“The issue is now quite clear. It is between light and darkness and every one must choose his side.” G. K. Chesterton

Monday, September 3, 2012

Family of God or Body of Christ?

Back when I was a Baptist and attended a church in a small town in North Florida, every Sunday morning after the opening hymn and prayer the pastor would stand in the pulpit and welcome visitors.  He’d ask that they stay seated while we all stood and sang the hymn, “The Family of God.”  The lyrics go like this:

I'm so glad I'm a part of the Family of God,
I've been washed in 
the fountain, cleansed by His blood!
Joint heirs with Jesus as we 
travel this sod,
For I'm part of the family,
The Family of God.

You will notice we say "brother and sister" 'round here,
It's because we're a family and these are so near;
When one has a heartache, we all share the tears,
And rejoice in each victory in this family so dear. 

A nice hymn with a great sentiment.  If only it were accurate…

It’s common, especially among Protestants, to describe the church as a family.  Familial language is particularly common among evangelicals, especially of an older generation;  they really do call each other “brother” and “sister.”  The family theme is attractive and a great selling point for churches.  After all, who does not want to be a part of a family.  The problem, however, is that the church is not a family;  it is a body.

What is a family?  It is a group made up of individuals linked by ties of blood or affinity.  When we say family, we usually think of the “nuclear family”—mother, father, and children.  The children may be linked genetically to the parents, or if adopted by a legal recognition of the familial tie.  It can also include extended members such as grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.  The primary purpose of the family is to provide for a stable social order, for reproduction, and for the transmittal of cultural norms from one generation to another.  Ultimately, families are meant to reproduce themselves—one family can become two, three, four, or more.

As we all know from experience, family life can be far from  idyllic.  Even in the best of families, there is going to be conflict, strife, and stresses at times, particularly between generations.  Some families are what might be charitably called dysfunctional;  there is abuse, adultery, and alcoholism.  Families can break down through death and divorce.  Families are not stable and fixed, but are constantly subject to change.  This is because families are made up of autonomous individuals who, in spite of common ties, will eventually follow their own interests and preferences. 

Considering all this, what is wrong with viewing the church as a family?  From a practical standpoint, the church cannot be considered primarily a family.  The family construct views the church made up of autonomous individuals joined together by ties of a common faith experience—but nothing else.  Particularly in larger evangelical churches, the family comes together for worship on Sundays and perhaps small groups.  But beyond the fact that they all are followers of Christ, there is really nothing else to tie them together.  So when conflict arises in an evangelical church, the family easily breaks down.  That is why there are so many denominations and why churches are often created by splitting off from each other;  they were created because of a dispute over points theological or practical.  Even apart from conflict,  evangelicals can leave one church and go to another for whatever reasons they choose—better sermons, more programs for children, closer to home, etc.  In all, either view is hardly the one we find in Sacred Scripture.

Instead, we find the Church described as a body.  St. Paul said:
For as the body is one, and hath many members; and all the members of the body, whereas they are many, yet are one body, so also is Christ. For in one Spirit were we all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Gentiles, whether bond or free; and in one Spirit we have all been made to drink.  For the body also is not one member, but many.  If the foot should say, because I am not the hand, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body?
And if the ear should say, because I am not the eye, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body? If the whole body were the eye, where would be the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where would be the smelling?  But now God hath set the members every one of them in the body as it hath pleased him.  And if they all were one member, where would be the body?  But now there are many members indeed, yet one body.
And the eye cannot say to the hand: I need not thy help; nor again the head to the feet: I have no need of you.  Yea, much more those that seem to be the more feeble members of the body, are more necessary. And such as we think to be the less honourable members of the body, about these we put more abundant honour; and those that are our uncomely parts, have more abundant comeliness.  But our comely parts have no need: but God hath tempered the body together, giving to that which wanted the more abundant honour, ]That there might be no schism in the body; but the members might be mutually careful one for another.
And if one member suffer any thing, all the members suffer with it; or if one member glory, all the members rejoice with it.  Now you are the body of Christ, and members of member. (1 Cor. 12:12-27, D-R)
A body cannot divide itself.  It cannot survive very long without one of its organs; and the individual organs cannot survive apart from the body.  The body cannot live without its head, because it is the head that provides the direction and the impulse for other parts.  And the Church has only one head—Christ.  And likewise, Christ only has one body—the Church.   His body is made up of those baptized.  They are formed into his Body by partaking of his Body in the Eucharist.  With the Eucharist nourishing the Body, the Church grows and thrives.  As we partake of the other sacraments, the body is renewed and regenerated.
But this can only happen if we take care of the Body.  As with a human body, if we don’t take care of the body of Christ, the body can break down and stop working properly.  For example, if we don’t regularly attend to the Eucharist; if we fail to baptize our children; if we don’t go to confession;  if we treat marriage as the rest of our society does instead of the sacrament;  if we disrespect our priests and bishops;  all of these can lead to decay and disease in the body.  The body will not die, not with Christ as our head;  but instead of a continually young, continually growing, always vigorous Church, we will become a smaller, old, and ineffective institution. 

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