Is the Church a Family of Families?
Any church that does not look like the ‘norm’ is always trying to explain itself. This is a fact we know all too well at Grace Family Baptist Church. We explain ourselves to those who visit us, those who call us trying to determine if it is a good idea to visit, those who are interested in finding or starting a church like ours, and those who are sure that we are some kind of “Patriarchy” cult. Sometimes we explain ourselves in painstaking detail. At other times we use shorthand. One example of that ‘shorthand’ is our ubiquitous and somewhat enigmatic statement, “The church is a family of families.”
For some people, this captures the essence of the distinction between the FIC, and the neo-traditional church.1 For others, their presuppositions, and/or misconceptions about the FIC (along with the lack of clarity inherent in the phrase) get in the way. This last group ranges from people who simply wish we were clearer in our statement, to those who find in the ‘family of families’ terminology the theological ‘smoking gun’ for which they have searched in an effort to discredit this “extreme overreaction” to the current crisis in contemporary youth ministry.2
We recognize that this may be an unnecessary stumbling block for those with a genuine interest in the Family Integrated Church concept, as well as those attempting to explain it to others. Therefore, allow me to offer a bit of clarity as to what we mean when we use the term ‘family of families’ to describe the church.
What We Are Not Saying
Before explaining what we mean when we use the term ‘family of families,’ it may be helpful to explain what we are not trying to say when we use the term.
We Are Not Commenting On the Nature of the Church
One of the prevalent arguments in the FIC discussion is the idea that ‘family of families’ is a “hyper-covenantal” concept that re-defines the nature of the church. This criticism ranges from the absurd, to the subtle. On the absurd front, there are a host of critics whose interaction with this concept is often dishonest, unkind, and deceitful. On the other end, there are those whose work is both helpful, and irenic.
For example, Michael Lawrence, in is 9Marks review of my book, Family Driven Faith offers this critique:
The church is not a family of families. The church is the family of God (1 Pet. 4:17; 1 Tim. 3:15). This means it’s a family of believers who have been grafted into Christ and so adopted into God’s family (see Jn 15; Eph. 1:4-6; 2:19; Gal. 4:1-7). It may seem like a small point, but the shift in emphasis makes a difference.3
Amen! I agree wholeheartedly. This is indeed the ‘nature’ of the church, and if I were commenting on the nature of the church, I could not have said it better. However, the nature of the church is not what I had in mind. In fact, I made this point both in the book under review, and in a personal correspondence with 9Marks (unfortunately to no avail). Thus, instead of Lawrence stressing the need for clarity (a critique I readily accept), he branded the ‘family of families’ concept as heterodoxy. And his assessment has led to confusion and criticism on the part of some (especially from people who never bothered to read the book).
Let me be clear about what our church believes (and teaches) concerning the nature of the church. We are a confessional Baptist Church. The Confession of Faith with which we identify most closely is the London Baptist Confession of 1689. Thus, when we define the church theologically, we do so in accordance with our Confession:
In the execution of this power wherewith he is so entrusted, the Lord Jesus calls out of the World unto himself, through the ministry of his word, by his Spirit, those that are given unto him by his Father; that they may walk before him in all the ways of obedience, which he prescribes to them in his Word. Those thus called he commands to walk together in particular societies, or Churches, for their mutual edification; and the due performance of that public worship, which he requires of them in the World (LBC Chapter XXVI.5).
This is our understanding of the nature of the church (along with the rest of the LBC statement). When we use the term ‘family of families’ we are not addressing the nature of the church. Let me say that again V-E-R-R-Y S-L-O-W-L-Y… THE TERM FAMILY OF FAMILIES IS NOT A COMMENT ON THE NATURE OF THE CHURCH!
The difference between the FIC and the neo-traditional church is not a matter of the nature, but the structure of the church. In fact, we argue that our model is much more in keeping with the proper theological understanding of the nature of the church, which would explain why age integration was the model for the New Testament church for nearly 2,000 years before the neo-traditional, age segregated transformation turned the church into isolated segments as opposed to a single, unified body. Thus, those who divide the church into artificial, culturally-defined cliques (children, students, college/career, young marrieds, old marrieds, senior adults, etc.) are the ones who have a difficult time fitting their model into the understanding both Lawrence and I share.
We Are Not Commenting On Membership in the Church
Not only has the ‘family of families’ terminology led to confusion about our view of the nature of the church, for some the concept has led to a misunderstanding about our view on church membership. For example, some people read the ‘family of families’ concept through a “hyper covenantal” lens and assume we believe in family membership. Though I cannot say for certain that there are no FICs that view membership this way, I can say that such is not the case at GFBC. Membership in GFBC is, and has always been individual.
