Is the Church a Family?
Is the church a family? The answer to this question is not a simple “yes” or “no.” First of all, it depends on what you mean by “church.” We talk about our “church family” quite a lot, but I don’t think we often ponder what we really mean by that. When you sing “I’m so glad I’m a part of the family of God,” do you imagine your local congregation, or do you picture the Global Church – the Bride of Christ?
What Does the Bible Say?
When Scripture uses the analogy of family, it seems to specifically do this in regards to the Global Church.
The Gospel writer Mark tells us about a time when Jesus was teaching inside a building with a crowd of people surrounding him. Unable to get through the crowd, Jesus’ family sent word to him that they were outside. Upon hearing this, Jesus responded that he was already with his mother and brothers, as “whoever does the will of God… is my brother and sister and mother.”
“Whoever does the will of God,” is a statement that includes all Christians everywhere. This inclusivity is continued in Galatians 3 when Paul states that whether Jew or Gentile, it is “those of faith who are the sons of Abraham.” 1 John calls “everyone who practices righteousness…children of God.” In his letters, Paul uses the terms “brother” and “sister” to refer to different people from numerous congregations.
In all of these instances, the Biblical authors are referring to the Global Church. However, it seems that most of the time I hear the term “church family” thrown around, it is being limited to the context of one’s local congregation.
So what’s my point? Does it really matter that we aren’t using this analogy in the same way as Biblical authors did? As I think about this question, I feel my mind teetering back and forth like a seesaw.
On one side, it bothers me that we so commonly limit this analogy. On the other side, does it really matter if everyone thinks of their local church as the family instead of the Global Church? After all, their local church is a part of the Global Church, so they aren’t wrong, they are just looking at a limited picture. Is there a downside to this perspective?
I think there is real danger in reading what the Bible says about the Global Church and thinking it is only talking about local congregations.
Misconstruing this has substantial consequences on how we live our lives.
We take on responsibility for the wellbeing of one man because he is a brother in our congregation, but we feel no familial responsibility for the believers in Uzbekistan because they don’t go to our local church.
We feel compelled to alert our fellow church member about an issue we see in her life, but we feel no obligation to talk to our Christian coworker who goes to the church down the street and has the same sin in his life.
Another issue is that a family is something that you are born into. You don’t belong to God’s family because you have the right last name or because your 23andMe results show that your ancestors came from Israel. You were adopted and reborn into His family when you decided to follow Jesus.
While one logically becomes a part of the Global Church family when he is born again, it seems odd to say that a new convert is not a part of God’s family until he decides to become a member of a local congregation.
With these reservations in mind, I need to tip the seesaw to the other side and acknowledge some positive aspects of the family analogy, even when applied in a different way than suggested by Scripture.
The main application made by those who talk about the local church as the family of God is that we are to feel a similar love for the brothers and sisters in our congregation as we feel towards our brothers and sisters in blood. This point is correct and has even more value when we think about what type of love we ought to feel towards our church family.
In English, we use the word “love” to describe a number of different emotions. I love my wife, but I also love my mom, and I can even use “love” to express how I feel about grilled chicken. In Greek, there are four different words that we translate into English as “love” – agape, eros, phileo, and storge.
Storge is the protective, familial love. Although the root word “storge” never appears in the Bible, there are a small handful of places where different forms of it are used. One of these places is in Romans 12:10 when Paul instructs the church in Rome, “Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.” Here the word “love” is “philostorgos” in Greek. This is a compound word joining “phileo” (friendship/brotherly love) and “storge.” Paul instructs the church in Rome not only to love each other as friends (phileo) but also to have protective, familial storge for each other. This point is certainly true on both the local church and Global Church levels.
Many of our day-to-day tasks are completed with our families. Our local church should also be involved in each others’ lives and bearing each other’s burdens. In this way, our local church certainly is a family.
Another positive is that family imagery can be a helpful way of thinking about the Biblical model of church planting. When I got married, it was expected that I would leave my parent’s house and move into my own place. My parents raised children with the expectation that they would someday raise their own families. They never sat down and drew a blueprint for a bigger house that would be able to hold all of their married children and their families. In a similar way, churches from the start should plan to plant other churches which will in turn plant other churches that plant churches.
However, this doesn’t mean that there isn’t any interconnection between these new churches. I am still a part of my parent’s family even though I now also have my own family. In this way, your local church family is a small branch in the Global Church family tree – the root of which stems from the cross.
In conclusion, thinking of the local church as a family can be a helpful analogy. However, remember that it is only an analogy. Use it to describe the doctrine of church, not to derive your doctrine.
Expand your vision of church family. Invite God’s family around you into more than just your Sunday morning life. Ask God to cultivate storge in your heart for all of our family – not only the ones you see on Sunday morning.
Next time you sing, “I’m so glad I’m a part of the family of God,” remember your family in China. We get to be a part of a huge, cross-cultural family, and I think it is time we start believing it.
|Matt Jantzi grew up in rural Ontario, Canada. He is passionate about discipleship, personal evangelism, apologetics, and global missions. Matt loves encouraging other young Christians to radically follow Jesus, regardless of the cost. In his spare time, you can find him watching debates, studying systematic theology, or using sleight of hand magic tricks to share the Gospel with strangers.|
- Mark 3:31-35. The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Wheaton: Crossway, 2001, 2007, 2011.
- Galatians 3:7. The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Wheaton: Crossway, 2001, 2007, 2011.
- 1 John 2:29-3:1 The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Wheaton: Crossway, 2001, 2007, 2011.
- Romans 12:10. The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Wheaton: Crossway, 2001, 2007, 2011.