The Family is Not a Church – The Church is a Family

For the first time in ages it is a Sunday morning and I’m not in church. My family will have our own church service en route to a much needed holiday. But as we read the word and talk about it, as we pray and share communion together we will all have a sense that something is missing. Although we are gathered, we are not gathered as the church.

I have a friend who routinely leads his family to skip church on Sunday mornings in order to have a family day. They’ll just hang around the house, or maybe go hiking or ride their bikes. Whenever I ask him about it, he says that he thinks that his family is his church.

I couldn’t disagree more.

Mark 3:20-21; 31-34
“Then he went home; and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind…Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, ‘Your mother and your brothers and sisters* are outside, asking for you.’ And he replied, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’”

The family is not a church, but the church is a family.

Jesus invites his followers into a new community where all of their former loyalties are now secondary to their loyalty to the church. It’s not that Jesus is anti-family, not in the least, but he is redefining family. He’s saying that the point of the family is to be a part of this new thing that God is doing through Jesus – to be a part of the church. Family does not come before church.

One of the things I try to teach consistently is that all other forms of belonging, including family, cannot come into proper perspective apart from involvement in a church. Jesus is saying that if we find our sense of belonging in a place that springs from some other loyalty besides loyalty to Jesus (and the body of Christ, the church), we’re off the reservation. Even the belonging that we find in the family – which is the most basic and essential sense of belonging that most of us will ever experience – even that belonging has to be tethered to the community/the church; it has to draw it’s very life from the people of God.

Those who hold their family above the church actually hold themselves above Christ and his teaching. Only within the life of the church will the family be able to find its proper place, find a healthy place and actually begin to Image God to all creation – bearing witness to Christ as the Messiah.

The family’s most important function is to help its members become part of the people & mission of God. It’s not that the church is more important than the family, it’s that only within the life of the church does the family find its true meaning. For the Christian, family becomes unintelligible without church.. The family does amazing things. It builds our narrative world for the mission of God, it shapes our character for service in the church, it forms our identity so that we know from the very earliest times in our life, as sure as we are a part of this family of ours, we are also a part of the people of God.

The family is a beautiful thing, and I’m going to give myself to my family with no interruptions for the next few days. But, as I do this I know that just as the individual isn’t bigger than the family, the family isn’t bigger than the church. The church is the most essential mode of belonging we have, even more essential than our family, because only within the wider church community does family become all it is meant to be.

I think that in suburban America today this is one of the most radical teachings of Jesus. I’ll be missing my church this Sunday, and this week.

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  • Ryan J Pugh

    Tim, have you read When the Church Was a Family by Joseph Hellerman? He lays out the basic premise of your post in a very readable and thorough way. I highly suggest it to everyone, but it will change the way we see Church and life altogether.

  • Justin Carter

    You contradict yourself. You say, “It’s not that the church is more important than the family…” and then you say, “The church is the most important thing we will ever belong to, even more than our family.” Which is it?