Church as a family

Church as a family

It is common for people to compare church to a family; after all, Jesus and the apostles use this word picture in their teaching. Jesus says that all who do the will of his Father are his mother and brothers and sisters (Matt 12:49-50). Paul routinely calls the readers of his letters “brothers and sisters in Christ” (Col 1:2, 1 Thess 1:4 among many other places). The church is called the “household of God” (Eph 2:19), and one of the blessings we have because of Jesus is to be adopted into God’s family (Eph 1:5, testified to by the Spirit in Rom 8:15-17). It is common, familiar language, and like all commonly used language, we can become desensitised to it.

Church is a family. Other believers are our brothers and sisters. This matters more than you think it does and has all kinds of important implications and applications.

What does it mean for the church to be a family? It means at least these things:

  • Church is a place where Christians truly belong. All of us need somewhere to belong to. Christians can so easily feel out of place in a world that does not share our values, even at times in our own physical families. Our church family understands what this feels like, and we fundamentally belong because we are all adopted children of the same Father.
  • Church is a place where Christians know one another and care for one another. Yes, I know this is the ideal situation, and for various reasons local churches don’t always live up to this. But even in our limited ways, Christians find others to connect with, to serve and to be served by, and genuine concern in the church that they don’t find in other places.

Any discussion about family has to point out that physical families are always imperfect and often very broken. Many grow up in families with one parent instead of two. Many families are places where abuse and neglect have happened rather than love and care. If we have that bad experience of family in our minds, we don’t see anything good about family at all. The church family is also imperfect in all kinds of ways. We do, however, have a perfect Father who loves us more than any human father could. We also have brothers and sisters who may well end up being more of a family to us than our physical family ever has been.

There is a danger to using this family language so extensively. Yes, we are united together, and yes, healthy local churches should offer all kinds of help and support to one another. But churches are not social clubs. Our being connected together is because of what Jesus has done for us. This means that Jesus needs to be a major focus of our time together. It is possible to love one another but not really love Jesus. It is possible to have a cosy church community that has lost the gospel and no longer believes the Bible or speaks about Jesus at all. We are a family with God as our Father, and a body with Christ as our head.

If the local church really does function as a family, that will be something that those who are not Christian will find attractive. For all the talk of making new housing estates ‘communities’ and calling school parents ‘the school community’, the wider world generally does not do community well. There are many lonely and disconnected people in our city. If a local church welcomes people warmly, if they love each other not simply because they are similar to one another but only because of Jesus, that will shine forth.

I have noticed this when I have attended funerals for Christians and those who are not Christian. Most Christian funerals tend to be well-attended; even the most introverted Christian tends to know a lot of people through church. Many non-Christian funerals are small, with some family members and some workmates. Christians always have a family if they are part of a church; even the ones who are a little odd and who find themselves on the outer in other social settings.

Next time you find yourself in a church service, look around. The other people there are not simply there for the service; they are your brothers and sisters. Do you know them? Introduce yourself, welcome the visitor and the outsider, talk to those who look nothing like you and who are socially awkward. Welcome them as Christ welcomed you. Don’t race out the door at the end of the service, but stay and intentionally talk to people. When done well, the family that is the church is a place of great comfort and belonging to so many; make every effort to make sure that you are treating the church as a family and not just as a service provider.