“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.” 1 Timothy 3:15
What does it mean and look like if our Church identity was that of a family? What if God’s people – when we’re asked about about their church – thought of the word “FAMILY” first?
How does one become part of a family?
It’s fascinating how God uses both of these images to teach us how we become part of his family as well. Jesus – in fact – became part of an earthly family by both means. He was born to the Virgin Mary. And adopted by his earthy father, Joseph.
1. Through Birth (John 3:1-21)
Verses 5-8 says: “Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
All of us are born of water (i.e. your mother’s water broke and you were born). Every person here was born physically alive. But every person here was also born spiritually dead. What this tells me is you cannot join God’s family just because your parents are Christian or because you come to church each week. You can’t enter into the family that way.
How do you enter God’s family? You have to born again. You need a second birth (btw, this was a paradigm-shifting idea in the Jewish culture as they believed they were born into the chosen people of God and therefore – by right of their heritage – were the only children of God).
We’re broken. We’re lost. We’re all spiritually dead. So God needs to breathe new life into us. The second birth is a miracle because only God can give you spiritual life: “The Spirit gives birth to spirit….the wind blows…”: God breathes new life into spiritually dead people. This the work of the Holy Spirit (John 20:22).
Have you walked around your neighbourhood on a windy day? Stuff is just blowing everywhere. That’s what God does when he breathes life into you. He blows out all of the sin, confusion and blindness, so you can meet Him, he can embrace you as a son and a daughter.
2. Through Adoption (Ephesians 2:19, Romans 8:14-16)
God infuses supernatural life into a person, but the Bible uses another image of describe how we become part of God’s family: That of adoption.
In biblical times, children were abandoned or even killed. Scholars have noted that “infanticide was infamously universal” among the Greeks and Romans during the early years of Christianity. Those born deformed or physically frail were especially prone to being killed, often by drowning. Some were killed more brutally – often by cutting their throats. Infanticide was so common that historians blamed the population decline of ancient Greece on it. Infant girls were especially vulnerable. For instance, in ancient Greece it was rare for even a wealthy family to raise more than one daughter.
In the midst of this, Christians started doing something so counter-cultural: The adopted children – especially little girls or those who had physical disabilities. They would adopt these abandoned, throwaway children and make them sons and daughters. WHY?
The answer lies Paul’s comparison of the gospel to adoption.
Adoption is initiated by the parent. Adoption begins with the parent’s initiative – not the child’s invitation. God – our heavenly father – initiated our belonging to his family. It’s an act of sheer love and grace. We didn’t do anything to deserve it, nor did we pay for it. We can’t save ourselves; we can’t force our way into God’s family. The gospel always starts with God’s initiative.
Adoption is a process by which one belongs in a family. It’s not a state of being. It’s a past-tense verb. When we enter in God’s family through adoption, we aren’t his “adopted” children. We are his sons & his daughters. We’re “joint heirs” (Romans 8:17) with Christ, meaning that we receive all the benefits and blessings that Jesus – the true Son of God, and our big brother – won on the cross and through his life. If you’re a Christian, God the Father has freely chosen to spiritually adopt, love, be with and care for you. The gospel creates a family.
Adoption is needed because of the world’s brokenness. We have to remember that children are adopted because their birth parents could no longer care for them. Adoption happens because something doesn’t go right. We’re all sinners. We’re broken people who cause brokenness in our world. So what does God do? He adopts us. It’s his way of redeeming and renewing the world. We are adopted into his family through Christ – as sons and daughters – and we then become part of that redeeming and renewal that he’s undertaking. This is the reason why the early church adopted children and started the first orphanages in major cities. It’s because of the gospel – which is God’s way of restoring a broken world.
Adoption gives a new identity. When God adopts us, we move from being “sons of disobedience” or “children of wrath” (Eph. 2:2; 5:6) to “sons [and daughters] of God.” Becoming a child of God is now our primary identity. J.I. Packer once remarked, “Father is the Christian name for God.” And this changes everything. Our goal – as Christians – is not merely to change how we behave, feel or think; it’s getting to know, love and trust God, our father, more. A father is one of the most important relationships in a person’s life. Much of our lives are determined by who our father is: What he values, how he thinks and what he does. In the end, we become like the whom we love the most. Behaviour flows from identity – not the other way around. When we get to know God more and better, we want to be like our heavenly father. The gospel gives us a new identity.
