The church and its ministry (part 2)

Gary Deddo

Here is part 2 of an essay from Gary Deddo on the nature of the church and its ministry. For other parts of the essay, click a number: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 78, 9, 1011, 12. We encourage you to add your thoughts and questions in the “comments” box at the end of each post to get a discussion going. To read the full essay in booklet form, click here. To read the related essay, “Clarifying Our Theological Vision,” click here.


A Brief Theology of the Church
(with a view to equipping the saints for the work of ministry)

by Dr. Gary Deddo

Part 2: Images of the Church

Last time, we noted that the church’s ministry is determined by its identity. We then began to explore that identity, asking “What is the nature of the church?” This time we’ll go deeper, looking at four primary ways the church is identified in biblical revelation.

1. Body of Christ

The church (ekklesia in Greek, meaning those called or assembled together) is most often and with greatest weight and stress identified as the Body of Christ. [1] By way of analogy to the human body with its head, this image tells us that there could be no closer created relationship than that between Jesus Christ and those who belong to him. The connection is vital—it is essential to its life. The body belongs to and has existence and direction by the head to which it is entirely joined. The body is the body of the head. You identify the body by the head to which it essentially belongs. The body does not exist or live apart from the head.

The Disciples of Jesus Baptize by Tissot
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Though closely joined, the Head is not to be confused or interchanged with the Body. The Head is the source, the life, the sustenance, the authority of the Body. The Body depends upon the Head while the Head does not depend upon the Body. [2] The church belongs to Jesus in a way that exceeds the connection of human heads to human bodies. As the Body of Jesus Christ, the church belongs indivisibly to him. It has no existence, no life apart from him. Further implications of this connection between Christ and his Body are laid out in the New Testament. We’ll explore those later.

2. Cornerstone and foundation

The second image Paul offers is less organic but still pithy, pointed and in certain ways, a more comprehensive description of the relationship between Christ and his church/his Body. Making use of an analogy from the engineering of a physical temple, Paul identifies Jesus as the cornerstone of a temple of worship built in his honor. In using this analogy, Paul was drawing on an ancient practice, giving it a unique meaning that is defined by Jesus, not by the myths and temples of pagans.

This image of a cornerstone conveys the idea of the absolute beginning of a structure. Laying the cornerstone is the first step of construction, especially in building a temple. It provides the building’s meaning, its structural form and integrity. Physically, the cornerstone gave alignment to the structure’s length, width and height. All other elements of the temple were set in reference to this stone, thus finding their proper meaning and place in reference to it.

In pagan temples the cornerstone often had an inscription declaring which god the temple was dedicated to—that is, whose temple it was. In ancient myths, known in the days of the early church, the image of a cornerstone was sometimes used metaphorically to refer to the beginning point of all of creation set up by the gods.

By referring to Christ as the cornerstone of the church, Paul is emphasizing the following points:

  1. That the very existence of the church is dependent upon him.
  2. That the church and its worship belong to him, are dedicated to him.
  3. That all that the church is and does must be arranged, ordered and structured in reference to him as the source, norm and standard of its life.

Peter makes use of the same image in his first letter. He wants to make sure his readers don’t get the wrong idea and think of Christ in impersonal, inert ways as a literal cornerstone might suggest. So he qualifies his use of the image:

As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him—you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. (1 Pet. 2:4-5)

Peter wants to make sure we see the resurrected Jesus Christ, who is eternally alive, as the cornerstone. Jesus is active, speaking, communicating and nourishing those joined to him as members of his body, as those who worship God in and through him. And we then, are also made alive. We are living stones built on him to offer our lives daily as an act of worship to God. Jesus is thus a life-giving cornerstone, not a dead block of marble. He is the Living Word of God to us.

