Christian Identity and the Church as Family (by Sara Barton)

Christian Identity and the Church as Family (by Sara Barton) February 20, 2014

Sara Barton serves as University Chaplain at Pepperdine University.  She is the author of a wonderful book about a woman called into ministry where the environment is not always welcoming, called A Woman Called:  Piecing Together the Ministry Puzzle.

Lots of bloggers are responding to Donald Miller’s post about church attendance, and I’ve been invited to contribute to that conversation on Jesus Creed. So, in one way this is a response to Donald Miller, but in reality, Miller is simply and quite courageously articulating the views of many of my own friends and family members, The conversation, therefore, propels me to consider ongoing conversations with flesh and blood people in my local context. The way I see it, if Donald Miller creates healthy, local conversations about the role of the church in individual lives, then good for him.

In the ideal, we experience the church as the communion of the Holy Spirit in which our spirituality is not individual but communal.  In baptism, we experience rebirth into a family that has the unique privilege of addressing the creator of everything as “Abba Father” (or Daddy or Mommy, as we might say in our culture). Our experiences of God as a parent define us, and we can no longer delineate self without relationship to our siblings, whom God has called beloved children. As the body of the risen Christ, the church gives us vocation and calling in relation to other members of the body without whom we each counter-culturally proclaim to be nothing.

So, when it comes to communal practices, the church doesn’t merely provide any one the means to become spiritual as an individual through worship experiences, sermons, teaching, works of justice, and service opportunities by meeting individual needs and preferences or catering to learning styles.  Sometimes those practices do meet individual needs, and sometimes they don’t.  In short, we don’t grow spiritually through a particular communal practice that floats our individual boats.  We’re capable of growing spiritually when we experience communal practices, based not on personal preferences but on the growth we experience collectively with our siblings.

A Christian’s whole identity, then, is rooted in rebirth into family, and identity is something much more than a personal decision. Identity is not so much about personal ethics or psychological wellbeing (although they are outcomes); instead, identity is radically communal. The experience of spirituality in the church is something akin to a dance with God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit and family in Christ, a dance with which we are in step, apart from the tune of natural birth or society.

Leaving that family, therefore, is a very serious matter.  I would not know where to place my feet, apart from them. I would not know the tune that guides our collective dance.

So, in the ideal, we would not want to forego gathering regularly with the family with whom God has given us identity.  Regular gathering for worship, teaching, and the sacraments has been consistent in Christian tradition from the very beginning, so if we’re to be the generation that breaks that tradition, I hope it’s with communal discernment rather than the idol of individualism that so wants to own us today.  If departure is based on our personal likes and dislikes, personal lifestyle choices such as how to spend our weekends, the idol of busyness, conflict avoidance, or aversion to submission to authority, perhaps our culture is informing identity more than identity in Christ.

One could rightly say that we’re talking about two different things when we talk about how often we attend Sunday worship services at a local congregation and our identity in Christ through a larger set of Christian relationships.  Friends of mine who have left congregational membership also see Christianity as a set of relationships, even as a dance, but maintained informally instead of formally.  And, they have a good point.  The church is in need of a corrective because her complete identity has for too long been found in Sunday morning services. That’s a discussion we’re having in our culture these days, and it’s vital to Christians.  It shouldn’t be avoided.

My focus on the family needs a caveat. I am well acquainted with family dysfunction, church and otherwise. Unfortunately, we do not live in the ideal. Called to ministry in a group that does not recognize the call for women, I could certainly point to the dynamic as dysfunctional, at the least.  The opinion of many of us is that it’s far beyond dysfunction and highly destructive. It’s not just my group that doesn’t recognize the call of women to ministry.  It’s pervasive in Christianity. Even in groups that ordain women, hierarchies and glass ceilings still prevail, with women as perpetuators of the situation as much as men.  And we could cite dysfunction after dysfunction in church family dynamics.  We can certainly cite instances that go beyond dysfunction – some families are abusive.

So, if people are leaving the church, perhaps we need to avoid defensiveness and ask some hard questions about family.  Sometimes individuals leave families of origin because of abuse, because of dysfunction that threatens to overtake the entire family system.  Could it be that many of our friends and neighbors are leaving church because of dysfunction that needs deep introspection?  We can easily cite stories of people for whom the church is functioning.  We should celebrate those stories.  But, the church is not functioning for others, to such an extent that they are leaving.  Instead of being defensive, maybe what we should do for a while is merely listen.

