Paul spent two years at Ephesus (Acts 19:10) much longer than anywhere else, apart from the time he was under arrest at Rome. One of the reasons people doubt his personal authorship of the letter to the Ephesians is that the style is so different to his other letters. Perhaps this was because he knew the Ephesians personally, had had a hand in shaping their Church like no other and so was able to say things to them in a way that might not work with churches who did not know him so well. Another major reason for doubting Pauline authorship is that Ephesians has such a high view of the Church, a view that could seem unthinkable as early on as the 60’s AD. This is not the place to discuss questions of authorship, but even here, we can propose that one reason Paul could express this high ecclesiology is that he knew this church so intimately.
In the first part of letter Paul paints a huge picture of what God is trying to do in Christ. It is nothing less than this: For he has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth (1:9-10). In case we think Paul has his head in the clouds, he brings that right down to earth in 5:22-33, where he says that the way families relate to each other should also reflect this purpose. In other words “this is what God is doing with the whole human race. Make sure that the way your family lives reflects that.” This is also where he gives the now infamous instruction: Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. (5:22) but the point is as to the Lord. The controlling metaphor is Christ to the Church, not husband to wife. God’s grand plan of reconciling all things in Christ does not happen in a vacuum or on a purely spiritual plane: It works itself out and manifests itself in human relationships.
In the Old Testament the book of Hosea deals extensively with the idea of the relationship between Yahweh and his people as a marriage bond. This is in some ways a reaction to the rather legal understanding of the covenant which had dominated earlier. It is vital to see the difference between a covenant and a contract. A contract is an agreement to provide something in return for something else (usually goods or services in return for money). A covenant does much more. It aims to create family-type bonds between people who are not otherwise related by blood or kinship. Paul cashes in this Old Testament currency. This covenant is fulfilled in Christ being the head of his bride the Church. (Jesus referred to himself as the bridegroom, implicitly identifying himself with God.) The relationship people (as the Church) have with Christ is every bit as close and important as the relationship between man and wife.
This may help dispel some of people’s misgivings about Christ and God. Many sincere Christians harbour profound distrust of God, seeing him more as a judge than anything else. Also sadly, many practising Christians have a relationship to the Church which is more like a contract than a covenant. Especially among some more educated and disaffected Catholics, there has been a tendency to speak of the “institutional Church”. This sociological language can be useful insofar as it helps us understand some of the very human processes that govern Church life. Sometimes though the “institutional Church” is seen almost in opposition to the “ideal Church”. And it can happen that leaders of the Church behave and think more like corporate managers than shepherds. But the images of Body of Christ and Bride of Christ are the primary reference points Scripture gives us. It’s perfectly possible, even respectable, to hate an institution. Some Catholics who have a troubled relationship with the Church seem to go this way. It is much harder to hate the Body or the Bride of Christ, and use of this language is, in charity, a challenge to such people to think more deeply about the Church.
Think of how in your own life you have perceived the Church in different ways, positive and negative. Try to let Paul’s insights inform your view of the Church.
© Fr. John Hemer, used with permission.