The center of the center
To compare this to another image we often use, a cornerstone is to a building what the center point of a circle is to the circle’s circumference. It’s another way of saying Jesus is the Center of the center. Jesus being the center of the church means that he is the key to its whole meaning, structure and functioning. Everything else orbits around him and is oriented to him so that all its movements in all its parts are related to and measured and guided by staying centered on who he is and on his purposes for his church called together by him and gathered around him.

Cornerstone with a foundation of the apostles and prophets, the written Word of God
Paul brings in another element here before he talks about the church as a whole. He tells us that what is first oriented and already made to be in alignment with the cornerstone are certain foundation stones. The cornerstone first provides a reference to other foundation stones upon which the rest of the church is built. Together with the foundation stones, the cornerstone provides a foundation for the whole building. As the image is laid out by Paul, those foundation stones that are first directed and oriented to Jesus, the cornerstone, are the prophets and the apostles.

The prophets were persons appointed by God before Jesus Christ was incarnate to bear spoken and written testimony to God and prepare the people of God to ultimately identify and properly respond in faith to the incarnate Son. The apostles were persons appointed by God during and after Jesus’ earthly ministry to point back to Jesus Christ incarnate and his completed work of salvation and point forward to his return and the consummation of his rule and reign, his coming kingdom. Together, the writings of the prophets and apostles are what we call Scripture—the Old Testament and the New Testament. These persons and their messages, ordered and directed by Jesus Christ, the Living Word, point to him, providing, with him as the cornerstone, the complete foundation for anything and everything built upon it as his church.

So the foundation of the church is Scripture in service to Jesus Christ himself the eternal Word of God, who authorized both the prophets and apostles to be normative witnesses to him. We can summarize this by saying that the written Word of God serves as the revelation of God that is appointed to direct and order the life and worship of the church to Jesus Christ, who is the Living Word of God.

None of this revelation with Christ at the Center would be possible without the ministry of the Holy Spirit both before and after the incarnation of the eternal Son of God. The gracious ministry of the Holy Spirit is essential if those apostles and prophets were to hear and faithfully receive the Word of God. And we would not be able to hear or faithfully receive from Scripture were it not for the gracious work of the Holy Spirit made possible by the completed work of Jesus Christ. So God’s normative communication to us is an achievement of the whole Trinity, each person serving together with a distinct aspect of gracious ministry to us that we might know the Triune God and be reconciled to him so that we live in fellowship and communion with God.

The written Word of God is authorized by and gains its authority from the cornerstone, the Living Word of God. The Living Word of God is the living source of the written Word of God. As the Living Cornerstone, Jesus Christ himself continues even now to serve as its interpretive center. The written Word is to be interpreted in a way that points to Jesus Christ as its normative and living Center. The Living Word himself is the continuing source of the written Word. The Living Word continues to speak to us normatively or authoritatively in and through his written Word. The Living Word is not to be thought of as standing at a deistic distance from the written Word, as if the risen Lord Jesus had become mute. The Triune God remains the speaking, communicating and eloquent God who speaks in and through his written Word. And we hear it best when we listen to it with Jesus Christ as its living, speaking Cornerstone, as if it is his Word, as if that written Word belongs to him. Here are some key passages that contribute to this insight:

Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. (Eph. 2:19-22)

As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him—you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. (1 Pet. 2:4-5)

When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father—the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father—he will testify about me. (John 15:26)

Brothers and sisters, the Scripture had to be fulfilled in which the Holy Spirit spoke long ago through David concerning Judas, who served as guide for those who arrested Jesus. (Acts 1:16)

The Father who sent me has himself testified concerning me. You have never heard his voice nor seen his form, nor does his word dwell in you, for you do not believe the one he sent. You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life. (John 5:37-40)

[Jesus] said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself…. He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” (Luke 24:25-27; 44-45)

3. Groom with bride

The third image that supplements our understanding of the relationship between Jesus and the church, his body, is one of groom with bride. This image points out a very personal, deep, life-long, intimate and fruitful relationship. Here are a few key scriptures that use this image:

The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. (John 3:29)

Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. (Rev. 19:7)

The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let the one who hears say, “Come!” Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life. (Rev. 22:17)

After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, 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. (Eph. 5:29-32)

This image indicates a very close, even intimate and personal relationship of Jesus with his church. It also conveys a dynamic, interactive, interpersonal element of relationship. Given other such relational imagery throughout the New Testament, it conveys the idea of a history of relationship that develops and grows, especially from being unmarried, to being betrothed to having the marriage consummated. In the Old Testament there is preparation for this dimension of understanding with God’s relationship with Israel being compared to the relationship of a husband and wife. This is poignantly portrayed in Hosea where Israel’s unbelief and betrayal are compared to adultery. There are also several references in Isaiah and Jeremiah to the people of God as God’s bride. [3]

Again, this image should not be taken alone. It helps us fill out a portrait when put together with the other images. This image, along with the others, are all together illustrative of a deep and complex reality that can’t be reduced to any one word or image. The images synthesize other more literal teaching about God’s relating to his people and what we are told about the history of that relationship culminating in the metaphorical image of the marriage feast of the Lamb depicted in Revelation 19:7-9.

4. Sharing-sacrament in body and blood

A fourth image used in several passages and alluded to in yet others, involves the idea of being related to Jesus Christ by way of the image of ingestion. Our fellowship and communion with Christ is like our taking him into our bodies as our food, as sustenance for our life. We display this image when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper. As we take bread and wine, we are said to be taking and eating his body broken for us, and his blood poured out for us. This image conveys the idea of not only ingestion, but also, as interpreted by Jesus, of his giving up his life for us and establishing a renewed covenant relationship with him, the new covenant in his blood. So we can refer to this image as being sacramental, partaking of his body and blood. We are receiving a share in his resurrected and ascended life in renewed relationship with God. That’s how closely Christ is related to us and how dependent we are on him, more than even physical food.

Communion in his body and blood by way of the sign of ingestion points to a very close connection that provides sustenance (nourishment). This image suggests other New Testament images of life-giving relationship, including those between the vine and branches, and the flow of water giving life to persons, plants and animals in a parched land. Recall also how Jesus identifies himself as the Bread of Life and Living Water. The taking of another into our bodies conveys the idea of indwelling, or internalizing him. Such deep connection in the New Testament is often related to the presence and ministry of the Holy Spirit within us, working in our hearts, minds and spirits, and upon our human nature.

Here are two references to those images:

Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. (John 6:53-56)

Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation [koinonia=partaking, sharing, having communion] in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation [koinonia] in the body of Christ? (1 Corinthians 10:16)

What do we learn from these images?

In their own way, each one of these four images points to the reality of a deep relationship between Christ and his church (a relationship that involves worshiping the Father and receiving the Spirit). Many other passages speak in more literal ways concerning this relationship, using words such as follow, receive, serve, obey, learn, hope, love, trust, faith, and belief. Though these words are important and quite helpful, the spiritual depth, meaning and wholeness of the relationship we enjoy with Christ are perhaps best captured and synthesized by the images we’ve just explored. Next time we’ll look further at the implications.

______________________

[1] Romans 7:4; 1 Corinthians 6:15; 10:16; 12:12; 12:22; 12:23; 12:27; Ephesians 1:23; 2:19; 3:6; 4:12; 4:25; 5:30; Colossians 1:24; 1 Timothy 6:2; Galatians 1:2.

[2] The strict analogy with a human body breaks down here since the created human head cannot live long apart from its body. As is true in every case,  you cannot work backwards from the logic of a creaturely analogy to doctrinal statements about God, who is not a creature. Knowing Jesus is Lord and the eternal Son of God blocks the misuse of this image to make it seem there is a kind of mutual dependence of the Head upon the Body. The teaching and image used is meant to tell us far more about the Body than about the Head.

