The Church is the House of God
The Church is not only the Body and Bride of Christ: it’s also the House of God and the place where God lives!
Throughout the Bible, God builds His house (or Temple), the place where He intends to live with man. In the beginning, God’s house was in the Garden of Eden, which was part of the larger world. When God called His people out of Egypt, He told them to build a portable house, the tabernacle. This is the place where He would put His Name and His glory and where He would meet with men.
Later, Solomon built the permanent Temple where God lived with His people and where they offered Him sacrifices. But this Temple was never meant to last forever, and it was destroyed in A.D. 70. Does this mean that God no longer has a home on earth? Of course not!
The true Temple, according to the New Testament, is Jesus Christ. For the second Person of the Trinity, the Son, took on human nature so that God might live with man eternally through Jesus. As St. John records: the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us (John 1:14).
St. Paul calls the Church, the body of believers, the Temple of the Lord. He does this twice in his first letter to the Church at Corinth. First, he says, “Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” (3:16) Then, he says, “Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own?” (1 Cor 6:19)
What most people don’t know (because you can’t tell by looking at English translations) is that Paul uses the plural word for “you” in both passages. It’s the Church as a whole that is the Temple of the Lord, not just individual believers. Just as Jesus is the Temple, so is His Body the Temple.
Sometimes, because the Church is the body of all Christian believers (and for other reasons), Christians think of the Church as invisible and not present in visible ways. But bodies and houses are visible by their very nature and can be seen, felt, heard, and even smelt. The Church is no different: the Body and Temple in which God dwell are visible. The Church, as the Temple of God, shows forth God’s glory to the world in many visible ways, and glory is a visible presence or manifestation of something glorious.
So how is the glory of God’s Temple shown today? Paul says it’s by the Church. He writes: “to Him (God) be glory in the church” (Ephesians 3:21). A little earlier, Paul says that even the angels are taught the wisdom of God by the Church (3:10). The Church, therefore, is the glorious Temple of the Lord, the place where God dwells, and the place where He is revealed to the world. This means that the Church is visible and tangible to the world.
If the Church is the Body and Temple of Christ and continues His divine ministry on earth, then the Church must be visible and have the authority of Christ. This authority can’t mean the authority of each individual Christian, and from the book of Genesis to the book of Revelation, God works in His gathered people and their God-appointed leaders.
The House of God, or Temple, is also where the people of God worship God together (corporate worship). It’s on Sunday mornings that the Church as the Body of Christ is most visible. It’s easy to forget that you’re a Christian or that God is the Lord of your life if you live a life outside the Church. But on Sunday mornings, it’s visible to all that the local church is the Body of Christ.
The Temple was where the priests offered the sacrifices that took away the sins of the people. It’s no different in the New Testament: God has a new and perfect Temple, which is the Body of Jesus Christ, not only the natural body of Christ now ascended into Heaven but also the Church, the Body of Christ.
Peter says in 1 Peter 2:5 that “you also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” Each of us is a stone, and only together are we built up into a spiritual house, which is the Church or Temple. No gem, no matter how precious, can say he’s the House of God all by himself. Notice that it is in the Church as a whole, both as a holy priesthood and as a spiritual house, that the sacrifices of God’s people are made. And the spiritual sacrifice that you are to make is yourself, your soul, your body, and your life.
Paul says the same thing in another way in Ephesians 4:11-12: “And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.”
Whether as a body or as a house, the Church is built up when each Christian uses his gifts for the good of the local church.
The Church is Your Mother
The Church is also your Mother.
In Galatians 4:26, Paul says, speaking of the Church: “the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all.” Paul is contrasting first century Israel, which rejected Jesus, with the first-century Church. We know that the Jerusalem above is the Church from Revelation 21:2, where we read: “Then I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.”
The early Church Fathers, who interpreted the Bible in the same way as St. Paul, also called the Church “Mother.” Most famously, St. Cyprian said, around the year 250: “You cannot have God for your Father if you do not have the Church for your mother.” But even John Calvin, the great Reformer, wrote: “For those to whom he [God] is Father the church may also be Mother.”
So, the Church is the Mother of every Christian. How so?
