The Church Is a Real Family
by Don Bailey
My first meaningful contact with a local church came through an invitation from family friends to attend their small Baptist church when I was about ten years old. Upon our arrival, our friends conveyed that their preacher’s name was something like “Brother Johnson.” Soon I noticed that everyone in the church was consistently addressed as “brother” or “sister.” “Why, Sister Connie, wasn’t Brother Johnson’s sermon this morning just what we needed to hear?” “Well, yes, Brother Bob, Brother Johnson can really preach the Word.” This language was striking and odd to my young ears. But the impression of the church as family became indelibly etched into the nascent framework of my thinking about the church of Jesus Christ.
There was a sweetness in that experience—now more than fifty years old—that stands in jarring contrast to our present-day cultural confusion about family. Traditional families are held in suspicion by some as vestiges of patriarchal control and the source of myriad forms of abuse. Thus, to speak of the church as a “real family” presents a challenge to much contemporary thinking. Yet as image bearers of God, we cannot escape the deep God-implanted hunger for family—even if it means seeking to find one in an online gaming group, a street gang, or a gathering of like-minded sports enthusiasts.
The church as a real family reverberates through Scripture. Jesus taught us to pray, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name” (Matt. 6:9). This great privilege of praying to the Father comes through new birth in Jesus Christ. To call on God as our Father is not natural for sinners. Rather, we must enter the family supernaturally. Of this, the Apostle John writes, “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12–13). This work of the Spirit to grant new birth that believers might trust in Christ results in our privileged status as adopted children of God. John later exults in this privilege with a rhapsodic burst of expression: “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are” (1 John 3:1).
Ask a group of young teens, as I did recently while speaking at a Christian school chapel: “What makes a real family?” Their answers were illuminating. “A family eats together.” “A family has traditions.” “A family builds trust.” “A family forgives.” “A family shares space, like I had to share my room with my sister.” Their answers echoed the early church “together” practices of Acts 2:42–47, and the “one anothers” of Scripture in terms of forgiving (Eph. 4:32), loving (John 13:34), accepting (Rom. 15:7), rejoicing (Rom. 12:15), and encouraging one another (1 Thess. 5:11). We share in making burdens mutual (Gal. 6:2), we partake of the Lord’s Supper together in our family meal (Luke 22:19), and we tell the family story that “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
“Every healthy church ought to glow as a warm family fireplace.”
A real family of sinful people can disappoint or even get ugly at times. The church has not always lived out its true nature in Christ, in which “he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility” (Eph. 2:14). Believers sadly recall our family history in which slaves in America were relegated to segregated seating in worship, as were also the poor in nineteenth-century England. Though church family members have differing roles as God has appointed, there is no room for the exclusionary practices that have in effect shouted “Not Welcome Here!” to those whom God was calling.
Many of us have also experienced disappointment in the church for falling short in ways that won’t make history books. These disappointments may have come through the moral failure of a trusted leader, in the renunciation of the faith by a beloved mentor, or perhaps in the form of silence from our brothers and sisters when we were absent due to a long period of illness. We intuitively feel a sense of not belonging if no one takes the time to reach out with a card or phone call to say: “How are you? We miss you.” All gospel-believing churches should work diligently toward developing practices to express family care for all their members.
Yet for every church family heartbreak, there have been a thousand shining lights beaming into this dark world to recount (Phil. 2:15). In the early centuries, it was the church of Jesus that rescued babies tossed onto garbage heaps. More recently, I think of a kindly man who spent hours every Sunday morning driving a rusty old church bus full of rowdy kids, including me, to church. I recall how God has given “spiritual children” to couples unable to have biological children. Only heaven knows of the millions of loving friendships throughout church history used by God to welcome the friendless and family-less into the fold of God.
Our Puritan forebears and theologians such as Jonathan Edwards spoke of the family as a “little church.” The converse also holds true: every healthy church ought to glow as a warm family fireplace where the love of Jesus Christ, our Elder Brother, abounds. May the Holy Spirit strengthen our church families in His work of gathering all of God’s elect children around the table at that great wedding feast of the Lamb of God (Rev. 19:7), where the family of God will know no end to the joy of praising Jesus together.
Rev. Don Bailey Jr. is an associate pastor of Saint Andrew’s Chapel in Sanford, Fla.