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I'd like to conduct an experiment. I want you to think about your local church, regardless of its denominational affiliation or lack thereof. Do you have it in mind? Are you ready? O.K. Now, what's the first word that comes to mind? Take a moment. Don't be in a rush.

I wish it were possible to compile a list of the many answers to my question. I'm sure it would be quite instructive and enlightening, perhaps even alarming. Words such as healthy, sick, vibrant, languishing, growing, shrinking, exciting, boring, traditional, contemporary, evangelical, and emerging would all probably be mentioned. But let me come straight to the point. I seriously doubt if anyone instantly and instinctively said, "Virginal"! Virginal? Yes, Virginal. (I hope none of you have to look that up in a dictionary.)

I'm not trying to be funny. I'm trying to be Pauline. In the previous meditation we looked at the energetic and jealous zeal of the apostle for the church at Corinth, a congregation that he had fathered in the faith. But I didn't say much about the reason for his zeal. That Paul would be gripped by a divine and holy jealousy for these Christians is explained in verse two of chapter eleven. But we need to read this in context. Here it is, and I urge you to take special note of the bold print:

"I wish you would bear with me in a little foolishness. Do bear with me! I feel a divine jealousy for you, for I betrothed you to one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ. But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ. For if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or if you accept a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it readily enough" (2 Cor. 11:1-4).

The imagery here is quite vivid and is unmistakably derived from the ancient practice of marriage. In Paul's day, a Jewish marriage entailed no less than three distinct stages (for more on the marriage metaphor in Scripture, see Ezek. 16; Hos. 1-3; Eph. 5:22-23; Rev. 19:7; 21:2,9; 22:17).

First, there is the betrothal in which a formal marriage contract is drawn up. The woman at this time passes out of her father's authority to that of another. The couple is legally regarded as husband and wife. The betrothal of the Corinthian congregation is an obvious reference to conversion. Whereas the individual members of the church would have come to saving faith at different times, Paul envisions them in their corporate identity as a bride, promised to Jesus.

Second, there is the engagement period, which in Paul's mind corresponds to the present church age, between the two advents of Christ, in which we now live.

Third, there is the wedding itself, which in Paul's use of the analogy corresponds to the second coming of Jesus at the close of history, at which time will occur the marriage supper of the Lamb (cf. Rev. 19:7-9).

Murray Harris sums it up well:

"For Paul, the church stands in the interval between betrothal and wedding day. His nuptial metaphor reflects the ubiquitous NT tension between the ‘already' and the ‘not yet.' The bride has already been betrothed to the groom, but the marriage has not yet been consummated. At the parousia, that is, on the day that wedding festivities begin (cf. Rev. 19:7), the parthenos hagne ["pure virgin"] will enter her bridegroom's home, not in the sense that their marriage is then inaugurated but in the sense that it will then be consummated" (738).

Paul viewed himself as the spiritual parent of the Corinthians (see 1 Cor. 4:15; 2 Cor. 6:13; 12:14). Just as an honorable father is committed to protecting the virginity of his daughter between betrothal and marriage, so Paul is committed to protecting the Corinthians until Jesus returns at the marriage feast.

He is concerned lest they become spiritually promiscuous during the period of engagement. Thus, he envisions himself as "The Father of the Bride" (!) who longs to present the Corinthian church as a chaste virgin to her bridegroom, Jesus. Although the imagery is slightly different in Ephesians 5, the same point is made when Paul refers to Jesus sanctifying and washing his bride, the church, "so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish" (Eph. 5:27; see also Col. 1:22).

Paul's preaching role had resulted in their being betrothed, but his pastoral role is on-going as he is committed to protecting the virginity of the church, by which he means her exclusive devotion to Christ, right up to the wedding day.

The remainder of this meditation is designed specifically for pastors, elders, and others involved in church leadership (although there is much from which we can all learn). What follows is a challenge, and I suppose a warning as well.

I'll address this in more detail in a later meditation, but for now note that the virginity of the Corinthian church is described as the preservation or maintaining in their hearts of "a sincere and pure devotion to Christ" (v. 3b).

So, pastors, leaders, here is the image on which I want you to meditate. For some of you it will be easier than others, for you've experienced in real life what I'm about to describe.

You are the father of the bride. Standing at your side, clinging to your arm, is the most beautiful young lady you've ever seen. It's your child. Your daughter. At the altar stands the bridegroom. Your task is really quite simple: escort her safely down the aisle, without hesitation, without distraction, without the slightest falter in step.

Your role is to keep her eyes fixed on the bridegroom. Young men she has known are in attendance. They are straining to catch her eye, to divert her attention, perhaps even to dissuade her from consummating her engagement. Many will tell her she's made a mistake, that it's not too late to turn back. Your task is to do whatever you must to keep her heart fixed and riveted on the man awaiting her arrival. Warn her of the dangers along the way. Remind her of the commitment she has already made. But above all else, describe for her the glory of the groom. Speak highly of him. Impress upon her that he alone can satisfy the longings in her soul. Describe the eternal and sacrificial love he has consistently displayed.

Should she feel faint, bring refreshment. Should she veer off course, lose her nerve, begin to have second thoughts or cold feet, you are entrusted with the sacred responsibility of delivering her into the arms of her lover, pure and virginal.

This is what accounts for Paul's passion and jealousy for his spiritual child, the church. He fears that the cunning and deception of his enemies in Corinth will bewitch the bride and lead her into adulterous relationships. Other gospels are being preached. Other Christs are in their midst. Other spirits are there as well. Paul's aim is to speak and teach and discipline and counsel and correct and love and lead and do all that he must so that on the final day he will present a virginal bride to Christ, arrayed in righteousness and well-known for single-minded devotion to the lover of her soul.

Pastors, is this how you think of your relation to the church in which God has placed you? Elders, do you see this as your task, better still, as your great privilege and honor? Are you committed to defending the bride entrusted to your care against all attacks, whether theological or philosophical or moral? Do you spend your hours equipping her to resist the seductive appeal of rival lovers?

Simply put, are your life and ministry dedicated to educating and encouraging your church in those "thoughts" (v. 3a) that will deepen and intensify and prolong her "sincere and pure devotion to Christ" (v. 3b)? Are what you read and how you preach, together with your use of money and time and energy designed to facilitate her growth and maturity? Or is your aim to entertain her, religiously titillate her, or perhaps tickle her ears with soothing words that satisfy her desires but say little of the Bridegroom?

At the end of the day, or better still at the end of your life, will you have a chaste church to present to Christ? Will she be singular in her devotion and faithful in her affections? I suspect that the marriage feast of the Lamb is not far off. Has the Bride "made herself ready" (Rev. 19:7)? Have you helped?