Before I unravel this question, I want to emphasize the connection between Paul’s images of the Church. Just as the Church as the Body of Christ is intimately familiar with the Church as the Bride of Christ, the Church as our Mother is related to the Church as not just the house of God but also the household of God, where God reigns as Father (Galatians 6:10, Ephesians 2:19). For this reason, Paul writes in his letter to Timothy “that you [Timothy] may know how you ought to conduct yourself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). The Church is the house and household of God, but also, as Mother in this house, is the pillar and ground of truth, invested with the authority of the Father.
First, the Church is our Mother because every Christian is born in the “womb” of the Church. It is within the context of our Mother Church that we receive the things of God which sustain our spiritual life. We are born into the Church at our baptism, for it is then that we are adopted and brought into the divine life of Jesus Christ and made a member of both Him and His Church, as well as being made sons of the Father. When we emerge from the baptismal waters, it is like passing out of the womb, through the birth canal, and into the new world of Christ.
Second, we are cared for by the Church. Every good mother cares for her children. She feeds and clothes them, helps them in times of trouble, and heals them. And so, your heavenly Mother feeds you with the Word of God and sets it before you several times a day. Your Mother carefully sets the table every Lord’s Day and on it places the Bread of Life and the Living Water, the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. And she desires to wean you off the spiritual milk, which is for spiritual infants, and give you the mature food of Christ and His House.
Your Mother the Church helps heal you, for she brings you to the Great Physician Himself, Jesus Christ. Your Mother, the Church, prays for you.
Third, mothers teach their children, and so the Church instructs her children. After you’ve been born into the household of God, you need to be instructed. The Church has many means of teaching her children. We should attend to as many as possible: adult and children’s Sunday school, the liturgy and sermon, spiritual conversations with your brothers and sisters in Christ, and Bible reading and meditation.
Mothers read to their children. Every time you hear a Bible lesson read in the Church: your Mother is reading you one of the family stories!
Children, you may have noticed, need to be civilized, and so the Church, as our Mother, civilizes us: she teaches us how to live in our Father’s household. This civilizing takes place through the godly habits the Church teaches us, not just attending worship on Sunday morning, but also how to read and meditate on the Scriptures, how to love, how to tell time with the Church year, and much more.
Fourth, mothers protect and give their lives for their children. They drive away all predators and those who might hurt their children. In the same way, the Church protects her children.
Finally, mothers love their children. They exist to serve their children, and they willingly, joyfully give their lives for their children. They easily forgive their children their many wrongs. They hug and they hold their children.
It’s no different with the Church.
The Church is Your Family
The Church is the family of God – your family. It’s the way God intends to relate to men and the way He intends Christians to relate to each other. If God is our Father, and we are His children through baptism, then the Church is our family – the household of God.
The original Family of God is the Holy Trinity: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. But out of God’s love, He desired to bring man into His family. One way this communion with God is portrayed is the way we’ve already explored: the Church as the Body and Bride of Christ.
But our relationship with God as the people of God is also spoken of as a process of adoption. Through adoption into the eternal Son of God, we are made the children of God and now privileged to call God “Our Father.”
This is extraordinarily Good News! God chose us, unlovable as we were, to be part of His family. Christians are those adopted into the family of God. But none of us is a part of the family of God directly: none of us can be the eternal and divine Son of God. But we do become the children of God when we are adopted into the family of God, which means becoming a part of Jesus Christ and His Body.
Historically, Christians have most commonly understood this adoption to take place at our baptism, when God sovereignly reaches down and initiates a covenant relationship with us. At baptism, a Christian is made a child of God, a member of Christ (meaning a member of His Church), and an inheritor of His Kingdom (Prayer Book Catechism). By nature, we are born into the family of Adam and inherit sin and death. But out of love, God adopts us and makes us His children – if we have a relationship with Him through His Son.
Think of how becoming a Christian and part of God’s Church is like being adopted into a family. First, God chooses you and places you into His family. He gives you His Name, for you are called a Christian. Traditionally, at baptism, the child to be baptized is given his “Christian” name, but He also has his new “family” name placed on him: the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Because of this, we have the amazing privilege of calling God “Father”!
After you were adopted, God begins to treat you, just like an adoptive earthly parent, as if you were truly His child. This means that you not only have the rights of being a member of God’s family but also the responsibilities. To live in your parents’ house means not only that you have to live by their rules but also that you are blessed to be a partaker of their family life.
