I'm Thankful the Church Is a Family

Growing up, we had three big holidays. Resurrection Sunday, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. We did some things for Memorial Day and Fourth of July. But the big three were the big three. Each different. Each distinct. I’ve departed from my family by squishing them all together, but that is beside the point.
Thanksgiving was the holiday were we ate a bunch. It was all about the meal. And we opened our table to anyone who wanted to come. In college, my folks lived right around the corner from my school. So, we would bring home college friends who couldn’t make it back home. We adopted them for the day. One Thanksgiving, we had more friends than family, almost twenty people. We actually had to make another leaf for the table and supports for the ends.
So many good memories. Anyone who sat at our Thanksgiving table had to pay toll. Not in money or in food. No one had to bring anything. But, after the meal, and before the dessert, we went around the table and shared two things we were thankful for.
Sometimes, the thankfulness was trite or funny, which was okay. But, most of the time, there was a depth and we shared the blessings of God through hardship or disappointment or grief. No Thanksgiving went by without tears running down our faces.
Those times are important. They are necessary.
In honor of Thanksgiving, I am going to talk about two things I am thankful for in the church of Jesus Christ. One thing this week and one thing next week.
In all honesty, these two subjects are things that I have preached on four years ago, but the concepts are so important, that I need to repeat them, especially since, we have a different church now than we did then.
This week, I am thankful that God designed his church to be a family. Some of you when I say this will immediately think of dysfunctional families, maybe the one you grew up in. And there is a pain that you feel.
Unfortunately, our sin and the sin of those around us, taint the picture that God has tried to paint through his people. But, that sin does not have to define that picture. We just need to grab a cloth and some paint thinner and carefully wipe away that stain to see the glorious work of art that God intended.
God has designed his church to be a good family.
Will you pray with me.
Let’s talk about the church as a family.

1. How Is the Church a Family?

First, some theology.
Lee Eclov decided to study this concept of the church as a family and wrote a book called Feels Like Home. In my study of the church as a family, I have pulled some information from his book. If anyone wants to read it, it is exceptional. I will gladly loan it to you.

A. Biblical Theology

Scripture is littered with verses about Christians being a family or part of a house. We have references to “brothers and sisters, to God as our Father, to Jesus as both our Bridegroom and Elder Brother, to the essential loving unity of God’s family, and to the household environment of holiness, spiritual nurture, and safety.”
Consider 1 Tim. 3:15:
1 Timothy 3:15 NIV
if I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth.
How about Eph 2:19?
Ephesians 2:19 NIV
Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household,
And then there is:
Hebrews 3:6 NIV
But Christ is faithful as the Son over God’s house. And we are his house, if indeed we hold firmly to our confidence and the hope in which we glory.
There are so many comparisons between the Church and family that many people refer to this as the most significant metaphor in the Bible for the church. However, this is not a metaphor.
“God’s household is the very definition of the church. We are not like a household or a family. We are one.”
Psalm 68:4-6 speaks prophetically of a time when God would create a new family:
Psalm 68:4–6 NIV
Sing to God, sing in praise of his name, extol him who rides on the clouds; rejoice before him—his name is the Lord. A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling. God sets the lonely in families, he leads out the prisoners with singing; but the rebellious live in a sun-scorched land.
The minute we accept Christ as our savior, we are placed into a new family, with God as our Father, Jesus as our older brother, and every other believer as our brothers and sisters. This literally happens.
Just because this is true, doesn’t mean that we naturally interact this way. In America, we don’t naturally understand what this looks like. So, I ask you to step back in time with me to see how the early church viewed this fact that we are literally part of God’s family, literally brothers and sisters with each other.

