Once, in conversation with a pastoral search committee, one of the people involved suggested that my wife and I and our (at that time) little son could serve as a “model family” in the community. That was setting a rather high bar. Apart from growing a few rather model tomatoes in our garden, I’m not sure we would have impressed anyone else in the neighborhood.
And yet, there’s a way in which the home can become what the ancient church called the “ecclesia domestica”: the domestic church. Ecclesia domestica describes how the first unit of the church is the home, but also how the home is the first place where we become the church together.
I like it. Ecclesia domestica seems like a vital grounding concept for our hit-the-fan splatter of a cultural moment. I’m particularly struck by how the idea of the ecclesia domestica illuminates the ways that the Christian home can be an engine of faithfulness: faithfulness to one another, faithfulness to Christ, and faithful engaging of the world.
Jesus taught that a man and a woman leave their birth families and become “one flesh” through marriage (Mark 10:7-8). It’s out of that one-flesh-ness that a new home is established. Through the fruitfulness of marriage, children are born, and Christian parents have a profound duty to raise their children in the faith. Even when the gift of children does not come, the biblical vision of marriage is one in which the home becomes a spiritual refuge for people of all ages, including the children of others. The home is where we begin to serve God together.
Yet it also seems to me that part of what makes ecclesia domestica such a vital and animating vision is the way that children catch a glimpse of what it means to be faithful to one another. They see their parents being faithful–to each other, to Christ, to the teaching of the ancient gospel. The catch a glimpse of what it looks like to live out Christian faith on the ground, in family, among others who have different needs and wants.
That’s the plan, anyway. But even when things don’t go as planned, the Christian home can be the place where children see–and practice–the humble discipline of seeking forgiveness.Ecclesia domestica also means practicing faithfulness to Christ in the context of the family. Jesus said that “anyone who loves mother and father more than me is not worth of me,” which says something about the way children are to be pointed toward discipleship above all other duties and relationships in the home (Matthew 10:37). We seek to raise our children in the faith. We encourage them in a Christian habitus, that cluster of enduring practices that reflect the goodness and truth of the gospel in our approach to life. The ways of Jesus become second nature, inflecting everything we do. Mundane and sacred ellide. I’ve seen this happen in others’ families and our own. Once, as we were about to begin a meal of soup and bread, our littlest son said, “Wait! Let’s break the bread the ways Jesus did.”
But the concept of ecclesia domestica means more than just raising believing children. It’s also about parents becoming icons, in their smudged and stumbling ways, of what it looks like to follow Jesus. Every once in a while, parents and grandparents become a model of faithfulness to Christ–often in spite of themselves, through their demonstration of making amends for mistakes. Do what I say and as a I do. (More or less.)
Yet, the most compelling homes are rarely focused wholly inward. They’ve got a mission, an outward orientation that pours forth into the life of the neighborhood. They’re places where life together looks like life serving God and others in the community. They watch the overworked, single mom’s kids so she can take a load off or share meals with singles and elderly or in their subtle and often unrecognized way serve as a solid platform for members of the family to faithfully launch out into the world. The Christian home births a whole ecosystem of love.
In our fractured times, this may all sound like a tall order. But while the vision of the ecclesia domestica requires faithful intentionality, it’s not something achieved. Rather, it is received as blessing and gift as Christ lives among us.