[3] Isaiah 49:18; 61:10; 62:5; Jeremiah 2:2; 2:32; 7:34; 16:9; 25:10; 33:11; Joel 2:16.

7 thoughts on “The church and its ministry (part 2)”

  1. Gary, this series just may be the best “summary” I have ever read about the church, its Head and Center, and its relationship to the Triune God. This is just a “summary” statement about the depth of what you have written. I am very grateful for it and whatever follows. JR (retired pastor)

  2. Gary,

    As always, your exposition ignites our thinking and helps expand our understanding in biblical and theological matters. Readers might also be interested in Paul S. Minear’s classic work “Images of the Church in the New Testament” (first published in 1960). Minear points to the nearly 100 metaphors or analogies for the church in the New Testament. A truly fascinating study.

    God for us, in us and through us.

  3. Hi Gary, Really appreciate this series you are writing. I would like one clarification regarding Apostles and Prophets reference in Ephs 2:20. Based upon the reading in Ephs 3:5 my understanding has always been that Paul is referring to the NT apostles as also being prophets(Acts 13:1). Also in Rev 21:14 the foundations of the new Jerusalem had the name of the twelve apostles. Thanks for any input.

  4. Roy Page,

    Thank you for your query. Yes, it is possible that this reference in Eph. 2: 20 refers to New Testament members of the body of Christ who by the Spirit serve as prophets to build up the church.

    But throughout the NT and in NT times among those with Jewish background, those servants of God who are designated prophets are also those whose words are preserved in the Old Testament. Consider, for example Heb. 1: 1, where God is said to have spoken through “the prophets of old.” And of course there is regular reference to OT teaching throughout the NT, including Jesus’ use of and correction of interpretation of the OT.

    It is also possible that Paul is referring to these OT prophets. For he is obviously familiar with and makes regular use of quotations from the only scripture that the NT church had to begin with, what we now call the Old Testament. Since he is talking about the most fundamental foundations of the church during his time, there is reason to believe he could be referring to those OT prophets, whom he, by way of example always interprets in the light of Christ in all his letters. He uses the OT foundationally in his own writings in just this way. Also the NT prophets, as distinct from the apostles, were not thought of as contributing normative writings to the church, as did some the apostles appointed by Jesus. So in practice the OT writings were always given priority over any additional words given to the church, when interpreted in the light of Christ. They were treated as normative, foundational, most especially in the NT itself!

    But in the end, of course, Paul’s teaching on interpreting all revelation from God in the light of Christ as the cornerstone would apply to both OT prophets and NT prophets equally. So even if the reference here is to NT prophets, that would not exclude the idea that we should approach the OT prophetic teaching in the same way. An neither should any NT prophetic ministry be excluded from this “rule” if the reference is to OT prophets. So the most comprehensive theological view would include approaching both OT and NT prophetic words, with foundational priority given to OT prophetic words, with Jesus Christ himself being the cornerstone of it all. For he alone is the Living Word of God himself who is the source and Norm of all God’s revelation to us.

  5. Greetings Gary,

    I am thoroughly enjoying this series and have great expectations that this vital topic will continue to bring renewed life to us and to the Christian church as a whole.

    In the first point it’s stated that the church is the Body of Jesus. In your footnotes you list the scriptures that prove that this is the nature of the church as ordained by God. I understand this is where our identity is found. We are in Him and He in us. We live, move and have our being in Jesus.

    In the third point you bring up a commonly held belief in Christian circles that says the church is the Bride of Jesus. Although the apostle Paul uses marriage or being espoused as a tool to teach a point he is making, such as in Romans 7:4 and 2Cor.11:2, I can’t find anywhere in the scriptures where the church is defined as the Bride of Jesus. This widely held belief seems to be based on conjecture, supposition and proof texting. If we are the Body of Jesus then we are in Him. If we are the Bride of Jesus then we are out of Him, especially since the marriage of the Lamb has not occurred yet. This teaching puts a bridal veil over the eyes of the church and causes it to think it’s going to marry Jesus which Jesus Himself denied that when He said that in the kingdom of God we will neither marry nor be given in marriage. It also denies the instructions throughout scripture that says we are Children of God and not His wife. According to Rev. 21:9-10, that honor is reserved for the New Jerusalem which, according to Paul’s understanding in Gal 4, is the Mother of us all.

