This is the second in a four part series looking at the church today.
2. The Image of Church as the Family of God
The New Testament image of the church as a family is a theological truth that has shaped the Church. The book of Acts gives examples of people coming to faith in Christ as family units (Cornelius Acts 10-11; Lydia Acts 16:11-15; Philippian Jailer Acts 16:30-34). This is developed by the Epistles’ concern to understand how family relationships should look as believers. To fully understand it is important to realise the First Century view of family was different to that of modern times.
In the First Century the definition of family was considerably wider than today. It included all the members of the household – husbands, wives, children, servants, etc. Indeed Leo Purdue (Families in Ancient Israel cited by Joel Comisky Biblical Foundations for Cell-Based Church) notes that families were “multigenerational (up to four generations) and included the social arrangement of several families, related by blood and marriage, who lived in two or three houses architecturally connected.” This large expansive version of family is considerably different from that of most family structures in modern Australia. Given the contextual difference, how can we understand the church as family?
Church as family for Paul.
The way that Paul used the word ‘adoption’ helps to bridge the contexts. The language of adoption he uses is followers of Jesus are inheritors with Christ (Romans 8:14-17). It is the language of being called into God’s own divine family. Paul’s language needs to be explored to bring out his meaning.
Today adoption is understood as being all about the child. This was not the case in Paul’s day. Adoption was all about the family. There were benefits for those adopted – their debts were erased, they were given a new identity, but this also carried the expectations of the family. In essence they completely ceased being who they were, and became an image bearer of the family. When Paul reminds believers they are adopted by God he doesn’t neglect the benefits. But he is also showing their responsibility as the family of God. Paul calls followers of Jesus to an unconditional commitment to each other whereby each member of God’s family holds others more dearly than their own self-interest.
Church as family for Peter
Peter understand Paul’s concept but expresses it in different terms in 1 Peter 2:4-5. Here he refers to believers as being ‘living stones’ built together, and founded upon, Jesus. Although Peter uses the image of the building site his message is the same as Paul’s. Without doubt a stone that forms part of a building is infinitely more valuable than a stone in a field, but this is not his focus. Instead they are merely part of something greater – the building of God. In essence their very existence is Theo-centric. This is held in tension by the fact that they are not isolated but built together. Again the great theme is that to be followers of Jesus Christ is to be so tightly bound together that this trumps all self-interest.
What this means.
It saddens me when I see Christians determined to ‘go it alone’. I cannot help but think that this a reflection of our society which so values the individual and independence. They seem to hold on to the benefits of adoption but neglect the family responsibility. I also wonder if this may be because the church has failed to grasp the vitality of the family of God. I believe that we need to cultivate the church as family. We need to create spaces where people are able to build strong, genuine and transparent relationships and are familiar with each other’s lives so that there are natural opportunities to minister to and encourage others in their daily walk with Christ. It also allows for times of intentional discipleship with an inbuilt system of accountability.