Biblical Metaphors for the Church

We continue our serious of blogs, seeking to develop a theology of evangelism for the “the transition zone,” this period in history between “modernity” and the cultural paradigm that is currently being birth in what many have called a “post modern” culture. 

 I have suggested that the church of the “transition zone” may find guidance by looking back 500 or so years into the last major cultural upheaval (the “transition zone” between pre-modernity and the birth of modernity).  In that transition, a radical or free-church ecclesiology gave birth to a movement that I believe was well before its time: the Anabaptist tradition.  Recent blogs have introduced Anabaptism.  This blog continues the introduction.

 The Church as Covenant People 

 In his interpretation of the 1963 Mennonite Confession of Faith, Paul Erb writes:

The church we belong to—what is it?  It is made up of all those people who believe in Christ for their salvation.  There has always been more than one of them. Each believer who is drawn to Christ and opens his heart to Him finds that others too have done the same.  They have the same faith, the same Savior and Lord.[1]

 In 1534, Anabaptist theologian Bernard Rothmann wrote:

The true Christian congregation is a gathering large or small that is founded on Christ in the true confession of Christ.  That means that it holds only to his words and seeks to fulfill his whole will and his commandments.  A gathering thus constituted is truly a congregation of Christ.  But if this is missing a gathering cannot in truth be called a congregation of Christ even if it has the name a hundred times.  That this is true and that the proper knowledge of Christ is that he is the true Lord and only Savior and Redeemer and that this is the basis of the Christian gathering, the Scriptures confirm in abundance…It is necessary to remain on this foundation.[2]

 In 1527 Leonhard Schiemer, a former Franciscan Priest, wrote:

Church or ekklesia is a gathered congregation of people which is built on Christ and not the pope, emperor, etc.  Nor are the stone houses and towers church.  Paul says you are no longer strangers but fellow citizens and members of the household of God built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets.  For the prophets all had the spirit of Christ.  That is why Christ is the cornerstone, whom the builders of the house of God cast out as a prophet.  But this true sign of the holy Christian church is spoken against everywhere.[3]

 What each of these Anabaptist writers has in common is the assertion that the church is neither a structure made out of bricks and mortar nor an institution created by human polity.  On the contrary, they view the church as a group—a community—of people who see themselves as standing in a relationship with the God who has saved them.  In addition they also see themselves in relationship with one another because they are joint heirs and recipients of that grace.[4]  This understanding is central to the Anabaptist doctrine of the church and is supported by the word ekklesia—the term most often used in the New Testament to designate church.

Ekklesia—The Called Out Ones

The most common designation for the church by New Testament writers was the term word ekklesia.  The word appears one hundred and twelve times in the New Testament.[5]  The term arises from the use of the Greek verb kaleo (which means to call) and the preposition ek (out of).  On an etymological basis, therefore, “many theologians conclude that the idea of the called out ones inheres in the resulting noun ekklesia.”[6]

Originally ekklesia was a secular not a theological term.   Basically it referred to the citizenry of a Greek community “called out” into an “assembly” for the purpose of taking care of the affairs of the city (Acts 19:32, 39).[7]   When the early Christians employed the word ekklesia to describe themselves, they no doubt perceived themselves as being “called out” of the world and into the assembly of God’s people.  They now belonged to God.  They were, by grace, God’s covenant people. 

In addition to this secular usage, the word ekklesia was also used in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scripture (the Septuagint) as the translation for the Hebrew word qahal (assembly in English).  This was the most common word used by writers to refer to Israel as the people of God (see for example Deuteronomy 9:10). The use of this term was therefore very important to the first Christians who were, after all, Jews who used the Greek translation of the Old Testament.  It allowed them to see a continuity between the Old and New Testaments and to see their movement as a continuation of the work God began in the wilderness with the nation of Israel.[8]  They stood as heirs of the covenant. 

The conception of the church as God’s covenant people—as God’s ekklesia—has been played an important role in discussion about the doctrine of the Church.  Stanley Grenz writes:

The choice of ekklesia as the designation of the Christian community suggests that the New Testament believers viewed the church as neither an edifice nor an organization. They were a people—a people brought together by the Holy Spirit—a people bound to each other through Christ—hence, a people in covenant with God. Above all, they were God’s people.[9]

 Biblical Metaphors for the Church

The use of the term ekklesia as a designation for the church in the New Testament confirms that the first Christians saw themselves as God’s covenant people.  In addition, many of the New Testament metaphors for the church confirm this designation and offer additional insight into the nature of the church.[10]  Three of these metaphors include:  people (or nation) of God, body of Christ, and fellowship of the Holy Spirit. 

(1)  People (or nation) of God.  We have already noted that the term ekklesia was used by the first Christians for the purpose of giving them a sense of continuity and connection with the people of Israel.  These first Christians saw themselves as heirs to the covenant God had made with the Israelites in the wilderness.  Like the Israelites before them, the church believed it had been chosen by God to fulfill the mandate of reconciling all humankind to God’s self.[11]  The importance of this connection is also emphasized by the biblical metaphor that identifies the church as the people of God or the nation of God..  There is, however, one important distinction.  One does not have to become a Jew in order to become one of God’s people.  Bill Leonard writes:

In Galatians, Paul insisted that faith in Christ, not circumcision or conformity to the law, incorporated an individual into the people of God (Galatians 3:1-7).[12]

 In addition, Stanley Grenz declares:

Just as Israel had been chosen to be the people of God—God’s nation—so now the New Testament church enjoys this relationship.  Despite the profound similarity between the two, there is also one important difference.  No longer is status as God’s nation based on membership within a specific ethnic group.  Now people from the entire world are called together to belong to God; the church is an international fellowship comprising persons “from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9).[13]

 The biblical metaphor of the church as the people of God is very important because it links all Believer’s together as recipients of God’s grace and into a community that has been call together to fulfill God’s purpose in the world.

