[box]RVWD is my abbreviation for Religious Vocabulary Word of the Day. (You can read my introduction to the RVWD series here.) I do not intend for these word investigations to be exhaustive, but I hope they stimulate some thinking about assumptions. Possibly they will help with honest evaluations about what is truth and what is unnecessary baggage in life. [/box]
The particular phrase “church family” is not found in any of the Bible versions I searched (online using blueletterbible.org). Neither did I find “family of God,” another similar oft repeated designation. The term “family of believers” is used in Galations 6:10, I Peter 2:17 and 5:9, but only in the New International Version. Other translations use words like “brotherhood” and “household of faith”. In these three instances it is referring to everyone who believes (accepts, follows) the good news of real and eternal life through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
Another term that is related, and is more frequent is “children of God.” Again, this is used to include those who are “born anew” by what Jesus has done for them. It has nothing to do with what religious organization a person belongs to, and nothing to do with political affiliation. You can’t get it by signing up for any membership or paying a supposed religious leader or just by self-labeling because it seems like your social orientation. It is between an individual and God. The choice puts the person in the category of being not just created by God, but accepting Him as Father, Savior, and Helper. Since there are some other people who have also chosen this, there is one group that is called the “children of God.” All persons in this group are, in the Bible, basically siblings (grammatically correct “brothers” being inclusive of both genders when both are present) by spiritual lineage. Even though there are some references to newer converts as “babies,” overall recognition of being brothers is not about communal living. Although sharing is encouraged, it is always in the context of things belonging to individuals and implies everyone being responsible in managing their own resources.
So where does the term “church family” come in and what do people mean when they use it? Most people know that the most basic definition of “church” (according to translation as opposed to common usage) is “a group of people gathering for a specific purpose.” Inherent in the Greek understanding of the word was discussion or dialog with all present. The purpose of Jesus having His church was so that they could all encourage one another.
The word “family,” in both the old and new testaments, is an description of kinship. It means
- close relation by blood
- of common ancestry or lineage
- dwelling in the same household
- in the same clan
“Family” appears too many times to count in the Bible. Well, somebody has probably counted, but I didn’t. The obvious thing is that it is always used to mean an actual unit of people related by physical birth, plus additions from marriage or adoption. Even though there are the family-like terms used, like “children of God” and “brotherhood,” the specific designation family (apart from the semi-paraphrase of the NIV) is reserved for families in a very worldly sense. Even in the church of people following Jesus, there is the admonition for believers to take care of their own family before asking for help among the rest of the group (I Tim 5:4, 5:8).
All of this leads me to the conclusion that referring to someone as part of a “church family” is misleading in both extremes. No subset of Christians can be accurately given the name of “church family.” Either everyone in the body of believers is a brother or none are. To claim the family connections with some, but not others, is to wrongly exclude. It is not a matter of who is known or who is around more. There is simply a matter of lineage through Jesus Christ.
Another potential bad effect of claiming “church family” is to force or promise relationship that does not exist. It is often the case that a new comer walks into a meeting and is greeted with “welcome to our church family.” This comes across as assuming an intimacy and right to intrude into personal details. Sometimes it is just a showy use of words that leaves people disappointed because no one really cares for them the way they expect a family does.
The last thing I will mention is that the concept of “church family” is very often used to pressure people to give up important family priorities to “attend” a “church family” approved function. In order to keep itself alive, a religious organization will frequently suggest “ministries” (yes, we will get to that word in our RVSD series) and ask for donations that end up straining families, pulling them apart from parent-child and brother-sister relationships. It’s like the religious leader is implying that the physical family now takes second place to this idea of a “church family.” That is never suggested in scripture unless absolutely required as a statement of faith (like when a person is told to deny who Jesus is or leave/be killed).
I’m not saying we can’t ever use our own vocabulary to express the truths of God. I’m just wondering if letting phrases like this get institutionalized is in everyone’s best interest. Wouldn’t it be better to say things carefully and really say what you mean, avoiding cliches. We should be careful not to distort how God wants us to relate to each other. We should be cautious about presumptuously entering or leaving people’s lives. We might consider how we marginalize other Christians by creating our own religious clubs.
We might want to rephrase things or allow others to say things like: “The (portion of) the church that meets (at such and such location).” or “I have known the fellow believer (so and so) for 6 years. We do (thus and so) sometimes together.” and “We (parents) feel the need to spend relaxed time with our children, so we won’t make it to this meeting.” Religion can be faked, but neither family nor real Christian fellowship can be, no matter what words you try to use.