For good or for ill, we live in a postmodern age. Among the many facets of this paradigm shift are a suspicion of order and objectivity, truth and reason, tradition and institutions; and the church has often devolved into this very institutionalism: with its rigid and distant authority structures, its attachment to traditions, its passion for reason at the expense of relationships, and its contentment with systemic hypocrisy (to name but a few). Postmoderns, therefore, have tended to be repulsed by the church rather than attracted to it. Has the church finally lost its relevance?
But what postmodernism needs (among other things) is a true sense of family-and not the "new normal" of dysfunctional family, but one that models genuine love and loyalty, honor and affection, consistently and persistently. And this is what the church can uniquely offer-indeed, this is who we are uniquely to be. Nothing shows the nature of the church and the church's Savior quite like this. As Jesus said in John 13:35: "By this all people will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another" (all quotations of Scripture are taken from The Holy Bible: English Standard Version, 2001).
The Importance of Family
There's an old saying: "Blood is thicker than water." This means that our family ties-we're related by blood-are the strongest ties we have, stronger than any friendships or relationships. Your family (if it's a good one) will stick with you through thick and thin when all other friends and helps may fail. As the proverb tells us: "A brother is born for adversity" (Prov. 17:17). Family defends, family honors, family sacrifices for one another. This is part of what is good and noble about family.
But there's an account in the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus seems to dismiss all this. At the close of chapter 12, Jesus is coming to the end of a pointed dialogue with the religious hierarchy, "the scribes and Pharisees"-known for their righteousness, their rules, and their hypocrisy: all things that postmodernism instinctively reacts against. Jesus is flagged that his mother and brothers are outside wanting to talk with him, but he replies-somewhat rudely: "'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! For whoever does the will of My Father in heaven is My brother and sister and mother'" (Matt. 12:48-50).
All that is praiseworthy about family loyalty, Jesus seems to disregard in one fell swoop, in one broad swath of his hand. But is Jesus simply brushing them off-his own mother and brothers-and discounting their importance in his life? On the surface, it might look like it; but it cannot be so.
As we know from the Scriptures, the nuclear family was important to Jesus, from his youth to his death. He submitted to his parents in his youth (Luke 2:51); he provided for his mother in his death (John 19:26-27). And family honor needs to be something we continue to esteem and strive to uphold. The Fifth Commandment tells us: "Honor your father and your mother" (Exod. 20:12). And (as the apostle Paul says), this is still "the first commandment with a promise: that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land" (Eph. 6:2-3). This is something, sadly, that we as a society (by and large) have lost. What was once at the very core of our culture seems almost foreign to our current generations. So, how might we begin to recapture this fundamental sense of honor in family and especially toward our parents?
In childhood, we are called to "obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right" (Eph. 6:1); but when we turn from adolescence into adulthood, the relationship changes. Our children sometimes seem almost thrilled to tell us that they don't have to obey us anymore (as if there's some magic to the number eighteen). What they might not notice, however, is that they are still called to honor us (as we are always to honor ours). That command never grows up; that command never moves on when we move out of the house. One example the apostle Paul uses is direct and apropos in our day: "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" (1 Tim. 5:8)!
Yet this is also seen in mundane ways: as in how we talk about each other. No one's perfect, but do we seek to honor them in what we say-and do not say? Do we give of ourselves freely to them? Do we go out of our way for them? Do we stand by their side, even when shame might come back at us? I'm reminded of a time on the school bus when I was little, when the older boys in the back started picking on me. My oldest brother, who was sitting there with them, noticed the distress they were causing me; and although it probably cost him some popularity points, he stood up for me and made them stop. That's what family is for; that's what a brother is supposed to do. That's honor and loyalty and love; and to God, those are supreme virtues.
And yet, there is something more. In Jesus' mind, there is something more important than family; there is a higher priority, a closer tie. "Blood is thicker than water," yes. But "faith is thicker than blood" (if I can play with the phrase a bit). And so, Jesus doesn't dismiss, but he does deflect. He doesn't answer directly; he redirects. Family is vitally important, yes. But real family is something different.
Faith is what makes true family. As Paul tells us in Romans 4: It is not the race of Abraham, but the faith of Abraham that makes us heirs of the promise of grace, that brings us into the family of God, that makes Abraham "the father of us all" (4:16). And as Jesus has just mentioned, doing the will of God is the indicator of that faith (Matt. 12:50). This is how our faith is shown.
So, are we the "brother and sister and mother" of Jesus? Are we really his family? The answer to that question hinges on our obedience to his Word (where the will of God is found). Will I submit to his authority over all of my life-especially in those uncomfortable areas that Jesus so often prods, like how we act and react to those people we just don't get along with? This obedience centers on the issue of love. As the apostle John writes: "By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother. For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another" (1 John 3:10-11). If you're good family, you're supposed to love; and if you're God's family, you're really supposed to love.
Implications for Church Life
Coming out of Jesus' words in Matthew 12, there are two clear implications for church life that seem inescapable: one in the abstract and the other in concrete.
First (as a basic statement): Church is family. This is how the New Testament talks-clearly and repeatedly. Notable examples are these: How do the apostles always address the members of Christ's church? As subjects, sheep, or citizens (all true)? No, they call us "brothers." This is a family term. God is typically spoken of, not as our sovereign, shepherd, or king (again, all true), but as our "Father." This is a family term. When the church as a whole is described, we find such wonderful depictions as a temple, bride, body, and flock (all true); but we are also called "the household of faith." "So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith" (Gal. 6:10). That, again, is a family term.
