Several weeks ago, I voiced a question I’ve long been pondering—something that seems to go unnoticed by many church leaders: How does the dissolution of traditional family structures affect the church’s self-perception?
To get more specific, How does the widespread loss of the experience of being or having a sibling affect the way we see ourselves as brothers and sisters in Christ?
If we believe the church is the “family of God,” our self-understanding as a family will be connected, at least in some measure, to our experiences within family life. The absence of particular family relationships can’t help but affect our view of church as family.
Question of Justice
An astute reader, Andrew, responded with a slightly different perspective. He recommended we approach the issue of family breakdown in the church by beginning with scriptural teaching on justice. We cannot simply ask how broken families will affect the church’s self-perception; instead, we must incorporate ministry to broken families into how we see ourselves as Christ’s Bride.
Andrew pointed to the Hebrew understanding of mishpat: “Rectifying justice or putting things right for those prone to be exploited.” Throughout Scripture, God calls his people to do justice (mishpat) for widows, orphans, immigrants, and those in poverty. Andrew writes,
Psalm 82 presents a picture of God on his throne judging the nations based on how earthly princes treat the weak and fatherless, i.e. those most prone to the effects of family breakdown. The prophets repeat the call for this kind of justice and the New Testament shows how good works and justice go hand in hand.
He quotes from Old Testament scholar Bruce Waltke on the responsibilities of the righteous and how our actions set us apart from the world:
The righteous are those who are willing to disadvantage themselves for the advantage of others, the wicked are those who are willing to advantage themselves at the disadvantage of others.
Learning Love in the Family?
Andrew acknowledges the point I made in my article about family breakdown affecting the church’s self-understanding. It’s true that “the righteous love that the church seeks to emulate is other-oriented and it is easiest to learn this kind of love in families,” he says. And yet,
Strong social and family bonds can also lead to partiality and insularity if we do not constantly heed God’s call, even warning, of doing justice for the vulnerable. While the sociological causes of family breakdown are worth addressing, it is a problem that has been seen throughout history for different reasons. It seems clear to me, regardless of the reasons, what the church’s duty is to those who are a product of broken families: justice.
I appreciate Andrew’s pushback because of its historical perspective. He’s right: there has never been a golden age of family life in history or around the world. Our life together as sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, children and grandchildren—it’s always been complicated. Take a closer look at the family dynamics in many of the Old Testament’s most beloved stories and you’ll see how riddled they are with bad marriages, failing fathers, envious brothers, scheming mothers, and adulterous husbands. Sin warps the family in severe and lasting ways.
Yet even with all the examples of bad dads, God speaks of himself as our Father. Even with the examples of unfaithfulness in marriage, God describes himself as a spouse to Israel. What’s more, he sometimes uses the sinfulness of family breakdown (in adultery, for example) as an analogy of Israel’s waywardness.
I stand by my original point: We ought to give more thought, not less, to the ways our understanding of the church as a family is adversely affected by the loss of stable, faithful, familial relationships. It’s likely a lack of experience with thick, enduring, and faithful families will lead to a corresponding “thinness” in church relationships as well. If families are easily entered and exited, why not churches also?
That said, Andrew is right to point us back to the church’s responsibility in this world of family breakdown. Surely part of what it means to be the family of God is to provide something of substance for those who, without blame or fault, have never known family life as God intended.
How does the gospel burden the people of God who belong to healthy families to help rectify the effects of broken ones so that those affected individuals feel like they belong and can heal within the church? There are some bright spots in the American evangelical church when it comes to doing justice for children, especially against abortion and for adoption, but I am not sure we give the due attention of doing justice to adults who experience familial brokenness, especially when it comes to ecclesial belonging.
Christians who grew up in somewhat stable homes and experienced strong family relationships should consider Andrew’s question. What’s our responsibility as the family of God to our siblings who suffer the consequences of family breakdown? And there’s a deeper question here than the one I posed in my previous article—not just how family breakdown might affect the church’s self-understanding but how the response to family breakdown factors into how the church sees herself.
Andrew is onto something important here. Can we come to better understand the church as a family in the ways we do justice and show mercy, creating a sense of ecclesial belonging for those who live with the effects of family breakdown? Can those with strong family relationships be a source of healing for those who only know brokenness? I’m grateful for readers who help us ponder deeper questions as we seek to be faithful in the world in which God has placed us.
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