No doubt you’ve heard the phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Well, God has given us pictures of a sort in his Word. These portraits drawn with words assist our understanding of the church and how we’re to relate to her. They are pictures with a purpose. A family, a body, living stones, a flock of sheep, a vine and branches, a field of crops, and a harvest are just a few examples.
It’s important for us to allow each of these images to interpret the other. Every illustration, even a great one, breaks down in some way if pushed too far and too literally. But looking at them collectively can help us see commonalities and repeated themes. Notice, for example, that all of the images I listed have something in common: plurality! They involve more than one. That’s because as Christians we’re the people of God, not just a person of God. The Bible teaches church membership through these metaphors because the gospel creates a community of believers.
We are the people of God, not just a person of God.
When God’s mercy is extended to us we become one of his people. We become a part of his family and he becomes our Father (Rom. 8:15). We are graciously adopted by God (Eph. 1:5) and become members of his household, his covenant community (Gal. 3:27–4:7). But don’t forget this crucial bit of information: our reconciliation with God means reconciliation with his people. Paul discusses this very thing in Ephesians 2:19–20 when he writes,
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone.
Yes, we are individually reconciled to God, but we’re also brought into relationship with a host of other professing believers. The Christian life is a family affair. It’s not just you and Jesus. It isn’t just a random group of people either. We become the body of Christ together.
In 1 Timothy, Paul calls Timothy “my true child in the faith” (1:2) and instructs him to care for other members of the church like family: fathers, brothers, mothers, and sisters (5:1–2). At the end of Romans, Paul sends greetings to individual local churches in Rome, actually calling them families (16:10, 11). God designed local churches to be families.
No Spiritual Orphans
Let’s rotate this familial image just a little and consider what it means to be adopted into a family. When an orphan is adopted, she is brought into an immediate family: a father and mother, possibly brothers and sisters. These people will care for her, know her, watch out for her, and provide for her. She also may gain grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins. At conversion, God’s Word tells us that we are likewise brought into God’s family, a family who will care for us, know us, watch out for us, and provide for us. This is exactly how the local church should work. When we commit ourselves to a local body we’re identifying ourselves with a particular family of believers.
The Old Testament people of God looked more like a biological, monochromatic family, whereas the New Testament people of God are from every tribe, tongue, and nation, looking more like a true blended family. Ryan Lister illustrates this well in his book Emblems of the Infinite King: “This is a ragtag family made up of all kinds of people with all kinds of pasts and all kinds of circumstances. When we see the church as a whole, it looks like a patchwork quilt, with different shapes, patterns, colors, and designs all sewn together by the thread of faith and the King’s steady hand.”
Sure, we’re individually reconciled to God, but we’re also brought into relationship with a host of other professing believers.
This privilege of adoption into God’s chosen family allows us to work together for the common good of loving God and loving our neighbor in order to bring God the glory and praise due his name. We shouldn’t live as spiritual orphans. We should commit ourselves to a people striving together to make that glory known to the watching world.
For one day, sooner than we all expect, Jesus will return to be with his people forever. It will be the perfect family reunion, without weird comments, veiled insults, disappointing absences, or awkward moments. We will perfectly and wonderfully praise and glorify our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, together (Rev. 5:10–13; 21:1–4). There will be perfect unity. When we gather as a family in local churches we proclaim that future hope by being united to local expressions of that spiritual family.