The Family of God
"And all that believed were together, and had all things common; And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need. And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, Praising God, and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved" (Acts 2:44-47).
In the west, our biggest daily concerns are often: How does my hair look? How can I move up the corporate ladder? Or even, what am I eating for dinner? These concerns may be legitimate in some cases, but their prominence in our thoughts reveals that we are fundamentally self-centered people. Though the culture that Jesus lived in was also wicked, the most important considerations were those of the community, not the self, the central community being the family. Not surprisingly, then, one of the most common metaphors in the New Testament for the church is that of a family. Family language is, in fact, Paul’s favorite way to address his fellows (Matt. 6:9, John 1:12-13, 1 Tim. 5:1-2, Gal. 1:2, Phil. 1:12, just to name a few passages). It is beyond dispute that Christians should see one another as brothers and sisters and God as their father (Salvation is described as “adoption as sons” in Ephesians 1:5). In our culture, this does not carry the kind of weight it would for ancient Christians. For the first century Mediterranean readers of the New Testament, speaking of the church as a family would have meant commitment to other believers beyond anything we are used to in 21st Century America.
Jesus makes this plain in many of his statements concerning the level of devotion to his kingdom that every follower must have. For example, Jesus says in Luke 14:26, “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.” This is an astonishing statement in a number of ways, not the least of which is that Jesus uses the word hate! Consider how Jesus’s Jewish hearers would have felt! Hate my family? Disgraceful. Shameful. Wicked. Of course, if this is read in the context of Jesus’s broader teaching it must be admitted that he is using hyperbolic (or is it metaphorical?) language. Yet, the point is crystal clear: If you put anything, including your biological family, over Jesus and his kingdom, you are not worthy to be called a Christian.
This statement is shocking even to American believers in the 21st Century, and we are tempted to interpret it from our individualistic perspective to be about our personal relationship with Jesus. It is certainly true that it involves this but stepping into Christianity is not stepping into a “just me and Jesus” way of living. As the New Testament everywhere makes clear, Christianity is irreducibly communal. To forsake biological family for Jesus is to enter the kingdom of God and gain a whole new family (Mark 10:29-30). In speaking of the value of differing gifts among Christians, Paul declares that it is as if we were different body parts making up one unified body, “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:12-13). Again he says, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you’” (1 Cor. 12:21). A Christian without the church community is like a foot that has been severed from the leg—lifeless.
Living Like a Family
The Christian needs the Church family, but what does this commitment look like in practice? The description of the early church in Acts 2:44-47 contains two points that are pertinent to our topic. The first is that the church “had all things in common” and “and sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need.” Their money, their food, their houses, and anything else they owned were to be shared with the rest of the faith community. This does not mean that Christians should never own any possessions of their own. The practice of the early church in this area is not an appropriate mode of living in every context. The point is rather that, in the early church, we see the command to “let each esteem others better than themselves” lived out beautifully. Paul’s reminder to Christians in 1 Corinthians 6:19 that “you are not your own” impacts, not only our personal relationship with God, but also our obedience to God through our willingness to sacrifice for others. Living like a family, then, looks like sacrificially giving to and serving other believers.
Secondly, the early church was characterized by fellowship. They “continued daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart.” These Christians were unified by their shared faith and devotion to the teaching of Jesus. They considered one another brothers and sisters because of their common father—God. With this consideration in mind, it is really no surprise that Jesus identified the two great goals of the Christian life as loving God and loving others. Of course, loving others includes non-Christians, but there is a special love that must exist between those who make up the family of God. As Paul writes to Timothy, “let us do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith” (Gal. 6:10). Living like a family looks like loving communion with other believers.
What is Jesus Asking of You?
It is critical that we internalize the biblical conception of the church as a family so that our relationships with our fellow believers become more than merely “friendly.” We cannot share a deep relationship with every Christian in our church, but it is invaluable to have a handful of people with whom you share life. These relationships provide long-term accountability, encouragement, and support of every kind. Do you have Christian friends who know you well enough to call out your sins? Are you involved in your church’s efforts to foster community (small groups, church meals, prayer service, etc.)? Even for those who we do not know as well, we still must strive to treat them like family in the two ways listed above. When was the last time you had someone new over for dinner? Are you aware of those who need financial assistance in your church and are you willing to help? Do you view your possessions as yours to spend on your hobbies and entertainments, or have you decided to use them for the church and for the glory of God to whom they belong?
There is a tragic trend in Christianity (at least in the West) in our day. Many professing Christians have decided that their experience of church must be suited completely to their tastes and interests, and since there is such a wide array of options for Sunday worship, many hop from church to church looking for the type that fits them best. The problem is that no church will be perfect. This is not to say that there is never a legitimate reason for leaving a church and attending another. Rather, it is to say that every individual church member must seek the good of the whole body over their own personal preferences. Next time you walk into church, consider whether you are there for your own benefit only (“I’ll just slip in and slip out”) or whether you are truly striving to see the weekend gathering for what it is—a family reunion.