Is the Church Male or Female and Does It Really Matter?
You have presented a very interesting question that has caused many believers some degree of confusion. The Bible uses a great number of “literary tools” to communicate spiritual truths that cannot be explained any other way.
Jesus caught Nicodemus off guard when He said a man needed to be “born again”. That was the very best phrase Jesus could use to refer to what happens when a person accepts the message of salvation through believing in the redeeming work of Jesus Christ, the Messiah. It didn’t make sense to Nicodemus’ mind and in order to explain the miracle of this “new birth” Jesus had to use even more analogies—the wind; the spirit; the brazen serpent.
The issue here is that “spiritual truth” does not always fit into the normal way of thinking or reasoning. And, in order to make some sense of these truths, language must be employed that “paints a picture” with words. These pictures are found throughout the Old and New Testaments. The different types of pictures are: types; shadows; parables; similes; metaphors; allegories. Most of them are meant to stand on their own—some are to be connected to or combined with others. The difference can be found in having a general knowledge of the whole plan of Scripture and through intense study of each one.
The use of the “father image” to describe God’s relationship to mankind is seen to a degree in the Old Testament but is greatly enlarged upon from Jesus’ ministry, and through the New Testament Letters to the Church.
Lucifer is seen throughout Scripture as an Adversary of man; Satan; the Devil; the Thief; a Serpent; a Dragon. It doesn’t matter who the natural author of the Book was, the “typology” is consistent. However, that doesn’t mean that everywhere a serpent is mentioned that it is a reference to Lucifer, but the context will make that clear.
In Matthew 10:16, Jesus told the disciples to be, “wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.” This reference, of course, has nothing to do with the image of Lucifer/Satan. He is, instead, speaking of the ability of serpents to be stealthy, cautious, and alert to any danger. This is the attitude we are to maintain while presenting ourselves as unthreatening (doves) to those whom we are sent to live among. In this one verse, Jesus uses the metaphors of sheep, wolves, serpents, and doves. He was speaking of spiritual truths that those who listened and followed His words would understand, but that the “uninformed” would not.
In Scripture, we see many passages that utilize these forms of expression. The mistake is that we often try to reconcile the images to one another when they are to be seen as exclusive or independent. This is where confusion enters. Before I answer your specific question, let me show you some examples.
Matthew 5:13–16 – Jesus uses two metaphors to refer to the believers: salt and light. Each one says something that the other could not express. Jesus was not confused, of course, but He needed to use each individual metaphor to convey a spiritual truth. Neither are these examples inclusive of all that needs to be said about the life of the believers. We are much more than salt and/or light. But these serve His purpose here.
1 Corinthians 3:6–9 – Paul wanted to explain the reason that the believers at Corinth should not allow strife and division to rule their lives. To do this he uses the imagery of laborers working in a field. The ministers, Paul and Apollos (or whoever) are likened to the laborers. The believers are then to be seen as the “crop”. There are some who plant the seed, others who bring water throughout the growing season (and others who harvest, see John 4:36–38). The “crops” are not to honor one laborer over the other, for it is God working through them, and in addition to them, who is causing the plants to grow. The ministers are God’s co-workers, the believers are God’s field.
But notice, now, that Paul moves immediately to another image, “…you are God’s building”. He continues this “imagery” through verse 15. Paul had said what he wanted to communicate in regard to the field, now he needed something else. And, the image of an architect and a building conveyed that truth. The first metaphor does not exclude the second, nor are they to be compared—they just illustrate a certain point in a different and specific manner.
Galatians 1:24–26 and 4:1–7 - “Sonship” – This is a New Testament theme that can be expressed by no other terminology. The Greek language of the New Testament era had 4 major words to translate the idea of “child”. They were each used to describe the child as in relationship to some other idea. However, the word usually translated “son” in the New Testament was different. It conveyed a very specific concept that is not associated with the other 4 words. In Greek society, a “child” was under “tutors” until an age of maturity (around 17-20 years of age).
Girls were dismissed, then, to receive “domestic training”, while the boys received further education specific to the profession of the father, or of the fathers choosing. At some time in this advanced training, the father would determine that the “son” (a word indicating the child had reached a place of maturity) would be removed from training. This was the action of granting “sonship”. The “son” had always been the “child” (a different Greek word) of the father, but now he was to be placed in a position of authority to possess the family name and title. In Greek society, this was called “adoption—son placing”. (See also references to “adoption of sons” in Ephesians 1:5 and Romans 8:15)
When you study Galatians 3: 24–26 and 4:1–7, this is what Paul is teaching. He uses the imagery of “sonship—tutors—slaves” to reveal the spiritual truth that was hidden from the Galatians understanding. However, by the use of these metaphors, Paul could help them see what he was teaching about, and their understanding would be opened. Sons—tutors—slaves they understood. We are now the ones who need some help to understand the principles Paul is teaching because these customs are not present in our society—but the readers of the New Testament age would get Paul’s point.
That said, referring to all believers as “sons” has nothing at all to do with the gender of the believer. There was no such thing as “daughter ship”. The imagery is not there. Paul has to use “sons” irrespective of the gender issue (even though he knew he was including female believers as well). That doesn’t mean that in respect to God all believers are “male”. The Bible also calls us “children of God” (offspring, child), and in that regard, there is no distinction of gender (although some translations convey the masculine gender in using “sons” instead of “children”, or in using the masculine pronoun).
