The New Testament uses certain pictures to describe the church, and each one brings out aspects of our corporate lives together as believers that we need to know about. For instance, we are likened to both a harvest field and a building (1 Corinthians 3v9), to a spiritual house (1 Peter 2v5) and a flock of sheep (Hebrews 13v20). There are other pictures too, and we can profit from the wealth of insight that each gives, but they are clearly not intended to be taken literally. (If any of you literally feel yourselves to be sheaves of corn in a field then perhaps you would sway gently in the wind for a moment or two. Likewise, any sheep amongst you might declare yourselves with a corporate “Baahh”.)
There is, however, one particular picture to which I want to draw special attention, but only to demonstrate that it isn’t actually a picture at all, but is meant to be understood quite literally. And it is the description in God’s Word of Christians being the Lord’s family! Throughout the New Testament Christians are referred to as being brothers and sisters and God is said to be our Father in Heaven. With that in mind now get this:
“Yet to all who received Him (Jesus), to those who believed on His name, he gave the right to become children of God – children not born of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” (John 1v12-13)
Not only are we said to be brothers and sisters because we are following the Lord and are therefore part of His Church, we have actually become part of that Church by being born again into it. What we have here is family, family, family – and it is all quite literal! People who have the same Father are all part of the same family; it’s as simple and straightforward as that!
And of course this is the defining truth of the Christian Church regardless of which particular mode of its existence one is speaking of; and in that regard we must take a quick look at what the theologians like to refer to as firstly, the Church Universal, and secondly, the Church Militant. Now by Church Universal is meant every believer who has existed, or who doesexist, or who will exist. Therefore, in its most comprehensive form, the Christian Church includes believers who are long dead and with the Lord in Heaven, believers who are currently alive, and all those who aren’t even born yet but who will follow the Lord in the future. Church Militant, however, is a smaller part of that comprehensive whole and refers to all those Christians currently alive on the earth; and of course this can be broken down even more into believers in whole countries, in geographical areas, in cities and towns and villages, right down to the smallest unit of individual local churches meeting in people’s homes. Perhaps we could abandon the traditional jargon at this point though as I rather prefer to think of it like this:
The Church Throughout Time – Here we have every believer past, present and future! (This would, of course, include Dr Who and his fellow Time Lords, as well as sundry inter-and trans-dimensional travellers and inhabitants of all the fourth to ninth continuums plus various other spatial anomalies. That’s a joke, by the way!)
The Church Throughout Space – This includes every believer alive now in the present moment, wherever they may be. (Here we would have to count in charismatic Klingons, redeemed Romulans and elect Extra-Terrestrials of whatever species. Don’t worry! Just another joke!)
The Local Church – Individual churches in people‘s homes, including American ones. (The big advantage of thinking in this way is that I can include my childhood heroes Captain Kirk and the Crew of the Starship Enterprise in on things a bit. I have long held that they must be Christians if only because they’re so squeaky clean and brave and self-sacrificial and bold and idealistic and prejudice-free and…and…and, well…errr…you know…American!!!!!)
So, the Word of God tells us that church is family, whether it be the Christian Church Universal (throughout space and time), or part of the Church Militant (throughout space) locally in any one individual and particular corporate gathering in someone‘s home. God is indeed our Father, and Jesus is our elder brother. And of course if you tie this in with the biblical teaching that the Church comprises those people in whom the Lord lives, then we arrive at the simple and wonderful truth of the Lord simply living with His family: and of course living with one’s family is the most natural thing in the world! It is revealing too that when Jesus said, “…I will build my church…” (Matthew 16v18) the word used by the writer for build is oikodomeo, which specifically means to build a house. And of course your house is where you live with your family. Indeed, one could legitimately translate this, “…I will build my house, my home, the church…” Everywhere we turn in the New Testament we find the same thing; churches are seen to be extended families of God’s children.
I don’t think that, thus far, anyone who believes the Bible would disagree with anything I’ve said. (Although I have heard that there are some who don’t believe that Captain Kirk and the crew of the Starship Enterprise literally exist. They must be incredibly few and far between though, and the chances of ever meeting one must be extremely small.) This is, after all, good solid fundamentalist conservative evangelical Bible believing stuff. But what I want to highlight now is the way in which the apostles, unlike the vast majority of believers since their time, established churches not to just be extended families of God in theory, but to actually function and behave as such in practice.
If you turn to the New Testament in order to enquire as to how churches were actually set up, that is, the way in which they functioned, then what you will find is that they met in someone’s home in order to talk and fellowship together, to encourage and enjoy one another, and to do so over a meal. What they emphatically did not have was a ‘church service’ or ritualistic religious rigmarole of any kind. Amazing though it may seem to you, the New Testament knows nothing whatsoever of church ‘services’. No, they simply came together in order to spend time with each other with the Lord. They talked and prayed together. They sang songs of praise and worship to the Lord; and they built each other up spiritually by teaching and encouraging one another from the Word of God. And all this they did in the context of the heart of their gathering being a meal they ate together in joyful acknowledgement of their guest of honor who, though not present physically, was nevertheless still with them by His Spirit, empowering them for their service to Him through the week to come. That, and nothing less, is what a gathering of a church, a little extended family of God, as described in the pages of the New Testament, was like, and that is why Jesus had the apostles establish churches in the specific and particular way they did. A family is neither an organization nor a corporation, and if you treat it, and have it function, as such, then you simply destroy everything that it is intended to be.
