Dr. Benjamin J. Williams
What Makes Us Family?
At its heart Christianity is the gospel of Jesus Christ. A church is a group of people who share and participate in that gospel. Participation in the gospel transforms these people both individually and collectively.
Individually, they become saints.
Collectively, they become family.
So, what makes a Christian church a family?
First, we are family because we choose to act like it. Paul gives a simple code of conduct to Timothy in this regard.
“Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity” (1 Timothy 5:1–2).
Every relationship in a church is reshaped and redefined by participation in the gospel.
A Christian family does not see its members as a means to an end but as the end itself. We do not see the old among us as burdens but as fathers and mothers to be honored and cherished. We do not see the young as immature fools to be tolerated but as our children to be invested in and protected. We do not see our peers as rivals but as sisters and brothers of equal worth and dignity. Our chief motivation with each other is not exploitation (a characteristic of a false teacher in 2 Peter 2:3) but, rather, selfless and sacrificial love.
However, the creation of a family is not just a human activity. In a church, we are family because we love, and we love because we are loved. Love does not originate as a human enterprise. It is a heavenly gift “poured into our hears through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:5). Jesus says, “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. … This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:9-12).
The love we have for our Christian family begins in God’s love for us.
Another way to express the origin of love and family is to say that we are family because the Father calls us “children.” John narrates this point in his Gospel: “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12). John repeats the concept in his Epistles: “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are” (1 John 3:1).
And so we are!
The force who spoke the universe into existence with a word now decrees that we are his children. Who are we to argue? God “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist,” now creates a family out of misfits and reprobates simply by saying that we are his (Romans 4:17) .
The Father is not alone in calling us family. We are family because the Son calls us “mother and brother.” On one occasion, the biological family of Jesus arrives to see him, but he responds with an unexpected claim. “But he replied to the man who told him, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers!’” (Matthew 12:48-49). Likewise, in Luke’s account, “But he answered them, ‘My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.’” (Luke 8:21)
Having mentioned Father and Son, we should not now ignore the role of the Spirit in our family.
We are family because we have been adopted, and the Spirit is presented in Scripture as the agent of that adoption.
“For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:14–17).
The Spirit works within us to declare what the Father declared above us and the Son declared beside us. The Spirit transforms us into people who can recognize the Father as Father, and likewise who can treat other believers as sisters and brothers. When the world and even our own consciences deny our worth, the Spirit stands beside us and among us to say we are children of the King.
Finally, we must say that we are family because we are equally unworthy. No person in a church family is a privileged member or a favorite child. Christ himself is firstborn among many brethren (Romans 8:29), but the rest of us are here only by grace.
We are here because, like the Prodigal Son, we realized at some point that we would be better off as a servant in the Father’s house than lonely wanderers with no family at all (Luke 15:17-19). But having come to God in hopes of being a servant, the Father has claimed us as sons and daughters and set out a feast on the table (Luke 15:20-24).
In a world of loneliness and isolation, the gospel of Christ offers us family.
Dr. Benjamin Williams is the Senior Minister at the Central Church of Christ in Ada, Oklahoma and a regular writer at So We Speak. Check out his books The Faith of John’s Gospel and Why We Stayed or follow him on Twitter, @Benpreachin.