I have learnt a great deal from the families in my church—and when I say families I don’t just mean parents and their young children. There’s Kath, in her forties, who brings her elderly grandfather to church. Kath’s twin sister, niece and uncle have also started coming to church regularly. Together with Kath’s immediate family, they now take up almost two rows.

Then there’s Ern and Fay, both over eighty, who always sit near the windows where the sun streams in. At first, I assumed they were a married couple; actually, they are brother and sister, both of them widowed. Finally, there’s Margaret. She’s an older single divorcee, but most weeks she’s accompanied by her teenage granddaughter.

Churches need natural families, because they can show the church how to be a family; but natural families also need the church—no family can or should be spiritually self-sufficient.

The extended family groups in our church usually sit together, but there’s always room for one more. Kath is like an aunty to several of the young children in the congregation; Margaret’s granddaughter moves around, often sitting with one of the other families with teenage girls

Churches need natural families, because they can show the church how to be a family; but natural families also need the church—no family can or should be spiritually self-sufficient.

For this reason, churches should affirm natural families, but also encourage them to see themselves as part of the wider household of God, ready to embrace those members of the church who come alone.

The Church Does Not (Usually) Replace the Family

It is true that Jesus relativised the concept of family by establishing the spiritual family of God. Jesus invited everyone to be born again into the family of God, the Father (John 1:12-13). This involves pledging allegiance to Jesus, even at the expense of our biological relationships (Luke 14:26). Jesus predicted that his gospel would divide families, as some members choose to join God’s spiritual family and others do not (Matthew 10:34-37). God’s family also offered a new place and purpose for the unmarried and the childless, since its growth no longer depended on biological reproduction, but on the spread of the gospel (Matthew 19:11-12).

But it is important to recognise that Jesus and the early Church also upheld the value and necessity of the biological family. Jesus may have asked, “Who is my mother?” early on in his ministry (Matthew 12:48-50). But his final act was to ensure that his mother, Mary, would be provided for after his death (in fact, through a spiritual “son”) (John 19:26-27). Jesus may have drawn a stark contrast between his earthly family and his “family” of committed disciples. But eventually, the two would significantly overlap: his mother and brothers became core members of the early Church. It is interesting that Jesus’ band of disciples included two sets of brothers and probably some members of Jesus’ own extended family too.

Families were also an important pathway for the church to spread. Yes, the gospel called people to pledge their loyalty to a higher, eternal family, but it also grew within and spread through earthly families. For instance, the first thing that Andrew did after meeting Jesus was to find his brother Simon and bring him to Jesus (John 1:40-42). In the book of Acts, we see whole family groups hearing and believing the gospel together; we see whole family groups being baptised and joining in the mission of the Church (Acts 16:29-34).

More explicitly, Jesus and his apostles reaffirm the commandments that deal with family life. Jesus called husbands and wives to remain faithful to one another for life, and called children to honour their parents (Matthew 19:4-9, Matthew 15:3-6). Paul commanded Christian children to “put their religion into practice by caring for their own family” adding that, “anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:4,8).

We like to think of ourselves as atomised, autonomous individuals who choose to come to church. But really all of us are shaped, pulled and bound by a network of family ties we did not choose. When we come to church with members of our family, those bonds come with us.

But I suggest that this is a good thing for the church and for the world. What the church needs most is not to loosen family bonds for the sake of creating a new spiritual family, but to encourage families to open themselves up to gospel priorities.

All of us are shaped, pulled and bound by a network of family ties we did not choose. When we come to church with members of our family, those bonds come with us.

Families Show the Church a Model of Relationships

The New Testament describes the church as the “household of God” (1 Timothy 3:15). That is, our spiritual relationships are modelled on biological ones. Getting down to specifics, Paul exhorts Timothy: “Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father. Treat younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity.” (1 Timothy 5:1).

In order for the Church to function well, it needs to know—and see—what these different kinds of familial relationships entail. In his article “Church as Family” Vern S. Poythress observes:

“Timothy is not exhorted to treat each person in a manner mechanically identical with every other person, but to take into account the full range of personal factors that go into an intimate family relationship.” (in Piper and Grudem (eds); Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood; p238)

When natural families sit and relate together in view of the church, it gives the church a model of relationship to follow. When I witness Kath’s care and support for her elderly grandfather, it shows me how I could practically care for the other elderly members of our church; when I see how Ern and Fay look after one another during the week, it shows me how I could better support my spiritual brothers and sisters; when I see how Margaret faithfully disciples her granddaughter in faith and service, it shows me how I could do the same for the other teenagers at church.

Our family relationships aren’t just a model for others, but a school for us. In her book Love Thy Body Nancy Pearcey explains:

Our experience of familial love is meant to “school” us in the sacrificial love that binds us to one another in the family of God. The bonds of biology train us to extend love beyond biology.”

Similarly, Paul saw family life as a training and proving ground for ministry. He asks, “If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?” (1 Timothy 3:5)

Families Extend Beyond the “Nuclear”

Throughout the history of God’s people, families have always been extensive—in fact, the Bible has no word for “nuclear” family. In Bible times families spread over many generations, caring for their eldest and youngest members. They spread outwards to embrace those who joined it by marriage or adoption; they reached out to include employees who worked for the family business. Extended families also provided a refuge for those with no immediate family of their own, such as widows and orphans. In these kinds of families, single people were never without companionship and support.

In modern churches, families still function as the most natural bases for hospitality, especially towards those whose own family is far away or unsupportive. Where biological families fall short, our spiritual family needs to step in.

In the words of theologian Alastair Roberts:

“The church should be a place where the alien and the stranger are welcomed, and those who lack families. But for it to operate as a site of welcome, it needs to be a place where there is a deep familial, communal structure. And that requires natural families … What really gives the church the backbone of community is often the families that are opened up to the Kingdom of God, to this wider household. That’s what really gives the church so much of its capacity to function as an extended family: the fact that it has actual natural families within it.” 

Families Show the World a Picture of the Gospel

Ultimately, God has given us the institution of the family to show us something about himself. He designed marriage to be a picture of the faithful love between Christ and his Bride, the Church. Parents, at their best, paint a picture of our heavenly Father who faithfully loves, provides for, guides, teaches and disciplines us. Ideally, sons and daughters show us something about the perfect Son who loves, honours, obeys and imitates his Father.

Every Christian of every age, whether married or single, needs to belong to a wider family of faith

When family relationships are strong and visible within the church and wider community, it reflects, however imperfectly, something of the gospel. This is vitally important in a world where many have no experience of a loving and functional family life.

Families and Churches Need Each Other

God has set believers within two families; but those families need each other. The extended family is still the ideal primary institution for raising children, caring for the elderly and providing economic support. Christian families also provide a model for church relationships, a natural base for extending hospitality and a picture of the gospel. For this reason, churches should work to encourage and strengthen these natural bonds.

And yet, no human family is spiritually self-sufficient. Every Christian of every age, whether married or single, needs to belong to a wider family of faith where spiritual brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts, and mothers and fathers, can share support, love, wisdom and accountability in true Christian community.