The Church is our family. That statement is made frequently, but often without really examining why and how and what those words mean. For many people who traverse the halls and sanctuaries of the various churches, the reality of the Church as family doesn't really strike home. Many American Christians - including Lutherans of all stripes - consider the church to be a voluntary association of like-minded individuals, loose-knit and not central to the business of daily life. Those who imagine the church to be such a thing are either not thinking clearly, or they belong to that group that hangs on to the church but is not "Church" in the proper sense of those that genuinely believe.
All too often, people view their own families as voluntary associations, too. The assault on the modern family by our culture (and not necessarily by anyone specific with intention of dismantling it) has brought many to the point where family is a convenience - or a burden - of limited value and power in their lives. We have become radically individualized in our approach to life. That is, 'If it works for me, fine. If it is inconvenient, even in the short-term, we can set it aside'. The mobility of society and the nature of education and employment in our society have facilitated - perhaps even necessitated, in some cases - this profound fractioning of our most intimate associations, but it is not generally helpful or healthy. The perspective it engenders toward life in general tends to make comprehending the nature of Church as family all the more difficult for us.
But the Church is our family, if we are Christians. Whether we embrace the idea or flee from it does not change the reality. God declares the Church to be our family, and His Word is true even when we prefer to ignore or deny it. He tells us that we are brothers, Matthew 12:49-50. Not only are we brothers to one another, but we are His brothers! He says, explicitly, that we are members of His household in both Ephesians 2:19 and 1 Timothy 3:15. We are called the "household of the faith" in Galatians 6:10. We are even closer than family. God declares us to be "body-parts" (members) of one another in Romans 12:5.
Now these things are realities, realities of which we are often unconscious. They are created by God. He says that they are so - and His Word creates what He speaks. So these conditions exist for God's people. It is not by our choice, our feeling it, or our doing of something. It is so because God says so. We might be blissfully unaware of these truths - or not so blissfully - but they are true of Christians none-the-less. The only way you can avoid these realities (as if someone would want to) is to reject them and refuse to be part of the family. But, then, one would also be refusing to be a Christian and declining to participate in the great salvation which Christ has won and pours out for all.
Of course, stating all of this begs the question be asked about why we don't live out this reality more consistently and clearly? Why, if we are brothers and sisters in Christ, do we not live out our family relationship, and act like brothers and sisters (and yes, Jesus uses the word "sister" in Matthew 12:50)? Why are we not living out the truth - and why does this truth strike us as so strange?
Perhaps part of the problem is that we don't think about it. We think about our flesh-and-blood family as family, and we consider the congregation to be a loose association of like minded individuals. Besides, we are schooled in the radical individualism of the culture around us. I am free! I have the right to do my own thing, say whatever I wish, and think my thoughts without giving account to anyone. It is this extreme - and, frankly, unrealistic - liberty that forms the philosophical foundation for so much of our lives and behavior. It is largely unexamined, generally unconscious, and usually destructive. People mistake this notion of liberty for the freedoms about which our country is so proud and 'round which our nation is established. Even if this were our true "right" as an American, it is still not our right as Christians.
First, our nation actually does not give us the civil liberty to do just anything we want. There are laws limiting our conduct in almost every area of our lives. For example, we cannot drive our cars as fast - or sometimes even as slowly - as we may wish. People who drive in areas where there is no posted speed limit often discover, as a highway patrolman pulls them over, that while there is no formal posted limit, they must exercise some restraint because the law allows them only to travel as fast as is reasonable for the conditions on the road, and "reasonable" is left to the judgment of the Highway Patrol.
Our lives are limited by laws, which are really a social contract with the original intent of preserving liberty. How often have we not had one freedom or another curtailed because some less than responsible individuals have taken the liberty too far? So one "clown" spoils it for everybody. Our speech is limited by place - and even by content. Publicly threaten harm to the President, for example, and you might find yourself in Federal custody, explaining yourself. We cannot walk down the street naked, in most places. You cannot catch all the fish you want, in just any manner you choose. Those freedoms are regulated for the benefit of the population and their protection against those who would abuse such liberty to the detriment of others. So the notion that we are perfectly free individuals who owe no thought to another is not true even in secular things.
We Christians, however, are never free agents simply because we are Christians. We are family. We are owned, bought and paid for. We are slaves of Christ. I know that the terminology of "servant" is more popular and less grating to the ear, but it is less precise and less accurate. We are slaves of Christ. Scriptures use the term "bond-slaves" in some places. It means a wholly-owned slave with no rights and no claim to self-direction. St. Paul uses a Greek word for slave which is the technical term for someone chained to the oars in a trireme - a ship used in battle and propelled by human effort. When the boat went down, the "rowers" generally went down with it. They were not accounted as particularly human, back then, but as part of the engine of the ship, and easily replaced. Paul did not use that word to estimate our value to God, but to keep his readers mindful of their relationship to God as those who belong to Him and who are to serve Him - and not themselves.