These aren't just empty words; they mean something. Part of this meaning is certainly that it recognizes our differences and stays together anyway-not just by tolerating one another, but by actually seeking to love one another. If church is family, we cannot live and grow by promoting division: that's not family, that's dysfunction. As the apostle Paul says: "In Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith" (Gal. 3:26). "Sons of God": there's that family again. And one of the chief consequences is this: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ" (3:28). It breaks down all those barriers.
But look how we continue so commonly to build churches based on divisions-even if it's called good business practice and marketing sense-instead of around our identity as family. We have churches divided by race and subculture (when usually it's not a necessary thing); we have churches divided by generations or various preferences of worship and style; we have churches that divide over almost anything and everything. Is that what (good) family does?
Yet in how many of your "blood" families do you have only one generation of people-one age group? That's impossible. In how many families do you have only one perspective on how to dress? How many of us-in our own small families-have different interests? For example, I prefer outside work, my wife prefers inside; I don't particularly like slugs and spiders, but one of my daughters loves slugs and my son loves spiders. How many of you like different foods or think that things should be done in different ways (the proverbial toilet seat up or down comes to mind)? How much more, then, in our churches?
If we have our differences (which we invariably will), we must try to understand each other, accept each other, treat each other with respect (as we would want to be treated). If we have a problem, we have to learn to work it out: to be kind to one another, to forgive and be forgiven. For with family, you're stuck. Or fellow Christians in other denomin-ations, maybe just across town: they are my brothers and sisters- even when we have completely different convictions about so many different issues. If we are united by faith in Jesus and obedience to his will (in its simplicity: the cross and love), then we are family. We need to take that to heart: let it sink in and let it seep out.
Second (getting specific): Each church is family. Not only should we understand that the church in general is family, but also that each particular church is family: both in what it is (by definition) and what it must be (by calling). We are to view each other as family and we are to treat each other as family. In other words, we should care for each other as if we were, in fact, "blood."
Notice what the apostle Paul says to young pastor Timothy (for it is a distinctly different approach): "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 Tim. 5:1-2). Thus, I am to treat those who are older than me in my church as if he or she were my very own father or mother. What honor and deference does this require? Can I just blow them off? I am also to treat my peers or those younger than me as if they were my very own sisters and brothers. Then how can I treat them either as a "meat market" (the young singles) or as a nuisance (the rambunctious kids)?
Those who engage in various ministries in our churches (whether paid staff or volunteer) aren't just people-they're family. The pastors and support staff are not just employees who can be chastised and sacked with hardly a second thought; deacons, nursery workers, Sunday school teachers, and choir members are not just volunteers who can be used up and thrown away-they're my father or mother, my sister, or brother. We are to strive for excellence, yes; but encouragement must be our motto, and the code we live by. One person I would like to highlight in my own church is our 92-year-old organist, who has devoted his life and talents to the Lord. And what a blessing he is. Now, he'd be the first to tell you he's no spring chicken (and is beginning to feel increasingly the frailties of his age). But as I've said to him on more than one occasion: "As long as you feel able and want to continue to play, we'd love to keep you as our organist." That's a completely different attitude than you'll find in the world…and it's supposed to be!
This past year, one of our newer members asked me (if I may paraphrase): "What would you say is distinctive about this church, that sets it apart, that you would consider a 'draw' (in addition to the non-negotiable of proclaiming the gospel)? In other words, why should people come here?" I answered: "A true sense of family." That is what we strive to be and to do; and it shows. It was something my wife and I first noticed when we came to serve at this congregation, and which we have intentionally sought to foster even further.
We seek to bring this sense of family, of true community (for which the postmodern heart so deeply longs) into the various aspects of our life and worship together. One longstanding ministry we have is intentionally trans-generational, where we connect a younger child to an older adult to form a special relationship of prayer for one another (which usually also includes the exchange of gifts and a bond of affection). We have also integrated this thinking into our worship as well. One of the (as I see it) detrimental quirks of modern American evangelicalism is the prevalence of "children's church"-where the kids are dismissed before the sermon, both to be supposedly more relevant for them and less bothersome for the adults. This is reminiscent of the attitude of the disciples when children were brought before the Lord for his blessing. "And the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw it, He was indignant and said to them, 'Let the children come to Me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God'" (Mark 10:13-14). In our congregation here, we have made it a point to welcome children of all ages into our community worship-both because this was evidently the attitude of Christ, and also because we seek to bring up our children in the faith, as fully in the faith, from their earliest years. They are not foreigners to the family of Christ, but full members of it.
This ethos was confirmed for me in a special way when a family who had a disabled child visited our congregation. This child periodically (and loudly) made noises during the service. From the pulpit that morning, I extended a public declaration to that child and his family that they were fully welcome in our worship. Instead of any glares or stares, he was warmly received; and when he continues to make his noises, no one seems to mind. Because he's part of the family.
As the early church father Tertullian stated in his defense of the faith before the pagan world (Apology 39.7-8), this family ethos was readily seen:
But it is mainly the deeds of a love so noble that lead many to put a brand upon us. See, they say, how they love one another, for themselves are animated by mutual hatred; how they are ready even to die for one another, for they themselves will sooner put to death. And they are wroth with us, too, because we call each other brethren; for no other reason, as I think, than because among themselves names of consanguinity are assumed in mere pretence of affection.
How many churches are truly characterized by this mindset and actually seek to live this out? In how many do you sense the genuine warmth and spirit of those who not only call themselves "brothers and sisters," but who actually live like it? Too often instead you find things cold and uncaring, plastic-faced or two-faced; and too quickly to quarrel and divide. Oh, that our churches again would recapture this affection-not in pretence, but in truth! Because family cares-and shows it.
And so, the church has profound relevance in a postmodern world, if it will truly live like the brothers and sisters of Christ-deeply caring for one another. This is part of our core identity, and has the potential for significant impact in our postmodern culture, if we will simply take it to heart.