There are a number of word pictures drawn in the New Testament that teach us certain things about the Church as a whole (and in considering these, I am using the word Church to refer to the universal Church – the totality of all believers in the world – and not to individual local churches). Each of them helps us in some way to understand the nature and function of the Church as a whole, and the relationship of the members to each other.
In pre-Christian Israel, the people of God were referred to as an “assembly” or a “congregation.” This concept contributed to the New Testament references to the Church as a “people” of God. The idea that is conveyed is one of community and oneness. What binds these believers together is not an organization or any sort of human arrangement; neither is it a building or any type of physical gathering. What makes the members of the Church a “people” is the common relationship they have with Christ. These people may meet in different locations, may call themselves by different names, and may even differ in non-essential beliefs. But they have all been called by God to be His own. Despite the fact that they are separated by denomination, geography, methods of worship or doctrinal details, Peter refers to them as “the people [singular] of God.”
Now, it may be that, in reading that last sentence, you wondered about my insertion of the word, “singular.” Isn’t “people” a plural, meaning more than one person? Well, no. The plural of “person” is “persons.” According to Wikipedia, “A people is a group of individuals who belong to and function within a particular society.” In the case of Christians, all true believers are one people that has been called by God. The common factor that unites us as a people is our relationship with Christ, which we share with all believers.
Paul used the analogy of the Church with a human body in numerous places in his epistles (Romans 12:4, 5; 1 Corinthians 10:17; 12:14-16, 20-23; Colossians 1:18; 2: 18, 19). More specifically, he refers to the Church as the “body of Christ” (1 Corinthians 12:27; Ephesians 5:23).
Our body is the agency through which we carry out everything that we do. We may have a wonderful idea, but it will not become a reality unless our body gets involved to make it happen. In illustrating the Church using the example of the body of Christ, Paul really tells us several things. First, he tells us that the Church and Christ are intimately connected. A body cannot survive when it has been severed from the head, and it needs the constant input of data from the brain to keep it functioning. Second, we learn from Paul’s analogy that the Church is the primary agency through which Christ carries out His work here on earth. Third, we learn that the Church is subservient to Christ - the head directs the body, not the other way around.
Finally, the analogy of the body implies something about the relationship of the various body parts to one another. In a physical body, every part has a job to do, and if one part fails, the entire body is distressed. So in the Church, every member has a role to play, and if that role is not fulfilled, the entire Church suffers. We find that we must work in harmony with all the other parts in order to make the body function effectively, so that the work directed by the Head is carried out.
Most people understand what sort of relationship is implied by the concept of marriage. The relationship between a husband and wife is close, intimate and loving. It is almost surprising, then, to realize that the example of marriage is one that was chosen by God to illustrate the relationship of Christ and His Church. I say “surprising,” because that is not what one would expect in the context of other world religions, or perhaps even Judaism as it was understood in the first century. In most religious contexts, God was seen more as a ruler, often even a harsh ruler, than as a loving companion. Even pagans, however, understood the institution of marriage, and knew that it was more desirable for a husband and wife to be loving and kind toward each other than harsh and demanding. The marriage union provided the perfect analogy for the relationship of Christ and the Church.
The analogy is actually more specific than that, though, giving even a finer illustration. The Church is spoken of not merely as the “wife” of Christ, but as His “Bride.” This image brings to mind all the pomp and pageantry of a wedding ceremony, its solemnity, its joy, its optimism and the heightening of emotional attachment that occurs at that time of one’s life. The Bride is presented as being “beautifully dressed for her husband,” which implies the need for personal holiness on the part of every member. Only by presenting ourselves “without spot” can we appear to our Lord as a beautiful bride when He returns for us. While we are washed in His blood and clothed in white robes, as it were, He expects us to follow Him and live as He would live in our place. More, He wants to live His life through us - an intimacy that again brings to mind the bond between a bride and her husband.