The Indispensable Image: Is the Church Really Necessary?

The Indispensable Image: Is the Church Really Necessary?

Modern Doubts vs. Ancient Assumptions

For a great many Christians today, the role of the church in God’s ongoing pursuit of His disenchanted creation is at best an unnecessary afterthought, and at worst a tragic hindrance with which we must nevertheless manage to cope, given Jesus’ unfortunate promise that his followers are here to stay (Mt 16:18). In other words, for some the church is seen as utterly irrelevant to the plausibility of the gospel to outsiders. I think of the ubiquitous, disquieting Christian bumper sticker which so charmingly claims “I’m not perfect, just forgiven”—as if the only difference between church and world is God’s refusal to hold the former accountable concerning the same behavior for which the latter will be judged ever so harshly. That the core evangelistic strategy of such people generally consists in handing out embarrassingly silly gospel tracts in an a-relational fashion, as if the potential faith of human beings stands or falls solely on the abstract philosophical or historical arguments we make about Jesus, disconnected from any kind of deeper, more compelling truth that the church can only hope to bear witness to by means of its corporate, concrete presence, is predictable.1 For others, the church’s role in society is simply something to apologize for or even ruefully bemoan, as if God had no purposes that required a living, embodied people to be known and realized through. I think here of the attitude behind statements such as “I like Jesus, I just can’t stand Christians [or the church],” which in my experience tend to be found, as often as not, in the mouths not of infidels but of well-meaning but foolish believers.

Such well-worn perspectives are radically contradictory to the actual role the church has been given to play in the world, if the Scriptures are to be believed. Against the currently popular sentiment that the faithfulness or unfaithfulness of the church are ultimately inconsequential matters for God’s desire to redemptively reembrace the world He loves, I contend here that from the start the Scriptures tell a story in which God can only be known and experienced as God by the rest of creation if His people perform their fundamental vocation. As Michael Bird puts it, “The church is not a dispensable footnote in God’s plan to repossess the world.”2 In other words, if the people of God fail, God fails. In order to see how and why this is true, we must turn to the beginning of God’s relationship with creation, and the role His people were originally assigned to play in that relationship.

The Image of the Indirect God

Few religious ideas have been as influential in Western society as the claim of Genesis 1:26-283 that human beings are created in the “image” of God. Few are more habitually misunderstood and misused. Genesis 1:26-28 is not a roundabout way of saying that only human beings (as opposed to animals) have a “soul,” or can navigate creation with “reason.” Still less is this passage trying to affirm that human beings physically look like God—though, as we shall see, the “visual” overtones of the metaphor are inescapable.

In its original historical context, the idea that God (or the gods) had fashioned an image was a familiar one and widely shared by Israel’s ancient Near Eastern neighbors. In this conceptual world, when an individual or group of human beings was said to possess the image of God, what was being communicated was a royal ideology. When a king ruled over a kingdom, he obviously could not be present in every square inch of his domain. Therefore, in order to make known his royal authority, the king would have statues (or images) that resembled his likeness installed throughout the realm, for others to see and thus acknowledge and experience his kingship even when he was himself geographically absent. In the same way, Genesis 1 insists, God has created humanity to represent His rule over and presence in creation on His behalf.4 As Middleton concludes, “The cumulative evidence suggests that the biblical imago Dei refers to the status or office of the human race as Gods’ authorized stewards, charged with the royal-priestly vocation of representing God’s rule on earth by their exercise of cultural power.”5 Indeed, Middleton goes on to show that God’s “rest” on the seventh day is not—as in so many other Ancient Near East creation stories—an effect of divine weariness or frustration, but rather a symbolic action which indicates that the initial normative conditions of creation are not in place for humanity to begin to take over the “work” (Gen 2:15) of caring for and ruling over creation as God’s image-bearers. God rests from His labor, because it is time for His people to act as His vice-regents in creation.

A core implication of Genesis 1 is that from the beginning, God’s relationship to the rest of creation was always meant to be indirect. Thus, the actual experience of God’s rule, grace and presence was to be filtered through His human images, who are called to imitate His character and thus “look” like God in the way they steward His good world. In other words, the socalled “hiddenness” of God in creation is not a result of a metaphysical deficiency nor a malicious joke on God’s part; still less is it proof of atheism. Rather, God is hidden only if one looks for Him directly, but He is visually seen when one encounters His image. This vocation to image-forth the invisible God is, accordingly, the most important role delegated to humanity, the original people of God.

