The church as a boat

Next Tuesday Caroline and I are ‘pushing the boat’ out and taking a cruise. So it occurred to me that it might be helpful if over the next four weeks my blog took a nautical flavour.

This week I want to begin with the idea of the church as a boat. Down through the centuries the church has been portrayed as a boat on the sea of the world with the mast in the form of a cross – and since 1948 this has been the logo of the World Council of Churches.

This symbol of the church as a boat is a permanent feature of many a church building. For the central feature of a traditional church is the ‘nave’, a term derived from the Latin word for ‘ship’ or ‘boat’ (navis).

The origins of the symbol of the boat are sometimes linked to the story of Jesus calling of the disciples to be ‘fishers of people’. However, almost certainly the main origin of the symbol is to be found in Jesus’ stilling of the storm on Lake Galilee. What a wonderful metaphor for the church tossed around by the storms of this life.

In this regard it is important to note that boat in question is just a boat, and not a cruise ship. The ocean-going cruise ship Caroline and I will be going on is very different from boats on Lake Galilee. MS Queen Victoria is almost 1000 feet along and over 200 feet high (from keel to funnel); it carries some 2014 passengers and a crew of 900; and it has stabilisers to moderate any storm. By contrast marine archaeology has showed that boats on Lake Galilee were around 26 feet long, 7 feet wide, and 4 feet high. Both fore and aft sections of such a boat were covered with a deck, providing space on which to sit or lie. The boat was propelled by four rowers (two per side) and had a capacity of about 15 persons.

The 19th century French Romantic painter, Eugene Delacroix, was fascinated with the story of Jesus stilling the storm and produced several paintings of his interpretation of the scene. In one painting two disciples are rowing, one is clinging to the tiller, another is cowering at the bow, yet another is pointing at the raging waters, and the four remaining disciples are turned toward Jesus, who is sound asleep beneath his enormous cloak. In another painting, six disciples are shown in the boat, with five of them working together as they attempt to manage the tiller and sails while the sixth rouses Jesus from sleep. In both paintings the raging waves are threatening to overwhelm the boat – the very lives of the disciples are at risk. But Jesus is there – and he makes all the difference.

A parallel has often been drawn between the disciples in the boat and the later church. James Edwards, for instance, comments:

“In their [the disciples] response Mark may intend a parallel between the situation of the disciples in the boat and those of his church in Rome who lived under the dominion of pagan powers and gods, and who suffered hot persecution in the later years of Nero’s reign (AD 64-68). Like the disciples, Mark’s first readers may have thought God indifferent to their hardship and suffering. This story assured them, as it assures us, that even seismic revolt against God’s Son cannot swamp the boat to which he is gathered with his disciples.”

This, it seems to me, is the key meaning of the symbol of the church as a boat. Contrary to what some would suggest, the imagery of the boat hasn’t in mind the church as the ark of salvation (see 1 Peter 3.20-21) Noah’s ark; nor does it have in mind the church as lifeboat seeking to rescue the perishing. Nor is there an intended contrast between a boat where everybody had a job to do and a cruise ship, where passengers are being entertained or simply doing their own thing. No, the key emphasis of the story seen through the filter of the boat is that whatever the world may throw at the church, Jesus is Lord – he is ruler not just of nature but of history, and he is present with his disciples in their distress.

3 comments

  1. Great post, Paul, and timely with what’s going on now in the global political and social landscape. We are to continue to pray that the current tidal wave of worldly confusion and divisiveness does not sweep the church away, and that we stay on course with our message of peace, unity and hope in the Lord of all.

  2. An interesting post, Paul. Lorna and I, as inveterate “cruisers”, wish you and Caroline the happiest of experiences on the “Victoria”. You may well find yourself involved in Bible Studies or even Sunday services, as we have on many occasions. Be prepared! On our sail around the world we saw the daily Bible Study group grow from 10 to over 50 regulars – a wonderful experience.

  3. I think that’s super. In the Greek, in Matthew’s account, I found it most remarkable that the same adjective μεγαλα “great” is used to describe BOTH the enormity of the storm AND the immense stillness afterwards. It was a μεγαλα storm followed by a μεγαλα calm. I submit therefore that however great the storm which tosses us, so great is the calm that follows when we call upon Christ, and he intervenes. I take this as a firm promise.

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