You won’t find the phrase “bride of Christ” in your Bible. Just like the Trinity, this concept appears in Scripture without the wording we now use.
Though the biblical authors use this image to refer to the collective people of God, many today misapply it to individuals. This error has far-reaching and unexpected consequences.
The Old Testament
Let’s begin with the Bible. In the Old Testament, the nation of Israel was the people of God by virtue of God’s gracious covenant. In Isaiah 54 (and elsewhere), God used the language of marriage to describe his relationship with his people as a whole.
“Fear not, for you will not be ashamed;
be not confounded, for you will not be disgraced;
for you will forget the shame of your youth,
and the reproach of your widowhood you will remember no more.
For your Maker is your husband,
the Lord of hosts is his name;
and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer,
the God of the whole earth he is called.
For the Lord has called you
like a wife deserted and grieved in spirit,
like a wife of youth when she is cast off,
says your God.
For a brief moment I deserted you,
but with great compassion I will gather you.
In overflowing anger for a moment
I hid my face from you,
but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you,”
says the Lord, your Redeemer. (Isaiah 54:4–8)
The Israelites understood marriage, so God employed this language to explain his covenant. The prophets regularly used this image to point out Israel’s many idolatries. So we read of the people “whoring” after other gods and abandoning their faithful husband. (See Ezekiel 16 for a detailed and graphic example.)
The New Testament
With the coming of Jesus, the people of God are no longer confined to one nation. Now those who confess Jesus as Lord and Savior make up God’s community, the church.
The theme of the church as the bride of Christ comes from three New Testament passages. The famous passage about marriage in Ephesians 5:22–33 compares husbands to Christ and wives to the church. Paul tells the church in Corinth that he bethrothed them to one husband, Christ (2 Cor 11:2). Finally, the picture John develops in Revelation 21 shows the New Jerusalem as the bride of the Lamb (see verses 2 and 9–10).
Whether Old Testament or New, these references are all collective, not individual.
The Importance of Getting it Right
Teaching that individuals are the bride(s) of Christ is not just an innocent mistake. It can have serious consequences for our worship, our outreach, and our own sanctification. I see at least four reasons why it’s important to cling tightly to what the Bible says about this image.
1. Biblical accuracy is important.
When the Bible speaks about something, even by way of images, illustrations, and metaphors, we must interpret accurately.
2. We use this language in worship.
When we worship God corporately, we naturally use language that captures our relationship with him. This is true in prayer, preaching, and singing.
The church has been infected with Jesus-is-my-boyfriend songs for many years now, and I wonder if a misunderstanding of this biblical image is to blame. When we urge our congregations to sing about being in love with God (instead of loving God), we evoke a romantic image that echoes the brides-of-Christ mistake. I see these solitary, romantic notions nowhere in the Bible.
3. We risk emasculating men.
Some men already feel the church is too feminine. When we ask men—especially men new to (or outside) the faith who don’t yet know our strangeness—to profess being in love with Jesus, they may not come back. Since this brushes against the hot-button topic of homosexuality, we need to be clear about the sort of love men should have for Jesus.
4. We risk sending the wrong message to women.
Some of the single women in our churches long to be married. Trying to encourage them by teaching that they are “married to Christ” now is not helpful. It’s dismissive in addition to being unbiblical.
I suspect the Catholic church’s teaching about nuns has crept into the larger church culture on this point. The Catholic church’s catechism (scroll down to paragraph 923) teaches that nuns are “betrothed mystically to Christ” and that they are “an eschatological image of this heavenly Bride of Christ.”
This is nowhere in the Bible. We need to care for the single women in our churches with biblical comfort and love.
A Beautiful Image
The image in Scripture is clear: God is preparing and purifying his people for a great gathering at the end of time. The victorious Son of God, the Lord Jesus Christ, will meet his bride, the church, and there will be a great feast of celebration.
Let’s not dilute or distract from this great biblical image. You are not the bride of Christ; we are.