Is the Church a “Family of Families?”
In 2001, when Charles Swindoll wrote the foreword to Dennis Rainey’s book, Ministering to Twenty-First Century Families he said the church is “a family of families.” He was merely stating in his characteristic, winsome way that families are important in church life. He said,
“Most of the people in a local church are united in a smaller group called a family. In other words, the church is a ‘family of families.’ And of course, the local church is only as strong as its strongest families. Show me a healthy, vibrant local church, and I’ll show you an assembly filled with healthy, vibrant, fully functioning families.” 1
No one thought he was redefining the nature of the church.
In 2002 when the National Center for Family Integrated Churches used the phrase “family of families” in its first version of A Biblical Confession for Uniting Church and Family,2 critics claimed we had fundamentally redefined the nature of the church and made it family based. They took these three little words out of their immediate context in a twelve point confession and ignored the wider context of our overall message. Thus in many cases, the phrase was intentionally or unintentionally misrepresented.
In 2004, when Andreas Kostenberger used the phrase “family of families” to describe the church in his book God, Marriage and Family, I doubt anyone accused him of trying to redefine the church. And rightly so, because he was simply pointing out the significance of a particularly important family relationship (marriage) that exists in the church for God’s strategic purposes for spiritual warfare and the proclamation of the gospel.3 In this sense, the family exists as an entity under the headship of Christ and so the church exists in the same way. The family and the church are separate, yet connected in carrying out Christ’s overall plan.
In 2007 Voddie Baucham used the phrase in his book, Family Driven Faith. He said,
“Our Church has no youth ministers, children’s ministers, or nursery. We do not divide families into component parts. We do not separate the mature women from the young teenage girls who need their guidance. We do not separate the toddler from his parents during worship. In fact, we don’t even do it in Bible study. We see the church as a family of families.” 4
Those same three words became the center of criticism against his entire book. Although he thoroughly answered his critics in two articles posted on his blog,5 many speakers and writers still continue to ignore his explanation.
Quite a stir
These words caused quite a stir. They became the favorite whipping boy of our critics for years on end. Three words became the oft repeated point in attempt to refute the message of the NCFIC and discredit anyone else connected to the family integrated church movement. Typically, critics would use the term, elaborate on a meaning we did not endorse, and make conclusions we have never made. This was done from conference speaking platforms, seminary classrooms, and radio show microphones. It was done in pulpits to warn church members in church meetings. It appeared in books and blogs. It was referenced in articles and masters theses. In fact we are aware of one particular Master’s thesis for a theological seminary which bases its whole argument against us on these three words pulled out of context.
All of this over three words which appear in one single place in the context of the NCFIC Confession for Uniting Church and Family,7 and in Voddie Baucham’s Family Driven Faith.
Individual words and phrases matter. But as any faithful student of scripture should know, words and phrases have to be understood in context, and attention given to the author’s intent. This is the basis of journalistic integrity. Taken out of context words can be used to say almost anything including the exact opposite of their original intent. Most of the criticism that has been directed to us over these three words has been aimed at straw man interpretations of the phrase that we would heartily join in condemning.
What we mean by “the church is a family of families”
It is a falsehood to say that the National Center for Family Integrated Churches advocates a “family of families” ecclesiology. In fact, our understanding of the nature of the church is consistent with the historic doctrinal statements of the faith including the Second London Baptist Confession of 1689, the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Heidelberg Catechism, and many other orthodox statements on the church. It is the same understanding I received as a young man when I was in seminary. We do not advocate a “family of families” ecclesiology. Rather, our ecclesiology is as rich and clear as the Second London Baptist Confession of 1689 and the Westminster confession.
When we were writing the NCFIC Confession for Uniting Church and Family our intent was to explain the complementary roles of church and family. We wanted to reflect a biblical understanding of the way that church and family operate in a symbiotic manner. We also hoped it would help church leaders think more biblically about church and family life. In short, the “confession” tries to state the biblical case for the ways the church can be a blessing to the family and the family to the church. It also identifies various departures from biblical church and family life and calls for biblical clarity on these matters.
