Church As Family by Frank Viola
Surprisingly, the Bible never defines the church. Instead, it presents it through a number of different metaphors. One of the reasons why the New Testament gives us numerous metaphors to depict the church is because the church is too comprehensive and rich to be captured by a single definition or metaphor. Unfortunately, our tendency is to latch on to one particular metaphor and understand the ekklesia through it alone. But by latching on to just one metaphor—whether it be the body, the army, the temple, the bride, the vineyard, or the city—we lose the message that the other metaphors convey. The result: Our view of the church will become limited at best or lopsided at worst.
The Chief Metaphor
Do you know what metaphor for the church dominates the New Testament? It’s the family.
The writings of Paul, Peter, and John in particular are punctuated with the language and imagery of family. (See Gal. 6:10;Rom. 8:29; Eph. 2:19; 1 Tim. 5:1–2; 3:15; 1 Peter 2:2; 1 John 2:12–13, etc.)
While the New Testament authors depict the church with a variety of different images, their favorite image is the family. Familial terms like “new birth,” “children of God,” “sons of God,” “brethren,” “fathers,” “brothers,” “sisters,” and “household” saturate the New Testament writings.
In all of Paul’s letters to the churches, he speaks to the “brethren”—a term that includes both brothers and sisters in Christ. Paul uses this familial term more than 130 times in his epistles. So without question, the New Testament is filled with the language and imagery of family.
In stark contrast, the dominating metaphor that’s typically constructed for the church today is the business corporation. The pastor is the CEO. The clergy and/or staff is upper management. Evangelism is sales and marketing. The congregation is the clientele. And there is competition with other corporations (“churches”) in the same town.
But the corporation metaphor has a major problem. Not only is it glaringly absent from the New Testament, it does violence to the spirit of Christianity. Because from God’s standpoint, the church is primarily a family. His family, in fact.
Most Christians have no trouble giving glib assent to the idea that the church is a family. Yet giving mental assent to the family nature of the church is vastly different from fleshing out its sober implications. It would do us well to look closely at the family metaphor and discuss the practical implications that are connected with it. As you read through each aspect, I want to challenge you to compare your church to each one. Ask yourself this question: Is my church living in the reality of being the family of God?
(1) The Members Take Care of One AnotherBecause the church is family, its members take care of one another. Think about the natural family (assuming that it’s healthy). Families take care of their own. Isn’t it true that you take care of your natural blood? And they take care of you? If your mother, father, brother, sister, son, or daughter has a problem, do you say, “Sorry, don’t bother me,” or do you take care of them?
A true family takes care of its own, does it not?
What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. (James 2:14–17)
This passage puts a finger on the meaning of real faith. Real faith expresses itself in acts of love toward our brothers and sisters in Christ. To paraphrase James, “If you say you have faith, but you neglect your brother or sister who is in physical need … then your faith is dead.” The “action” James is talking about is not prayer or Bible study, but acts of love toward our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.
(2) The Members Spend Time Together
Because the church is family, the members take time to know one another. That is, they spend time together outside of scheduled meetings.
Question: Do the members of your church see one another only during scheduled services? Are you in contact with them during the week? Do you share meals together? Consider the organic instincts of the Jerusalem church at work:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.… Every day they continued to meet together.… They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts. (Acts 2:42, 46)
The early Christians had lives that interacted with one another. This was the church’s DNA at work. If we follow our spiritual instincts, we will have an innate desire to gather together often. Why? Because the Holy Spirit serves as a kind of magnet that organically draws Christians together. The Holy Spirit puts within the hearts of all genuine believers a desire for authentic community.
The Bible says that the Jerusalem church met daily. Interestingly, the assembly in Jerusalem wasn’t the only church that gathered together on a daily basis. Some thirty years later, the writer of Hebrews exhorts the Christians to “encourage one another daily” (Heb. 3:13). And yet today, in most contemporary churches, the only fellowship time that one gets is two minutes when the pastor says, “Turn around and greet the people behind you.”
On Sunday mornings, we clock in and we clock out. Granted, we may grab a little more time in the parking lot as we make a beeline to our car. But can we really call that fellowship? Let’s be honest: For many Christians, the church is simply an event one attends once or twice a week, and that’s all.
(3) The Family is Community not CorporationAgain, the New Testament writers never use the imagery of a business corporation to depict the church. Unlike many modern “churches,” the early Christians knew nothing of spending colossal figures on building programs and projects at the expense of bearing the burdens of their fellow brethren.
In this way, many contemporary churches have essentially become nothing more than high-powered enterprises that bear more resemblance to General Motors than they do to the apostolic community.
A great many churches have succumbed to the intoxicating seductions of an individualistic, materialistic, business-oriented, consumer-driven, self-serving society. And when everything is boiled down, the success of the enterprise rests upon the shoulders of the CEO—the pastor.
In short, the church that’s introduced to us in Scripture is a loving household, not a business. It’s a living organism, not a static organization. It’s the corporate expression of Jesus Christ, not a religious corporation. It’s the community of the King, not a well-oiled hierarchical machine.
As such, when the church is functioning according to its nature, it offers:
• interdependence instead of independence
• wholeness instead of fragmentation
• participation instead of spectatorship
• connectedness instead of isolation
• solidarity instead of individualism
• spontaneity instead of institutionalization
• relationship instead of programs
• servitude instead of dominance
• enrichment instead of insecurity
• freedom instead of bondage
• community instead of corporation
• bonding instead of detachment.
In the language of the apostles, the church is composed of infants, little children, young men, brothers, sisters, mothers, and fathers—the language and imagery of family (1 Cor. 4:15; 1 Tim. 5:1–2; James 2:15; 1 John 2:13–14).
(The above article has been adapted from Reimagining Church. Visit www.ReimaginingChurch.org for details.)
Frank Viola is an author, conference speaker, and church planter. He is the author of Pagan Christianity? (co-authored with George Barna) and the new book, Reimagining Church (David C. Cook, 2008) which presents a powerful vision of organic church life that’s marked by authentic community, Christ-centerdness, and meetings where every member of the body ministers according to his or her gifts.