Bride of Christ, or Mistress of Christ?: Abusing the Gospel of Grace

There is a bright light in the evangelical Christian world today, and in a strange, but not altogether unique way, this bright light has been the cause of great darkness.

That bright light is the emphasis on God’s grace. The pop-evangelical world, particularly among independent, charismatic churches, has served a major rebuttal to the dangers of trying to “earn” salvation through one’s own good works. On this one point they seem to stand arm-in-arm united against any doctrine that would include works as a defining element in one’s salvation.

What is true with the natural eye is also true with the spiritual eye: light is necessary for sight, but if that light is abused and used incorrectly it can cause blindness.

The evangelical emphasis on grace, though intended for good, has indeed been applied incorrectly and has caused a great blindness to fall on its faithful adherents.

In Scripture Christ is pictured as the Bridegroom and the Church (believers) as His Bride. Paul writes, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the Church” (Eph 5:31-32). Christ and His Church is the fulfillment of what is prefigured in the marriage between a man and a woman. This is why the Orthodox Church treats marriage as a sacrament and not a mere legal contract.

Grace, as it is popularly preached today in evangelical circles, does not remotely resemble the dynamics present in a marriage. Rather than being relational – where both sides are actively engaged in the marriage – grace is taught as its opposite: FREEDOM FROM playing an active role in the relationship.

The popular phrases heard over again is: “It’s about grace, not works,” or “it’s about grace, not behavior modification,” or “God loves you just the way you are, nothing you do will change that,” etc. The idea is that if grace is all that is required for salvation then one need not be concerned with what they “do,” whether good or bad, because what one does is essentially non-essential. Indeed if one adds works to their faith they run the risk of “falling from grace” and being “estranged from Christ” (Gal 5:4 – an often misquoted scripture dealing with works of the Law and not with works of faith derived from loving obedience to Christ).

Rather than grace being the power to make the Church the Bride of Christ, it is taught as the power to make the Church the Mistress of Christ.

A mistress is under no obligation to be in relationship with the husband. She can come and go as she pleases; the husband keeps no account of her doings; the relationship is one of pure satisfaction of desire. A mistress and a husband are basically connected with a mutual agreement to give each other pleasure. Hence, the mistress only comes around when she is in need of sexual fulfillment or material furnishings (perhaps you’ve heard famous tv preacher lines such as: “Money cometh to me, right now!!!” That’s a mistress if there ever was one).

Grace is the power to become the Bride of Christ, not a mistress. The bride has mutual affection for the husband and that love produces “works” of love. She guards herself from other lovers (idols), she cares for those things which her husband cares for, and she actively pursues her husband.

She never, not for a moment, has the idea that their marriage exists exclusively in her head; in her imagination. Nor does she imagine that saying “I do” was the instantaneous fulfillment of their marriage. Such a thought would be a nightmare. Why? Because she wants to spend every waking hour with her beloved, in active, participatory love. Anything that would prevent her from sharing emotionally, physically and spiritually with her husband is a torment, not a blessing.

The popular preaching on grace today is just that: torment. It creates the ultimate wedge between the Bride and the Bridegroom by reducing the relationship to a fantasy played out in the imagination rather than a genuine marriage lived in reality. It reduces ones marriage with Christ to a confession and a hand raise. Even if one cannot admit that this reproduction of grace is antithetical to salvation, one must at least admit that it’s boring.

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4 thoughts on “Bride of Christ, or Mistress of Christ?: Abusing the Gospel of Grace

  1. I wonder, though, if Orthodoxy is better characterized as the “Betrothed of Christ” since (we) Orthodox deny that anyone is actually saved (“married”) in the here and now, and that our future salvation (“marriage”) is conditioned on how we act and work in cooperation with God’s energy, i.e. whether we become righteous enough to pass muster during the Last Judgment. Its like, we’re promised to be Christ’s bride, but there’s a good chance that we won’t be. As our priest reminded us this past Sunday many (even most) baptized Orthodox Christians won’t make it to heaven.

