Paul's Passing Thoughts

The Origin and Persistence of the “Bride of Christ Doctrine”

Posted in Uncategorized by Andy Young, PPT contributing editor on September 21, 2018

The following is taken from the transcript of Andy Young’s third session at the 2018 TANC Conference for Gospel Discernment and Spiritual Tyranny.

At the TANC Conference in 2013, John Immel led us through a detailed analysis of the evolution of Western thought and how that progression of thought impacted the institutional church. From as early as 600 BC beginning with Thales all the way to Plato and culminating with Plotinus and his rediscovery of Plato and then integrating Plato’s full-philosophical statement into Christianity, what we discovered during those sessions is that every major “Christian” doctrine has its foundation not in scripture but in some pagan philosophy.

Determinism, the fall of man, original sin, asceticism; these were all attempts of pagan thinkers to find a way to explain why the world works the way it does. Dividing reality, dividing man, separating man from reality and man from his mind – these are the characteristic results of this kind of thinking and these kinds of philosophies.  Therefore it should come as no surprise to learn that the doctrine of the “Bride of Christ” as we know it today as a major pillar of Christian orthodoxy also has its roots in pagan philosophy.

At first consideration it might be reasonable to conclude that the “Bride of Christ” is simply a reformation carry-over from the Catholic church. After all, both Protestantism and Catholicism share this doctrine, and Protestantism was born out of Catholicism. Catholic nuns upon beginning their induction into service undertake a ceremony in which they are individually “married to Christ”. But the Bride of Christ doctrine did not originate with Augustine. Neither is Augustine responsible for incorporating it into the body of greater Christian orthodoxy. The origin can actually be traced back about 200 years earlier to a philosopher by the name of Valentinus.

Valentinus was responsible for the body of thought called “Valentinianism”. [i]Wikipedia and others sources describe Valentinianism as a gnostic Christian movement. Did you catch that? Valentinianism was characterized by Gnostic mysticism. This should be clue number one.

[ii]In its sacramental practices, Valentinianism closely resembled Christian practices of the 2nd and 3rd centuries. So we’re talking circa 100 to 200 AD, so this would be 100 to 150 years before Augustine and before Emperor Constantine formally institutionalized Christianity into a religion-state. I’m going to get to these sacramental practices in just a moment.

The Valentinians considered themselves part of the church and actively resisted the church’s attempts to expel them, and there were many attempts. In fact, Valentinus himself was actually a candidate for Bishop of Rome in 143 AD. Another Valentinian gnostic by the name of Florinus actually became a “presbyter” or “elder” in Rome in 200 AD. So you can see that this sect of gnosticism had a good opportunity to influence early Christianity.

Much of what we know about Valentinianism comes from the writing of Irenaeus who was considered to be the leading detractor. Valentinians regarded their worship as purely spiritual with the external forms as symbolic. (where else have we heard about “forms”?) One of the sacred writings of Valentinianism, the Gospel of Philip, describes it this way:

“Truth did not come into the world naked. Rather it came in prototypes and images, for the world will not receive it in any other form.”

[iii]According to Irenaeus, the Valentinians believed that at the beginning there was a Pleroma (literally, a ‘fullness’). At the centre of the Pleroma was the primal Father or Bythos, the beginning of all things who, after ages of silence and contemplation, projected thirty Aeons, heavenly archetypes representing fifteen syzygies or sexually complementary pairs. Among them was Sophia. Sophia’s weakness, curiosity and passion led to her fall from the Pleroma and the creation of the world and man, both of which are flawed.

In every form or system of collectivist thought, what is the primary metaphysical assumption about man? That he is fundamentally flawed. And because he is fundamentally flawed he is therefore epistemologically disqualified from being able to discern truth.

