Saturday, July 11, 2009

Reflecting (On) What's Wrong, Part 14

Recognizing Family As the Primary Image of Church

I lived the first eighteen years of my life on planet Earth with my mom, my dad, and, for the last fourteen of those eighteen, my younger brother. We also had a couple of dogs, a cat, and some goldfish along the way. As a child I got to know four uncles, four aunts, and seven cousins. I was fortunate to know all four of my grandparents during my growing up years. On rare occasion, I met second cousins, great aunts and great uncles, and a few people who were related but nobody was able to explain exactly how. I think they may have been something with “twice removed” in the title, or as Clark Griswold says in the movie Christmas Vacation, “my cousin-in-law.” At any rate, I grew up in a family of four, but I had regular contact with a family of a few dozen, and rare contact with a few dozen more. I suspect that is how it is for a lot of people. That was family. It had its golden moments, it had its difficult moments, but mostly it had its ordinary moments. All in all, it was a good thing.

Now I’m married and have three kids of my own. We moved from Las Vegas to the northern suburbs of Indianapolis a few years ago, mainly in order to allow our kids to know a similar experience of family as we had known growing up. We wanted them to know their grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and yes, even to meet their cousins-in-law twice-removed-type relatives. It is important to understanding life. And I have come to believe that it is also an important aspect of our understanding of church.

If Not "Place Where," Then What?

Instead of just criticizing the non-profit organization assumption for what church is, I would like to propose a different assumption for what church is like. Actually, I’m not proposing this assumption at all. Instead, it is found throughout the New Testament. But it is one of those things that is so obvious that it is hidden, a literal example of not being able to see the forest for the trees.

The concept I am talking about can be stated this way: family is the primary image of church. What I mean is, the New Testament is full of familial terms used to describe church. Therefore, we should start thinking of church being more like a family (both nuclear and extended) and less like an organization.

Brother & Sister

The most obvious example of familial language being used by the church is the whole idea of Christ-followers often refer to each other as “brother” and “sister.” Though this language has taken on a slightly different connotation in the church of today, it is rooted in language straight from the New Testament by which the church was modeled after healthy family (see, for example, Romans 14:21, 1 Corinthians 8:13, Philemon 16, James 2:15-16, 1 John 2:9-11, 1 Timothy 5:1-2, among many others).

Father & Child

The New Testament is full of familial imagery. For example, God is referred to as our father to whom we cry out. We are described as God’s children in the kingdom (“You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus . . .” Galatians 3:26).

But Paul takes it one step farther when he uses the image of a father to describe his relationship with those who he is leading toward Christ: “I am not writing this to shame you, but to warn you, as my dear children. Even though you have ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. Therefore I urge you to imitate me.” 1 Corinthians 4:14-15. Even more surprising, perhaps, is that Paul uses the image of a mother to describe his relationship with those who he is leading toward Christ! He writes: “As apostles of Christ we could have been a burden to you, but we were gentle among you, like a mother caring for her little children.” 1 Thessalonians 2:6b-7.

Paul used father/son imagery to describe his relationship with Timothy. We often think of this today as a mentoring relationship, but mentoring is really a watering down of the powerful, and perhaps for many uncomfortable, image of father and son.

The Single Greatest Change We Could Make

I would like to make a bold assertion. I believe that the single greatest change the church should make in order to better understand who it is would be to replace all “corporate” language and imagery with “family” language and imagery. God chose to describe the church (His bride!) by family language, not by corporate language. While the corporate language we use may seem innocent enough, and may in fact be most useful in helping us make the church organization more efficient and more effective, it also has distorted our understanding of who we are to the point that we are sometimes uncomfortable when family language is used.

The Problem of Dysfunctional Families

Perhaps the reason why we are uncomfortable is because so many people have experienced dysfunctional families. Just like I am convinced that Father is the primary image by which we can understand God, that is difficult for many people to hear because they have had such poor relationship with their biological fathers that the idea of God as Father is, at best, an empty concept or, at worst, a downright frightening and unattractive idea.

Likewise, the idea of family as the primary image by which we understand church is difficult for those who come from dysfunctional families. And we all come from partially dysfunctional families, after all! Yet some people come from extremely dysfunctional families where abuse or neglect overshadowed everything else. For them, the family image for church may ring hollow or may be downright repulsive.

Redeeming the Imagery of Family

But the family image, though initially empty or unattractive, must be given its due. It must be allowed to redeem the concept of family, and for many, give a primary experience of family that was never received in the biological family. I believe God designed it so that we would first experience loving family with our parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, and then take what we learned there and apply it in the context of spiritual family (church). Yet in a world marked by dysfunctional families, it often has to work in the opposite order. In other words, many people now need to experience healthy spiritual family (church) that can model for them what family really is all about. The church needs to help redeem the concept of family for people so that those people can break free from the chains of unhealthy family life and be equipped to transform their biological families into healthy functioning communities.