The Church as Mother


 What is the Church supposed to look/be like?  It's a careful question to ask, especially because (as a member of a consumer-driven society), I am more apt to think in terms of, "What am I gonna get out of it," versus, "What do I want to help birth and grow?"

The second comment hits me hard, because as a mother, I can quickly testify that birthing and nurturing are not, "jobs," I take on, but a way of life. My children don't shut off after I labor for eight hours, but rather require mothering twenty four hours a day. Similarly, the joy that comes from watching them grow does not end after a project is completed, because, in this case, the project is human beings, things that do not come off of a factory assembly line but exist in a continual state of being and becoming.

Likewise with the Church. She is called the New Jerusalem, who is, "our mother" (Galatians 4:27). Perhaps thinking of her as a mother would be a helpful analogy as I fumble my way into rethinking the church. The following are generalities (most of them true of father's as well as mothers), and I find myself wondering how much they correlate to the purpose of the Church in the world...

1. Mother as Warrior.

Sometimes mothering brings up images of soft fuzzy blankets and we forget that fighting is involved.  The reason I don't walk deep into the woods near my home in early Spring, though, is because a female brown bear lives somewhere nearby.  While she's usually painfully shy when single, every Alaskan knows that the worst place to be in the world is between a mother bear and her cubs. 

I, too, remember laying on my bed, having just pushed out my first child, my mind swirling with shock at the intensity of what had just happened to me. I felt almost confused at the power of my emotions---that even though I didn't even know the squalling slimy bundle suddenly in my arms, that even though she had just caused the most painful experience I'd ever passed through, I knew I would jump in front of a Mack Truck to save her life.  Not once, but a thousand times over.  It made no sense.  I mean, I had just looked in her eyes for the first time ever, yet my mothering instinct was no different from a mother bear. "No one hurts one of mine without coming through me, first."

2. Mother as Sustainer:

As a mother of a newborn, I feed him with my own self. His food comes digested from my own stomach, broken down by my body into sweet milk, easily suckled and perfect for his digestive tract. Later, I will teach him how to eat solid foods, first spooning them in myself, carefully mashed, and later letting him try it.

As he grows, I stop cutting them up into baby-sized bites, and soon, he wields the knife and cuts pieces for himself.  Part of mothering is feeding.  Our very bodies are designed for it, the closest thing to a Lord's Supper replica we can find, flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone.  I am a sustainer of life. 

3. Mother as Teacher:

I fix his meals at first, later teaching him to cook for himself---spreading peanut butter on toast first, later preparing a whole dinner from scratch.  I change his diapers during those first months, and later I teach him how to use the bathroom, "like a big boy."  As a homeschool mother, I take him from the Alphabet Song to a slow labored pronunciation of, "cat," then, "cattle," then, "cateracts."  We pile together on the couch, exploring far away lands through the cadence of my voice and a stack of good fiction. 

In the ambling minutes of each day, I explain why we can only see the stars at night, why sometimes clouds are grey and other times are white, and answer his question when he wonders why the pioneers used covered wagons instead of Ford trucks.  The questions never stop, and as all good mothers do, I (usually) welcome the continual interuptions of curious minds.  I am a teacher.    

4. Mother as Nurturer:

I hold her close, cooing her gentle lullabies, kissing her sweet-smelling forehead, rocking her in my arms. She loves the feel of me, loves being next to my skin. As she grows, I still hold her, though less and less as she leaves my arms to crawl and then to toddle around. She explores for a while, but when she needs security, she comes running back to my arms. When strangers stop by, she runs to my legs, clutching them and peeking out from behind them. She knows that she is safe with me.

As time goes by, she learns that she doesn't have to hide behind me, but our touch doesn't stop, nor do my murmuring affections. I put my hand on her shoulder often, tickle her in fun, snuggle with her as we converse.  I affirm her, build her, bless her.  I am a nurturer.

5. Mother as Boundary-Giver:

With the soft words come firm ones. Children do not naturally know the difference between a toilet bowl and a toy. For their own health and safety, they need to be made aware. Mothers provide boundaries, and teach appropriate behaviours.