    Whereas in Evangelicalism, or, at least in Baptist circles, if you believe in Christ you are married to him, period, because salvation is entirely by God’s grace (understood as unmerited favor, not energy). And so grace excludes man’s work in justification, but not in sanctification. Hence, while Evangelicals will say you have to work on your marriage so that its a good one (i.e. sanctification is a process involving cooperation), the fact that you are married (justified, and have received eternal life) is a done deal.

    ~SCL

  2. Great thoughts, SCL. But what I found in my long journey through pop-evangelicalism was a juridical, legal approach to salvation: say this, raise your hand, Shazam! you’re saved. So long as the legal transaction of “justification” has taken place one need not be bothered again with the messy business of a two-sided relationship (unless, of course, one wants financial and health blessings, then you must at least tithe and jump through various other hoops). For me, this is anything but a marriage, or even a “betrothal,” its just “mistress” stuff.

    Ultimately, of course, “marriage” is a typology that gets us close to understanding our relationship with God, but still falls short to really capture the notion of theosis, or deification. But, “theosis” is much to profound for one to wrap their daily lives around. Betrothal, or marriage, hits much close to our actual experiences in relationships. I think either concept serves well to keep one on the right path. The “Judge/defendant” stuff, which clouds every corner of Protestantism, is a dark cloud indeed.

  3. Good thoughts, Eric–I’m an ORU alum too and we have a mutual friend. I’ve gone the full circuit of Catholic to Charismatic to now more reformed in my theology. Christ said, “narrow is the way” and such seems to be the case between legalism and licentiousness. In fact, it often feels like you’re walking on the top of a roof and your’e about to fall over on either side. I agree about the charis”magic” experience: at its worst, it was about works–saying the right things, and doing the right things, and if you didn’t do the right things, heaven forbid that you would actually confess your sin in brokenness, because then you’d be guilty of not having a positive confession of faith–or of not praying enough to actually achieve spiritual/moral victory. It can be an exhausting type of religion.

    Not everyone in that environment is like that, of course. So more to the point, if I’m following your train of thought, being wed to Christ means that it’s only through grace that I can understand my sin or realize that I need him. I’m still learning to put my hope in his faithfulness–it’s too easy to focus on my weakness in trying to do the right thing or even stay in love with him. Your metaphor of bride vs. mistress is a good one. Per the previous commenter, no metaphor is perfect, so I’m less concerned that it breaks down a bit–we are in a state of “now and not yet” in terms of the Christian walk and the kingdom of God. I think the point you’re trying to make is that its about commitment–about clinging to Christ. I can’t do the “right thing” apart from being in love with him, and I can’t stay in love with him apart from faith and grace.

  4. Yah, isn’t it strange that positive confession can leave one unhealed for literally decades. I know of one charismatic friend who is an alcoholic who refuses to attend AA because he will not confess that he’s an alcoholic. Meanwhile, he continues to fight alcoholism in his own strength and has yet, in 3 decades, been able to find the “victory.” Confessing one’s sin is the beginning of all healing.

    To your other points, we all know that it’s impossible to be a disciple of Christ without grace. Just take the beatitudes: it requires supernatural ability, empowerment, to be that sort of “bride.” Grace is the power to be united with Christ. And just like all of the sacraments instituted by Christ, the relationship requires two active participants. One does not take the Eucharist by force feeding, one does not become married by divine shotgun, one does not undergo baptism without first choosing to participate in baptism – none of the sacraments are performed by divine fiat.

    Likewise, our relationship with Christ requires our being engaged, not just in our mind, but in our whole being. Just as one could never “make” the baptismal grace happen by his/her own will, one cannot make oneself “saved” by free-will. However, one must participate by an act of free-will with the Lord. Participation does not = causation. If one does not present him/herself at the baptismal fount by an act of loving free-will, they will never be baptized. If one does not lovingly and faithfully obey the Bridegroom he/she is not married to Him.

    Not sure that cleared anything up, but you get the picture. Btw, I’d be honored to know your true identity Anonymous guy 🙂

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