One of the ideas we’ve often lived by is the idea that church is family. Church isn’t supposed to just be *like* a family. It actually is a family of people, from different biological, sociological, and societal backgrounds, but because Jesus has come and changed us, we all become brothers and sisters, born of the same Father.
Jesus was clear about this: “Don’t let anyone call you ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one teacher, and all of you are equal as brothers and sisters.And don’t address anyone here on earth as ‘Father,’ for only God in heaven is your Father,” (Matthew 23:8-9). Our position before God is not one of roles, but one of love. He loves us as a father and we are to love each other as brothers and sisters.
The apostles continued this teaching in their days. Paul says it this way to the Thessalonians: “As apostles of Christ we certainly had a right to make some demands of you, but instead we were like children among you. Or we were like a mother feeding and caring for her own children. We loved you so much that we shared with you not only God’s Good News but our own lives, too,” (1 Thessalonians 2:7-8). This was the way that Paul lived among those on his ministry team and those he ministered to. He was like a child and, to the extent that he was further along than the new converts, he was like a nursing mother. There were plenty of metaphors Paul could have used, but the ones he chose were deeply family-oriented.
Paul would later write to Timothy in 1 Timothy 3:15 about how people should conduct themselves “in the household of God.” The Greek word for household is oikos and literally is the Greek word describing a family that lives within a house. The Apostle John would also write about how the church was made up of children, young men, and fathers, (1 John 2:12-14) and would write a whole epistle to a woman who was likely the leader of a house church and her dear children who were likely other participants in this gathering (2 John, for more on this statement, reference Chapter 6 of “Stick Your Neck Out“). The more you investigate this topic, the more you begin to see the early church understood themselves as God’s family and operated as such.
Often, we treat the church as a hybrid between a business and a school. There is a message that needs to be communicated and a product that needs to be offered. However, when church is a family, love and care become what drives what happens when we gather. This is why Paul, in the midst of correcting the Corinthians about the excesses in their meetings, spends an entire chapter on the importance of love (1 Corinthians 13). The point wasn’t that everything would be done mechanically, but that everything would be done in love.
I grew up in a family. It wasn’t perfect, but we did love each other. I also grew up in an extended family. My father’s family had five children and each of those children married and had 2 or three kids of their own, so when we gathered together there was always a huge crowd at Grandpa and Grandma’s house. I often relate my experience of church as family back to these times growing up. There was always room for even the youngest of kids to be around. Not every gathering was super structured, but we made allowance for kids to be kids, while still allowing them to participate in the functions of the family gathering.
And I believe the church can be like that if it begins to believe that church is family. Remember, we do teach when we gather, but teaching/preaching isn’t the point. Love is. Remember, Paul said, “while knowledge makes us feel important, it is love that strengthens the church,” (1 Corinthians 8:1).
I have a friend who was briefly a part of the underground church in China. He would often tell stories about what it was like to be a part of their meetings. One of the things that stuck out to me was that there was no child care. The believers would often meet on Sunday mornings for a meeting where everyone would be a part, including the children. Then they would break for a communal meal together. Then, after the meal, the mothers and the small children would take naps together while the men dealt with sensitive affairs of the church. Those of you with small children will understand how important this is.
I believe the church can incorporate children, but it will require the church to become like family again.
I spent this past weekend (and then some) with my extended family. Some of them have known me since I was born. Some are recent acquisitions that have come through marriage or birth. Most of it was enjoyable and full of laughter and celebration.
But a curious thing happened when I was at my extended family’s Christmas. I was part of several conversations where people who had known me forever made small, (to them) insignificant comments about their perception of me. None of them were bad, they were mostly complimentary, but they were surprising.
They were surprising because they identified things about me that I didn’t and at times still don’t see in myself. But as I grow, I’m finally able to trust that people see me better than I see myself, especially my family who has shown love to me more times than I deserve.
And this got me thinking about the benefit of family. Family knows you: They know your weaknesses, your awkward times, and your mistakes. Having seen you at your worst and your best, they are able to know the true you, not the you everyone else identifies you with. Many times they know you better than your perception of yourself.
But family also loves you: They’ve come to commit themselves to you beyond all of the negative things. They’ve seen your value and stuck around, not abandoning you because of your weakness. It’s what makes them still your family.
Family fulfills a dual role of knowing and loving, something that is hard to do in our world.
This is why it’s so incredibly crucial for the church to be a family. We were designed to need people who could see us as we truly are–who both know us and love us. Being known and loved keeps us from deception. They keep us from thinking too highly of ourselves and too lowly of ourselves. Spiritual families who both know and love the people in their midst can speak to a person’s potential, knowing full well where they are weak and where they excel.
And this is why your church, no matter how it meets or functions, needs to act like a family, not a meeting place, a club, a branch of the military, or a corporate business. Because only families can produce the kind of transforming love that our society is desperately craving and simultaneously rebelling against. And only the church as a family can weather the hardship of this hour to speak to us and transform us more fully into sons and daughters of God.
The world needs the church to be a family again. Because family can see what only family can see.
God gives us spiritual parents.
One of the things that I love about God is how incredibly practical He is. Even though He is willing to give us Himself as a father, he knows that we were designed to live in relationship with other beings with skin. God stoops down to our level, changes us with His fathering heart, and even goes one step farther: He sends spiritual parents in our lives.
A spiritual parent is a human being who knows Christ as their Lord and is tasked with bringing you as an individual into your full sonship in God. Paul said to the Corinthians that though they had many teachers in Christ, they had one father—himself (1 Corinthians 4:15). He had become a father to the whole Corinthian church through being the first to bring the Gospel to Corinth. Paul had a special relationship because of that act that always gave him permission to speak into their messy situations. In an ideal setting, the person who led you to Jesus should be one of your primary spiritual parents. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.
When a person comes to Christ, if the person that lead them to Jesus is either absent or non-existent (meaning the person came to know Jesus by simply reading the Bible, finding a tract, etc.) then a spiritual adoption must occur. When this happens, spiritually mature, well-fathered believers can and should reach out to new believers and assume the fathering role in their Christian walk. While this is not the best scenario for spiritual parenting, it will work in a pinch.
The goal of these spiritual parents is to raise these spiritual sons and daughters into their new Kingdom identity. The spiritual parent is tasked with loving with the Father’s love and being a physical representative of the Heavenly Father in the new believer’s life. Spiritual parents also will become channels of wisdom passed down from other believers (2 Timothy 2:1-2). They will also bring discipline and correction to those areas that are in need of it. Most who think they are spiritual parents believe it is done primarily through teaching. In reality, sonship is taught through life lived together, love shared, and wisdom passed on in life as situations arise. Spiritual parents are constantly “re-presenting” God as Father, so that the lies we naturally believe about God are dispelled.
It’s through this process of mirroring God the Father, teaching new sons how to experience sonship, and being a tangible fathering force that these spiritual parents reproduce spiritual sons. In the end the sons and daughters they raise will raise spiritual children of their own, because they’ve been well fathered. This process, continued for many generations of disciples, would pass on and expand the circle of family and sonship that God designed to rest on all of humanity.
God raises sons and daughters through natural parents, Himself, and spiritual parents. And now that we understand how God raises His children, we have to turn our attention to combatting the orphan mentality in us and in others. We’ll begin looking at that next week….