The Trouble with Idols

Anyone familiar with the legacy of the Judeo-Christian worldview knows that idolatry is considered the “metasin” of fallen humanity or, as Tim Keller puts it, the sin underneath all the other sins. Throughout both the Old and New Testaments, the prohibitions against idolatry and diatribes toward those who serve idols are frequent and fierce. The true God of Israel alone is to be worshipped and served, and not any of the assorted false gods of the nations. However, another (related) rationale for the rejection of idolatry is present in the Scriptures, but remains mostly unknown today. When the question is asked—“Why is idolatry wrong?”—four recurring answers are given throughout the biblical narrative. When viewed together in tandem, the deeper logic at play becomes obvious.

Deuteronomy 4:15-31 is perhaps the most appropriate single passage to consider when it comes to why idolatry is forbidden in Israel (though compare Exodus 20:1-7, which is foundational). In this text, four reasons are given for the prohibition of making idols. First, idols consist of the “image” and “likeness” of something in creation (4:15-18). Notice how the list of “creatures” are taken directly from the Genesis 1 account. Second, human beings inevitably proceed to “bow down to” and “serve” these images (4:19). Third, these images are “the work of human hands” (4:28), a biblical phrase always set in distinction to that which is of divine origin. And fourth, these carved images are “dead”—that is, they can neither see nor hear nor eat nor smell (4:28). Indeed, they have no “breath” or “spirit” in them (Jeremiah 10:14), but are wooden and lifeless. In other Old Testament passages, the futility of idols is mocked by comparing them to what God does for His people. Whereas dead idols need to be picked up and carried by their worshipers, God carries His people and saves them.

All four reasons in Deuteronomy 4 reappear regularly in the Scriptures when idolatry is denounced. What must be seen, however, is that the inappropriate “attributes” of idols are, taken together, a clear allusion to the originally intended role of human beings in the world. The reason graven “images” that are made in the “likeness” of something inherent to creation are wrong is because human beings were created to function as God’s “image” and “likeness” (Gen 1:26-28)! Furthermore, the reason human beings must not “bow down to” and “serve” the created order is because we were given “dominion” and “rule” over creation, and we must not tragically reverse this relationship (cf. Rom 1:18-23). And idols as the “work of human hands” are a clear contrast to God’s own mode of creating humanity in Genesis, where He fashions the man and the woman directly with His own hands. Whatever else a human being is, he or she is not made by human hands. Finally, the deadness of idols which have no “spirit” or “breath” in them obviously conjures of a comparison to God’s original living statues in Genesis 1-2, which were not only formed directly by God in His image and likeness to rule over creation, but also received the “breath of life” when God breathed upon them (Gen 2:7), turning what would otherwise have been lifeless statues into “living creatures.” The trouble with idols, in other words, is that they tend to assume a role in the world that only human beings are meant to play—namely, that of imaging the unseen God to desperate worshippers, and being the conduit of God’s power, presence and grace to those who engage with them.

Middleton thus rightly contends:

We may take the claim that humanity is created in God’s image as constituting an (implicit) critique of the mediation of the divine through cult images, as practiced, for example, in Mesopotamia. This certainly fits the rhetorical portrayal of Genesis 1 as a cosmic sanctuary, where humanity as imago Dei functions as a parallel to the role of the cult image in the temples of the ancient Near East. Human beings as imago Dei are thus not only priests of the Most High, they are (if we may dare to say it) God’s living cult statues on earth. Indeed, humans are the only legitimate or authorized earthly representations of God. As Walter Brueggemann puts it, ‘There is one way in which God is imaged in the world and only one: humanness!’… If we interpret Genesis 1 against, on the one hand, the Old Testament’s pervasive idol critique and, on the other, the prominent role of cult images in Mesopotamia, the claim that humanity is created as imago Dei suggests a rationale for the prohibition of images beyond anything we find explicitly stated elsewhere in the Old Testament…Thus, beyond safeguarding the divine transcendence, the iconoclasm of the Scriptures may be interpreted also as protecting the integrity of the human worshiper. The pervasive prohibition and critique of idolatry in the Old Testament may be read as part and parcel of the Bible’s distinctive emphasis on human flourishing and as integrally connected to the high status and calling of humanity that is articulated by the imago Dei in Genesis 1.6

How to Get to Know an Unknown God: Idols or Israel?