What would it look like for the church at large to stop and listen to the all Donald Millers we know?  

Could it be that in those conversations, church would break out?


Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!


TRENDING AT PATHEOS Evangelical
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Church is like the US Congress.

    But now we have computers. And they’re not dysfunctional.

  • Stephen W

    I’m fortunate in that, though I’ve been gently drifting away from “church” for a while, I’ve found that several people I know are and so we’re all drifting together and as we do so we’re exploring ways to be in community with one another.

  • Steve Johnson

    I absolutely believe that the church is a family. Unfortunately, we’ve lost that in so many local expressions of the church. When our gospel, as Scot talks about often, is how to get into heaven, our church becomes a machine driving to draw people in so that they can be saved. Families are not machines. So much church energy is given to building a vision and conveying the purpose that the leaders chose to market so as to draw more people.

    Instead, the church must be the context for the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is a loving family that bears the message of the hope. The purpose come through the faith that grows out of this message of hope.

    So, yes. People are leaving because the church is dysfunctional. A few years ago, the Willow Creek Leadership Conference featured an interview with Jack Welsh. In the interview he talked about how he turn GE around by, in part, making a habit of firing the bottom 10% of the companies employees. I witness more than one case where church leader returned home and tried to apply this principle. Staff members lost jobs, church leaders were asked to step down, congregants weren’t fired, but were told if you don’t agree with the leaders’ vision, it would be OK for them to leave.

    If that’s the kind of commitment that churches have to one another, no wonder Don Miller and others are leaving.

  • Many of the Christians I know who have stopped attending the services of their local church are still gathering at least informally and sporadically with other Christians for mutual support in pursuing a deeper walk with God, and most of them still long for something more regular.

    The most common reasons I hear from unchurched Christians for their departures from previous churches include: (1) the prevalence in churches of unconverted members and leaders creating an atmosphere that make deep commitments harder rather than easier, (2) the consumption of so much time, energy, and resources in activities that do not advance Christ’s purposes, (3) the clinging to traditions, practices, and sometimes peculiar doctrines that do not serve the purposes of Christian life, (4) the opposition to reaching beyond the social network of the existing members and their comfortable cultural sphere.

    Admittedly, some of these “reasons” can become self-serving excuses, but there is enough reality in them that they should be taken seriously. Sara Barton is right that we need to listen deeply and earnestly to what people are saying about their experience of church dysfunction.

  • Yes. To put this dysfuntion of lack of conversation, glass ceilings, and the men/women Church cultural divide into theological-speak, this is where the perichoresis of Trinitarian theology is critical to eccesiology. Douglas Knight, in chapter one of his The Eschatological Economy: Time and the Hospitality of God, notes that under God, we bring one another into being—a participative ontology that he calls a philosophical breakthrough. Without the conversation and communion that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit have we do not properly image God as male and female. Sometimes churches just reflect half of the image of God and sometimes the culture of the Church does not have the dynamic of praise and recognition and conversation between the sexes that brings the fruitfulness of the human vocation. We bring one another into being through conversation and praise. Knight states: “What is due to the Creator is also due to his creatures, just because the Creator insists that it is also due to them. Each has to receive his or her specific praise—respectivelyas creature and as Creator” (p 8).Without such praise and conversation happening, I think of the inhuman Nazi test on babies that discovered that even if babies are given all the food and physical care needed, they will still die if they do not receive physical touch and interaction with another human being.

  • steverankin

    I think we should also keep in mind that in our culture it is easy for Christians to leave the church because, though we are aware of all the “secularizing” tendencies in popular culture, it is still a Christianized culture. The subtle seduction, then, is that Christians can find “church” informally through all kinds of relationships untethered from official, institutional Christianity. This is a peculiarity of our culture.

  • GaryLyn

    I have moved away from using the image of family for church. For a variety of reasons. One, I don’t see it as a significant biblical image for the church.
    Two, it is used now by so many groups that its meaning has become diluted and obscure. Businesses, sporting teams, everybody talks about themselves as being a family. Uh, no. I love my work and the people there, but you are not my family. The term becomes a way to get people to buy into and go along with the culture of a particular group. Disagreement with policy or direction can be discouraged; hey, aren’t we a family?
    Three, family, by nature, is delimiting in a couple of ways. One, family has a tribal nature to it. Some people are in; some people are out. Two, family is about sameness not differentness. Another comment mentioned a retreat to a “comfortable social sphere.” That’s a great definition of family, but not a good description of what the community that is church should be about.
    I am aware that the use of family with church is an attempt to broaden the definition of family, but I’m not sure that’s helpful or even possible. Jesus spoke of the loyalties among citizens of the kingdom as expanding beyond family. In fact, that may be one of the reasons he chose kingdom instead of family as his shaping metaphor.