My toddlers will not know to come when called unless I teach them. First, I help them by modeling what I want them to do, and squealing happily when they move their pudgy toddler feet to my voice. Later, if they do not come when they are called, I will repeat firmly the request, including a certain "look" in my eye that means cooperation is not optional. If needed, I will go to them and firmly walk them to me, making sure they know this is not a game.  Soon, the toddler hears her name is called and she pads her way to Mommy as if it's the most natural thing in all the world.   

Mothers help their children learn acceptable behaviours. We all laugh at the dinner table, yet we also learn to chew with our mouths closed and to carry our plates to the sink when we're through. We have a good time at the grocery store, but we also learn that we don't pitch fits when we pass by the toy aisle and see something we want.  TRe child doesn't know that it's unacceptable to throw a tantrum---someone has to patiently draw the boundary lines for him and then guide his feet back inside of it when they stray.    

Mothers don't give in to whining, and mothers know that sometimes children need to experience consequences that hurt in order to learn lessons that will bring growth.  I realize that playing in the toilet bowl seems fun, but for reasons my toddler can't understand, it is a boundary he is not allowed to cross.  Though  he may disagree with me and try it anyway, I gently but firmly make the boundary line clear until he realizes that it's pointless to keep pushing.  I am a Boundary-Giver. 




I see God in all of those. He fights for me, He is my strong tower. He sustains me, feeding me with His own words, later teaching me to prepare them for others. He nurtures me, holding me close, resting His hand on my shoulder. He sets boundaries for me, rescuing me when I wander off but also helping me realize the seriousness of obedience.

Is the Church designed to do the same for God's children?

Part of me doesn't like, "Church as Mother," because I am nervous about giving the church too much power, having lived through an abusive church setting.  Admittedly, I am equally concerned about forming a shrugging, "whatever," church family where everyone is left to themselves, so I realize that power is not necessarily bad. 

Here, the mother analogy helps me, because a mother has power, but a good mother's power is used to build up her family.  The mother analogy also acknowledges my frustrations with the middle ground (the "good solid traditional church"), as it's structure seems by (well-intentioned) design to maintain a strong divide between the clergy and the laity, sort of like a mother who never lets her children advance past age twelve. 

So for me, seeing the Church as a Flourishing Mother seems to be a helpful analogy, in that a mothering framework means the strong are always about the business of nurturing up the weak.  Perhaps can be a constructive analogy to use for those who, like me, are searching for a way of "re-realizing" the church, for not only does it help me see what I want, but also what does not fit:   

Evil Mother:

In an abusive, power-hungry church, the weak are kept weak, because the ones in charge can retain their positions only so long as they are the only ones strong. Adults are still in diapers, still dependant on bottles of formula, still struggling to piece vowels and consenants together to form words. (Anyone who somehow manages to grow-up is promptly labeled rebellious and kicked out).  People write books about surviving with mothers like these. 

Absentee Mother:

In a, "whatever" congregation, the weak are left weak because there is no one there to care for them. These are the babies we hear of being rescued, their bodies crusted in unwashed filth, their piteous cries long silenced for lack of hope that anyone will answer. Those who aren't rescued die quietly somewhere in a dark corner, not realizing the injustice, unaware that life was meant to be lived any differently. 

Flourishing Mother: 

This is where it feels right, though the details are sketchy and perhaps will remain so permanently.  It's not the details--it's the general flavor of the thing, the feel of the analogy, the innate fit of the puzzle piece. 

Can we be the Church as Mother, figuratively nursing babies, preparing meals and spreading the aroma of joy?

Can we be the Church as Mother, delighting in the sparkling eyes around us, believing that God will come through for the toddler even when he's throwing a tantrum, believing that He is big enough for the teenager who is questioning everything---loving them when they are unlovely even to themselves? 

Can we be the Church as Mother, speaking firmly when firmness is called for, raising babies into adults without fear of our "position" as a grown-up being overtaken, simply because that was our goal in the first place?


Molly Aley is a proud mother to five, among other things, and blogs regularly at adventures in mercy.