We are not individual free-agents. We are "members". The modern world uses the term to mean someone who has joined a club or some other voluntary association. The meaning at the time that word was used in Scripture , however, was "body-part". Just as little as one might consider their arm, or their liver, independently, as though it had no connection to their body, just so little are we to conceive of ourselves as 'individuals' in Christ. I have often said, "There is no such thing as an 'individual Christian'." There are individuals who are Christians, but when they become a Christian, they lose their individual status and become a part of the body of Christ, the Church. We don't lose the power of self-direction, we simply lose the right to act and think and speak for ourselves or on behalf of ourselves without thought for the rest of the body.
When we try to import the secular notion of radical individualism into the Church, we are doing damage. We are discarding the Biblical teachings about family, and "body" and unity and connection to one another - and to the Lord - for a deception. That deception destroys churches. It leads people to do those things which God in His Word clearly forbids. And it violates the law of love; "a new commandment I give you, that you love one another." The basic nature of the church is that love for one another, founded upon the love of God toward us, demonstrated in Jesus Christ and the cross. "We love, because He first loved us."
The love which God commands is 'Agape' love. It is a love which is centered in the other. We love with this sort of love when we set aside ourselves and self-concern, our own wishes and advantage, and consider the one loved, the "beloved". Agape considers the condition or situation of the beloved and, seeing their need, plans to meet that need and help the beloved, even at personal cost and personal disadvantage. You can see that it is in direct opposition to the modern spirit of radical individualism. But more, Agape then puts that plan into effect for the blessing and benefit of the beloved, even at significant cost to the self personally.
We see the best illustration this love in Jesus Christ. He beheld us, and counted us beloved. He saw our crisis: sin held us captive, and we were justly doomed to death on account of it. Loving us, He planned for our redemption, to buy us back from sin, and worked out how He would save us. The outcome which God sought was impossible, for God is a just God and His own sentence requires that the one who sins dies. - And we have all sinned. - The only way to save us was to transfer our sins onto one who was utterly holy, and to meet out the punishment. But who could bear the awful load? One man would suffice to trade for another, but who would be sufficient to bear the burden of all of mankind?
Only Jesus, true God, and true Man. God Himself had to bear the burden, and to do that, He had to find a way to make Himself responsible to keep the law and so be eligible for both the promise of life and the threat of death. So God did the impossible. The answer was the Incarnation. God assumed human nature and human flesh and blood in His Son, Jesus Christ. In Him dwelt all the fulness of the Godhead in bodily form. He was, as the Bible states it, "born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem them that were under the law." And being found in the form of man, Jesus kept the entire will and law of God without exception or failure. He never sinned, and so He earned the absolute right to life.
Then He died. He died deliberately and innocent of any personal sin, but He took on Himself all of our sin and guilt and willingly bore the penalty for us. He became sin for us, who knew no sin, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. It is often called "the Great Exchange". He exchanged His death for ours, so that we might live forever, just as He personally deserved. By His death He purchased us from death - "redeemed" is the word. By His resurrection, He demonstrated that He had fully paid the penalty, and we are forgiven. He also showed us what our resurrection will be like. Then He declared, "He that believes and is baptized shall be saved, but he that does not believe shall be condemned."
Then He laid claim to each of us personally, calling us by name in our Baptism, and adopting us into His family, "the household of God", calling us "sons" of God and His own "brothers". He proclaimed through His Apostles that we are now members of His body, the Church, and "individually members of one another". So we are family. Made to be so by the Word of God - the same Word of God that said, "Let there be light", and there was light. His Word makes what it speaks to be so.
So we cannot deal with one another as though we are individuals who have chosen to join an association of voluntary participation. We are family - brothers and sisters, each of us adopted, that is, chosen by our Father and paid for by our Brother. When we deal with one another, we are to do so with this precious relationship foremost in our mind, and do so in love, just as we have been loved - and are loved. Our congregation is not that group that meets at such-and-so place for 'church service'. Our congregation is home, and the people in it are family - our closest family. That is why we come together regularly, and celebrate our adoption together, and share the family Supper - the Lord's Supper - together.
When people forget this, or try to be all 'free' and 'individual' they are denying and, possibly, rejecting our family connection. As American Citizens, they have a perfect right to do so. As redeemed, bought and paid for, adopted brothers and sisters and fellow members of the body of Christ, no such rights exist. The only freedom available here is freedom from sin, death, and hell, and our rights are the right to love (Agape) one another, and to be loved in return. Let us keep this truth in mind, and live out our time by the rule of the family: "Whether,then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God." Oh yeah, and "By love serve one another."
Yours in the Lord,
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