Even though the story of Genesis proceeds to tell of humanity’s catastrophic failure to maintain the image of God, the story does not itself end in hopeless despair. Starting with Noah and Abraham, and all the way through to Israel, God “reassigns” the original human job description to bear His image to His covenant people. As Middleton writes concerning the frequent “echoes” of the creation story in Israel’s understanding of her own vocation to the nations: “The human vocation as imago Dei in God’s world thus corresponds in important respects to Israel’s vocation as a ‘royal priesthood’ among the nations (Exodus 19:6).”7 What humanity was meant to be to the rest of creation, the people of God—ethnic Israel under the old covenant, the church under the new covenant—are now meant to embody and faithfully fulfill toward the darkened nations. If God will be “seen” by the world, it will only be through the reflection given off by His image-bearing people who are, after all, the light of the world.

Another way to say this is that Israel was meant to play the role that idols inevitably played in the lives of pagan Gentile worshipers among the nations. This theme is seen nowhere more clearly than in Isaiah 40-55, which tells a story of “new creation” in which God reclaims the broken world for Himself, through His relationship with soon-to-be redeemed Israel. The question that haunts these chapters is: how will the nations come to know the one true God? Will it be through the futility of idols, or through the faithfulness of Israel? If the latter, of course, then what is required is that Israel actually proclaim through her own public story the “image and likeness” of God and that the nations come to know and experience God’s grace through “bowing down to” and “serving” Israel.8 Moreover, because sinful Israel is as “dead” as these foolish idols—that is, as blind, dumb, lame and deaf (cf. 6:9-10, 42:19, etc.)—God must first redeem Israel and pour out His “Spirit” or “breath” upon them, in order that the people of God might once more “live.” And precisely this role is designated to the “Servant of the Lord” in Isaiah 40-55, who receives the Spirit to dispense it to the people of God once more, and suffers for their sins that they might be made new. Only thus can the “hidden” God (Is 45:14-17) be made known and experienced by the nations to the ends of the earth. As goes Israel, so goes the world. The one-sided preoccupation with Israel in the Old Testament was not because of divine narrowness or tribalism, but the opposite. It is precisely because God is committed to reclaiming all of creation that He must first refashion a particular living image of Himself for the nations to bow down to and serve Him through— Israel. Likewise, it is because God is so committed to the well being of Nineveh that He is so relentlessly obsessed with Jonah. Of course, the tragedy of the Old Testament is that, much like Jonah, Israel failed to “look like” God morally in righteousness and compassion and love.

The Image of the Invisible God— Finally

For the early Christians, the significance of the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ was often described by appeal to the category of “image.” As Paul wrote in Colossians 1:15, Jesus is the “image of the invisible God.” Hebrews 1:3 claims that Jesus is “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature.” In 2 Corinthians 4:4- 6, the language of creation ex-nihilo (“Let light shine out of darkness”) is re-appropriated to describe the nature of conversion. Christ is the “image of God” in whose face we see the glory of God and are thus made alive in this knowledge. In the Gospel of John, even though no one has ever “seen” God, the only Son of God has made him known (Jn 1:18).9 While many Christians intuitively sense references to the Trinity in passages like these, the creation background is more compelling. In the failed wake of Adam and Israel, finally a human being has come who perfectly reflects what God is like through his words and actions and very being.

