Mark Allen Powell, in his article from the 2003 Trinity Seminary Review, examines the mission of the church in light of three Biblical images: the Church as Bride of Christ, the Church as Branches on a Vine, and the Church as Body of Christ. He views all of these images as intensely relational, and in terms of the Church’s relationship to Christ, progressively intimate. Each of these layers of relationship and intimacy suggest different missions and ways that the church relates to its mission.
The Bride of Christ
In “The Graced Infirmity of the Church,” the image of bride is an eschatological image, “lean[ing] forward into the reality promised by God’s transforming grace. (201)” For Powell, the image of Bride is more prosaic. The Church as bride is simply the group of people who are loved by Jesus Christ and who love Jesus in return. If the Church is bride, then its mission is simply to love Jesus. Scripture gives direction about how to love Jesus (that is, the strategy by which to accomplish the mission). “Those who love me keep my commandments (John 14:21).” “Feed my sheep (John 21:15-17).” The point to keep clear is that commandment-keeping and sheep-feeding are not the Church’s mission (which is to love the Bridegroom), but merely strategy. Flowing from our worship of God and love of Jesus is living and doing the work that Jesus would have us do. Luther expresses this ethical dimension of the Church as an expression of it doxological and liturgical life.
Branches on a Vine
If the image of Bride of Christ describes a person who is in love with another person, the image of Branches on a Vine describes two entities joined together so that the church is dependant on Christ for life. Whereas in the image of Bride, the Church would have a choice to love or not, the Church as Branch has no choice but to receive life and bear fruit because of the nourishment Christ provides. The branch doesn’t do anything by its own will or effort. As branch, the Church’s mission is to bear the fruit that Christ produces – that is, to be people in whom Christ’s mission is fulfilled. Here, the mission of the Church is to be people who are saved from their sins (Mt. 1:21), to be people who are served by Christ and ransomed by the giving of his life (Mk. 10:45), to be people who have been liberated and set free (Lk. 4:18), to be people who fully recognize and experience the value of life (Jn 10:10).
Body of Christ
This image takes another step toward intimacy. The intrinsic dependence is now mutual (the head requires a body in a way that a vine does not require branches). Not only can the Church not do anything apart from Christ, but Christ cannot do anything apart from the Church. In this image, “[t]he Church is the physical manifestation through which Christ operates in the world. (144)” Because the Church has already become the body of Christ, members act as Christ in the world. The mission of the Church “is simply to continue doing what Jesus did (143).” What Jesus primarily did was to proclaim the rule of God. He preached that God’s kingdom was near. He taught people the will of God so that God could rule in their lives. He delivered people from disease and demons (Mt. 4:23). Further, Jesus called apostles to do these same things: preach, teach and deliver. However, the Church is not just to imitate Christ. The Church is to be the physical medium through which Christ acts and speaks.
Using these three images, we can see three distinct and complementary missions for the Church. 1) The Church’s mission is to worship God and love Jesus. 2) The Church’s mission is to be a beneficiary of Christ’s work. 3) The church’s mission is to continue Christ’s work by becoming the medium through which Christ is manifested. Each successive mission depends on the mission that goes before it – we are unable to express Christ’s work in the world if Christ hasn’t first saved, served, set free, and enlivened us. Our capacity to receive the benefits of God’s love and deliverance is diminished when we don’t worship God and love Jesus.
This article balances on the line between the gnesio-Lutheran and Phillipist camps. Gnesio Lutherans insist that the Church’s mission (and a faithful Christian’s movement into justification – don’t even talk about the 3rd use of the law) is to be. We can’t do anything. The Church is faithful if it is being people in whom Christ has worked salvation, restoration, and freedom. Phillipists insist that being actually looks like something (the fruit of the branches), that we are saved, restored, and set free for the sake of others.
I like that Lutheran theology always leaves me a bit upside down. In constantly looking for the great reversal, in which things are “hidden under the sign of their opposite,” linear and rational theological thought always gets overturned. New gems are found hiding right where we’ve looked before. I especially like in this article how Powell treats the Vine and the Branches, focusing on the role of the branches as recipients of God’s blessing (the ones in whom God’s blessing is done). The fruitfulness which I sometimes treat as law becomes a secondary consideration – something that just happens, and doesn’t need much attention.