Saturday, January 22, 2011

Images of the Church

I've recently been reading a bit about the nature of church, and especially John Owen on the subject, and one of the things that strikes me is that Owen consistently relies on imagery to describe the church which doesn't show up much in contemporary discussion.  For Owen, the church is primarily a society.  His discussion of it revolves around the idea of a well-ordered society, and therefore around the appointment and function of officers within the church.  There is more, and every-member ministry is there in the margins, but the main imagery is drawn from the state and civil society.  By contrast, I would think that the most regularly recurring image used for the church in contemporary literature is the family.  The emphasis is therefore much more on relationship.

It is not hard to see historical causes for these differences.  Owen was writing against the backdrop of the Civil War, the Protectorate, and the Stuart Restoration (he would have loved the Glorious Revolution, but skipped it and went straight for the Glory).  All the big questions of the day were about the ordering of civil society, the roles of magistrates, the constraints placed on rulers.  And Owen was in the thick of all that.  By contrast, such questions bore us today, but family life is very much out of the category of 'taken for granted', where it was when Owen wrote.  Perhaps because, as a society, we're less secure in natural family life, the image becomes particularly powerful for us in relation to the church.

Of course, both images (and a host of others) are found in Scripture.  The idea of the church as polis is there in the background to Philippians, for example, whilst the idea of family functions very strongly in Galatians.  (Actually both images are in both letters, and are generally intertwined throughout the NT).  The question that stands out in my mind is: what do we miss when we pursue this image of the church over all others?  I can see what Owen missed when he pursued his image, but that is one of the wonders of hindsight.  I wonder whether we end up giving in to our culture's general hostility or indifference to structure, using the language of relationships to justify our neglect of the Scriptural representation of this side of church life.  And, as I look at Owen and wonder whether his one-sided use of imagery led to a damaging clericalism,  I wonder what damage our neglect will do us in the long term.


  1. Anonymous9:50 am


    It's also worth remembering that 'household' in biblical times had far more 'political' overtones than it does today. Paul saying the church is the household of God is not as far from ideas related to the polis as 'family' is for us today. We read household and think nuclear family, whereas the household was a fuller more complicated thing in the NT.

    As to your question, I think one of the things we lose is the sense in which the church is meant to be a rival and a model civilisation. It fits well with many of our favourite dualism - sacred/ secular, private/ public, religion/ the rest of 'normal' life.

    My word verification is 'popery' - which is hilarious don't you think?

  2. Hi Pete,

    I'm sure you're right about households. And I'm sure another of the things that we miss out on is exactly the public claim that the gospel makes for the church - the kind of claim that could bring the church into conflict with Caesar, for example, because they are citizens of another polis...

    Still, no popery here, right?

  3. I was watching the bbc series on iplayer with Michael Sandel, and the citizen's guide one of these illustrated the approach to ethical problems from utilitarianism, Kant and from Aristotle. I think he particularly focused on the weak areas of the first two, but didn't seem to take such issue with aristotle. I mention it because the different approaches in this seemed to reflect some different views on being a christian/ being church today.