As Baptists, we view believer’s baptism (by immersion) as the gateway to membership in the local church. Hence, children (or anyone else for that matter) who have not experienced believer’s baptism are not eligible for membership. What’s more, we do not administer baptism prior to age twelve! 4 Therefore, it should be clear that our use of the term ‘family of families’ is not intended to re-define the nature of, or membership in the local church. In the part two we will turn to the affirmative case.
- 1.This term is not meant to be derogatory. I use the term neo-traditional because the concept of segregating church members according to age and/or stage of life, although common, is actually a very recent phenomenon. Age integrated churches were the norm until the last half-century or so.
- 2.To those of us on the inside, the FIC is a return to biblical ecclesiology, not a reaction to trends. The trends simply point out the failure of the neo-traditional model. The FIC represents reformation, not reaction.
- 3.Michael Lawrence, “Book Review: Family Driven Faith,” available at http://www.9marks.org/partner/Article_Display_Page/0,,PTID314526|CHID598026|CIID2438258,00.html
4.We recognize the fact that this age is arbitrary. However, any age we choose would be arbitrary. If a church refuses to baptize prior to age five, that decision is arbitrary. There are a number of reasons we have chosen age twelve (though there is not sufficient space to discuss those here), and we do not argue that a person cannot be converted prior to this age. This is merely a pastoral decision related to our responsibility to evaluate baptismal candidates.
What We Are Trying to Say
Perhaps it will be helpful to describe the origin of the term ‘family of families’ within the GFBC context. As we were meeting to form the core group that would ultimately plant GFBC, we had a number of discussions about the distinctives of the new work. During that discussion, the term ‘corporate church’ was used frequently to describe the neo-traditional model (corporate church is much easier to say and explain). In an effort to explain the distinction, we asked the question, “Is the church a corporation, or is it more like a family of families?” It was from this discussion that the term ‘family of families’ was born.
We Are Commenting On the Structure of the Church
Essentially, the term ‘family of families’ refers not to the nature, but to the distinctive structure of the FIC. We talk about families the way the neo-traditional church talks about Sunday school classes. Thus, for instance, when we say things like, “the family is the evangelism and discipleship arm of the church,” what we are saying is that we view the home the way the neo-traditional church has viewed the Sunday school class. Whereas most churches look to their Sunday school classes to do discipleship and outreach, we look to individual homes (we don’t have Sunday school).
Though apparently unsuccessful, I did attempt to make this point in Family Driven Faith. I wrote:
In other words, this is not a problem that will be fixed by fads, programs, or personalities. This is a problem that must be addressed one home at a time. The answer to our current crisis is a renewed commitment to biblical evangelism and discipleship in and through our homes. You and I as individual parents must begin to take responsibility for the spiritual well-being and development of our children. We must commit ourselves to family driven faith. More importantly, churches must facilitate this commitment (Family Driven Faith, pp. 189-90).
In his review, Lawrence viewed this statement as a matter of “plac[ing] the church at the service of a newly defined set of consumers.” He went on to conflate the last sentence in this paragraph with a section on “Evangelism and Discipleship in and Through Homes” as the basis for his critique on my position on the ‘nature’ of the church. This is unfortunate, to say the least. Perhaps the line could have been drawn more clearly, but this is far from the heretical view of the church with which GFBC has been branded since Lawrence’s review appeared.
We Are Commenting On the Symbiotic Relationship Between Church and Family
Much of the criticism of the FIC, and specifically the term ‘family of families,’ has centered on the problem of “Continuity between the Covenants.” In other words, some view the idea of family of families as an attempt to extend the concept of Old Testament Israel into a New Testament paradigm. While I have already answered this question, there is another issue at hand. This is less a matter of misinterpretation of what we believe, and more a matter of misplaced disagreement.
While we do not see the biological family in the New Testament Church as a continuation of ethnic Israel, we also do not agree with the oversimplified lines of demarcation laid down by some critics. For example, critics repeatedly quote passages like:
“And his mother and his brothers came, and standing outside they sent to him and called him. And a crowd was sitting around him, and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers are outside, seeking you.” And he answered them, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking about at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.”” (Mark 3:31-35 ESV)
“For from now on in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”” (Luke 12:52-53 ESV)
“Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.” (Matthew 10:21-22 ESV)
We agree with every one of these! In fact, we have seen it in our church. Any believer who is serious about his or her walk with Christ knows the reality of the division that often comes between those who follow Christ and their families who do not. Our church is filled with people who have experienced this unfortunate reality. However, this is a separate issue.
What does this have to do with Ephesians 6:1-4? Does this mean that fathers are not really responsible to raise their own children in the “discipline and instruction of the Lord”, but should instead make a commitment only to those regenerate children who are their ‘true’ family in Christ? When Jesus says, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple,” (Luke 14:26) has he negated Paul’s command to husbands to “love their wives as Christ loves the church”? (Eph. 5:25)? This is absurd!