    The Body of Christ doctrine, (who He is) and the Bride of Christ doctrine, (who she is) seem to compete for our attention and we continue to struggle with trying to figure out who we are. I have to admit I am looking for the truth as to who I am in Christ, not an analogy of who I am.

    Blessings to you, I am looking forward the rest of the series.

    1. This comment is from Gary Deddo in reply to Carl Head’s earlier comment.

      Thanks Carl for your encouraging note and query. This, like the series itself, must be brief, but hopefully helpful, nevertheless. Your question raises a number of issues—about particular biblical passages, the whole of biblical teaching, how to interpret biblical teachings and even about the nature and function of language! So where to start?

      A lot of biblical teaching involves images and these images are metaphorical, that is they are not literal, even though they are describing factual realities. But the realities described, such as the church, are full, rich, dynamic, and often personal and relational. So we’re talking about very complex realities. In the NT these realities, including the church, are called mysteries. That doesn’t mean that the church or kingdom of God are totally incomprehensible. It means that what we are told, what is revealed, is not exhaustive, or comprehensive. It means that the realities Scripture points to cannot be reduced to words. The words and images are signs, pointers to the complex realities. They are normative and have real content, but the realities exceed what we can know or explain in words or concepts, or even images.

      Metaphors and images convey truth about divine and gracious realities fashioned by God, like the church. And they do so in a way that complements more direct and literal depictions. Images tend to synthesize more analytic and literal descriptions of the same reality. They tend to convey better the quality of something, while literal depictions are more empirical and so are more quantitative. So the church “assembles” together. That’s fairly literal. But the kind of assembly it is, is unique. It assembles itself together while functioning more like a body under the direction and source of a particular head who is Jesus Christ.

      So images are used throughout the NT and have normative and revelatory value. They tell us, by comparison with earthly realities, about transcendent and transcendently established realities. That is, they communicate truth to us about the mysteries of the Bible analogously, by making comparisons where one thing overlaps with another in meaning.

      But, there are aspects of the earthly image that do not overlap with the truth and reality of the transcendent reality to which they bear normative witness. And yes, we may want more than that. But some things, apparently, cannot be conveyed apart from metaphorical or analogical images. And it would make sense that purely transcendent things, like God, or things brought into being by relationship with God, like the church, could not be communicated except in part through literal description and also by way of limited analogical overlap of things accomplished by grace with natural things. So when faith seeks understanding, it must take into consideration biblical revelation as it is given. And in the case of pointing to the nature of the church, biblical revelation uses both more literal description, like assembling, and also images, like the body of Christ and a temple with its various layers of stones.

      But when we take all these aspects of revelation into consideration, they work together, mutually correcting and filling out one another. A kind of portrait is built up. And the best portrait is the one that makes use of all the various aspects, colors, on the palette of biblical revelation. That’s what biblical studies and theological disciplines together seek to accomplish. But in the end we do not expect to reduce the reality to the words, or faith (trust in the realities) simply to our understanding. We can then apprehend the truth and the reality, but we cannot comprehend certain things, the mysteries of God, exhaustively.

      So, as you noted, the two images of the church as the body of Christ and the church as the bride of Christ do not logically, or better, literally, fit together. That’s right. These images both mutually correct one another and each offer their own unique color to the portrait of the church. The image of the body of Christ is not to be taken literally even though it points to a truth, a reality. We are not an extension of Jesus’ own being with many persons fused into the person of Jesus. It is not as if, by the Spirit, Jesus cannot speak and act in the world unless members of his body decide to do something. Rather, this image conveys something of the kind of close relationship between two, between Jesus and those who are followers/believers of his. It especially displays how there is unity in the one head and also diversity in the variety of members and how this unity and diversity are arranged, controlled and sustained by the head.

