The Bride of Christ?
Summary: Describing the church as the bride of Christ is a weak analogy, at best. It may even be simply a human tradition.
“The New Testament portrays the Church as the Bride of Christ.” I’ve heard and read statements similar to this all my adult life and I assumed they were true because everyone seemed to believe them. As I studied and taught Bible classes over the years, however, I began examining the scriptures cited to prove the church is Jesus’ bride and I became less confident.
A few years ago a thought came to mind and I posted it on the bulletin board in my office because it described the difficulty we sometimes have being objective. The thought was this: “Firm conviction, frequent repetition and general consensus do not constitute truth. For example, the earth is neither flat nor the center of the universe, although for centuries people believed it was, assured each other it was and even persecuted those who disagreed.” Being an independent thinker by nature, I have a natural tendency to carefully consider even widely held beliefs. I’m also aware that our starting assumptions govern our conclusions, which means in part that if we believe something is true, we can usually find scriptural evidence to support it.
In this article, we’ll examine relevant scriptures and try to determine what the Bible says about the bride of Christ. I realize my conclusions will be controversial and may have very few supporters. In fact, the conclusions certainly will not affect your salvation and maybe not even your relationship with God; but they may help you conform your thinking to scripture, which I believe is a worthwhile pursuit.
So, trying to be as objective as possible, let’s look at the scriptures.
“Then John’s disciples came and asked him, ‘How is it that we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?’
“Jesus answered, ‘How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast.’” (Mt 9:14-15; also, Mk 2:18-20; Lk 5:33-35)
Jesus doesn’t specifically state who the bridegroom is, but he clearly is referring to himself. More relevant to our study, however, is the fact that he calls his disciples guests of the bridegroom, not the bride.
Jesus told a parable about a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son (Mt 22:2-14). It’s reasonable to conclude the king in this parable represents God the Father and the son represents Jesus. Those who were invited refused to come, so the king told his servants, “The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. Go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find” (Mt 22:8-9). This statement helps motivate Christians evangelize their worlds by spreading the good news that God loves them. The point here is that believers are portrayed as the guests at the wedding banquet, not as the bride.
Jesus’ parable of the ten virgins also includes a wedding scenario (Mt 25:1-13). There’s little doubt that the ten virgins represent believers because they’re associated with the wedding, they’re waiting for the bridegroom (Jesus), the five who were prepared accompanied the bridegroom to the wedding banquet (v 10), and Jesus used the parable to emphasize the importance of our being ready for his return because we don’t know when it will happen (v 13). In other words, this parable describes believers in the role of attendants ready to celebrate the groom’s arrival, not as the bride.
Jesus used several other parables as warnings for his followers to be alert, anticipating his return. One such parable appears in Luke 12, which begins as follows: “Be dressed ready for service and keep your lamps burning, like men waiting for their master to return from a wedding banquet, so that when he comes and knocks they can immediately open the door for him” (vv 35-36). Jesus concludes the parable with a familiar warning, “You also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.” So Jesus clearly viewed his followers as the men waiting for the master to return from a wedding banquet. There’s a wedding banquet involved, but the master in the parable is not the bridegroom. We’re the servants in the parable, not the bride.
In John 14, Jesus comforted his disciples: “In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am” (vv 2-3). Some scholars point to this as remarkably similar to the Jewish marriage custom of Jesus’ day and therefore confirmation that the disciples — and by extension, the entire church — were part of the bride. But similarity is not identity. Scholars also point to the Greek word translated “take” in that passage as the same word for Joseph taking Mary as his wife (Mt 1:20, 24). However, that is a general word for taking, bringing, receiving, collecting or seizing, and is not specifically related to marriage or weddings. That same word is used, for example, to describe Joseph taking Mary and the child to Egypt (Mt 2:14), the devil taking Jesus to a high place to tempt him (Mt 4:8), Paul receiving the truth that Christ died for our sins (1 Co 15:3), and believers receiving the gospel (Gal 1:9). In the description of Joseph taking Mary as his wife (Mt 1:20, 24), the descriptive phrase, “as his wife,” is the key, not the word, “take.”