The Valentinians identified the God of the Old Testament as the Demiurge, the imperfect creator of the material world. Man, the highest being in this material world, participates in both the spiritual and the material nature. The work of redemption consists in freeing the former from the latter. One needed to recognize the Father, the depth of all being, as the true source of divine power in order to achieve gnosis (knowledge).[9] The Valentinians believed that the attainment of this knowledge by the human individual had positive consequences within the universal order and contributed to restoring that order,[10] and that gnosis, not faith, was the key to salvation. (So you see, it had nothing to do with a change in the state of being. It was merely “knowing” something. Or said another way, it was an ability to see)

Clement wrote that the Valentinians regarded Catholic Christians as,

“simple people to whom they attributed faith, while they think that gnosis is in themselves. Through the excellent seed that is to be found in them, they are by nature redeemed, and their gnosis is as far removed from faith as the spiritual from the physical”

And if you will recall, the primary dispute of the protestant reformation was this notion of infused grace. Catholics believed that man had within himself some capacity for good works and those good works could maintain salvation. But Luther and Calvin rejected that saying that everything had to remain outside of man. Do you see how this is a gnostic concept?

The other thing you should notice here is this historical notion of diving man and diving reality. This was central to pagan thought. Dividing man into a spiritual part and a physical part. Dividing reality into a spiritual realm and a physical realm. And not just dividing him, but that the physical was existentially evil and only the spiritual was existentially good.

[iv]In Valentinianism the symbols and images of the process of salvation were seen through the sacraments, and there were five of them.

  1. Baptism
  2. Anointing
  3. Redemption
  4. Eucharist (communion or mass)
  5. Bridal Chamber

I want to focus on this last sacrament because this gets to the heart of the subject. Here is where we see the tender beginnings of this doctrine that will eventually grow into the “Bride of Christ”, and this is known as “bridal mysticism”. I’m going to go into more detail about the bridal chamber sacrament, but what I want you to first understand is that even though it is a separate sacrament, the bridal chamber is really an extension of the Eucharist.

In the Eucharist, the taking of the bread and the wine is more than just a remembrance, it is the literal eating of Jesus’ flesh and drinking of His blood. This is still true with Catholicism. When you go to mass and you take that wafer and drink that cup, through some mystical process they call “transubstantiation” the bread and wine turn into the literal flesh and blood of Jesus. This is critical to understand because in doing so, you are literally taking Jesus into your own body, and in this way you become one with Christ.

The Valentinians took this one step further. The Eucharist was the “wedding feast” of the saved. The bread was regarded as the true, life-giving food and is closely identified with Jesus. The wine was believed to be full of Grace and the Holy Spirit. By partaking of it, they believed that they were taking the perfect human being, their angelic counterpart, into themselves. This how one receives the spiritual flesh and blood of the resurrection body.

The Eucharist was followed by the “bridal chamber.” Among other things, the initiate is told,

“Allow the seed of light to take up its abode in your bridal chamber. Receive your bridegroom from me and take him into you, and be taken by him.”

They believed that the person received or became possessed by the light, that is, their heavenly counterpart or bridegroom angel. The spirit manifestations such as prophesy and speaking in tongues which are associated with this practice were therefore regarded as a result of angelic possession.

It should be noted that this mystic marriage takes place not between Christ and the corporate church but between Christ and each individual believer. However it is not hard to see the chain of reasoning that would lead such mystical practices to developing into the eventual “Bride of Christ” doctrine for the church as a whole. And given the fact that such gnostic doctrines were prevalent in the church around the 3rd century, it is no wonder that Augustine would incorporate it into his own system of orthodoxy for the Catholic church.

Having understood the origins of such a doctrine we should then ask, if such a doctrine was considered heresy by most of the early church because of its association with gnosticism which the early church fought so hard against, why has it persisted as a major pillar of Christian orthodoxy to this day? There can be many reasons for this, but some historians attribute it mainly to a feminization of Christianity that began around the latter part of the middle ages.[v]

Catholic scholar Dr. Leon J. Podles believes that men and women were about equally committed to Christianity for the first millennium of its existence. If any disparity existed, it was not remarked upon by early church fathers and observers, who would likely have noted the phenomenon, in the same way was common in Christianity’s second thousand years.

Podles speculates that the feminization of Christianity began about the 13th century, and he points to several factors that emerged kick-started the feminization of Christianity, the most notable of which is the resurgence of “bridal mysticism.”

In the Middle Ages, female mystics, following the lead of Catholic thinkers like Bernard of Clairvaux, began developing an interpretation of the bridegroom/bride relationship as representing that which existed not only between Christ and the collective church, but Christ and the individual soul.

So we have gone from an originally gnostic sacrament of the “bridal chamber” that evolved and was incorporated into Catholic orthodoxy as the corporate church being the “Bride of Christ”. Now around the 13th century we have a rediscovering of Valentinianism, and you have some female mystics trying to return to the original doctrine.

