“The centre cannot hold” is how William Butler Yeats described the world in 1919. He was right about the world but wrong about the centre. The right one can hold.
The gospel is the greatest story ever told. All great stories are wrapped around a central metaphor. The main image organizes a message by ordering the other metaphors. Watch The Matrix. It has many metaphors—white rabbit, going down the rabbit hole, the color red—all revolving around the central image of The Matrix.
For centuries, the gospel was understood as the loving Trinitarian God seeking to “marry” us. Jesus is the bridegroom. We are his betrothed (Hos. 2:19). The church is Jesus’ bride. That’s the central metaphor for the church: the bride of Christ.
That’s why Christ began his public ministry at a wedding and, later, compared the kingdom of heaven “to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son” (Mt. 22:2). That’s why Paul said he “betrothed” the Corinthians “to one husband, to Christ” (II Cor. 11:2).
The bride image organizes other biblical metaphors for the church. For instance, the church is the body of Christ. But we’re not his body unless we’re first his bride. Look at marriage. The wife yields her body to her husband and the husband yields his body to his wife (I Cor. 7:4). Jesus partakes of the church, his body, because she’s his bride.
Wed to Jesus, the bride of Christ partakes of his body. That’s why many church traditions see partaking of the Eucharist as central to the worship service.
The bride metaphor is why we were once lost. A friend of mine tells of “losing” her husband to a heart attack. This is how spouses describe the death of their loved one. God told Adam and Eve they would die if they ate the fruit. They did and were lost. As bridegroom, Jesus seeks to save the lost by wooing us back as his bride.
The bride metaphor explains why, when we indulge our pleasures, we are adulteresses, a feminine noun (James 4:4). Only a married woman, a bride, can be an adulteress.
The bride metaphor explains why we are God’s house and his temple. He comes to live with us and, incredibly, in us when we are born again of “imperishable seed” (I Pet. 1:23). Seed is a metaphor for what is passed from groom to bride in nuptial union.
Of course, there are other metaphors for the church. Sheep, an army at war, and so on. They’re biblical but peripheral because they’re temporal. We won’t be at war forever. But we will be married forever. Marriage predates creation and goes to infinity.
So here’s a question. If the bride is central, why do few recognize it? Here’s an answer. In the early 1800s, Charles Finney felt Protestants evangelicals could “regulate the commerce of the world” and “sway the destinies of nations” by making the church primarily about revival through evangelism. “Revival growth” became the central metaphor for the church, replacing the bride. But this came at a cost. Revival caused evangelicals to “conflate” the religious and political realms.
This proved catastrophic. Throughout World War I, many evangelical denominations claimed God was on their nation’s side, conflating religion and politics. One pastor went so far are to say a victory for his nation would bring “a Pentecost,” a revival. He was dead wrong. The War witnessed the introduction of genocide. The world witnessed an unprecedented scale of slaughter and destruction, which is why World War I is called “the end of illusions.” But Philip Jenkins, a professor of history at Baylor, says the war also marks “the end of faith itself” in the public square. By claiming the War would bring revival, evangelical churches were discredited.
William Butler Yeats wasn’t. In 1919, in the aftermath of the First World War, he wrote “The Second Coming.” Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold. Mere anarchy is loosed on the world. Yeats aptly described what the next 100 years would look like.
The church can solve this by returning to her central metaphor—she is Jesus’ bride. That’s right—she. The church is not an it. My bride Kathy is not an it. She’s a she. When friends describe their church by saying they love it, they’re forgetting our truest life is hidden. When Christ our groom appears, the truest you will appear (Col. 3:3-4). The truest you is not you as an individual but we—we are the bride of Christ.
I don’t know what Yeats felt was the centre, but there is a centre that holds—Jesus, our bridegroom. We’re first and foremost his bride. In the 1860s, Samuel Stone Johnson felt this was the only image for healing a schism in the Church of South Africa. He wrote “The Church’s One Foundation” as an appeal for unity and collaboration.
The church’s one Foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord;
she is His new creation, by water and the Word;
from heav’n He came and sought her to be His holy bride;
with His own blood He bought her, and for her life He died.
 Douglas Raber, The Problem of Information: An Introduction to Information Science (Scarecrow Press, 2003), p. 40.
 Jonathan J. Edwards, Superchurch: The Rhetoric and Politics of American Fundamentalism (Michigan State University Press, 2015), p. 46.
 Philip Jenkins, The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade (HarperOne, 2014), p. 2.