Can you imagine a family get-together organized on the lines of a religious meeting? Picture it with me! A senior patriarch of the family stands up the front (of course it’s in a public building and not the home of one of the family members) and all else present are seated in rows so that the personal contact of being face to face and actually looking at each other and relating together is precluded. From that point onwards all is directed from the front, the ‘audience’ being allowed varying degrees of involvement and interaction depending on each particular family. At some point the senior family member who is leading from the front gives a speech of varying duration, after which a morsel of bread for each adult present, and little sips of wine or grape juice, are distributed before everyone goes home. (More progressive families may, of course, provide a time for coffee and chit-chat afterwards.) Then, happy that duty has been done and that family responsibility has been satisfactorily expedited, all return hungrily to their individual homes in order to eat a meal and then to get on with the rest of the day.
Now that, I have to tell you, is not my idea of a family gathering. And neither is it the Lord’s idea of His extended family meeting together. What I think of as the shape of churches in the New Testament was both very deliberate and carefully implemented, and the design was intended precisely to produce personal relationships and mutual interaction, the very thing family is all about. Indeed, we know from the human biological family unit that if you change its shape from what it was designed by God to be; that is, a married man and a woman in a lifelong mutually loving and serving relationship, then what results is completely other than what the Lord intended. Whether families with parents who neither love and serve each other, or their children, as they should, or parents who divorce, or families with two daddies or two mummies, all these are dysfunctional families. They are families, to be sure according to the broadest allowable definition of such, but they are the wrong shape; and therefore function differently from the way they should. The children suffer most, of course, and rather than the security and safety of loving relationships, insecurity, with its corresponding indiscipline, takes over and anarchy, divisiveness and broken relationships soon follow.
And in precisely the same way, churches which aren’t based on the teachings, traditions and practices of Jesus and His apostles are, quite simply, the wrong shape. They are churches, to be sure (assuming, of course, that they are gatherings of genuine believers), but they are dysfunctional churches in that they function, act or behave like extended families; and for the simple reason that they were not set up to be families and therefore don’t behave or function like extended families when they meet.
Form follows function, and design must correlate directly with the practical purpose of a thing. Birds are meant to fly and so have wings whilst fish, being designed for an underwater existence, are provided with both gills and fins. So when the Lord passed on His design for churches through His apostles as recorded in the New Testament, it was a design which correlated exactly with what He intended those churches to be: His little extended families in local geographical areas! Had he intended churches to be organizations or religious corporations then we might have expected the blueprint to be somewhat different, but as it stands the New Testament pattern remains that of a church being an extended family, nothing less. Change the pattern, tamper with the design, alter the shape and you get something completely different from what Jesus actually envisioned and intended.
And of course the complete tragedy is that dysfunctional families are so much less than they should be – and likewise dysfunctional churches! The Lord intended we grow from spiritual babes into mature believers in the context of being part of the extended family of a particular and specific church. He intended we experience security, love, character formation – as well as the necessary discipline – in a group of brothers and sisters in the Lord sharing their lives together. My wife, Belinda, and I are so blessed to be the parents of a most wonderful little girl called Bethany (10 years old at the time of this latest revision) and we love her and joy in her more than we can possibly say. Indeed, we love her quite unconditionally. Our relationship with her is primarily that of fun and laughter, and of teaching her all the wonderful things she needs to know: but part of it as well is the need for the discipline of child-training and character building, and even at times, though it gives us no pleasure, punishment when she has been particularly naughty. But the point is that she receives such measures from the very people who do love her quite unconditionally, her parents. We don’t love her any less should she, on occasions, be bad, and neither do we love her any more when she is being good. We just love her absolutely, and quite unconditionally, to bits.
And so it is with being part of a church that is based on the New Testament in which those who comprise it literally believe themselves to be a spiritual extended family. The task of maturing and correcting each other, of spurring one another on to live holy lives, is meant to be in the context of the love between brothers and sisters, of family where all are ultimately struggling with the same problems and weaknesses, and who can support, sympathize and identify with each other in all things.
Here is safety! Here is security! Here is reality! The reality of actually living as if we are the Lord’s family – and for the simple reason that we quite literally are! It’s safe! So very, very safe! And it’s so safe because it’s all based on the love the Lord has for us, a love as unconditional and as lacking in condemnation as you can get. Our unspeakably deep human need for belonging is met here; in being part of a little local extended family of God – known otherwise in scripture as a church!
So there you have it – the church as family! Indeed, the church is a family! The very extended family of God! That and that alone is the reason why churches in the New Testament were established and set up by the apostles in the particular way that they were. Let’s remind ourselves what we have seen thus far concerning what I am referring to as the shape of biblical churches:
• Groups of believers met together as churches on the first day of the week
• When they did so it was in the homes of those who comprised each church.
• When believers came together in each others houses as churches their corporate worship and sharing together was completely open and spontaneous and participatory with no one leading from the front. (Indeed, in a lounge in a house there isn’t a ‘front’ for anyone to lead from. Remember, the early believers didn’t have anything that even vaguely looked like a ‘church service’.)
• As part of their proceedings they ate the Lord’s Supper as a full meal; indeed, as their main meal of the day, commonly referring to it as the love-feast.
• They understood each church to be an extended family unit (the idea of churches being institutions or organizations would have been totally alien to them), and practiced non-hierarchical plural male leadership that arose from within the church it would subsequently lead. This indigenous eldership (elder, pastor/ shepherd, bishop/overseer being synonymous terms in the New Testament) sought to lead consensually wherever possible, and was understood to be purely functional and not in any way positional. Decision-making lay with the whole church and not just the elders.
Think about it for one moment! It’s perfect, isn’t it! Churches are meant to be extended families, and so the Word of God gives us the pattern of how they are to therefore function and operate. And when we do look at that blueprint and pattern, what do we find? We find, in every sense of the term, a family-type gathering. God is our Father, Jesus is our big brother, and others in the church with us are our brothers and sisters. Wow! I like that! And so, it seems, does Jesus! It was, after all, His idea in the first place!