Can the Church Replace the Natural Family?
Written by Rhett Burns on August 30, 2019
A few weeks ago, I wrote the following in this space:
We should also stop conflating the church and the natural family as if the former may be substituted for the latter. While there is some overlap, and family works as a metaphor to describe the church, these are two separate spheres that God has ordained for different, yet complementary, functions.
I want to explain myself.
The church is the family of God. Those who trust in Christ have God as their Father, having been adopted as sons. Believers are brothers and sisters in the household of God. Older saints are our fathers and mothers in the faith, and we may see those we disciple as our children in the faith (1 Tim 1:2). We share a common heritage. Though our ancestors may be of various blood lines, we have been grafted into the true tree (Rom 11), and ours are the patriarchs, the prophets, and the apostles. We share a common future as co-heirs with Jesus. We also share a true and lasting unity in the Spirit. Blood may be thicker than tap water, but the waters of baptism are thicker than blood.
So, the church is very much a family, and in a church one should find nurturing and affectionate familial relationships. This is especially true for those who come to Christ out of tight-knit, often hostile-to-Christianity, communities. For example, Muslims who convert to faith in Jesus leave the ummah, the global community, of Islam. Feeling the shame of such a betrayal of cultural, religious, and national identity, their families will often ostracize such Muslim-background believers, leaving them isolated. In these instances, the church fills the relational void. To follow Christ, these new Christians may leave fathers and mothers and brothers, but in the church, they gain them back one hundred-fold.
But in the West, we are seeing something of the opposite. Not that families are ostracizing believers for their faith in Jesus (though that happens sometimes). Rather, we find many believers eschewing the very idea of the natural family. They are foregoing marriage and children and then assuming the church will create a substitute for this essential community for them.
Those who see the family as the basic building block of society and raising a godly seed as part of the Great Commission are increasingly accused of idolizing the family. It is true that some people idolize their families, or, perhaps more accurately, neglect their duties in other spheres in favor of their families. Insular families that refuse to submit themselves to the authority of a local church is one example, while families who regularly forsake Lord’s Day worship in favor of traveling youth sports is another. But idolatry of family is not our pressing cultural concern. That concern is the normalization of refusing to take up the responsibility to marry and raise godly kids, and the tendency to assuage their loneliness by blaming the church’s insensitivity to singles.
Let me anticipate one objection and note there are many legitimate reasons one may have for remaining unmarried. And many who find themselves in this station see their situation as an affliction. I take no aim at them, and I wish to add no burden to them. Rather, I have in view those who neither marry nor raise children because they simply cannot be bothered. For them, responsibility is such an inconvenience.
So, can the church be substituted for the natural family? Can the upwardly mobile careerist find all their relational needs met in the community of the saints? The church can mitigate against the loneliness that comes from a loss or lack of a natural family. But it is an odd foregrounding of the spiritual over and against the physical to suggest that the church can replace the family. It’s the old anti-materialist gnostic error repackaged: so long as one has spiritual bonds in the church, the bonds of kinship are obsolete. Who needs their bodies broken and bloodied in childbirth when they can just join a small group?
God has ordained both the sphere of the family and the church. He has abrogated neither sphere, and we should not conflate the two, no matter how they overlap. God instituted the family to be an industrious community, full of companionship, intimacy, and very close relationships, bound by love, duty, and responsibility to one another. Do we know better than God? Do we possess such wisdom that we can shun one sphere in favor of another?
Further, on a practical level, substituting the natural family with the church places unrealistic expectations upon fellow church members.* The bond of husband and wife, or between parent and child, is not easily replicated. This does not mean that church relationships ought to be superficial or that they cannot be deep, meaningful, and bounded. Rather, it is that in the normal course of things, the relational community we need on a daily basis is first found in the family.
The glory is when these families come together and grow up together into something greater than themselves: the church.* Here they become a worshiping community, a visible representation of the kingdom of God upon the earth, devoted to fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the Apostles’ teaching. And those who, for one reason or another, find themselves without a family will find in the church the welcoming arms of their brothers and sisters. But it will not be because we conflated the church and family, but because families gave themselves over to the church.
*Alastair Roberts comments helpfully on these concepts in his video on the church and the natural family.