Jesus used everyday objects and experiences as analogies, comparisons and parallels to help people understand spiritual realities such as God’s kingdom. For example, he used the analogy of a shepherd and his flock to describe his relationship with his followers and had to explain what he meant: “I am the gate for the sheep” and “I am the good shepherd” (Jn 10:1, 14). He used the image of a grapevine and its branches to portray the importance of remaining “in” him; he said, “I am the vine; you are the branches” (Jn 15:5). We’re not to take these as literal statements.
There is no question that Jesus is the bridegroom and he used stories about weddings to relate important points to his followers. These were perfect opportunities for him to identify us, his followers, as the bride; but he didn’t and that was not an oversight. Nowhere did he state he will take the church either literally or figuratively as his bride.
The Apostles also used marriage, husbands and wives to clarify aspects of our relationship with God. Some of those references seem to state that the church is in fact Jesus’ bride, so let’s examine them.
Paul wrote, “I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy. I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him” (2 Co 11:2). This is the only verse that seems to say believers are the bride of Christ. The question is whether this is a statement of fact or figure of speech.
Paul frequently used metaphors, analogies and even sarcasm in his writing and Second Corinthians includes many instances. For example, “Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion” (2 Co 9:6-7). Here he’s using agriculture as a metaphor for generous giving. A few verses later, he again writes: “Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness” (v 10). He clearly is not writing about literal seed.
The next chapter includes one of his many warfare metaphors: “For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Co 10:3-5). He uses images of weapons and combat to show how decisive and emphatic we must be in demolishing or seizing control of inappropriate arguments, pretensions and thoughts. This is a very strong image.
Consider this: “And I will keep on doing what I am doing in order to cut the ground from under those who want an opportunity to be considered equal with us in the things they boast about” (2 Co 11:12). We easily recognize “cutting the ground from under someone” as a figure of speech, not a literal statement.
Here are several other figures of speech Paul used in Second Corinthians: the Lord opened a door for him (2:12); he didn’t peddle the word of God for profit (2:17); the people are a letter from Christ (3:3); we are jars of clay (4:7); our bodies are tents (5:1-3); he put no stumbling block in people’s path (6:3); people are a field God assigned him (10:13); he robbed other churches by receiving support from them (11:8).
One final example, a very familiar statement: “To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me” (2 Co 12:7). Here Paul uses a metaphor then immediately explains it; the “thorn” in his flesh was actually a messenger of Satan.
The verse we started with is right in the middle of these: “I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him” (2 Co 11:2). Is Paul stating factually that we are Christ’s bride, or is he using a metaphor to describe his role of dedicating the Corinthian believers to Christ? Notice the word, “as.”
It’s easier to identify a figure of speech when the word “as” appears. Consider this example: “For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything” (Eph 5:23-24, emphasis added). The marriage relationship clearly is an analogy of the church’s relationship with Jesus. This would have been an excellent opportunity for Paul to state that the church is the bride of Christ, but he didn’t.
If we were to impose the “bride of Christ” on this passage, making it a literal statement, we’d have to do the same with the verses immediately following. “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” (vv 25-27). Notice the word “as”: “just as Christ loved the church”. This clearly isn’t a literal statement of the church as the wife of Christ, because it goes far beyond a human husband-wife relationship. No husband can give his life to make his wife holy and blameless.
James makes a statement that might support the “bride” perspective: “You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God?” (Jas 4:4). The phrase, “adulterous people,” is from a Greek noun that means “adulteress.” The adjective form means “unfaithful” or “adulterous” and appears in Matthew 12:39 (“wicked and adulterous generation”). In this context (v 38), Jesus called the Pharisees and teachers of the law adulterous, not Christians, so the “bride of Christ” concept definitely doesn’t apply. With that in mind, we cannot insist that James’ reference to Christians as “adulterous people” means they are the bride. Instead, James is addressing Christians who have violated God’s trust by not doing what he expects of them.