To relate to God rightly, we must know what He is like—so much is obvious. A. W. Tozer once wrote that:

What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us. The history of mankind will probably show that no people has ever risen above its religion, and man’s spiritual history will positively demonstrate that no religion has ever been greater than its idea of God. Worship is pure or base as the worshiper entertains high or low thoughts of God. For this reason the gravest question before the Church is always God Himself, and the most portentous fact about any man is not what he at a given time may say or do, but what he in his deep heart conceives God to be like. We tend by a secret law of the soul to move toward our mental image of God. This is true not only of the individual Christian, but of the company of Christians that composes the Church. Always the most revealing thing about the Church is her idea of God.10

What Christianity teaches is that we can come to know what God is like only by looking at, and ultimately “bowing down to” and “serving,” the one who bears His image spotlessly, Jesus Christ. As one writer has so poignantly put it, the message of the New Testament is this: God is Christlike, and in Him there is no unChristlikeness at all. The dilemma, of course, is that Jesus is no longer in the world. After his resurrection from the dead (made alive by God, not the work of human hands!), Jesus ascended into heaven and can thus no longer be “seen” or “touched” by the world. But given the indispensability of God’s image in God’s purposes, this cannot be the end of the story. Indeed, it is the beginning of the story of the church.

The Spirit and the (Living) Statues

In the New Testament, the emerging picture of salvation is consistently painted with the colors of (new) creation. If Christ is the “image” of God par excellence, we are being transformed and renewed according to that same “image.”11 Furthermore, we are called to “reign” with Christ and to call all the nations to “obey” and “serve” Jesus (Mt 28:18- 20, with distinct overtones of Dan 7). Incredibly, though we were “dead” in our trespasses and sins, God has made us “alive” through the indwelling of the “Spirit” of God, a work that was done “without human hands” (Col 2:11-13). As C. S. Lewis so wonderfully put it (and would later describe in narrative terms in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe):

[Human beings] may be like God in certain ways, but they are not things of the same kind. They are more like statues or pictures of God. A statue has the shape of a man but is not alive. In the same way, a man has the ‘shape’ or likeness of God, but he has not got the kind of life God has…And [coming alive] is precisely what Christianity is all about. This world is a great sculptor’s shop. We are the statues and there is a rumor going round the shop that some of us are some day going to come to life.12

The good news of the gospel is that already, through the Spirit who is “the Lord, the Giver of Life,” those who are in Christ have already come back life and are being shaped to once more reflect the character and goodness of God as living “images.” God finally has living idols in the temple of His Spirit by which the nations might come to “see” and “experience” His grace and power and presence. As Vanhoozer notes, “Any sufficiently thick description of the church must include something about the church being not only the people of God but the presence of God in the world.”13 Indeed, the connection between the people of God and the Spirit of “life” is so strong in the new covenant that Irenaeus could say that “where the Church is, there also is the Spirit of God; and where the Spirit of God is, there also is the Church and all grace.”14 In other words, the preeminent work of the Spirit is to give life to the people of God that they might be renewed to “show” God to the watching world through their shared life together in community.15

On Not Taking God’s Name in Vain

Famously, the Ten Commandments begin with a prohibition against idolatry that is grounded not in creation so much as in redemption. Because God has liberated Israel from Egypt (Ex 20:1), the people of God must have no other gods before Yahweh (Ex 20:2). This is fleshed out in the warning against making graven images in the likeness of something in creation—that is, idols (Ex 20:4). God is jealous for His people’s affections, and they must not turn away from Him to serve and worship the created order (Ex 20:5-6). What immediately follows is the command against taking the Lord’s name “in vain” in Exodus 20:7, which is often disconnected from its immediate context in 20:1-6. But the word translated “in vain” is, in both Hebrew and Greek, regularly associated with idolatry later on in the Scriptures (often rendered as “emptiness,” “vanity” or “useless”). Given the usage of the word elsewhere and the immediate context, I would suggest that the prohibition against taking the name of the Lord in vain is an allusion to the creation theology of humanity as God’s “image.” Just as idols are evil because they give a false picture of what God is like to the world, so Israel is called to be God’s royal priesthood that rules and blesses on His behalf, showing the nations the character of the true God. Thus, to take the name of the God in whose image we are made “in vain” is to fail to accurately reflect Him in one’s words, behavior and being.