Why do parents make rules for their children and households? To train them in ways that will lead to their greater health and glory and to protect them from evil and harm. The same is true in the house of God, the Church. This is where Christians learn how to live in God’s Kingdom in such a way that they please their Father in heaven, are blessed by Him, and are delivered from sin and its terrible consequences.
Third, living in your parents’ house, you learn how to do life. The same is true of the Church. But while we “graduate” from our nuclear family when we’re eighteen or twenty-one, we never graduate from God’s family, the Church, because it is The Family of Families. The Church continually teaches us how to live like Christians, which means, primarily, to live in love for God and others. But this is hard to do when we don’t spend much time living with God and other Christians in God’s household and family.
Earthly parents share their lives with their children, including not only their houses but also their food, their work, their play, and their time. They share, most of all, themselves. It’s no different in the house of God. For in His house, the Church, God clothes us with His Son and His righteousness (as well as the armor of God); feeds us by His Word, Sacrament, and fellowship; participates in a life with us; and does His work of ministry through us.
The Church and Your Church
Sometimes discussions of the Church remain theologically abstract. But genuine Christian theology is always incarnated in the lives of the saints on earth, and so my presentation of the Church must find its natural expression in the life of the local parish.
The local parish is the microcosm of that macrocosm, which is the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. It might be helpful to think of the Church in terms of holographic images, which are 3D images of an original that change when viewed from different angles. The property of holograms I’m interested in is that if you fracture a hologram, each of the resultant shards is now a smaller image of the original with the same properties as the original. The relationship of the local parish to the one Church is something like this.
There is, of course, only one Church extended throughout time and space, a Church which extends not only over the whole globe but also back to the Old Covenant and forward into the age to come. National churches, denominational churches, dioceses, local parishes, Christian families, and individual Christians are all members of this one Church.
While, on the one hand, no church is complete or entirely catholic without the entire church, on the other hand, the complete Christ is truly present in each local church. While the fullness of Christ is represented by the one catholic Church, the whole Christ truly manifests Himself to each local body. God makes this possible by the divinized nature of the resurrected Christ.
This truth has enormous implications for the nature and function of the local body, for if each local body is truly the manifestation of Christ on the earth today, it is impossible to overestimate the power and glory that each local body possesses by its union with Christ.
To put it another way, each local body of Christ is the presence of Christ in the world in the place where it resides. To partake of the local body is to partake of the whole Christ, and not only a part of Him; to partake of the local Eucharist is to partake of the whole Christ. This is especially true for the local diocese if we accept the catholic truth that the bishop is the locus of Church unity. As E.L. Mascall has written: “The diocese, gathered round its bishop, is thus not merely a part of the Church of God; but is its full manifestation in a particular place.”
Bodies and temples are visible things! The one universal Church is made visible and touchable in each local church. The Church is the visible Body of Christ and Temple of God in these ways:
1. The Church has visible, ordained leaders: this is true for the Old Testament, the New Testament, and throughout Church history.
2. These ordained ministers are called to minister in a local, visible body that gathers together for worship on the Lord’s Day.
3. It is in the local, visible church that the Word of God is authoritatively preached and taught.
4. Only in the local, visible church are the Sacraments present.
5. It is the local, visible church that administers discipline when necessary.
6. It is in the local church that the union of God’s people is made visible and the union of God’s people with God is made visible.
The local parish and diocese are the presence of Christ in the world today in these ways and more:
1. the Eucharist
2. corporate worship
4. the authoritative teaching of the truth
5. authoritative moral teaching
6. help to the poor and visitation of the needy
7. pastors to counsel people and give them spiritual advice
8. discipline and accountability
9. witness and ministry of Christ to the world
How impoverished the world and our lives would be if the Church were not the visible presence of Christ on earth! But what glorious implications for our local parishes if what I have been saying is true!
And now you know why I say that ecclesiology, what we believe about the Church, is not an expendable appendage to the body of theology but its very guts.
How we think of and treat the Church is how we think of and are treating Jesus Himself.
- Images of the Church as God’s building or temple occur in 1 Corinthians 3:9-17, Ephesians 2:21, and anywhere the imagery of edification or “building up” is employed. ↑
- The image of adoption occurs in Romans 8:15, 23; Romans 9:4, and Ephesians 1:5. ↑
- Corpus Christi, 20. ↑