Saturday, February 25, 2006

Mother Church or Bride of Christ?

Metaphors are powerful. They are the engines of poetry. The Bible is full of theological metaphors.

Metaphors are powerful because the sensible world is, at one level, a cosmic metaphor for a moral order. Earthly particulars and relations signify spiritual particulars and relations.

A fundamental feature of catholic piety is the maternal metaphor for the church. This exerts the force of a master metaphor. It conditions and controls the way the Catholic, Anglo-Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglo-Orthodox think about the church and their relationship to God.

What’s striking is that Scripture itself never models the church along the lines of maternity. If you already accept this metaphor, then you may read it into certain verses, but in terms of grammatico-historical exegesis, the Bible never depicts the church as our mother.

What is more, this extra-biblical metaphor has come to displace and efface what is a Scriptural metaphor for the church, which is the bride of Christ (Mt 9:15; 25:1-13; Mk 2:19; Lk 5:34-35; Jn 3:29; Eph 5:25; Rev 19:7).

Both metaphors are feminine, but with a considerable difference.

The mother/son relationship is an essentially childish relationship. Of course, the emotional bond remains throughout life. And we retain certain filial obligations. But the bond is formed in childhood—even in the womb. It is a relation of dependence.

Raphael’s many paintings of the Madonna and child perfectly capture the sentiment. And it’s no coincidence that in Catholicism, the maternal metaphor is systematic: Mother Church, Mary as the Mother of God, Mary as the Mother of the Church. This even subordinates Christ to Mary, which accounts for the efficacy of her intercession.

Normally, when men grow up, they leave home and form an emotional attachment with a woman other than their mother. They take a wife. That is certainly the Biblical pattern.

There are exceptions, but that’s the natural order of things when nothing interferes.

The husband/wife relationship is an essentially adult relationship. It is a classic rite of passage, of emotional maturity.

This also involves an emotional shift. The man still loves his mother, but his wife now occupies first place in his affections. His allegiance is to her over and above his own mother, just as her allegiance is to him over and above her own father.

He looks at this new woman, not as his mother, but as the mother of his children.

And, in terms of male headship, there is also, in some measure, a relation of dependence, but in this case the roles are reversed. The male is no longer dependent on the female, as in a mother/son relationship. Rather, the husband is the guardian of the wife.

In Catholicism, a Christian never comes of age. He is perpetually a momma’s boy, tied to the apron strings of Mother Church.

When church fathers like Cyprian began to maternalize the church, they were introducing a very far-reaching distortion into Christian piety.

Yet another problem with this metaphor is that it’s a singular metaphor. That, of itself, is not a problem unless, as is commonly the case, Christians forget that this is, after all, just a metaphor.

We only have one mother, but the church is a corporate entity, comprising the Lord and his elect.

There is, therefore, no one time or place to find the church. No one place to look. Rather, you find the church wherever you find believers, for you also find the Lord wherever you find his people.

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