Church as Family

Church as Family

Have you noticed that the New Testament never bothers to define its most important ideas? What is the kingdom of God, for instance? Jesus uses the phrase all the time but never once says what it is. He is only willing to say that it is “like” some things. It almost seems that Jesus deliberately refuses to define it; he paints pictures about it instead.

These pictures are multiple and open-ended. They are subject to change and interpretation, and they evoke more than any definition could. Thus, Jesus doesn’t say the kingdom of God is like just one thing; he says it is like a man who went out to sow, like a woman who searches for a lost coin, like someone who found a treasure in a field, and like a dozen other things.

This multiplicity of metaphors is very important for us Westerners. We have a penchant for defining things, for getting them safely under wraps. But when we do so, we rob ourselves of both the evocative character of metaphor and the richness of the multiple images which mark the New Testament’s understandings of the most important aspects of our life.

Take one important idea: “church.” Like the kingdom of God, church is never defined in the New Testament. Rather, it is pictured by dozens and dozens of metaphors. One author counts 96 different ones, but there are probably even more than that. The church, for instance, is ekklesia. An ekklesia is a political assembly, something which you cannot say “is” in the way we normally think of. The ekklesia doesn’t “is”; it happens. An ekklesia is like a “picnic.” Picnics “happen.” And you aren’t a member of a picnic, you are either there or not.

The church is not just ekklesia, though. It is also a body, a nation, a net, and many other things. I emphasize this because one thing we (with our bent toward defining) tend to do is get trapped in a single image. And this warps our vision and stymies our growth. Define the church as ekklesia, for instance, and we can understand decision-making better and give richness to the idea that Christ is among us uniquely when we gather. But we lose the importance of commitment and bonding. These are emphasized by other metaphors like body and family.

Unfortunately, the metaphor that dominates most of American Christianity doesn’t help us much; we usually envision the church as a corporation. The pastor is the CEO, there are committees and boards. Evangelism is the manufacturing process by which we make our product, and sales can be charted, compared, and forecast. Of course, this manufacturing process goes on in a growth economy so that any corporation-church whose annual sales figures aren’t up from last year’s is in trouble. Americans are quite single-minded in their captivity to the corporation metaphor. And it isn’t even biblical.

Many renewal movements, at least, have focused on a biblical metaphor-the body. But here, too, it is possible to become warped in our thinking by latching on to even a fruitful metaphor like body and treating it as the dominating metaphor for Christian life together. It is not that thinking of church as a body is bad-rather, it’s good. But it is only one aspect of who God’s people are. Becoming captivated even by the image of the church as a body will put serious limitations on our vision, for although the church is a body, it is much more than a body.

RENEWAL MOVEMENTS HAVE come to rely on the body metaphor for a number of reasons. One is that they are, more or less consciously, returning to the New Testament for nourishment. And in the New Testament, the body metaphor is obvious. Paul, for example, has spun out the body metaphor at greater length than any other. He is more specific than Jesus and certainly more fully developed than the little snatches of priesthood imagery we get here and there.

The body metaphor also pictures the church as having a variety of interdependent roles. As renewal movements have moved away from a one-dimensional concentration on the pastor or priest as the sole actor in the church, the body metaphor has been very helpful. Hence, we concentrate on it.

Further, the body metaphor tends to be self-contained. When you use the body metaphor, you are looking at yourself, at the church as church. It is understandable that renewal movements would have this perspective, for a church in its youth tends to focus on its own life, developing the definitions for its life and the patterns for its relationships. As you grow up, however, you begin to look without, and the body metaphor becomes less helpful.

Other images, however, can rise to fill the need. Though renewal movements have tended to concentrate on the body, the family is the New Testament’s single most common metaphor for the believers in Jesus. For the New Testament writers, family imagery falls thoughtlessly from their minds onto paper. They call each other “brother” and “sister”; we enter the kingdom of God by a “new birth” and are “children of God”; Paul claims to be “once again in childbirth” with the Galatian Christians; he tells the Corinthians “they have many teachers but not many fathers.” Again and again, though they never spin it out, New Testament writers assume they are a family with other Christians and act on the basis of that vision.

CONSIDER SOME OF the ways the family metaphor may help us where the body metaphor either lets us down or distorts our vision. Although there may be many more than these-and other applications are (as engineering books say) left as an exercise for the reader-four stand out.

First, the way a body is one and many is different from the way a family is one and many. The uniqueness of individuals, for instance, is much more strongly portrayed in a body than in a family. The eye is not an arm and so (obviously) cannot have the same function. But is a brother not a sister? In the family, the role distinctions blur: anyone can do the dishes or carry out the garbage. Old family acquaintances say to me, “Oh yes, you’re Ray Miller’s boy.” They might have said the same about either of my brothers, for seen in the family, our roles were not all that distinct.

In an age of independence and struggle for identity, it is no wonder we have latched onto the body metaphor with its strong affirmation of the indispensability of each part. But I wonder whether we have not played that particular melody enough. Perhaps it’s time to hear the counterpoint: we are all children of the same God, and we share that relationship in common. Maybe that’s all the identity I need: to be the Creator’s boy instead of emphatically a particular, unique individual. Renewing the family metaphor can help us come to terms with the things we all share in common, things which are just as important as the things which make us each unique.