  • Ray

    I would agree that the idea of family can be misused by groups, whether ecclesial or secular, and for the wrong reasons, as you alluded to. But before abandoning this imagery, shouldn’t we ask why it is such a prevalent metaphorical concept throughout the New Testament? (I’m not sure I follow your first point above). Perhaps there’s a theological point behind all those explicit and implicit references to church-as-family. Not “family” as defined by our brokenness (like you said: tribal, homogenous, etc.), but by the good news of a kingdom that is defined by acceptance, selfless love, etc.

    I would also add that the image of church-as-family takes on whole other levels of meaning outside our context of Westernized Christianity (I’m especially thinking of underground churches which face the threat of persecution in other countries). Sara can speak to the concept of church-as-family in other contexts since she served as a missionary in Uganda.

  • GaryLyn

    I’m not seeing family as a prevalent metaphorical concept throughout the New Testament.

  • Stephen W

    The question “what has this got to do with following Jesus?” is one that comes to me a lot. It seems that the “traditional” church way of life seems to be about a lot of things other than following Jesus (not that they are mutually exclusive, I hasten to add.) For a while I’ve been finding myself on a Sunday morning thinking “why am I here?” The very nature of a Sunday service (sing some songs, listen to a talk, maybe pray for some people) has started to seem a bizarre way of life to me and I can’t help but thinking “I’m not sure this is what Jesus had in mind”.

    Fortunately I’m part of a church that, though fairly conservative evangelical, is also the kind of church that encourages its members to pursue Jesus for themselves, think for themselves, not feel they have to agree and conform to everything handed down from on high. The church leadership is very supportive and, whilst they may not always agree, they give us the freedom to explore what we believe God is doing amongst us. Consequently a group of us (maybe about 40 or so) are starting to try our own thing. Which I guess is also “church”.

  • What is “unchurched”? Who are “unchurched” or “de-churched”? Is it someone who has left an institutional church model and now meets “informally” on a regular basis with other Christians (forming a community)? In that case, they are not truly “unchurched”, just (pardon the terrible coinage) “non-institutionalized”.

    I haven’t read Donald Miller’s writing on this, but now I certainly will look it up!

    I appreciate the disclaimer or warning, “If departure is based on our personal likes and dislikes, personal lifestyle choices such as how to spend our weekends, the idol of busyness, conflict avoidance, or aversion to submission to authority, perhaps our culture is informing identity more than identity in Christ.”

    While there have been departures over dysfunction and a desire to form a healthier community, I fear there have been too many who have left over personal preferences or an inability to deal with conflict. The former departures are seeking realistic healthy communities, the latter are seeking what Bonhoeffer calls the “ideal” which is the enemy of the “real”.

    Thanks for the post.

  • Ray

    All those references to “brothers” (and sisters, if using inclusive language)? To our status as children under our heavenly Father? Being part of the household of God? If our relationship with other believers is not familial, then what is it? Even Jesus seems to take the close ties of the family bond and offer a (radical) revisioning of what family is in light of the new kingdom: “Whoever does the will of my Father is my mother, brother, sister.”

    You referenced Jesus’ primary metaphor of kingdom (which I agree with), but I don’t see how this contrasts with family. I don’t see Jesus’ metaphorical use of kingdom intended to refer specifically/exclusively to the local gathered community of God’s people and how they relate to one another, to Christ, and to the Father (though of course the church should witness to the kingdom made real in her midst).

    One helpful resource on all this is Joseph Hellerman’s book – When the Church Was Family: Recapturing Jesus’ Vision for Authentic Christian Community

  • revdrummer

    I’d like to attend a church community close to my home. And by “close”, I mean 5-10 minutes. I’ve tried visiting the churches in that radius and it’s a struggle. I’m not someone that wants to be catered to. I want to serve, love my neighbor, champion the local community causes, and get down and dirty. But I honestly don’t feel like that is happening in these church communities. I feel like I’m wasting my time sitting through a service. That’s my gut honest reaction.

