My first meaningful contact with a local church came through an invitation from family friends to attend their small Baptist church when I was about ten years old. Upon our arrival, our friends conveyed that their preacher’s name was something like “Brother Johnson.” Soon I noticed that everyone in the church was consistently addressed as “brother” or “sister.” “Why, Sister Connie, wasn’t Brother Johnson’s sermon this morning just what we needed to hear?” “Well, yes, Brother Bob, Brother Johnson can really preach the Word.” This language was striking and odd to my young ears. But the impression of the church as family became indelibly etched into the nascent framework of my thinking about the church of Jesus Christ.
There was a sweetness in that experience—now more than fifty years old—that stands in jarring contrast to our present-day cultural confusion about family. Traditional families are held in suspicion by some as vestiges of patriarchal control and the source of myriad forms of abuse. Thus, to speak of the church as a “real family” presents a challenge to much contemporary thinking. Yet as image bearers of God, we cannot escape the deep God-implanted hunger for family—even if it means seeking to find one in an online gaming group, a street gang, or a gathering of like-minded sports enthusiasts.
The church as a real family reverberates through Scripture. Jesus taught us to pray, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name” (Matt. 6:9). This great privilege of praying to the Father comes through new birth in Jesus Christ. To call on God as our Father is not natural for sinners. Rather, we must enter the family supernaturally. Of this, the Apostle John writes, “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12–13). This work of the Spirit to grant new birth that believers might trust in Christ results in our privileged status as adopted children of God. John later exults in this privilege with a rhapsodic burst of expression: “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are” (1 John 3:1).
Ask a group of young teens, as I did recently while speaking at a Christian school chapel: “What makes a real family?” Their answers were illuminating. “A family eats together.” “A family has traditions.” “A family builds trust.” “A family forgives.” “A family shares space, like I had to share my room with my sister.” Their answers echoed the early church “together” practices of Acts 2:42–47, and the “one anothers” of Scripture in terms of forgiving (Eph. 4:32), loving (John 13:34), accepting (Rom. 15:7), rejoicing (Rom. 12:15), and encouraging one another (1 Thess. 5:11). We share in making burdens mutual (Gal. 6:2), we partake of the Lord’s Supper together in our family meal (Luke 22:19), and we tell the family story that “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).