Metaphors for Church
The Bible’s metaphors paint grand picture.
As a child, stained glass windows, hymnals, and choir robes were the signposts that told me I was at church. The signs of the right place, however, have come to matter less to me than the signs of the right relationships that being a part of the Church means.
A few months ago, we all laughed at how often we found ourselves having to say “the church is not a building but a people.” And yet, we didn’t have a way to meaningfully follow up that sentiment with action. We yearned for returning to our space instead of allowing the Church to invade our everyday spaces.
The notion that the Church is tied to a place has gotten us in all sorts of trouble, and it’s not at all how the writers of the New Testament thought of church ... because a proper place for church didn’t exist.
When Paul and others talked about the Church, they talked in metaphors. Metaphors are among the tools a writer has at their disposal to paint a vivid image that helps readers understand big concepts. It's no surprise then that it is through metaphor more often than through prescription that the writers provided instruction about how to be and do church that extends beyond Sunday morning gatherings into a worship that touches every part of our lives.
Yes, the Church is a people, but we're not merely strangers riding the same subway or students in the same school or conference attendees listening to our favorite gurus. When we grasp the meaning behind the metaphors, we see that we are a deeply interconnected people capable of bringing our worship into unexpected spaces and circumstances.
We are a temple.
I once met a man in Southeast Asia. He lived most of his life as a Buddhist monk. He grew up in the temple, and he knew all the right beliefs and practices. He even taught them to others. One day a visitor talked to him about Jesus, and he felt something stir. He took a Bible from the stranger, hid it under his pillow, and read it. He felt convicted of its truth. Suddenly, in a temple full of jade and marble and gold leaf, the way of life he served was found wanting and lifeless.
He encountered the True God in a space not meant for such an encounter. Now he walks into temples every day to help other monks have such an encounter. Every space where he meets with another and God becomes a sacred space … and sometimes that space was designed for the worship of another. But this is the potential we have as believers because together we are a temple.
“For through Him we both have access by one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with the saints, and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus Himself as the cornerstone. The whole building, being put together by Him, grows into a holy sanctuary in the Lord. You also are being built together for God’s dwelling in the Spirit” (Ephesians 2:18-22).
“Coming to Him, a living stone—rejected by men but chosen and valuable to God—you yourselves, as living stones, are being built into a spiritual house for a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:4-6).
In the Old Testament, the Temple was the place where God dwelled, and it was only a priest who could come near to God in the Holy of Holies. In the New Testament, the temple shifts to God’s people. We are now the place where God dwells. Each person a living stone that creates a sacred space.
We have access to God through the Spirit. We have a foundation that is built on the proclamations of the apostles and aligned with the Son. And when we come together, we become the priests that can offer our sacrifices of worship. We are designed to be together, but we don’t need a specific place to come together to worship because we are the building placed brick-by-brick by God himself. And we’re continually being built up by one another.
We are a body.
One of my favorite community experiences was on the ground in the Middle East. The people I met there lived and worked together as a ministry team, and they all came from differing places and had different skills. A nurse, a pastor, a journalist, a soldier, a student, and more, each left behind their homes and set foot in a country none of them intended to go to because God called them there.
In living and working together over the span of a few years, they survived the removal of a leader who failed in integrity, the threat of being thrown out of the country, and even an attempted coup in the government. Their varied backgrounds gave them each unique perspectives and gifts that upheld the others and furthered their ministry. Though each did something different, they lived and worked as one in pursuit of their mission just as the Church is meant to.
“For as the body is one and has many parts, and all the parts of that body, though many, are one body—so also is Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. So the body is not one part but many” (1 Corinthians 12:12-14).
The body is complex. Each body has parts on the outside and systems on the inside, all carefully placed and fine-tuned to operate as a whole. Paul goes on to say that we can’t work as just one ear or as one eye … nor can we say, that a hand doesn’t belong. In other words, our gifts, our backgrounds, and our resources are perfectly calibrated to help the Body operate optimally.
Believers don’t get in because of their status or their ethnicity or their special gifts. Each part of the body is vital, and each believer has been welcomed into the body through baptism in the Holy Spirit. We now have the responsibility of supporting the other parts of the body and working in unity to fulfill our common mission.
We are a family.
Dhonu’s eyes shined with tears when he said, “This church is everything to me.”
Just months earlier, his family left him for dead by the river. His sickness became a burden they could no longer bear. As his body wasted away from illness, they made the decision to leave him to his end and walk away.
But as though emerging from the parable of the Good Samaritan, someone from a local church found him there. They brought him to the church, cleaned him, and gave him a place to rest. What’s more is the church then gave of their money to buy medicine to heal him.
I met him months later inside this little church in the mountains of South Asia where he now lived. His bed was above our heads in an area that I thought looked more like a hay loft than a bedroom … but for him, it was home.
For him, it meant life. For him, it meant a new family that wouldn’t abandon him on earth or in heaven. And that’s what it means for us too. The presence of Christ in us changes the definition of our primary family from one based on biological descent to one built on our shared spiritual DNA.
“While he was still speaking with the crowds, his mother and brothers were standing outside wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, ‘Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.’ He replied to the one who was speaking to him, ‘Who is my mother and who are my brothers?’ Stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’” (Matthew 12:46-50).
The markers of this new kind of family were a commitment to Jesus and obedience to God. We may not share the same nose or hair color, but we are connected by blood. That blood bonds us and defines how we care for one another as family.
“Do not be surprised, brothers and sisters, if the world hates you. We know that we have passed from death to life because we love our brothers and sisters. The one who does not love remains in death. Everyone who hates his brother or sister is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him. This is how we have come to know love: He laid down his life for us. We should also lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has this world’s goods and sees a fellow believer in need but withholds compassion from him—how does God’s love reside in him? Little children, let us not love in word or speech, but in action and in truth” (1 John 3:13-18).
In short, this family is defined by our love. We know love because of Christ’s sacrifice, and we commit to giving our own lives for one another—whether that’s a literal sacrifice of self or a sacrifice of our resources—to give life to one another. As a family, we love in action and in truth because it’s how God loves us.
Sunday worship is only the beginning of what we do and how we relate to one another. The Bible’s metaphors paint a grander picture of the Church than a mere weekly meeting with prayer, praise, and preaching. The function of the Church extends beyond the spaces we inhabit together in worship and into our everyday lives. In this way, we can both be and do church in unexpected ways and in unconventional places.
Cover image by Nagesh Badu.