One must wonder how things would have turned out in Christianity had not certain events happened and certain ways of thinking been accepted. We are thinking about just this kind of thing in this series of posts. Particularly we are looking at the understanding of the church in terms of a family relationship that apparently prevailed in the early days of its existence. What would the church look like today had the family model survived instead of the presently accepted institutional concept? No doubt it would have been quite different.
To me, the comparison of the Lord’s people to a family is one of the most evocative terms we can use. This is so, I think, because family is what most of us know – its where we live – or where we would like to live. Family is the most powerful influence in our lives – for better or for worse. We may not have ideal families, but all of us realize something of what family should be. Of all families, the family of God should be the ideal. It would be were it not for the human beings that make it up. God’s design is the ideal but its execution by human beings often leaves much to be desired. And from this comes much of the confusion and misunderstanding that exists today.
I realize that when we refer to the church as family we are using only one of a number of figures used in the scriptures. There are terms such as flock or field or vineyard, all of which evoke a different idea but which contribute to our understanding of who we are and something of the relationship and responsibility we hold toward God and toward one another. Having said that, however, I would hasten to add that the concept of God’s people as family is foundational since it goes back to the original nature and purpose for mankind as set forth in the creation account. Rooted in the marriage relationship established by God as essential for the completion of his good creation and with the family emanating from that holy relationship, all aspects of civilization find their foundation in the institution of the family. This is why when the family fails in a civilization that civilization will itself soon crumble and fall.
There are many facets to this subject. We have looked at the “family meal” or the love feast which, from the earliest days, was associated with the Lord’s Supper. We also gave some thought to how the family concept worked in terms of what we call “church discipline.” Today we are going to devote some time to the concept of the “organization” of the church. I thoroughly detest that term “organization” as it is used to describe the family of God. It is not used in scripture. It connotes the traditional, institutional concept of church as opposed to a living, relational idea. We do not “organize the church” like the Rotary Club or Kiwanis.
As we have been pointing out – and as one reader recently commented – the new creation concept of the New Testament is really a return to the concept of the original creation. We are a long way this side of Eden, but the ideals of the original still obtain and I believe it is God’s purpose that we as his new creation resume the original intent for his creation, working toward the goal he had (and has) in view, the perfect consummation of his eternal intent, the ultimate New Creation. What is that intent? It is man living with him, enjoying all that God has made, reflecting in himself and through his loving care for God’s good creation the glory and goodness of the Creator.
When we see ourselves in any other light than a new creation with the purpose of working with God in the restoring of his eternal project which was derailed when sin entered the world we wind up with a limited and skewed vision of what life, creation, the church and our hope are all about. And yet, that is exactly what many Christian groups have done. Having accepted the Enlightenment, deistic, dualistic concepts of a God far away and a creation doomed to destruction the only thing left is to save the souls of people so they can “go to heaven when they die.” This idea just does not resonate either with the overall Bible picture or with people of the age in which we live. What the world sees is people who basically are detached from reality.
One of the things that is often held up as a “mark of the New Testament church” is its organization. In order to be the “true church” it must have the right organization, meaning that there must be elders in every church that has men qualified and that there must be deacons (who really don’t know what they are supposed to do) alongside the elders. Ordinary members must reckon themselves “under the oversight” (isn’t that an odd expression?) of this organization or they are in rebellion against God. They must acquiesce to the decisions of the elders in how their money is spent and who they will hire to be the minister/preacher/evangelist of the congregation. They must not question the elder-approved teaching done in the classes or by the preacher.
How much different this arrangement is from a family! In a family, the father takes the lead with an understanding that he is intended by God to guide his family in love toward understanding and obeying God. He does this by setting the example and by teaching his children. He teaches them by loving his wife and by loving the children, patiently correcting when it is needed, lavishly praising when it is deserved, loving and tenderly cultivating and always watchful for the welfare of every member of the family.
Can we return to this concept for the church? The Biblical concept of elders was not that of a modern corporate board of directors, but derives directly from Jewish model of the family. Indeed, the family is much, much more than this modern idea. The following quotes emphasizes the role of the family in the development of the individual and of society from a Jewish perspective. These people should have a pretty fair understanding of just what God wants in families. After all, they have had the Torah for 3,500 years!
“…the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson – leader of the worldwide Hasidic movement known as Chabad Lubavitch – describes the role of home and family in cultivating those habits which make a society function. “Home is where we learn to cope and to be productive, to work and play, to be comfortable with ourselves and others,” Schneerson says. “Most importantly, home is where we learn about happiness and wholesomeness … Our home is a secure base that gives us the confidence to explore the terrain of an unpredictable and often dangerous world.” (“Toward A Meaningful Life,”).
“In Jewish history and tradition, the family is considered to be the most important institution for shaping ethnic and religious identity and transmitting Judaism’s basic norms and values. Indeed, the family and the synagogue are the only two institutions referred to in traditional Jewish literature as mikdash me ‘at, or “sanctuary in miniature,” sharing the responsibility for handing down both Jewish law and Jewish values. The family has been the setting, if not the focal point, for much of Jewish religious tradition. And, in the view of many present-day observers, it is the institution primarily responsible for Jewish continuity.” (The Jewish Father: Past and Present).
Perhaps even more importantly, home is where, as small children, we begin to conceptualize God. God as Father. God as love. God as the model of humanity whose image we are to bear just as the little child adores his father and wants to be exactly like him. It is very much this type of role that elders among God’s family are to play. This is seen in Paul’s instructions to both Timothy and Titus regarding elders. He says those chosen must have demonstrated their ability and experience and have received the respect of both their families and communities for the way they have conducted themselves toward their families.
1 Tim 3:4-5 “He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?”
Titus 1:6 “…if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination.”
The Lord’s choice of Abraham is enlightening. God said in Genesis 18:19 …
“For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice, so that the Lord may bring to Abraham what he has promised him.”
God knew that Abraham would lead his children – including his extended family – to “keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice.” To put this in a way we can understand it, God knew Abraham would teach his descendants to become good, responsible human beings who would be a blessing to those around them.
As his generations multiplied, the fathers and then grandfathers became known as the elders among the people. They were regarded as elders because of the simple fact that they were older. The first time the word “elders” is used in the Old Testament is in Exodus 3:16. Keil & Delitzsch commentary says that these were “…the heads of the families, households, and tribes.” These men had the responsibility of watching after the welfare of the extended family all the way up to the tribe level. The same care and concern that characterized their attitude toward their immediate families would have characterized them in this greater charge. Their role and responsibility would have been essentially the same as in the immediate family.
With the coming of the gospel the traditional family structure did not change. The church simply adopted and continued this concept of the fathers/elders watching after, teaching, training, leading and modeling the ideals of the Christian life. Where this father-love is missing among Christians they suffer for the lack of what these good and wise men could supply.