A recent Sunday School discussion has stuck in my head. It was the last lesson on the New Testament and we read Revelation 19:7-9, which describes the symbolic marriage feast at the coming of the Savior:
Let us be glad and rejoice, and give honour to him: for the marriage of the Lamb is come, and his wife hath made herself ready.
And to her was granted that she should be arrayed in fine linen, clean and white: for the fine linen is the righteousness of saints.
And he saith unto me, Write, Blessed are they which are called unto the marriage supper of the Lamb. And he saith unto me, These are the true sayings of God.
The teacher asked, as the lesson manual does, “What does the symbol of the marriage supper, with Christ as the bridegroom and the Church as the bride, suggest about the relationship between the Lord and his Church?”
Though it is listed as part of a series of rather innocuous questions, I think this question has profound implications for how we think about and operate as a Church.
First, this is one of the few times in scripture when men – especially men in leadership – are called upon to imagine themselves represented in a symbol that is gendered female. Thanks to the preponderance of male subjects in our scriptures, male priesthood holders in our leadership, and even the gender of the Savior, women have to do this all the time. But it’s a rare practice for men.
If a male-hierarchical church is Christ’s bride, what does that suggest about our usual rhetoric about gender roles. Must the Church take on the qualities we associate with righteous women? If so, would more leadership opportunities for women help us develop those qualities? Or, should we re-evaluate our assumptions and change our rhetoric about the distinctions between female and male? In other words, should we respond to the symbol of the bride by essentializing gender or contextualizing it?
Second, the Church-as-bride symbol raises questions about which model of marriage is intended. Much New Testament language suggests a hierarchical relationship, one in which the bridegroom/husband is dominant and the bride/wife is submissive. We’ve grown adept at reading a greater equality into these verses, though that usually only goes so far. The Family Proclamation reflects this ambiguous ideal, in which men both “preside” and are to be “equal partners” with their spouses.
So, is the Church a submissive bride in its partnership with the presiding Christ? Or is it an equal partner with Christ in bringing “to pass the immortality and eternal life” of all people, the goal set forth by Our Mutual Parents? The verse declares that the Church must take active steps to prepare for this (re)union. It must “make [itself] ready” by clothing itself in the “fine linen” of the “righteousness of the saints.”
Other passages of scripture suggest that our symbolic clothing for this marriage feast must be white, cleansed through the Atonement of Christ (cf. Jacob 1-2; Alma 5). Is all we do in the Church designed to bring that to pass, for all members and ultimately for all of God’s children? Or do pride, sloth, insularity, and score-keeping distract us from our work? While no one knows the day or hour of the coming feast, is it possible that we have delayed the event by our failure to “make [the Church] ready”?
While the Doctrine & Covenants has a fair amount to say about Church procedures, scriptural injunctions about the spiritual condition or goals of the Church – what the Church must be rather than what it does – are few and far between. To me, that makes the questions raised by Revelation that much more urgent. What would happen if we took these verses as our standards in the years ahead?