It’s striking that a biblical theology of God’s people as his bride gets relatively little attention in Reformed preaching, teaching, and liturgy…our exploration of the subject rarely goes beyond Ephesians 5, and is most commonly focused on the dynamics of headship and submission explored in that text. And while that may be a worthy start to exploring the bride-of-Christ theme, it’s just that: a start. If the church wants to continue affirming a robust Christian sexual ethic in the midst of a culture that has long since rejected biblical sexual morals, it would do well to develop and apply an equally robust biblical theology of God and his people as bride and groom.
Since the time of the apostles, the Christian church has held that the gospel love of Christ for his bride should undergird our understanding of human marriage. In Reformed circles, this perspective was recently re-affirmed by the 2020 report of the PCA’s Ad Interim Committee on Human Sexuality. The committee wrote that, “When God created the marital union he was doing so to give us a mysterion—a sign pointing to Christ’s love and union with us.”
But despite the church’s historic commitment to this position, it’s striking that a biblical theology of God’s people as his bride gets relatively little attention in Reformed preaching, teaching, and liturgy. In fact, at least in my experience, our exploration of the subject rarely goes beyond Ephesians 5, and is most commonly focused on the dynamics of headship and submission explored in that text. And while that may be a worthy start to exploring the bride-of-Christ theme, it’s just that: a start. If the church wants to continue affirming a robust Christian sexual ethic in the midst of a culture that has long since rejected biblical sexual morals, it would do well to develop and apply an equally robust biblical theology of God and his people as bride and groom.
And that means doing at least three things. First, the church must recognize that the New Testament applies the bride-of-Christ idea not only to marriage but also to a wide range of other sexual and relational issues. Second, we must see the story of God and his people as husband and wife as an expansive, gospel-soaked motif that unifies scripture from beginning to end. And third, we must use that gospel story as the primary lens through which we understand singleness, sex, relationships, and marriage.
Let’s consider each of these things in turn.
The Bride of Christ as the Basis for New Testament Sexual Ethics
There are at least three major New Testament texts that consider issues of human sexuality in light of the marital relationship between Christ and his people. Together, they cover a wide range of sexual and relational topics, and they give us strong reason to base our understanding of the entire Christian sexual ethic on the story of God’s love for his bride.
The first text to deal with this subject is, of course, the one we’ve already mentioned: Ephesians 5, with its focus on marriage. A second is 1 Corinthians 6, where Paul argues that believers must flee sexual immorality because of their “one flesh” union with Christ. Thus, while Ephesians 5 applies the bride-of-Christ idea to marriage, 1 Corinthians 6 applies it to sexual sin instead. Moreover, Paul’s treatment of the subject in 1 Corinthians 6 forms the centerpiece of 1 Corinthians 5-7, which is arguably the longest discussion of singleness, sex, and marriage in all of Scripture.
But there’s still one more New Testament text that considers human sexuality in light of the gospel reality that Jesus is the ultimate bridegroom: Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4. This text famously includes a discussion of the woman’s checkered romantic and sexual past. But, read with literary sensitivity, it also contains a powerful subtext about the spiritual marriage between Christ and his people.
After all, the meeting at the well is eerily similar to several Old Testament texts in which biblical heroes met their wives (see Isaac in Genesis 24, Jacob in Genesis 29, and Moses in Exodus 2). Moreover, it comes on the heels of the wedding at Cana in John 2, and John the Baptist’s dramatic assertion in John 3 that Jesus is “the bridegroom.” Finally, its use of imagery related to wells and living water echoes several Old Testament texts dealing with sex and marriage (see, e.g., Proverbs 5:15-19, and Song of Solomon 4:12-15). If we pick up the literary hints John is dropping, we find that this text processes the Samaritan woman’s sexual sin, shame, singleness, and hurt against a thematic backdrop that paints Jesus as the true husband she’s been longing for.
Taken together, then, these three texts from two different biblical authors give us substantial warrant for viewing the totality of human sexuality through the lens of God’s love for the church. They touch not only on issues of marriage, but also of sin, hurt, singleness, and shame. And they therefore call us to process all of these issues by deepening our understanding of the long-running biblical story of God’s love for his bride.
A Biblical Theology of God and His Bride
The covenant of marriage between God and his people is one of the most enduring themes in all of scripture. The idea appears at least as early as the book of Exodus (see 34:15-16) and stretches all the way to Revelation. A full treatment of the subject is therefore beyond the scope of this short article. Nevertheless, a brief summary of the most salient plot points in this biblical romance will serve our purposes for now. (I recommend Raymond C. Ortlund Jr.’s book God’s Unfaithful Wife as a good resource for those interested in learning more.)
When God first set out to find himself a bride, he didn’t go looking for the most pure, the most beautiful, or the most powerful. Instead, according to Ezekiel 16, he chose a little pagan girl whom he found wallowing in blood and filth, abandoned to die by parents who “abhorred” her. Filled with love and compassion, he rescued the helpless orphan, washed her clean, gave her beautiful clothes and good food and entered into a covenant of marriage with her.
