An obvious yes, right? Except, where does it say that?
You’re about to have a harder time than you expected. You might point to the use of genos in 1 Peter 2, though that’s usually translated ‘race’ and if we translated it family we would mean in the very broad sense that I and all British people are a ‘family.’ Which is not how we usually use the word. We’re a people or a clan, but it doesn’t carry the modern connotations of the word family.
Perhaps instead you would go to Acts 17, and point to the use of genos translated offspring, to show that if we’re God’s children we’re his family. The inference works, but it’s worth noting that Paul is addressing a crowd of unbelievers when he says that, and that we are again God’s children in the broad sense rather than the intimate sense here. Paul is describing our paternity and origin and therefore arguing what God is like rather than God’s intimate familial role.
Ok, perhaps instead we move to the language of God as our Father and of treating each other as brothers and sisters. There are numerous examples of both in the New Testament and you’d be right to do so. Sibling language implies family, right?
Sort of. It does, but—and this is my actual concern in asking this question—not in the way that most of us imagine. You say family to the average white, middle-classed person in the western world and they are picturing a nuclear family: a married couple and their children.
Is that what the Bible means? Not really, the sibling relationships pictured would be the much broader webs of familial relationships more common in other cultures today. The Bible uses the word ‘household’ a lot (e.g. Ephesians 2), which captures some of these broader realities. I haven’t yet found an occasion of ‘family’ to describe the people of God. Even the beloved phrase from the NIV that God sets ‘the lonely in families’ (Psalm 68) isn’t the best translation in my opinion: he sets the stranger in the house. Which in context is the Temple.
Does this matter? I think there are two reasons it does: it affects our language and it affects our expectations.
Language creates categories for us. What we call something is what it tends to be. When we call our churches families then certain people will love it, others will feel excluded.
For all it isn’t our intention, those who aren’t part of nuclear families will hear exclusion in the word: this church is not for me. However much we might try to backtrack and say that’s not true, you just told them it is, and you keep doing so in your explanations.
It’s notable as well the reaction I’ve seen on Twitter to churches that call themselves a family. Lots of people who have been burned by church see it is an immediate red flag. It’s not that hard to see why if you enter their worlds. Twitter is, of course, a noted hellscape; I’m not sure the vociferous reaction against the word family to be found there is as prevalent as those saying it would want us to think. Nevertheless, I think that should give us enough pause to check if we have good grounding for the terms we’re using.
Some people I greatly respect would say in response that family is ‘a biblical word worth fighting for’. If it were I’d be the first to join in. I think it’s worth keeping the awkward words (like ‘elder’) even when they’re confusing. I am team ‘make Christianity weird again.’ So, if you want to keep ‘family’ really lean into it and talk of the household of faith, call each other brother and sister, call ourselves the saints, and speak of the church as the Temple of God.
Unfortunately, I can find no real Biblical warrant for insisting on the use of the term family at all. If anything, it’s confusing and creates the wrong idea. Can we use it as an analogy? Of course, but we need to break down the natural confusion when we do by our words and our actions.
Family creates a certain image: these people are going to treat me like they treat their parents, their siblings, their children. I will be at their Christmas table. I’ll be given a housekey. We’ll hang out all the time.
That might be too intense for some, so they will run a mile. For others its deeply attractive, often for those without the picture-perfect nuclear family the idea of joining someone else’s is very appealing. And I think that’s what the church is meant to do for the single, the childless, the orphan, the widow.
The problem is that if we offer it all the time in our language we have to be very clear that we are actually offering it. Leaders that talk the talk have to ensure that some in the church get these invitations into their own lives and that they find ways to teach the congregation how to do this themselves. They will also have to pastor a lot of people disappointed about how difficult that vision is.
I love that vision. I think that vision is what the church is meant to be like. And, from experience, over-promising and under-delivering doesn’t do the people of God any favours. It is hard work to get people to live like this. Start with your own life, start to talk about that publicly once it’s happening, teach the vision and slowly see it change by describing the sort of household, the sort of community, that the church is meant to be.
If you promise it up front without a lot of talking about how you aren’t there yet, you’ll leave a lot of jaded people by the road who won’t be able to wait until you’re ready to actually do that for them.
What’s the take away? The church is a community of people who are supposed to treat each other as siblings. We live in a culture that makes that unnatural for us. Before we try and claim we’re a family, let’s learn how to be a household.
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