My point from these illustrations is that there are many “images” used in the Bible and some that seem contradictory, exclusive, or confusing. A deeper study of each is necessary in order to realize the true message. That leads me to the discussion of your question. The solution to the seeming contradiction is in the understanding of the metaphors: bride and body.
In reality, the Church is both. In teaching us about our unity with all other believers in accomplishing God’s purpose for us, Paul uses the metaphor of the “body”. But, when Paul desired to teach the church about the intimate relationship that we as believers have with our Lord Jesus, Paul resorts to the metaphor of a “bride”. And, these same “images” are seen also in the writings of other New Testament authors.
The Body of Christ
There are a number of passages that use this metaphor, but the most complete are Romans 12:3–8 and 1Corinthians 12: 12–27. These two portions of scripture summarize what is consistent in other occasional verses where the Body of Christ is mentioned. As His “body” we are to see:
1. Our “completeness” in Christ – We have been “baptized into One Body” (His), and whatever we were lacking has been made complete by our inclusion in Him. This is the basis for all the “in Him” truths found throughout the New Testament. Every believer needs to be grounded in this doctrine. There was no better way to communicate this than by using the image of a human body—complete within itself—filled with life, ability, and strength.
2. Our “need for each other” as members of one body – Each believer is a “member /part” of the whole. We are incomplete without Him—that is true. But in this regard, we are incomplete without the other members. That, of course, cannot mean that I am spiritually incomplete in some way. No, this has regard to our ability to fulfill God’s ultimate purpose through the Church. I need the “gifts, ministries, graces” that God has not given to others. I am not to see myself as “independent” from other believers—I need what they have to offer; they need what I have to offer. Together, we are complete.
3. The Church is One Body, not many. Although we see ourselves as separate, we are not. There are not many bodies of Christ in the world—there is one—the Church. All the many and varied denominations, sects, and local churches are part of one whole. Of course, we have different visions and methods, different languages and styles, different customs and policies. Yet, there is one greater truth—we are all the Body of Christ. Certainly, this body is made up of only those who have acknowledged the death burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ—that is what makes us His Body:
Ephesians 4:4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope at your calling; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.
The purpose of the “body” imagery is to teach one dimension of the believer’s life. It is not meant to be all-inclusive, containing everything we need to know. Neither, is it to be “exclusive” of other realities that we need to understand—even if they seem to be contradictory.
The Bride of Christ
The New Testament contains numerous “allusions” to the Church as the “bride”. The most complete of these is Ephesians 5:23-31:
23) …for the husband is head of the wife as also Christ is head of the church. He is the Savior of the body.
24) Now as the church submits to Christ, so wives should submit to their husbands in everything.
25) Husbands, love your wives, just as also Christ loved the church and gave Himself for her,
26) to make her holy, cleansing her in the washing of water by the word.
27) He did this to present the church to Himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but holy and blameless.
28) In the same way, husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.
29) For no one ever hates his own flesh, but provides and cares for it, just as Christ does for the church,
30) since we are members of His body.
31) For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.
32) This mystery is profound, but I am talking about Christ and the church.
These verses present the image of Christ as the true husband and the Church as His bride. Although Paul’s purpose here is to teach on the husband/wife relationship, we can also see the greater truth of our relationship to Christ. In verse 32 he makes the point directly—we, the Church, are the Bride of Christ. Yet, Paul also says that this is a “mystery”. That means that there is more to this than is apparent and that only those who have been “enlightened” will understand the deeper truths.
This term, “mystery”, is found a number of places in the New Testament. All who read the mystery will understand something, but only those who study deeper will see the real truth. It is somewhat like Jesus use of Parables in speaking to the crowds.
Matthew 13:11 He answered them, "Because the secrets of the kingdom of heaven have been given for you to know, but it has not been given to them.
They would hear a story and see something in it. But, the disciples who studied deeper, and listened to other things Jesus taught would see the truth behind the story.
The “mystery of the bride” is not fully explained just by this one passage. But, when you add to it the other “images” found throughout the New Testament, you see more of the truth.
- Paul’s teachings: 2 Corinthians 11:2–3
- Jesus Words: Luke 5:34–35; John 3:29; Matthew 25: 1–11
- John’s writings: Revelation 19:7; 21:9
Taken together, these present a picture of the “Church” as the bride/wife, and Jesus as the Groom/husband. Please notice that it is the Church in these verses that stands as the bride, not each individual believer. “I” am not the bride. “You” are not the bride. We are part of the Church Universal, and “we” are the bride.
Finally, “Is the Church male or female?” Yes! And, no! As a metaphor, we are either, depending on what the subject of the metaphor is. As a “fact”, we are neither. We are children; sons; slaves; salt; light; soil; wheat; a pearl; good fish; the bride…and many, more. Each metaphor is teaching a specific spiritual truth that cannot be explained any other way. They are not inclusive, cumulative, or exclusive. They stand independent of each other, yet all work together to help the believers understand who we are, what we have, and what we are to do / be in this world.