(2)  Body of Christ.  One of the most significant New Testament metaphors for the church is the declaration that the church is the body of Christ.  While the previous metaphor expressed the continuity of the church with the work God began with the Israelites, this metaphor sets the church apart as unique.  What makes the church unique?  Bill Leonard writes:  “They are in Christ; they belong to Him; they are part of His body, the church.”[14] 

Of course we are not speaking here in an ontological sense.  The church is not literally the “body of Christ.”  This metaphor is to be understood in a participatory and representative fashion.[15]  Through the church Christ continues his soteriological work in the world.  As Christ’s body the church exists for the purpose of doing Christ’s will in the world—in a sense to be His continued presence among humankind.  Anabaptist theologian Art Gish has written about this aspect of the church, saying:

…the very nature of Jesus Christ is body:  historical, concrete, and incarnated.  This reflects the biblical understanding of body which refers not merely to flesh and bones, but to one’s total personhood and character.  The point is that Christ is a body.  We are a body because we belong to Jesus and derive our existence from Him.[16]

 In essence Anabaptists understand the metaphor of the church as body of Christ to indicate that they are a continuation of the incarnation—the “present historical expression of Christ’s life and ministry.”[17]

(3)  The Fellowship of the Holy Spirit.  The power of the church does not lie within the polity, programs, or structures of its organization.  Nor is the life of the church a natural by-product of the hearts and minds of those who make up its membership roster.  The church was created through the movement of God’s Spirit,[18] and its continued life and power is present due to the indwelling of the Spirit.  Paul Minear has observed, “Wherever the church is spoken of as the saints, the power of the Holy Spirit is assumed to be at work within it.”[19]

There is some connection here with Old Testament theology.  In the Old Testament we discover that the spirit of God was present in special ways in certain dwelling places—the tabernacle and the temple.  What is different in the New Testament is that the focal point of the Spirit’s activity has changed.  Instead of dwelling in special structures and places, the Holy Spirit now resides within the fellowship of a special people—the church.[20]

In what way does this image impact the nature of the church?  Baptist church historian Bill Leonard offers the following summary:

First, it means that God Himself is the author of the fellowship.  No one can acknowledge that Jesus is Lord except through the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:3).  Second, the Spirit frees the church to live according to the gospel.  “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set (you) free from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:2).  Third, the Spirit provides the gifts which contribute to the fellowship.  The gift of the Holy Spirit makes possible the gifts of the Spirit within the church (1 Corinthians 1:7; Romans 1:6; Ephesians 4:11). Fourth, the fellowship experienced in worship is the work of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:42-47).  There is no true Christian worship without the Spirit’s presence.  Fifth, the unity of the fellowship is the work of the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:2-7).  The church is the creation of the Holy Spirit.  As the church gathers, it does so with a faithful recognition that the Spirit is present.[21]

 The Church as the Sign of the Kingdom

We have identified the church as a covenanting community.  It is important to say, however, that as a covenant community the church is not the culmination of God’s work or intention in creation.  The church always points beyond itself toward God’s larger intention for the world.  By referring to God’s larger intention in creation we are making reference to the concept of God’s reign in the world—the kingdom of God.  Understanding the connection between the church and the kingdom of God is of central importance if we are to develop a proper understanding of Anabaptist ecclesiology. 

[1] Paul Erb, We Believe:  An Interpretation of the 1963 Mennonite Confession of Faith for the Younger Generation, (Scottdale, Pennsylvania:  Herald Press, 1969), 36.

[2] Walter Klassen, comp., Anabaptism in Outline, (Scottdale, Pennsylvania:  Herald Press, 1981), 106.

[3] Ibid., 104.

[4] Grenz, Theology for the Community of God, 605.

[5] Bill J. Leonard,  Layman’s Library of Christian Doctrine, vol. 12, The Nature of the Church,  (Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman Press, 1986), 42.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Trent C. Butler, ed., Holman Bible Dictionary, (Nashville, TN:  Holman Bible Publishers, 1991), s.v. “church.”

[8] Grenz, Theology for the Community of God, 606.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Paul S. Minear suggest that there are between eighty and one hundred different biblical metaphors for the church in the New Testament.  Images of the Church in the New Testament, (Philadelphia:  The Westminster Press, 1960), 17.

[11] E. Glenn Hinson, The Integrity of the Church, (Nashville, Tennessee:  Broadman Press, 1978), 46.

[12] Bill J. Leonard,  Layman’s Library of Christian Doctrine, vol. 12, The Nature of the Church, 45.

[13] Grenz, Theology for the Community of God, 607.

[14] Bill J. Leonard,  Layman’s Library of Christian Doctrine, vol. 12, The Nature of the Church, 47.

[15] Art Gish, Living in Christian Community, (Scottdale, Pennsylvania:  Herald Press, 1979), 31.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., 32.

[18] Acts 2

[19] Paul Minear, Images of the Church in the New Testament, 137.

[20] Grenz, Theology for the Community of God, 608.

[21] Bill J. Leonard,  Layman’s Library of Christian Doctrine, vol. 12, The Nature of the Church, 50.

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