    The dysfunction that turns me off is:
    1. poor leadership (lack of personal work/formation, lack of vision, blaming others, trying to control/manipulate others)
    2. lack of theological roots (“everything goes” type of feeling)
    3. lack of authenticity/genuineness
    4. lack of diversity (race, demographics, etc)

    I desperately long for
    *community among others who have intentions of following Jesus fervently.
    *being transformed into His image and living this out among my neighbors and local community
    *leadership to be more like Pope Francis (“smell like your sheep”)
    *authenticity and genuineness
    *leaders to do their own personal work
    *transformation and God’s Kingdom to be established in my local neighborhood and city
    *a community that invites the local immigrants of my local city to worship alongside one another
    *guidance in my spiritual walk from people who are fervently trying to follow Jesus the revolutionary.

    This seems like a tall list. That’s because it is. This is tough. It’s not easy and it takes great grace, faith, and intentionality. I honestly don’t feel like I’m finding this in the local churches where I live. But who am I to measure them…I’m just a free-loading follower of Jesus trying to get to heaven…and not go to hell. 😉

    This isn’t a very “theologically sound” comment. I’m just venting. I believe in the Ecclesia. I believe in Jesus. I believe God established the Church. But it’s a struggle right now to be involved in these churches. Something is not right. Something feels off. There is a rhythm and groove that’s not there, if I can use a music analogy. It feels too dissonant, too packaged, and lacking groove. Lord, help us. Please.

  • Usage of family terms implies a genetic relationship, which is an accurate description. Paul used the analogy of “the body,” which implies coordinated and harmonized function. Jesus used “kingdom” which implies authority and order. Community describes fellowship or sharing, which is consist with the first three. No single analogy can describe the church as the bridge between the Holy Spirit power of God and human earthly existence. “Christian” or “Christ-like” would be accurate, but how many ways has that been redefined? More than 70×7.

    Pet Peeve Buzzword alert: “Authentic” Christian Community? What other kind is there? If a Christian Community isn’t “authentic,” it’s not a Christian community. “If we’re authentic, then what are you ??” A “redundancy for superiority” detracts from message value. (IMO)

  • I appreciate the thoughts that maybe sometimes people leave church because the church family is abusive. I appreciate the idea that instead of being defensive and placing blame on the people who leave…saying they are making excuses or being selfish or falling prey to our secular culture…they listen to what the people who are leaving are saying. I didn’t want to leave me church…I feel that my church left me. I was an active member. I volunteered, I served, I participated, I worked. I felt that I was really connected to the “family” and I loved so many of the people. I knew that we weren’t perfect, but I was willing to forgive and continue.

    But then I went through a divorce and all of the sudden my children and I were a pariah. We were ignored, gossiped about, and even called names. Even after each of my three children began refusing to go to church, I persevered faithfully.

    Then, a couple of years later, a 17 yo girl in our youth group was raped by one of the youth group dads. She was called a liar, and worse, and eventually asked not to participate in youth group anymore. At the time in her life when she needed the most support and love, she was rejected and blamed. As was I…rejected and blamed during the worst time of my life.

    So, this is what a family is??

    I have no interest in ever submitting myself to that kind of abuse ever again. I won’t. I didn’t leave my church because I was too busy, or because I “fell away” or because I couldn’t deal with conflict. I left because I wasn’t safe, my daughters weren’t safe, and a 17 year old girl in the youth group was not safe in environment of control, and manipulation, and silence.

  • Sue Connor

    Yes. This. So many of us have been wounded by the ones who are meant to be shepherds. The gospel has been perverted where the oppressed have found no one willing to protect them. The age of narcissism hits pastors and elders especially hard. And prophets amoung us have been silenced – called names and disempowered. Child sexual abuse, domestic violence, destructive marriages.
    We need the gifting of all. Let he who has ears hear.

  • Al Cruise

    “If people are leaving” ” ask some hard questions” The bottom line is, whether it’s being said or not, is the implication that you need to call yourself a Christian and be attending Church in order to be saved, if not, you are going to hell or “Left Behind”. People can see through this, especially young people. What about all the people born before Christian theology. Born in countries were Christian theology is not present. According to american evangelicals over a billion Chinese and many other nationalities are consigned to hell simply by their location of birth. The Church doesn’t want to talk about this. People are leaving, so their playing a new guilt trip card ” you can’t be spiritually healthy unless your in a community of “OUR” definition. People are seeing that this is false and are leaving and will continue to leave.