So far we’ve seen that the church may not be or probably is not the bride of Christ. The Book of Revelation contains very vivid statements revealing the identity of the bride.
Chapter 19 begins with “a great multitude in heaven” praising God for his judgment on the great prostitute, Babylon. A few verses later we find reference to the bride of the Lamb.
6 Then I heard what sounded like a great multitude, like the roar of rushing waters and like loud peals of thunder, shouting:
For our Lord God Almighty reigns.
7 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.
8 Fine linen, bright and clean,
was given her to wear.”
(Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of the saints.)
9 Then the angel said to me, “Write: ‘Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!’” And he added, “These are the true words of God.”
The immediate context doesn’t describe who is in the great multitude, but it almost certainly consists of Christians whom Jesus had caught away at the “rapture” and will return with him as described later in the same chapter: “The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean” (Rev 19:14).
Conclusion: The multitude in verses 6 through 8 are Christians and they’re in heaven at that moment. Notice reference to the “wedding of the Lamb” and “his bride” in verse 7. Doesn’t this mean the church is the bride? Not really. The believers refer to themselves in the first person (“let us rejoice and be glad”) yet refer to the bride in the third person (“his bride has made herself ready”), so it’s unlikely they are the bride. In fact, consider verse 9: “‘Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!” If the believers are the bride, then who would be invited? In reality, we’re invited to the wedding supper. We’re not the bride, who would be honored at the supper, not invited to it.
We should expect the Book of Revelation to be consistent in its imagery and it clearly identifies the bride in Chapter 21.
“I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband” (Rev 21:2).
“One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues came and said to me, ‘Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.’ And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God” (Rev 21:9-10).
Consider also that this passage includes a statement about believers, the church. “He who overcomes will inherit all this, and I will be his God and he will be my son” (Rev 21:7). In other words, believers will inherit all this — including the new Jerusalem — and be God’s sons, not his bride.
Is the image of the bridegroom the same person in Revelation Chapters 19 and 21? Yes, it is Jesus. Would the image of the bride have different meanings in different chapters of the same book? No, the bride in the Book of Revelation clearly is the New Jerusalem.
The church and the bride both are in heaven in Chapter 19 for the wedding feast. Jesus and the church return to earth (19:11-16), then the church rules with Jesus for 1000 years (20:4-6). So the church will be on earth for 1000 years before the New Jerusalem descends from heaven as a bride (21:2). The church and the New Jerusalem are not the same and they come to earth at different times. The New Jerusalem is the bride; the church is not.
Even the Old Testament confirms a marriage-like relationship between God and Jerusalem. Isaiah 62 states that God will rejoice over Jerusalem as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride (62:1, 5).
Describing the church as the bride of Christ is a weak analogy, at best. It may even be scripturally wrong, simply a human tradition not supported by scripture. People may firmly believe that tradition, use the phrase frequently and assure each other we are the bride, but that in itself doesn’t make it so.
I suspect the bride analogy is very popular because it appeals to our worldly thinking. In most cultures, a bride is the center of attention and receives special treatment, and that appeals to us.
The Bible uses wedding terminology and shows believers at wedding ceremonies, but that doesn’t make us the bride any more than it makes us the bridegroom.
Are there benefits to considering ourselves Christ’s bride? It might heighten our sense of anticipation and even motivate us to separate ourselves from the world and prepare for the Lord’s return. However, you don’t have to consider yourself the bride to do those things.
Is it a problem to believe the church is the bride of Christ? If you think it’s okay to believe a human tradition, something scripture doesn’t clearly support, then that’s your choice. The Bible shows there’s great benefit, however, to conforming our thinking to what it says.