3 Ways Our Understanding of Church as Family is Wrong

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There is great power in our metaphors. The words we use to think about things shapes what we do.

In many of the circles I move in, there is a growing resistance to referring to the church as a business. I’m not opposed to that; however, it is one thing to deconstruct a failed model, it is another to be able to explain and point to the correct model.

I believe family is the God-ordained model, but family is the correct metaphor for church only to the degree that we have a correct view of family. I have a few caveats before we jump in with both feet.

3 ways the idea of church as family is wrong

1. When “family” means patriarchy, our family metaphor is wrong.

I’m not going to take this space to do a comprehensive Bible study on men and women, the New Covenant, and the gifting of the Holy Spirit. When I consider the promises of Joel 2:28–29 and passages like Galatians 3:28, I am confident the Holy Spirit anoints both men and women for the work of the ministry in equal and full measure.

Too often, we have restricted the work of the Holy Spirit to be a man only thing (or saved the “best positions” for men only). When the word family” is used to support a structure that values men over women, we are focusing on a fallen-world gender order, when we have an opportunity to participate in the fullness of the new Kingdom.

Our goal should never be gender-led ministry, but Spirit-led ministry. If our family metaphor recognizes the value added in full measure of each family member, I’m for it. If we are using it as a way to emphasize patriarchy, with a “man as head of the household” mentality, it’s simply wrong.

2. When “family” means a lack of structure or organization, our family metaphor is wrong.

This is a big one. Often, the church-as-family metaphor is specifically used to contrast against the church-as-organization metaphor. In particular, the goal is to clearly say the Church is not a business, but a family. Sometimes, this carries the additional sense of wanting less structure.
That is:

  • Families are spontaneous, businesses are strategized and planned.
  • Families are natural, businesses are programmed.
  • Families are about people, businesses are, well, all about business.

I tend to think this is partly a matter of gifting and strengths. When you are gifted, or have strengths in a certain area, you understand all the complexity and nuances of it as you develop expertise. How many pastor’s get frustrated with congregants who think all they do is sit around and read their Bibles and pray? After all, how hard is it to get ready for Sunday? What do they do all week?
It is because they don’t do it that they don’t understand. Because it is not their gift or calling, they unknowingly minimize it’s important. After all, how hard is it to make sermon, the average person might ask. They don’t realize that it is not uncommon to spend many hours for each message (some spending one hour of preparation for every minute of message).
I hope you get my point—when something is not your gift, you don’t naturally see the value of it but clearly see how it hinders your own natural style.

This is exactly what is going on in certain circles when we call for less structure in church. The upfront ministry gifts who, frankly, love spontaneity; get tired of all the planning. They long for simpler days and times. Ugh. All of the planning kills their mojo. They want church to be a family not a business. If they want to schedule an impromptu church-wide picnic for today, by God they should get it with out all this bureaucracy! [Incidentally, this very issue is what is holding many churches back from greater Kingdom effectiveness. Another day perhaps…]

I find in scripture many great examples of godly organization and structure. From Moses and the development of the feasts, tabernacle, and priestly structures; to Jesus and the choosing of the 12 or feeding of the 5000. Families also have structure and organization: monthly budgets, set meal times, chores, planned activities or plans on how to get everyone from one place to another.

The antidote to bad structure, or structure borrowed from a worldly system, is not no structure, but godly structure. If our family metaphor includes a structure that encourages people to become all God created them to be, I’m for it. If we are using a family metaphor to minimize planning and preparation, it’s wrong.

3. When “family” means no accountability, our metaphor is wrong.

This perhaps applies more to staff than to congregations. In any scenario, I would prefer an environment of low control/high accountability to high control/low accountability. But the first is much easier. Businesses have a high degree of checks and balances with pay and responsibility directly linked to performance. The annual performance review is a good example. The family metaphor for Church is used to correct this. Our place in the family is based on a bond that transcends performance. Even when we blow it and hit rock bottom and lose everything, the one constant that should remain is family.

There is a fine line between family acceptance and enabling bad behavior. Most of us struggle to find the appropriate balance. Accountability is tough, but not foreign to family.

Scripture is clear on one thing, God will hold us to account for our actions. This is a Kingdom principle and a principle in the Church. I have experienced spiritual abuse when this gets out of balance, but again, the antidote is never to completely throw something out that is abused, but to find the right balance and hold ourselves to godly principles. If our family metaphor allows for accountability to staff (including the senior leader) and congregants to Biblical truth and God-given mission, then I’m for it. If we are using the family metaphor to avoid responsibility and accountability for what we do, it’s wrong.

Conclusion

The Greek word “oikos” refers to a household or family. For Americans, the best way to think of this is the extended family represented at something like the Thanksgiving meal. Family is the right metaphor for church only so far as we have a correct view of family. I hope these 3 points have helped to clarify and expose part of that challenge.

For more information on this subject, I would recommend these articles by Mike Breen.

My The Business of Church articles:

This is a collection of articles where I begin a process of unwrapping and engaging with our thinking and philosophy about why we do what we do as the Church.

The Business of Church Part 1 — wherein I unmask the thinking behind the thinking and its dehumanizing effect.
The Business of Church Part 2 — wherein I tackle the money question and call us to a new definition of stewardship.
The Business of Church Part 3 — wherein I expose the flawed belief that our lead pastor/teacher should also be the lead decision-maker.
The Business of Church Part 4 — wherein I show how our unfruitfulness is directly linked to our adopting business leadership principles regarding the value of inexperience.

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3 thoughts on “3 Ways Our Understanding of Church as Family is Wrong

  1. I also believe when family means you don’t confront issues, and you maintain the status quo, you’re using the wrong metaphor. Good message Mike!

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