To these women, Jesus became not only a global savior, but a personal lover, whose union with believers was described by Christian mystics with erotic imagery. They drew on the Old Testament’s Song of Solomon, using it as an allegory to describe God’s relationship with an individual. They developed a new way for the Christian to relate to Christ – one marked by intimate longing.

For example, the German nun Margareta Ebna (1291-1351) described Jesus as piercing her “with a swift shot from His spear of love” and exulted in feeling his “wondrous powerful thrusts against my heart,” though she complained that “[s]ometimes I could not endure it when the strong thrusts came against me for they harmed my insides so that I became greatly swollen like a woman great with child.”

The idea of Christian-as-Bride-of-Christ (not just church but individual Christian) would migrate from Catholicism to Protestantism, and be picked up by the Puritans who journeyed to American shores. Susan Dohse devoted an entire series to the Puritans in 2014. Remember Cotton Mather?

“Our SAVIOR does Marry Himself unto the Church in general, But He does also Marry Himself to every Individual Believer.” ~ Cotton Mather

Mather’s fellow Puritan leader, Thomas Hooker, said this:

“Every true believer . . . is so joined unto the Lord, that he becomes one spirit; as the adulterer and the adultresse is one flesh. . . . That which makes the love of a husband increase toward his wife is this, He is satisfied with her breasts at all times, and then he comes to be ravished with her love . . . so the will chooseth Christ, and it is fully satisfied with him. . . . I say this is a total union, the whole nature of the Saviour, and the whole nature of a believer are knit together; the bond of matrimony knits these two together, . . . we feed upon Christ, and grow upon Christ, and are married to Christ.”

And when you are in reformed circles, what group of people do they continuously revere and hold on such a high pedestal? The Puritans, who were nothing more than Calvinists. And Calvin and Luther were nothing more than Catholics. And so this cycle of doctrines goes on and on.

[vi]In a book entitled  Why Men Hate Going to Church, author David Murrow points to examples of how the bridal imagery rediscovered in the Middle Ages continues into the modern age, citing books with titles like Falling in Love With Jesus: Abandoning Yourself to the Greatest Romance of Your Life, and authors who “vigorously encourage women to imagine Jesus as their personal lover”. One author tells her readers,

[vii]“At times Jesus will be more of a husband to you than the man of the flesh that you married. And while your husband may wonderfully meet many of your needs, only the Bridegroom can meet and will meet all of your needs.”

Another author offers this breathless description of God’s love:

[viii]“This Someone entered your world and revealed to you that He is your true Husband. Then He dressed you in a wedding gown whiter than the whitest linen. You felt virginal again. And alive! He kissed you with grace and vowed never to leave you or forsake you. And you longed to go and be with Him.”

Much of what Murrow calls “Jesus-is-my-boyfriend imagery” is directed at women, but Murrow believes it has become suffused throughout the entire faith, and migrated to men as well. “These days,” he writes, “it’s fairly common for pastors to describe a devout male as being ‘totally in love with Jesus.’ I’ve heard more than one men’s minister imploring a crowd of guys to ‘fall deeply in love with the Savior.’”

The imagery and language of a romantic, intimate relationship is also very common in modern “praise and worship” songs that have lyrics that are sometimes almost indistinguishable from those that are heard on “secular” radio.

Murrow contends that the idea of individual-believer-as-bride is simply unbiblical, writing that “The Bible never describes our love for God in such erotic terms. The men of Scripture loved God, but they were never desperate for him or in love with him.” Podles believes that the rise of bridal imagery is part of what led men to start abandoning the faith during the late Middle Ages. Both Podels and Morrow feel that the ethos embodied in the bridal analogy continues to be a factor in why the Christian gospel attracts more women than men.

The goal of the Christian faith to develop a “rapturous love affair with Christ” just doesn’t resonate with most men, and they struggle to relate to Deity as a blushing virginal bride. The idea of Jesus as committed companion and loving protector is more appealing to women, while men are looking for a leader — a mighty, conquering king rather than someone which whom to cuddle.