And if God’s people take God’s name in vain by failing to “image” Him faithfully, the true God will remain “hidden” to the rest of creation. The indirect God of Genesis 1 is only known and worshiped through living statues. And if Christians today claim that Jesus is this image, well enough. But we cannot merely say that, as if truth claims about Jesus were enough. Jesus is no longer in the world to be “seen,” but is only known and experienced through the body of Christ whom he fills with the lifegiving Spirit. Certainly Jesus himself often talked as if he actually believed that the world’s response to him would be determined by the witness of his followers—for instance, Jesus’ final prayer in John 17 makes no sense except within this “image of God” framework. As C. S. Lewis forcefully argued, what the world knows and experiences of God will be measured by the faithfulness of the church:

Fine feelings, new insights, greater interest in ‘religion’ mean nothing unless they make our actual behavior better; just as in an illness ‘feeling better’ is not much good if the thermometer shows that your temperature is still going up. In that sense the outer world is quite right to judge Christianity by its results. Christ told us to judge by results. A tree is known by its fruit; or, as we say, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. When we Christians behave badly, or fail to behave well, we are making Christianity unbelievable to the outside world. The war-time posters told us that Careless Talk costs Lives. It is equally true that Careless Lives cost Talk. Our careless lives set the outer world talking; and we give them grounds for talking in a way that throws doubt on the truth of Christianity.16

No, the church collectively and Christians individually are not “perfect.” But neither are we “just” forgiven. We have been made alive in the Spirit through a supernatural work of God, and we are in the process of being renewed into the image of the invisible God as we are slowly conformed to Christ. And the distinguished, indispensable role that image-bearing humanity (and later Israel) was called to play in the Old Testament, but failed to play, is now bequeathed to us. The church of Jesus Christ is God’s living, breathing “idol” in the world, and He calls all the nations to come into this new temple to worship Him by bowing down to and serving His image once more. Thus the great question that reverberates down through the centuries of church history and which remains our primary challenge today: will the church live in such a way, by the grace of God, that the Creator is clearly seen and known and experienced through us? Or will we take His name in vain, and lead astray countless human beings into futile idolatry and destruction? The public witness of the church in the world, and nothing else, will determine which historical outcome obtains. The obedience of the church of Jesus Christ matters.




1 As Bird points out, “The church is more than the Fed-ex delivery boy leaving a package at people’s door marked ‘gospel.’” (Michael F. Bird, Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction, p. 704)

2 Michael F. Bird, Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction, p. 706

3 cf. Gen 5:1-3, 9:6

4 This is widely acknowledged by modern scholarship. For instance: “A strong case can be made that we should understand ‘image’ here in a way that it is used elsewhere, namely, for statues that represent the king in his realm. In other words, men and women are created to represent God’s presence and authority in his creation, and thus reflect who he is.” (Tremper Longman, “What Genesis 1-2 Teaches (and What It Doesn’t),” in Reading Genesis 1-2: An Evangelical Conversation, ed. J. Daryl Charles, p. 111).

5 J. Richard Middleton, The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1, p. 235

6 J. Richard Middleton, The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1, pp. 207, 209

7 J. Richard Middleton, The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1, p. 90

8 Isa 45:14, 49:7, 23, 50:10, 60:10-14. The imagery of the nations “bowing” to and “serving” His people is a frequent one in the Old Testament, and (I would argue) misunderstood unless it is seen in the framework of creation theology, i.e. the delegation of “dominion” to God’s “image” in Genesis 1:26-28. Compare Genesis 37 (Joseph’s dream), 49:10, Numbers 24:17-18, Deuteronomy 15:6, Isaiah 14:1-2, 32:1, 45:1, Psalm 2, 49:14, 72:8-11, 110:1-2, Daniel 7:13- 27, Obadiah 1:21, etc.

9 cf. 1:14, 5:37-38, 6:46, 14:7-9

10 A. W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy, p. 1

to 11 Rom 8:29, 1 Cor 15:49, Col 3:10.

12 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, pp. 158-59

13 Kevin J. Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology, p. 400

14 Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.24.1

15 “God can show Himself as He really is only to real men. And that means not simply to men who are individually good, but to men who are united together in a body, loving one another, helping one another, showing Him to one another. For that is what God meant humanity to be like; like players in one band, or organs in one body. Consequently, the only really adequate instrument for learning about God is the whole Christian community, waiting for Him together. Christian brotherhood is, so to speak, the technical equipment for this science—the laboratory outfit.” (C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, p. 165)

16 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, pp. 207-08  


Nick Nowalk is a campus minister for Harvard College Faith and Action (HCFA) at Harvard University. He is a longtime contributor to the Ichthus.  


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