Ezekiel’s orphan girl is, of course, a metaphor for ancient Israel, God’s people. They were the descendants of pagans (Joshua 24:2-3) and they were enslaved in Egypt with nothing to commend themselves (Deuteronomy 7:7, 9:4-6). Yet God chose them to be his bride just the same. And God is still choosing the foolish, the weak, and the low to be members of his bride, the church (1 Corinthians 1:26-29).
Of course, the story doesn’t end there. Despite God’s kindness to his orphan-bride, Israel, she turned away from him. She followed after other gods. In the words of Ezekiel 16, Ezekiel 23, and Hosea 2 (not to mention countless other passages) she “played the whore.” God’s description of Israel’s unfaithfulness in serving other gods includes some of the most shocking and sexually graphic language in all of scripture. God is repulsed by Israel’s behavior.
But we serve a God who shows undeserved favor. He promises to restore his relationship with his estranged bride. In Hosea 2:14 he says, “Therefore behold, I will allure her, I will bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her.” God will once again take the initiative towards his faithless lover. He’ll woo her, she’ll respond, and their marriage will be renewed. In fact, he says that she’ll be betrothed to him forever in faithfulness. The renewed marriage covenant will endure.
It is against this prophetic backdrop that the New Testament unfolds. Many of Jesus’ parables involve grooms and wedding feasts, not because they’re a convenient analogy, but because Jesus is specifically asserting that the promised prophetic wedding is coming to pass, and that he is the ultimate groom. He’s come to a world full of unfaithful Jews and godless Gentiles, all of them a mess of sin and rebellion, and he’s going to call all of them to be his eternal bride.
And so, according to Ephesians 5, Jesus takes his bride-to-be, and he “gives himself up for her, that he might sanctify her” (Ephesians 5:25-26). He lays down his life, so that she may be washed in his shed blood. He begins to cleanse her once again, sanctifying her by the preaching of his word. And he looks forward to the day when he will “present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:27). He looks forward to the day when his church will come to him in glory as the perfect bride, “clothed in fine linen, bright and pure” (Revelation 19:8).
The story of Christ and his bride is therefore far more than a one-off idea in a single Pauline text. It is one of the most unifying gospel themes in all of scripture. And, if the New Testament authors are to be believed, it has the power to transform our understanding of human sexuality.
Shaping the Christian Sexual Ethic
Seeking to apply this gospel love story to human sexual ethics is a project that could, once again, easily fill the pages of a book. Nevertheless, we can summarize at least three ways to apply the bride-of-Christ idea to human sexuality, each of which is suggested by a different New Testament text.
First, we can use the bride-of-Christ story to ground our moral prohibitions (the 1 Corinthians 6 approach). For example, because God’s love for his people is covenantal and enduring, so we should practice sexual love within the confines of an enduring covenant relationship. This means we oppose sexual activity before marriage as an inferior form of love—it’s non-covenantal and fundamentally conditional on the parties deciding not to call things off. Similarly, we discourage divorce because it breaks a covenant which should be as binding as God’s everlasting covenant of grace with his people. Thus, the moral prohibitions in the Christian sexual ethic are not an arbitrary list of “dos and don’ts,” but rather the straightforward ethical implications of a consistent biblical call to embody the full depth of God’s love in human romance.
A second way to leverage the bride-of-Christ idea is using it to apply the gospel to our sexual brokenness (the John 4 approach). After all, God’s love for his bride is a powerful story of redemption: she’s an orphan and whore at the start of the story, but ends up rescued, cleansed, healed, and forgiven—a vision of perfect purity. And it’s worth noting that God does more than just forgive her sin. He covers her shame with royal robes. He delivers her from slavery and bondage. He binds up her wounds and satisfies her longings. Thus, the gospel story of God’s love for his bride reminds us that through the death and resurrection of Jesus, we can find forgiveness for our sexual sin, cleansing for our sexual shame, healing for our sexual hurt, and deliverance from our sexual oppression. How desperately we need that good news!
Finally, we can apply the bride-of-Christ story by using it to set the example for marital love (the Ephesians 5 approach). God loves his people with a tender, costly, and enduring love—even when it means laying down his own life for his beloved. He calls us to love our spouses in the same way, laying down our lives each and every day, repenting and forgiving, helping and serving, comforting and encouraging. And, while Paul says husbands have a unique and particular call to emulate this love, there’s no reason we need to stop there. After all, one can hardly imagine Paul saying that wives shouldn’t love their husbands with Christ-like love. Moreover, given that Jesus has instructed all his disciples to “love one another as he has loved us” (John 13), we have a general call to show gospel love in all of our relationships, romantic or otherwise. Thus, we should all be seeking to embody the redeeming love of God with our friends, children, coworkers, parents, and even strangers—but especially in our marriages.
Preaching, Teaching, and Living the Story
There is, of course, far more that I could say about God’s love for his bride and its applicability to human romance. Nevertheless, I hope that this short introduction to these ideas inspires the church to explore this biblical idea more deeply. We need to read and understand this biblical story. We need to preach it and teach it, both as a gospel metaphor and as a basis for our relational and sexual ethics. And then we need to live it out in our singleness, in our courtships, and in our marriages. It is only then that we can truly embody the beautiful, positive vision of human romance demonstrated in God’s love for his own bride.
Dayne Batten is a member of Peace Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Cary, N.C.