Last Sunday, after the final blessing, our minister handed the microphone to Kathy. Two weeks earlier Kathy’s grandfather had fallen at church and ended up in the hospital. Kathy wanted to thank everyone who had helped her care for “Gramps” on that day, and to report that he was recovering well.
Kathy brings Gramps to church every week. She takes his arm as they walk, helps him to sit and to stand, and shows him where we are on the service outline.
Kathy’s loving care has had affected our whole church. Others have now become more attentive to Gramps and to the other elderly church members. On the weeks when Kathy gets up to play the piano, other people now lean forward to show Gramps which song we are singing. When an elderly person is struggling to get up, people notice and offer an arm.
Who’s Your Family?
Some people argue we should see our church as our “first family.” Jesus certainly refocused membership in God’s family: Now anyone can join the family not by bloodline, but by faith in him (John 1:12–13; Gal. 3:6–9). God’s family now grows primarily through the spread of the gospel, not the birth of children (Matt. 28:19–20). Consequently, those without spouse or children have a valued place and purpose in the family of faith (Matt. 19:1–12; 1 Cor. 7:32–35).
In cases of conflicting loyalties, Jesus did say, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). If we’re forced to choose, it’s better to stay alone in the family of God than to leave it for the sake of finding or pleasing an earthly family.
Churches and biological families should be collaborators, not competitors.
But Jesus and his followers also clearly valued natural families. Jesus, affirming the commandments, called people to be faithful in marriage (Matt. 19:1–9) and to honor their parents (Mark 7:9–13). The apostles said it was good for most people to marry and have children (e.g., 1 Cor. 7:8–9; 1 Tim. 5:14). They still wrote to people as wives and husbands, parents and children.
All of this has convinced me that churches and biological families should be collaborators, rather than competitors.
Family: A Model
Natural family relationships provide the model for relationships within the family of God. When Jesus announced that “whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Matt. 12:50), he was using well-known categories of relationship. Similarly, Paul advised: “Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father” (1 Tim 5:1–2). We only know how to treat someone as if they were our brother, sister, mother, or father if we understand the dynamics of those different biological relationships.
In Bible times, a family was much more than a private haven of affection: it was a productive unit spanning generations. Nancy Pearcey, in Love Thy Body, explains:
Before the Industrial Revolution, the home performed a host of practical functions. It was the place where people educated children, cared for the sick and elderly, ran family industries, served customers and the community, and produced a surplus to help the poor. The home reached out to the wider society.
Accordingly, belonging to the “household of God” (1 Tim. 3:15) means more than just spending quality time together. It means people of all generations working shoulder to shoulder in the family business: sharing the love of Jesus in both word and deed.
Family: A School
The best practical training I’ve received for my ministry to children has been motherhood. Likewise, Paul saw fatherhood as a good training and proving ground for church leadership: “If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?” (1 Tim. 3:5).
Our daily interactions at home force us to practice interpersonal skills like communicating clearly, listening and empathizing, setting realistic expectations, motivating others and helping them cope with disappointment, resolving conflicts, and helping people to mature. Family life equips us for serving the church.
Family: A Care Network
In addition to gathering individuals, churches bring together family groups. And, under normal circumstances, our natural family will still be our primary source of practical care.
The early church expected widows to be cared for by their own family:
If a widow has children or grandchildren, these should learn first of all to put their religion into practice by caring for their own family. . . Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. (1 Tim. 5:4, 8)
Even as members of the church, biological ties of care and responsibility still bind us. Parents bear the ultimate responsibility to care for their own children; children bear the ultimate responsibility to care for their aging parents and grandparents. Churches should honor and support these bonds.
Family: A Mission Base
Initially, most churches met in homes: families were mission bases. Entire households heard, believed, and spread the gospel together (e.g., Acts 16:30–34; Rom. 16:10–15).
The home is still where much of the church’s mission takes place. Home is where we extend hospitality; home is where we cook meals for those in need; home is where we share our faith—in word and deed—with those closest to us; home is where the next generation learns the ways of God.
Christian families should be strong at the core but flexible around the edges. Strong relationships within the family—between husband and wife, parents and children, older and younger generations—enable a family to extend their loving community to include outsiders.
Theologian Alastair Roberts describes it this way:
The language of “family” for church very much depends on the church being made up of natural families. What gives the church its backbone of community is often the families that are opened up to the kingdom of God. That’s what gives the church so much of its capacity to function as an extended family.
Our churches will become stronger not by denouncing love for family as “idolatrous,” but by calling on families to open themselves up to gospel priorities.
Church: A New Family?
In most cases, the church won’t replace our natural family. Instead, we must let the gospel reorient our family relationships—and in turn, these new priorities will strengthen the church.
As a teenager, I came into the family of God alone: I took myself to church while my family stayed home. There I found a loving spiritual family who welcomed me in and showed me the ways of God. Yet all the while I continued to be a sister, daughter, and granddaughter within my natural family.
My family of birth still stays at home every Sunday while I go to church. But I no longer go alone. In time, God blessed me with a husband and children who love Jesus. And I pray that one day, God will also give me a granddaughter like Kathy—whether biological or spiritual—who will take me by my aging arm and lead me into church.