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The Church as the Family of God
By Joel Comiskey
Appeared in C&MA CellNet, November 2001
The family of God metaphor is perhaps the most endearing term to describe Christ’s church. God, our Heavenly Father, has adopted us into His family, the church. Some theologians believe that Paul’s metaphor of the family, “. . . must be regarded as the most significant metaphorical usage of all.”[i] One leading theologian of the past generation, Joachim Jeremias, called the family of God metaphor, “Jesus’ favorite image.”[ii]
Jesus and other N.T. writers reminded us that we are brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, and members of God’s household. On one occasion, Jesus said to the multitude, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Pointing to 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” (Matthew 12:48-50). We as believers have been adopted into God’s heavenly family, and therefore can honestly call each other “brothers and sisters.”
The key verse on God’s family is found in Ephesians 3:14-15 in which Paul says, “For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom his whole family in heaven and on earth derives its name” (Ephesians 3:14-15). The Greek word for “family", patria, relates back directly to the same Greek root as the word for “father”, pathr. God, our father, cares for His family the church. We as a family relate to one another and love one another under the headship of our gracious Father.
The N.T. House Church
We in the 21st century have the tendency to equate church with a group of people meeting in a building on Sunday morning. Yet, we must remember that Paul and other New Testament authors were writing to house churches (Acts 12:12: Romans 16: 3-5; 1 Corinthians 16:19: Colossians 4:15: Philemon 2).When Paul, for example, wrote about believers serving each other and waiting on each other during the Lord’s Supper, picture the context of the home. When Paul expounds on the operation of Spiritual gifts, envision a house church environment. When he elucidates the role of each member in the body of Christ, imagine the warm atmosphere of the early house church.There is nothing quite like the atmosphere of a home to confirm the fact that we are indeed God’s family. The decorations on the wall, the arrangement of furniture, and the smell of food all add to the flavor of family living. When the church meets in the home, the members warm up to each other more quickly than during a similar meeting in the church. J. Goetzmann confirms this reality when he says,
What could be conveyed by the idea of the family of God had, in fact, already come into being in the primitive Christian community through the house churches. The household as a community . . . formed the smallest unit and basis of the congregations. The house churches mentioned in the N.T. (Ac. 11:14; 16:15, 31, 34; 18:8; 1 Co. 1:16; Phl. 2; 1 Ti. 1:16; 4:19) no doubt came into being through the use of the homes as meeting places. The gospel was preached in them (Ac. 5:42; 20:20), and the Lord’s supper was celebrated in them (Ac. 2:46) (1975:250).
The family atmosphere that prevailed in the early house churches prevailed for some four centuries. In spite of fierce persecution, the early church continued to grow exponentially. After the advent of Constantine, however, and the legalization of Christianity, huge, lavish temples were built—from government coffers. Celebration in elaborate cathedrals began to dot the landscape. The family atmosphere of the house, for so long the badge and identify of the early church, was suddenly unnecessary. Church became equated with a cold, lifeless cathedral.
A Return to Our Roots
Our theology has changed drastically since the Middle Ages, but our ecclesiastical structures need lots of work. Today’s cell church movement is a return to the church as the family of God. It’s the realization that we desperately need community lived out in face-to-face relationships. God is calling His church to come home.The impersonal cathedral approach has created an anonymous church that acts more like a herd of cattle than an intimate family. How can we know each other as family when most of our church life is spent sitting in pews or participating in busy, task-driven programs?God desires more for His church. He envisions a family that truly knows and cares for each other. The cell church, although not a perfect strategy, is the best one I know for enhancing caring, family relationships in the body of Christ. If we’re going to impact our generation for Christ, I believe our ecclesiology needs major reformation. We need to return to the family centered church of the 1st century through home group involvement.
Further reading on this topic: highlights the church as the family of God--order HERE or by calling 1-888-344-CELL.
[i] Robert Banks, Paul’s Idea of Community (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994), p. 49.
[ii] John Drive, Images of the Church in Mission (Scottsdale, PA: Herald Press, 1997), p. 139.