Adoption gives us a new family – the church. In the early church, the concept of a church being a family was so radical. It was culture-shifting. First, if you were a Gentile, you were basically a complete outsider; stranger; alien; a villain to Jews. Then one day, you’re walking along and from the corner of your eye, you see Gentiles and your Jewish pals hanging out. They’re sharing meals; welcoming each other in their homes; serving the community together. Your mind would be blown! Galatians 3:28 teaches us that when we’re adopted, we’re part of the same family: “There is neither Jew or Gentile…for you are all one in Christ.” Even among Jews, this concept was ground-breaking. If you were not related, you would never call someone a brother or sister (you could be thrown in jail as you could be seen as trying to steal someone’s inheritance rights), so when early Christians began to see their church as their family, they risked losing everything. You know who is your family when they risk losing everything for your sake.
The Church as Your Family
Community is ultimately gospel-centered family. It’s a family that is created by the gospel, for the gospel. Knowing this, let’s talk about a few characteristics a family should have:
Radical Love. Every time we hear this at church, we tell ourselves we do love our friends and CLG, so I want to take a moment to address this issue. It’s natural & healthy to have close friends. But if we’re serious about seeing each person here as family, you’re going to have to do exactly that. To strengthen this community as a whole, we have to start really seeing everyone as brothers and sisters – and not only our close friends.
Here’s a practical first step: Invite someone who is not in your age group, or immediate social circle to have a coffee or lunch. If you’re older, go and spend time with younger people here. If you’re younger, find an older, married person and chat over coffee.
What we’re trying to do is to imagine the radical implications of taking our identity as a family seriously. You’d have a highly educated business professional mentored by a blue collar worker. You’d have people radically providing resources to help others who may not be in the same social circle. You’d have young men and older men on their knees together, praying for the church and the city. And the world will notice. Because of what defines the church is not social status, financial acumen, educational background – it’s the love of a family.
Unwavering Commitment. Being committed is harder, but ultimately better. We live in an age where churches are treated more like malls than they are families. We have to change this. If you’re part of a family, you stick with that family.
Imagine going up to your dad and telling him you’re leaving the family because his mealtime prayer wasn’t biblical, or because your mom that she doesn’t provide enough activities for you to do, or there was better musicians in another family down the street. There are some good reasons to leave a church, but what I’m getting at is this: If you start seeing each other as family, and not just people who attend the same church, you’ll start loving people here. Your commitment will grow. Your sense of belonging will deepen.
Churches need to stop worrying about building good programs, cool events, or having the best preaching and worship in town. Instead, we should work hard at deepening our commitment to each other.
Life Together. A family lives together. This means there is are natural rhythms in a family. For instance, families celebrate together and they suffer together. They eat, play, and rest together. They listen to each other and study God’s Word together. They serve their city together by blessing those outside the family.
We have to stop treating the church as a bunch of programs and events. That will just keep us busy and tired. Remember, church isn’t something you attend; it’s something that you are! You are the church as you work, go to school, participate in sports, enjoy hobbies, and do ordinary things – with the gospel in mind. So we’re sharing life together as a gospel-centered family.
Courageous Discipline. Have we become such a relativistic culture that we are letting that hinder our families? I can’t think of any good family that doesn’t call each other out lovingly. We need to speak into each other’s lives. We need to be honest with each other.
It takes a lot of courage (and wisdom) to enact discipline right. In some ways, it would be much easier to just study the Bible and have fun together, but without gospel-centered accountability, this family will not do well.
We must regularly confront each other on issues with the goal of building each other up. To build up, you must tear down weak areas. There are some of you who have area are not surrendered to Christ and people can see it. And what happens is they don’t want to confront you and you don’t want to hear it, so naturally, people gossip, alienation & mistrust begins to happen. If we are a family, let’s talk honestly and lovingly. Let’s see people as God our father sees them. We are brothers and sisters to each other and that gives us not just the ability – but the responsibility to speak into each other’s lives.
We wouldn’t trade it for anything: Families are messy. They are broken. They contain people that you would otherwise not want to be near. Because it’s made up of sinners. In order to enter into true community, our ideal community must be surrendered. And the way to do this is to see each other as family. You don’t have this perfect expectation of your brother or sister. They are your family. Period. Families are God’s way of refining us and to make us more like Him. They teach us to forgive, show grace, be humble, stay persistent, and to love. Despite it’s flaws and shortcomings, I wouldn’t trade my family for anything. I pray you’ll feel the same way about your church family.
A few years back, we had a guy in our church who was active in serving; mature; loving and growing. But one day, we called us up and he said – after prayer and thought – he was leaving the church. We talked to him and while he gave a few reasons, this is the one that stuck: “I don’t have any family here.”
I don’t want this to ever be a reason for people leaving. That’s our goal, church. Let’s dig deep, pray hard and let’s start acting out our identity as a family first.
Ho-Ming Tsui is the Lead English Pastor at Richmond Hill Christian Community Church.