Church as (non-nuclear) family

Recently I had one of those moments of juxtaposition that made me look at something differently. I had been in a conversation – you’ve had it, I expect – about how in the church we are all brothers and sisters, one family, and how that means we should have deep personal relationships together, and how most of our churches fail to do that, and … well, you know how that conversation goes, I am sure.

I went straight into a meeting where Lk. 2:41-52 was read. I don’t remember the point made, but in passing the speaker referred to the common (& I suppose correct) explanation that people would go up to the Passover in a big family group, and so that Jesus’ parents not missing him for two days was not that surprising; they would have assumed he was with the second cousins or whoever … you know how that story goes as well, I am sure.

How big was that ‘big family group’? Were there really deep and intimate personal relations between all members of it?

When the Bible talks of the church as ‘family’, what picture are we meant to see?

Not, I am sure, our own instinctive picture of a nuclear family, parents and children alone, a tiny two-generational group separating from wider society. That’s not a social reality found anywhere in the Bible (or, really, anywhere in history before the modern West). More likely, a clan, several dozen people related by blood ties, some of whom live together in large multi-generational groups, others who might live far away. They probably recognise each other, mostly, but there is certainly no expectation of particular intimacy (again, like in most non-modern, non-Western cultures, emotional intimacy in Biblical cultures would largely be found (for adults) in extra-familial single-gender associational groups).

I am not enormously interested in criticising here the idea that we should have strong relationships in the local church fellowship; I think we should. But ‘church-as-family’ language is not the way to defend that. In calling a fellow-Christian a sister or a brother, intimacy is not what is implied.

What is implied? Two things, I think, both of which extend beyond the local church. One is a theological reality: we have been adopted by the same Father, so we just are sisters and brothers; this is the highest privilege of salvation. Second, there is an ethical imperative, but I think it is more about availability than intimacy: your family, in the various cultures in which the Bible was written, are those who have an almost unlimited claim on your hospitality, help, and resources. A family member who requests help cannot be turned away, even if you have never met her before (Ruth’s story pictures something of this).

To speak of the church as a family, and of Christians as sisters and brothers is not to make demands about intimacy within a certain congregation, but to make demands about concern and availability across the whole world.

1 Comment

  1. Terry
    Oct 2, 2014

    A good post, Steve; ammunition for me when I come across ‘church family’ sentiments. But please would you explain, with examples, what you mean by ‘extra-familial single-gender associational groups’? And does this mean that at some point in the near future we’ll see local churches displaying posters saying ‘Come to our extra-familial single-gender associational groups’?

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