  • Al Cruise

    Very good post. Yes family and community are completely different things. You are so right on with Jesus using Kingdom not family. Church’s like to use the word “family” to describe their communities because they know the power of that word, when it it’s mostly traditional families sitting in the pews. They know how parents feel about their children, and imply that same connection should be reciprocated to the Church, especially to the leadership. Remember pastor Jim Standridge ” if you loved me”. People are leaving and instead of really fixing the problems, all the Church’s across North America have gotten together, to play the new guilt trip card “if you don’t belong to a Church family [by their defination] and attend regularly your are going to be Spiritually deficient”. That is lie.

  • Yes! I think this goes beyond male/female to all dimensions of diversity. I fervently believe we are sanctified through relationship. We are mutually transformed by knowing and being known by one another. Galatians 3:28 is such a beautiful picture of reconciliation.

    But IMHO, moral certitude is a rampant sin of the Church. We have an addiction to being right. We pretend we can know eternal truth (as if we alone see clearly into the dark glass). When that happens, good-faith disagreement becomes costly rather than enriching. We often make disagreement destructive rather than generative. And, in the worst case, positional power is used to injure those who question the orthodoxy of the community. That is a fragile and dangerous faith indeed.

  • christianpundit

    You said, “Church’s like to use the word “family” to describe their communities because they know the power of that word, when it it’s mostly traditional families sitting in the pews. ” Yes, thank you for mentioning that.

    Most evangelical, Baptist, and other churches, ignore anyone who is not in a traditional, 1950ish family. I’m over 40, never married (had wanted to be but never met the right person), never had any kids, and so I am “persona non grata” at most churches and in Christian culture in general.

    It’s very strange, because U.S. census data show that 44% of adults in America are single, and that applies to a lot of evangelicals as well, but many denominations and churches continue to assume everyone marries by 25 and pops out three children. Anyone who does not fit that template is either ignored or insulted.

    Other groups who tend to be overlooked in American Christian culture are the widows, widowers, married couples who are childless or child free, and divorced people.

  • christianpundit

    I think the family concept is indeed in the New Testament, but, unfortunately, most Christians ignore it and continue to place their flesh and blood ties (their literal family, their spouse and kids) on a pedestal, when Christ specifically taught against that (see passages such as Luke 14 :25 -27).

    I’m over 40, never married, don’t have any kids, and churches should act as a family of sorts to me, but they do not: instead of acting as my brothers and sisters in Christ, they are clumps of nuclear families who come together each week to hear a sermon.

    I am typically not invited out to lunch, or to share holidays with, any of those nuclear families. No attempt is made to include and socialize with adult singles by married couples/nuclear families.

    Adult Christian singles sometimes “blow off” other adult singles – I know, I’ve tried befriending some of them, and they can’t be bothered to carve out an hour out of their week to meet for coffee or whatever.

    And I’m not saying it’s just me: other adult single Christians have noticed the same thing – they enter the church alone and leave alone. No attempt is made by the married couples to befriend adult singles, and not all adult singles have living (flesh and blood) family left, and no extensive social network of friends to rely on.

    Adult singles are typically ignored by Christian culture and churches, or, in some churches, we adult singles are misused (i.e., we are used as free labor, to cook and clean for the married couples in the church), or, we are insulted (anyone still single past age 30 is suspected as being homosexual, lazy, or a weirdo, for instance).

  • GaryLyn

    I appreciate your response. As someone who has been single many more years than married (I’m 59, and was married once for 6 years), I understand the struggle with being single in church. That struggle, for me, suggest the need to move beyond the family image. When we say “family” for church, most people’s thoughts go to their own family. And so church becomes a place for families. It’s a selling point for many churches: we minister to families, we offer something for the family. I don’t think the church is called to minister to families. They are called to make and minister to disciples. Yes, part of my identity as disciple may be my role in family, but that’s not primary.

  • Al Cruise

    Yes I agree with your post. Using the word family marginalizes people who don’t fit the traditional definition. A Church is a community of individuals, of which some may be in traditional family units, and others not. The value of each individual to God/Christ, as spoken of in scripture, must be reciprocated in the Church for it to have any relevance. Thank You for sharing your experiences.