The Family of God Invites Us to Re-learn Community

Family is one of the primary metaphors Scripture uses to describe life in the community of faith. Believers are frequently addressed as “brothers and sisters in Christ.”

“The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:16–17). 

One thing living in a still-ongoing pandemic has made painfully clear is the complicated way we relate to others. At one level, it’s revealed how much we deeply need each other—and just how hard it is to be isolated from others. As a rather introverted person, I admit I didn’t find the need to spend more time at home and remain socially distant from others all that difficult at first. As alarming and heartbreaking as the public health crisis was, a part of me initially also felt some relief in having permission to spend more time alone. As many quipped after initial lockdowns, introverts have prepared for a crisis such as this all their lives. 

But as the pandemic dragged on month after month, that feeling of relief at having “permission” to be my introverted self quickly and thoroughly wore off. Because, of course, introverts need regular human connection just as much as extroverts. Turns out that needing connection with others is a quality of being human, not a personality type. Like so many others, I’ve experienced mental health struggles intensifying after months and months of physical isolation from others. Finding safe, creative ways to stay healthy and connected with others was and is a struggle. And so I’ve come to realize in a deeper way than ever before that all of those relationships I took for granted—the people I once saw on a regular basis—played a crucial role in my mental health. Their physical absence took a toll greater than I could have imagined. 

When the safe place isn’t safe

At the same time, the pandemic hasn’t just revealed our need for others; it’s also revealed starkly the many ways people often fail and hurt each other. Contagious disease experts have advised the public to stay a safe distance from most people while staying in a safe, small “bubble” of closest family and friends. But for many such a safe circle simply doesn’t exist. And family dysfunction can be more than unhealthy; it can be dangerous. A Time article described a steep spike in domestic violence incidents as the “pandemic within the pandemic.” The pandemic didn’t cause the abuse, but, as abuse advocate Jacky Mulveen explains, “COVID exacerbates it. It gives [abusers] more tools, more chances to control you. The abuser says, ‘You can’t go out; you’re not going anywhere,’ and the government also is saying, ‘You have to stay in.’” Many victims found themselves even more trapped with few people to turn for help. 

We all long for family—a close-knit community of people where we can be safe and with whom we can belong—fully and unconditionally. But few, if any, of us have a biological family that lives up to the ideal we long for.  Many will spend much of their lives seeking healing from wounds caused by those closest to them. We all long for and deeply need connections with others, but at the same time, many people will find it difficult, even impossible, to trust even those closest to them.

All of which leaves us asking with increased urgency—how can we learn how to be family for the people around us? And how do we care for those who’ve been wounded by those they should have been able to trust? As our hurting hearts cry out, we’re drawn once more to plead with God for answers, to learn anew what it means to care for each other and find wholeness.

The truer and better family

Family is one of the primary metaphors Scripture uses to describe life in the community of faith. Believers are frequently addressed as “brothers and sisters in Christ.” Today, we tend to take this familial language for granted, but it was revolutionary then—and remains revolutionary today, if we take its claims seriously. (The language early believers used of sharing “love feasts”—or communion—with “brothers and sisters” was so entirely foreign to the surrounding culture, in fact, that it’s one of the reasons early Christian communities were maligned as being incestuous communities.) 

In a culture in which biological family was everything, the early Christian church decentralized it entirely. Instead of finding one’s identity and place in biological family, believers were pointed to a different kind of family and a different kind of community. The church is the kind of family where they could find who they were and their place in society. It was the family where they could finally find the belonging, purpose, and worth they longed for. 

And the family of Christ, as described in the New Testament, is not just an expansion of our preexisting understanding of family—the people closest to us—to include all believers in Jesus. Family is just one of many metaphors the New Testament uses to paint an entirely new picture about who the community of faith is meant to be: the body of Christ in the world, the “firstfruits” (James 1:18) of the new creation resurrected in Christ. The family of God is the community of those adopted as God’s children and heirs (Romans 8:16–17), a people called to point to Christ’s love and the reality of all creation’s hope of resurrection in Christ. 

The church is the kind of family where they could find who they were and their place in society.

New Testament scholar Richard Hays (in Moral Vision of the New Testament) describes it this way: the community of faith, God’s family, is meant to “embody an alternative order that stands as a sign of God’s redemptive purposes in the world.” We can only understand God’s purpose for our lives, Hays explains, “when we seek God’s will not by asking first, ‘What should I do,’ but ‘What should we do?’”

To fully experience salvation is to experience not only reconciliation with God, but reconciliation with each other (Ephesians 2:14). It’s to learn a new way of relating to others through God’s family: relationships characterized by freedom, not fear (Romans 8:15), by shared dignity and honor (v. 17), by humility (Philippians 2:3–4), and by self-giving love (1 Corinthians 13). Salvation is experienced as—together—we learn how to let go of false identities and power struggles in exchange for something better—for the wholeness and goodness of life in Christ. 

Becoming the family that the church is meant to be

It would be easy to stop the conversation there, with the breathtaking vision of life in the family of God as it was meant to be, mutually flourishing together through union with Christ’s Spirit. But we all know that life in churches often falls far short of that vision. In the past few years, we’ve seen many public and tragic examples of abuses within churches causing incredible harm to those who’d come looking for that place of safety and belonging described in Scripture. 

So our conversation needs to go beyond descriptions of what the Christ-following community is meant to be. We need to reckon with how difficult the journey to re-learning healthy, life-giving community can be. A commitment to faith is a commitment to the difficult journey of unlearning an “empty way of life” passed down to all of us (1 Peter 1:17)—a way of life that will always be more natural to us than the mysterious ways of the Spirit. If we forget that, all-too-often we’ll default to those old ways, that old nature, even under the guise of pious Christian living. We’ll fail to hold others—and ourselves—accountable for bad behavior under the guise of grace. And we’ll ultimately fail to care well for others, embodying and bearing witness not to Christ’s redemption of creation but to yet another example of relational brokenness. 

We need to reckon with how difficult the journey to re-learning healthy, life-giving community can be.

To relearn what family, what healthy, life-giving community, can be requires a commitment to live together with disciplines that will include regular, healthy accountability and truth-telling. Practices to help guide us as a community away from the lies we tell ourselves into greater humility and authenticity. As Gregory Jones explores in his important work Embodying Forgiveness, forgiveness that leads to true wholeness and reconciliation is only possible in communities committed to journeying together through regular, ongoing practices that cultivate accountability and lasting change. Where others help hold us accountable for the hard work of not just saying we’ve been changed but actually changing how we live, actually letting the Spirit daily challenge and remake us. 

The need for us to relearn how to be a community together has never felt more urgent. But where there is failure and where there is brokenness, there is also opportunity—for us to truly see our desperate need for God. This is not work we could ever do in our strength; the work is one of daily surrender to a power outside ourselves, exchanging our emptiness for the Spirit’s fullness and life, our bondage for the “freedom and glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:21).