Moreover, what do we do with passages like 1 Timothy 5:3-8:
“Honor widows who are truly widows. But if a widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn to show godliness to their own household and to make some return to their parents, for this is pleasing in the sight of God. She who is truly a widow, left all alone, has set her hope on God and continues in supplications and prayers night and day, but she who is self-indulgent is dead even while she lives. Command these things as well, so that they may be without reproach. But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”
Is the apostle overturning the teaching of Jesus? Was Paul unaware of the Lord’s command to “hate his father and mother”? (Luke 14:26) Is this text to be taken figuratively? Are the widow’s “children and grandchildren” who are responsible to take care of her really the young men and women of the church who “do the will of [the] father”? Or have those who insist on reading the aforementioned statements as a literal abolishment of the commitment to biological family merely pressing the Lord’s words too far?
The New Testament certainly teaches that our allegiance to the Lord trumps all. However, it does not teach that the biological family, and our responsibilities therein have somehow been abolished. Jesus even rebukes those who neglect their duty to their biological family when he says:
“And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban’ (that is, given to God)— then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do.”” (Mark 7:9-12)
Here we have Jesus (like Paul in Eph. 5) reiterating the fifth commandment and its transcendent, perpetual, New Covenant relevance. Has he argued for a continuation of the Old Covenant? No! Has he somehow made salvation biological in nature? Absolutely not! But he also in no way minimizes the role of the family in the New Testament Church.
We are all capable of overstatement and oversimplification. Perhaps the ‘family of families’ concept is just that. We must recognize the fact that we are communicating a very new and radically different concept to people, and as such we cannot assume anything. We cannot assume that people will understand our terminology, or even give us the benefit of the doubt. We cannot assume that people will read our words without filling them with meanings born out of presuppositions, prejudices, and sometimes a desire to misrepresent what we have said. Nor can we assume that we have been as clear as we can be.
In conclusion, the term “family of families” is not an attempt to comment on the nature of, or membership in the local church. The phrase is a comment on the structure of the church and the symbiotic relationship between the church and the home in the discipleship process. The home is merely a delivery mechanism designed to reinforce and extend the message and teaching of the church. Far from being a radical approach to church, this concept is as old as they come:
“Paul’s conversion approach to urban missions was family-centered. The households mentioned in the New Testament (Acts 16:15; 1 Cor. 1:16; Gal. 6:10) were not unlike the extended families and kinship ties found in Southern (frequently called “Third”) world countries today,…and paul used these households to establish the faith in each area he evangelized. (Roger S. Greenway, Timothy M. Monsma, Cities: Missions’ New Frontier, Baker, 2000)
Doesn’t this make sense? Is there a tool that can compare to the family when it comes to making connections through which the truth of the gospel can be transmitted? Even the neo-traditional church understands this concept and attempts to build on it (i.e., attempting to reach parents through the kids). How then is the “family of age-defined cliques” concept more appropriate than the “family of families” concept when it comes to the structures through which the church mobilizes its people for evangelism and discipleship?
Every person is part of a family. There are single adults who come to our churches alone and live hundreds, or thousands of miles away from the rest of their family. Nevertheless, they have a family. Moreover, we all have responsibilities to and opportunities within our families. Through the ‘family of families’ concept, we are merely trying to impress upon people the importance of viewing the home as the primary launching pad for the gospel in everyday life.
Whether it is daily family worship, the education of our children in the home, or the ministry of hospitality (with a view toward sharing the gospel with our neighbors in the context of our homes), we use the ‘family of families’ concept to help people understand that the church is not a building where people go to meet; nor is it an organization charged with the evangelization of the nations. On the contrary, the church is a body of believers, all of whom come from, live in, and/or will more than likely establish… families. What a great tool for spreading the gospel:
Parents, children, servants, slaves, visitors, relatives and friends all heard the gospel preached in the environment of the home, and there Paul generally made his first converts… The first and most basic lessons concerning the nature of the church as the household of God (Gal. 6:10; Eph. 2:19) were taught at the very beginning of the Pauline mission in each city as the faith was planted in the extended family of the Greek household. There, along God-appointed covenant lines, the gospel could travel its swiftest course until even distant relatives might be converted. (Greenway & Monsma)
There has only been one man in history who did not have a family. Interestingly, this man’s ‘aloneness’ was the occasion upon which God first used the phrase, “it is not good…” (Genesis 2:18) Moreover, God soon remedied Adam’s aloneness by making “a helper fit for him” (Genesis 2:18 ESV). Since then, we have all been born into families.
As a church, we simply prefer this ‘biblical’ category to the ones forced upon us by the culture. Thus, if we have to choose between a structure that resembles the modernist, secular humanist government education system (divided by age/clique in a Sunday “school”) and the one found everywhere in Scripture, we choose the latter; not as an attempt to redefine the nature and essence of the church, but simply to reassess its structure. All of this is done with a view toward fulfilling the Great Commission with the greatest possible fidelity to the text. If our ‘family of families’ terminology has communicated anything else, please forgive us.