Under this theory, the rise of bridal imagery not only made the Christian narrative less compelling to men, it also pushed the faith’s overall ethos in a more feminine direction. The values in past centuries associated with brides — love, protection, comfort, passivity, obedience, dependence, receptivity – came to dominate the ethos of the Christian gospel. These values became preferred over the more masculine qualities of suffering, sacrifice, and conflict.

The rise of a narrative that centered on Jesus as a personal lover, also potentially helped transform the Christian gospel from a public pursuit to a private affair. Men are inherently outward-facing in their disposition – in other words, men were achievers and sought recognition for their achievments – but the mysticism of the Middle Ages began to turn the Christian faith in an inward direction.

Podles puts it this way, “The transfer of the role of bride from the community to the soul has helped bring about the pious individualism that has dissolved ecclesiastical community in the West.” When “the only real concern of Christianity is ‘Jesus and me’” you get the seeds of the possibility of being “spiritual” rather than “religious”; church attendance becomes more optional, and faith need not inform or intersect with domains like business or politics — all that matters is one’s personal relationship with Christ. Individual salvation is privileged over communal or global salvation; the kingdom of God can wait for the world to come, and needn’t be advanced on earth. Faith becomes transcendence, a matter of feeling and sentiment, rather than action.

It is interesting to note that such a feminization of Christianity that began in the Middle Ages and persists to this day is a symptom of a false doctrine. Survivor blogs bemoan the state of the contemporary church, but no one offers genuine solutions. As we have often said here at TANC, to paraphrase James Carville, “It’s the theology, stupid!” Assumptions drive behavior. If you want to find the reason for masses of people taking the same destructive action, if you find the assumption you will find the cause.

Assumptions and doctrine are two sides of the same coin, although it could be argued that doctrine is the logical conclusion of assumptions.  Suffice it to say that bad doctrine leads to bad behavior. The false doctrine of “Church as the Bride” results in all kinds of problems in the church. Those problems have been well documented here at TANC.

But while the feminization of Christianity is a documented matter of historical record, there is still one explanation that trumps all others with regard to the persistence of such a false doctrine. The church being the bride has become a well established matter of church orthodoxy, and that in and of itself is reason enough. This speaks to authority. Because this doctrine is accepted as orthodoxy, nobody challenges it. And if you do challenge it, at best they look at you like you have a third eye. At worst, you get branded a heretic and divisive and arrogant and proud and they excommunicate you. This is authority for authority’s sake. Orthodoxy = authority. And because it’s authority, you don’t question it.

The vast majority of Christianity believes its salvation is vested in the church. The loose logic goes like this: if you reject this doctrine you reject the church’s orthodoxy. If you reject orthodoxy you reject the authority. If you reject the authority, you reject the jurisdiction it has over your salvation. If you reject the authority you reject your very means of salvation itself and you have doomed yourself.

Most people won’t acknowledge that logic intellectually, but this is exactly the way they function. And this is the challenge we have before us; trying to get people to acknowledge the intellectual conclusions of their behavior and persuading them to reject the lie that is the institutional church.

Unfortunately I think that is going to be a lot easier to do with unchurched people than churched people. And that makes a perfect segue into my next article. I’m going to talk about some practical strategies for reaching people with the genuine Biblical gospel of justification by New Birth.

~ Andy

End notes:






[vi] Murrow, David (2005, 2011) Why Men Hate Going to Church, Nashville, TN

[vii] Keefauver, Larry (1998) Lord, I Wish My Husband Would Pray with Me, pg 90

[viii] Kennedy, Nancy (2001) When He Doesn’t Believe, Colorado Springs, CO, pg 194

One Response

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  1. jumping jehosaphat said, on May 1, 2021 at 7:03 PM

    A very interesting article!

    In trying to lookup the quote you gave from Valentinus I came across a similar one in Irenaeus Against Heresies I.13.3 attributed to Marcus the Magician who it says “devotes himself especially to women, and those such as are well-bred, and elegantly attired, and of great wealth” and says to them:

    “I am eager to make you a partaker of my Charis, since the Father of all does continually behold your angel before His face. Now the place of your angel is among us: it behooves us to become one. Receive first from me and by me [the gift of] Charis. Adorn yourself as a bride who is expecting her bridegroom, that you may be what I am, and I what you are. Establish the germ of light in your nuptial chamber. Receive from me a spouse, and become receptive of him, while you are received by him. Behold Charis has descended upon you; open your mouth and prophesy.”


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