B. Historical Theology

In the New Testament, Christians are referred to as brothers and sisters 139 times. Every single time this reference is made, the original readers did a double take. This was radical language.
“During New Testament times, no one called someone a brother or sister who wasn’t a blood relative.”
We do it all the time now. Society has taken Biblical imagery and applied it to other areas of life. Military units are called a band of brothers. High school girls will say that this person isn’t just their friend, it is their sister. And such like.
But this never occurred in New Testament times. The concept of family “at that time was radically different than ours.”
Joseph Hellerman wrote a book called When the Church Was a Family. In this book, he explains three principles of family during the New Testament times:
#1 “In the New Testament world the group took priority over the individual.”
#2 “In the New Testament world a person’s most important group was his blood family.”
#3 “In the New Testament world the closest family bond was not the bond of marriage. It was the bond of siblings.”
Hellerman concludes: “I trust that you are beginning to see why we cannot simply import our American idea of what it means to be a brother or sister into our interpretation of the New Testament. ‘Brother’ meant immeasurably more to the strong-group authors of the Bible than the word means to you and me—it was their most important family relationship. At this point you are now prepared, perhaps for the first time ever, to properly appreciate what the early Christians meant when they referred to one another as brothers and sisters in Christ.”
Peter in 2 Peter 1:7 uses the term “brotherly love” Philadelphian.
2 Peter 1:5–7 NIV
For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love.
The New Testament is the only place where this word is used outside of the context of home. This is radical teaching. “A first century reader would therefore come across it here with a sense of shock; Peter really does mean that Christians should have a quality of relationships which is demonstrably different and satisfying, demanding high and new loyalty.”
With all this in mind, consider the radicalness of Jesus in Mark 3:31-35
Mark 3:31–35 NIV
Then Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him. A crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, “Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.” “Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked. Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”
Jesus takes the most important group bond at that time and replaces it.
When we place our faith in Christ, God has given us new family, a first family, fellow believers, those who do the will of God.
“Our Christian brothers and sisters are our first family in Christ.”

C. Practical Theology

Some might bristle at this, saying that their first priority is to their family, and church should never get in the way. I would like to push back, based upon all this study of Scripture.
As a way of illustration for what I am to say next, consider marriages. If we love our spouses more than anything else in the world, we will not love our spouses well. We are called to love Christ first, and our spouses second. If we love Christ first, we will be able to love our spouses as we should. If we don’t love Christ first, we will not be able to love our spouses.
The same is true for the church. If we love our families more than God’s family, we will not be able to love our families as we should. But, if we love God’s family as our first family, we will be able to love our biological family as we should. God’s family will push us to honor God in our biological family.
Lee Eclov says: “I’ve seen too many Christian families who are not anchored in the relationships of God’s first family, the church. Christians are raising children who, like them, see church as an event, not a family; who see being with God’s people as an optional weekend activity. They skip church for all manner of activities, and do not regularly connect their family with others in the congregation.”
“We all know the dangers of parents who spend too little time with their kids.” Those of us who work in the Neligh schools can point out those kids easily. “But what of the dangers of Christian kids and their parents who have no sense that our Lord Jesus Christ expects them deeply engaged in loving relationships with other believers?”
David Kinnaman conducted a study among Millenials and found that “Millienials who stay in church were twice as likely to have a close personal friendship with an adult inside the church….This stands true from the inverse angle as well: Seven out of 10 Millenials who dropped out of church did not have a close friendship with an adult and nearly nine out of ten never had a mentor at the church.”
That’s why we have the youth mentoring program. So that our teens will have a close friendship with an adult in our church, other than their parents. I’m so grateful for the men in our church who developed a relationship with me, and I am looking forward to seeing them again in paradise.
If you are a teen, or if you have a teen, and they are not part of the youth mentoring program here, let me know. We’ll get them paired up.
We need each other. God has ordained us to need each other.
The church: “A big family of grandparents, parents, brothers, and sisters, all working with Jesus to make each and all of us more like Him.”
That is some theology of the church as family. Now, let us talk about some practical considerations.

2. How Should the Family Live?

Practically, first, we need to live as a family as we gather inside this building.