      But literally the head and body when used of Jesus with his people, as closely related as they are, are not one being as is a natural human head and body, so that all the members lose their minds, their wills, their own personhood when joined to Christ. In this image the distinction between head and body is maintained, even while the ordered or arranged unity (not fusion) of the two is brought out. (Of course this way of adding things up depends upon far more that the logic of the image itself, but consideration of the whole of biblical teaching and not just on the nature of the church.) So the image of head with body is not a literal definition. Some aspects of the natural body with head do not apply to Christ and his church.

      Now regarding the image that compares Jesus being the bridegroom and the church being the bride, since it’s an analogical image, we should expect it not to function as a literal description and to have certain limitations. Parts of the earthly image used will not apply and so, as Athanasius of the 4th Century noted, those parts will have to be thought away. And part of what will help us think away the parts of the image that don’t apply are the presence and awareness of other images and descriptions that are more literal, taken all together. And so, yes, we are not to think of our relationship with Jesus as a literal husband with a wife. The literal physical and sexual aspects are to be left out. But what is left is a quality of relationship. It is an eternal covenant relationship with deep and intimate love and sharing—not unlike friendship, which Jesus also uses, but with the eternal covenant aspect added in. There is a more personal dimension of love going on in the quality of the church’s relationship with Christ that the image of body with head does not convey to the same extent. The idea of covenant also conveys the idea of God’s purposefully choosing, deciding, and drawing into relationship with so as to evoke a loving response that results in a reciprocal love. That dynamic is missing from the head and body image.

      OK, I hope you get my point. Images have strengths and weaknesses. You take them for their strengths, not their weaknesses. And sorting out what is what is a matter of biblical study, theological reflection and faith seeking understanding as best it can by the grace of God. And another aspect that inevitably comes in, is in interpreting our experience of the church with the eyes of faith, that is in terms of the given revelation. Biblical teaching and theological reflection provide us a lens by which to interpret our experience of the reality, partial as that experience is here and now. And not just the experience of separate individuals, but the experiences of the whole of the church down through the ages by those who are attempting to do the same thing as we are. (Not all who have claimed to be a part of the church have been faithful to this same calling, so they are given less and sometimes little to no weight in establishing what we ought to believe, that is normative church teaching).

      So we get the best when we take all the parts of biblical revelation together and weigh them up properly, as images or more literal descriptions and see how they point to a reality, a mystery, that all finds its source and ultimate norm in Jesus Christ, himself. So yes, the places where images don’t seem to cohere show us mutual correction. But the places where they overlap indicate positive content in how we understand the realities of grace we enjoy and participate in by faith in Jesus Christ, the cornerstone.

      One last thing. You suggest that the image of groom and bride might be speculation or conjecture. As a literal description or definition, yes, it would be. But so also the same objection applies to the image of head and body. But as an analogous image, this comparison of groom and bride is made quite often throughout Scripture. I pointed out a good number of them. And such a teaching as an image or comparison has been standard throughout church history and across a wide range of church traditions. But yes, these are analogous descriptions/image and not literal definitions. But as images they still do convey normative and real understanding about the nature of the church. The article goes on to discuss the more literal descriptions of the church that should be incorporated into the whole biblical witness about the church.

      Hopefully, when taken all together, while we may not have exhaustive literal definitions we’ll have apprehended, as much as God’s grace allows, a deeper understanding of Christ’s church, granting us a richer and better informed participation in the miracle and mystery of that reality. But I won’t be surprised if, after all that, you’re still hungry for more. Perhaps that’s part of the purpose of the revelation of mysteries in God’s Word. They draw us “further up and further in,” as C.S. Lewis once put it.

      –Gary Deddo

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