul’s usage conveys the idea of connection through Christ which Bonhoeffer (1995, 226) underscores in writing: “The preaching of the Church and the administration of the sacraments is the place where Jesus Christ is present.” Bonhoeffer’s statement echoes Christ’s own words (e.g. John 6:56).
Priesthood of All Believers
While this idea of the called out ones today evokes the image of a seminary, where everyone is specifically called to ministry, every member of the church is called to faith and ministry. As with Abraham, we are blessed to be a blessing to others (Gen 12:1-3). In this way, we are all priests serving under our great high priest, Jesus Christ, and are able to approach God through him (Heb 7:25).
Although the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers is often interpreted narrowly to mean that church members should invite their neighbors and friends to church, the Apostle Peter links this priestly function specifically to sanctification:
“So put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander…As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” (1 Pet 2:1-5)
Note how he begins these verses with with a call to purity. Is it any wonder that scripture likens the church to a marriage?
The Scriptural Prominence of Marriage and Relationship to the Church
The prominence of marriage in scripture is unmistakable—the Bible begins and ends with a marriage—suggesting that marriage is God’s idea, not ours (Keller 2011, 13).
Beginning in the Book of Genesis, we see a couple, Adam and Eve who are just made for each other and whose relationship is more important than the man’s relationship with his family. (Gen 2:24) This idea that a man’s wife was more important than his family of origin was unthinkable in the ancient near east where siblings, not spouses, were one’s closest confidants (Hellerman 2001, 36).
Jesus treats the creation account of Adam and Eve as foundational in his teaching on divorce and remarriage. From the prospective of advocates of no-fault divorce, he significantly ignores the Law of Moses, which admits exceptions in divorce. If marriage is instituted by God in creation, then divorce cheapens marriage and is obviously not divinely sanctioned. More importantly, the formative aspects of marriage disappear if marriage only survives on sunny days.
Ending in the Book of Revelation, an angel informs us: “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” (Rev 19:9) The church, which was betrothed to Christ on earth, is finally married to Christ in heaven. Because Revelation depicts many pictures of Christian worship in heaven with robes, trumpets, singing, prayer, visions, and processions, the analogy between marriage and the church is most explicit.
The Formative Characteristics of Marriage
If the church’s relationship with Christ is compared to marriage, then what aspects of marriage are we talking about?
The Apostle Paul highlights the formative character of marriage in his comments on mixed faith marriages. Paul reports that the believing spouse renders the whole marriage holy for the children (1 Cor 7:12–14). Paul also sees marriage as a witnessing opportunity. Paul asks: “For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?” (1 Cor 7:16) In other words, Paul clearly sees marriage possessing a sacrificial component.
If marriage is formative, how does it draw us closer to God? At least three examples can be cited.
The first example is that God instituted marriage and commissioned marriage with a blessing and mandate: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion . . .” (Gen 1:28) God created marriage, blessed it, and said it was good—obeying God must draw us closer to him.
The second example is that it starts with an unconditional promise. God is the eternal promise keeper. In marriage we imitate our creator. Making and keeping good promises—even when it hurts—transforms us and draws us closer to God.
The third example marriage is that it makes us accountable. Our spouses know us in the biblical (covenantal) way! Our weaknesses and sin affect our spouses and they tell us. We sin less, in part, because our spouses make us more aware of our sin—a sanctification process that forms us—even if we are not believers! Part of this process is to learn reconciliation skills by practicing them daily. As the Apostle Paul wrote: “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Col 3:17)
This list of reasons why marriage is formative is especially interesting because God instituted marriage even before he instituted the nation of Israel or sent his son to die on the cross. God is not irrational. He knows that the biggest beneficiaries of marriage are our children. And he loves them as much as he loves us and, of course, as Christians we all God’s children.
Formation of Character in Community
Just like in marriage, our Christian character is formed in relationship. Our first relationship in life is with our families. In faith, our relationship is with each of the three members of the Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Reinforcing these other relationships is our relationship with the church. Out of these relationships we develop a Christian identity that, in turn, becomes the basis for how we act.
The postmodern tendency is to play down the role the importance of Christian formation, especially in leadership, because of a deficient doctrine of sin and neglect of the heart. The New Testament treats the heart as a shorthand for the whole person—heart, mind, and soul. Sin begins in the heart and emanates into action. Acting out sin, in turn, pollutes the heart making future sin more likely, which is why the Bible treats sin not as an act, but as an act of rebellion. This polluting characteristic of sin undermines our Christian formation making the formative activities in the church all the more important.
Formed as we are in Christian relationships, our ethics arise from family, faith, and community of faith. As we mature in our faith, we naturally assume a leadership role in each of these domains.
1 Beginning Life Together with this scripture passage marked Dietrich Bonhoeffer as a dissenter in Nazi Germany where the Old Testament was considered un-German and Jewish (Metaxis 2010, 367-368)
2 Outside the church, it is also translated as assembly, as in a meeting of representatives or elected officials.
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. 1954. Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community (Gemeinsames Leben). Translated by John W. Doberstein. New York: HarperOne.
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. 1995. The Cost of Discipleship (Orig Pub 1937). Translated by R. H. Fuller and Irmgard Booth. New York: Simon & Schuster—A Touchstone Book.
Hellerman, Joseph H. 2001. The Ancient Church as Family. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
Keller, Timothy and Kathy Keller. 2011. The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God. New York: Dutton.
Metaxis, Eric. 2010. Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
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Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.