Second, although differences in a body are cast in terms of role and function, differences in a family are not, at least not basically. In a family, differences are in terms of maturity. Children listen to mothers and fathers not (in the first place) because they have a different abstract role but because they are more mature, wiser, and better able to cope with the unpredictability of life; children trust their parents. The body metaphor has as its goal to get people involved in doing what is uniquely theirs to do; the family metaphor teaches them how to do it. In a family, the older members are better able to do the things that the younger members do also, and the younger members look to the older for guidance and models of living. Understanding the church as family will mean that the younger members of the family will learn to take their cues from those who are older and more wizened by their path with God.

Similarly, the body focuses more on accomplishing tasks, but the family more on day-to-day existence. Thinking about the church as family makes a person’s specific gifts less relevant. It doesn’t matter what your gifts are; the fact is we need someone to take out the garbage, and here you are. The same thing is true of relationships. In a family, it doesn’t matter what another person’s gifts are; we are loving them or putting up with them or nourishing them because we are part of the same family, not because they have a particular gift.

This brings out a third significant difference between the body image and the family image: the church as body is oriented toward tasks while the church as family expresses and nurtures our need for community. American culture has almost entirely fragmented the extended family. As a result, we experience a deep longing for the things the extended family used to provide: a network of close relationships outside the immediate, the stimulation of others who are different and yet closely related, a sense of security in having options beyond the immediate ones (just in case things don’t quite work out).

The church as family can be a way of incarnating an answer to these longings. Perhaps the reason Paul and others did not spin out the family metaphor is that it seemed so obvious to them. Because they experienced extended households as a fact of life, it was easy to see how church repeated that pattern. As children in a family learn most (for good and ill) by imitating, so new Christians learn not what their gifts are but how to exercise them, discovering what they are in the process. Children imitate the way you eat, the way you deal with others, and the things you deem important. What we mean by Christian growth is largely just this process, a process which in the church as family is a spontaneous, not a programmed one.

Church as family also points to both the tragedy and fallacy of one of the important decisions of Christian life for us: finding the right church. Seeing church as family doesn’t even acknowledge that there is such a decision. Being in a given family isn’t a matter of choice at all; you just end up there. The family where you are gives you both your possibilities and limitations. It gives you people with whom you must deal. People in a family are not necessarily friends, they may not go bowling with each other, and they may not even particularly like each other. But they are still family.

In fact, of course, we do have a choice about church which seeing church as family can obscure. Nonetheless, the family metaphor can help us see that we should not constantly be looking for the “perfect church” any more than we should for the perfect family. In an important way, being part of a church is a given reality as well as an important choice.

If we are to keep our need for community from driving us into little enclaves of friends, making churches Christian cliques, we need to recover the vision of the church as family. Although the church as family emphasizes relationships, it does not do so in an exclusive way. This insight brings out a fourth importance of recovering this metaphor for us: it will help us deal with growth.

Ask yourself, “How do bodies grow?” The answer is, in two ways. First, as we “grow up,” we are growing in a positive way, gaining strength, agility, and so on. But a body only grows that way for a limited part of its life. Bodies naturally come to the place where they stop growing: and that is good and natural. If bodies don’t stop growing when they come to that point, they grow only in the second way: not growing up but getting fat.

Families, unlike bodies, can grow indefinitely. But in order to do so, they have to grow in a very different way than bodies do. Bodies grow by expanding; families grow by multiplying.

Think of the way a family grows. A woman and a man marry, and before long a child is born. That child is nurtured and fed and taught, and before long finds another to marry. The family has grown again, this time by incorporating someone from outside. These two children may not continue to live with mom and dad. They may begin another household, and once again, before long, they have children. The children grow and then they marry and create new households, and so on. They all continue to be one family-an extended family. All care for each other and nurture each other in different ways. But they also have formed a multitude of families.

Part of the reason American churches have a major issue about growth is because we have conceived of it in terms of the body metaphor rather than the family metaphor. Bodies come to an optimum size; if they continue to grow, they merely get fat. One way to deal with this problem is by dividing, and when you think of the church as a body, you naturally have problems with such a prospect. When a body divides, it is a terribly traumatic thing-we call it amputation or dismemberment. And its effects are not healthy at all, for the amputated member, cut off from the body, dies. Yet this is the way American churches, subconsciously perhaps, deal with growth: they find an issue or a personality to divide over.

But as a family grows it doesn’t divide-it multiplies. This is a very good thing. It is hard for parents to see their children leave, but it is joyful as well, for by “losing” a daughter, the family gains a son and keeps the daughter to boot. There are grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and when the family gets together again as a whole (a family reunion) they can have a kind of peace and contentment in being together which could never have happened had they continued to live together.

THE VISION OF the church as a body has been a very important thing for Christians to catch hold of. We shouldn’t ignore the insights it gives, but enrich them with the insights envisioning the church as family can give us. It can show us how we touch the world. It can show us about Christian nurture. It can show us the dynamic way in which new groups of believers form and gain integrity. And it can show us some things about evangelism, for families are the way the human race has gotten from Adam and Eve to overpopulation; bodies are not.

But the need is not met merely by saying, “Yes, family is a good metaphor for church” and leaving it at that. Rather, we need to look into that metaphor and bring out its implications just as Paul did with the body metaphor. We might even be surprised at some of the things which come out.

Heaven forbid that we should simply replace the domination of one metaphor for another. The body metaphor is crucially important and we need to live out of it. But we need to realize that it in itself is not adequate to capture what God intends us to be. For that, we need an ever shifting variety of visions of church, including the realization that the church is family.


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