A. We Gather Together Inside

One of our goals as Calvary Bible Church is to present each person mature, working together to advance the glory of God. In a word, this calls for discipleship.
A disciple is someone who follows a teacher and imitates that teacher. Jesus said: “Go into all the world and make disciples of all nations, teaching them to observe everything that I have commanded you.” We train people to follow Christ and imitate him.
There are many different ways someone grows as a disciple. But, there is one main way that God has ordained discipleship to happen: within the church family as the family meets together.
In fact, this is the main reason we gather as a church, to disciple one another, not to evangelize. My number one priority is to shepherd the flock of Christ, to push you to maturity.
Joseph Hellerman says: “Spiritual formation occurs primarily in the context of community…. Long-term interpersonal relationships are the crucible of genuine progress in the Christian life. People who stay also grow. People who leave do not grow.”
“Jesus makes disciples in the environment of the church home.”
Ephesians 4:11–13 NIV
So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
Jesus gave people specific gifts for the purpose of discipleship, presenting each person mature, working together to advance the glory of God.
There are many people who try to live the Christian life on their own, and they train their children to live the Christian life on their own. They go through their weeks, probably listening to a verse now and then, or perhaps reading chapters of the Bible at a time, which is good, but they only stop in to visit a church event once a month, if that. And that doesn’t work.
Paul clearly teaches us that “Discipleship is not intended to be a solitary endeavor. It can only happen in the body of Christ, only in the unity of our church-home.”
There are some who would say that they are not spending much time in church discipleship opportunities because they are performing their own discipleship with their children at home.
But, this doesn’t work. Parents are commanded to train their children about God, but they don’t have the giftings to lead their child to complete maturity in Christ.
Consider a person’s physical diet. If someone eats only fruit, they are not going be healthy. If they eat only protein, they will not be healthy. Each person needs a well-balanced diet, with a variety of nutrients, from all the food groups, in order to be healthy.
Speaking spiritually, a person, whether adult or child, needs discipleship from the whole church in order to be healthy. Each person is uniquely gifted to help another towards maturity. No one person can shoulder that task. This is why we have a rotation of teachers in Sunday school, so that a variety of giftings are being used in discipleship. Also, because I need to grow in maturity from your gifts.
This is how God designed us to grow.
In America, in rural America, we have grown lax on this. We have decided that regularly attending church means coming once a month. We have decided that coming to the worship service is enough, and we won’t attend any other discipleship opportunity. We have made that decision for ourselves and for our kids.
Then, Covid came, and churches started putting their services online, which has been great for those who cannot come.
But, it has provided an excuse for us to be even more lazy, deciding that we don’t want to go today and it will be okay because we can watch online.
Is a family a family if they never spend time together? Can a family pursue unity and growth if someone refuses to come to the gatherings.
Can someone grow spiritually if they refuse to follow the path that God has called them to follow?
Discipleship happens when people can teach each other, questions can be asked, experiences can be shared. We are designing our worship services and our Sunday schools to be an environment of discipleship for all ages, as we come together as a family to present each person mature in Christ, working together to advance the glory of God.
The church is a family. We should live as a family within our church events, pursuing discipleship.

B. We Gather Together Outside

The second practical consideration is: we need to live as a family outside church events.
There is a story that is told about the Apostle John, living in Ephesus until he was very old.
“His disciples could barely carry him to church and he could not muster the voice to speak many words. During individual gatherings he usually said nothing but, ‘Little children, love one another.’ The disciples and brothers in attendance, annoyed because they always heard the same words, finally said, ‘Teacher, why do you always say this?’ He replied with a line worthy of John: ‘Because it is the Lord’s commandment and if it alone is kept, it is sufficient.’”
And that is the commandment of Jesus: to love one another even as he has loved us.
Lee Eclov makes a very interesting observation, that is quite true, but something that we have a hard time remembering.
“The Bible never tells us to grow our churches bigger but it tells us again and again to love one another.”
Psalm 133:1 NIV
How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!
The world around us are used to families which are dysfunctional. If someone actually has a family that likes each other, the world thinks they are weird or liars.
I love hearing from couples who have a vibrant loving relationship, because it is not the norm around her.
When a church shows love for each other, so much so that they desire to interact with each other outside of church, people notice and they want to know what is going on.
We need to intentionally pursue relationships with each other outside of discipleship activities, because we are family.
A case in point: reclaiming Sundays as family day, instead of a sports day. In the morning, we are worshiping together as family, we are discipling together as family, let that spill over into the rest of the day. Gather your biological family together for a meal, but also invite some of your spiritual family over as a witness of who we are in Christ.
For those who live close, think about those who are driving a long distance, invite them over so that they don’t have to delay their meal. Those who were thinking of grabbing a bite at a restaurant, invite some of your spiritual family to come along. Show the world who we are. Practice love.
And then, take a nap, because everyone needs rest on Sunday.
If during the week, you feel off because you haven’t interacted with someone who points you towards God, because are all surrounded by people who are not following God. Do something about it.
Attend our Pie and Prayer on Wednesday nights, so that you can refocus back on God through his people, our family. Plan a game night, invite some brothers and sisters in Christ over. Do something familial. Because families do things together.
The more we do things together, the more we build our love for each other.
If you say, I don’t have time for all these things. I have all these activities. My kids are involved in everything. I encourage you: we all have a choice to intentionally be family or to allow the culture to command our lives. It is our choice.
Will we follow what God has called us to be or will we be what the world wants us to be?
I am thankful that the church is a family. I am thankful to have brothers and sisters in Christ who called to be my first family, who are called to push me toward maturity, and who are called to love me unconditionally. Let us live as that family, inside this building and outside.
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