An excellent phrase when understood properly
What we mean when we say that “the church is a family of families” is that the family needs to be acknowledged in church life. We meant it the same way that Swindoll, Baucham, and Kostenberger did. We believe that it rightly raises the warning that in the modern church, family life often disappears and is swallowed up in institutional church life. We wanted to say that it was wrong to treat the family in this manner. At the same time we wanted to affirm that both are important and they need to be preserved. Therefore, it is improper to understand this statement as a redefinition of the nature of the church. Voddie Baucham explains, “When we use the term ‘family of families’ we are not addressing the nature of the church. Let me say that again V-E-R-R-Y S-L-O-W-L-Y… THE TERM FAMILY OF FAMILIES IS NOT A COMMENT ON THE NATURE OF THE CHURCH!”8
Baucham makes the point that his statement only comments on matters of church structure. He says,
“The difference between the FIC and the neo-traditional church is not a matter of the nature, but the structure of the church. In fact, we argue that our model is much more in keeping with the proper theological understanding of the nature of the church, which would explain why age integration was the model for the New Testament church for nearly 2,000 years before the neo-traditional, age segregated transformation turned the church into isolated segments as opposed to a single, unified body.Thus, those who divide the church into artificial, culturally-defined cliques (children, students, college/career, young marrieds, old marrieds, senior adults, etc.) are the ones who have a difficult time fitting their model into the understanding both Lawrence and I share.” 9
The phrase, ‘family of families” was never meant to be a comprehensive ecclesiological statement; it only served to demonstrate that the church is not exclusively composed of individuals, by acknowledging that there is a second biblical authority and jurisdiction in the church when a family comes to church. We wanted to clarify an important matter that church leaders are charged, not only to equip individuals, but also family members. They come to church as fathers and mothers and children and they need help to function biblically in their relationships in their homes.
By saying, ‘the church is a family of families,” are we confusing the church and the family?
We have plainly stated that the family is not the church and the church is not the family; they are separate yet complimentary jurisdictions.
Some have connected the statement, “family of families” with concepts of covenantal family and church membership. Some have suggested that we confuse the regenerate and the unregenerate in the church and make them the same because they are part of a family. We have never done this. We do not believe that every family member is a member of the true church. On the contrary, we maintain that the true church is composed only of individual redeemed sinners.
We acknowledge that many family members, though they are under the care of their parents and come to the meetings of the church, remain unconverted. They are part of the church only in that they come to meetings of the church, listen to the preaching of the church, relate to the redeemed members of the church and participate in the discipleship experiences of the church. Children may attend church but not be part of the church as converted members of Christ. Yet, they are still in the church in the sense that they have been sovereignly placed among the people of God. They are blessed by its members, message and ministry. This is all we mean when we say the church is a “family of families.” We don’t mean that all family members are converted and part of the redeemed. Voddie Baucham stated it this way, “We Are Not Commenting On Membership in the Church.”6 Like Baucham, we did not mean that every family member is a part of the universal church in the sense that they are all converted members.
What have we learned from this controversy over “Family of Families”?
Someone once said that “critics are the unpaid guardians of the soul,” and so we are grateful for both dialog and diatribe. It has shown us that we see through “a glass darkly.” It has demonstrated that in our attempt to explain heavenly things, we often struggle to find human language that meets both the heavenly and the earthly standard. Sometimes we are genuinely misunderstood. Other times men do their best to twist our words, make us worse than we are and find themselves unable to correct their erroneous mischaracterizations. At the end of the day, we understand that we are imperfect men trying to be faithful to the faithful testimony of scripture.
We have no intention to abandon the use of the phrase or the concept behind it. It is a very important principle that undergirds a biblical understanding of church and family life. We think Swindoll said it very beautifully and Baucham explained it with the kind of precision that should answer every question for all to see that it fits within the range of biblical thinking. We think that Kostenberger explained one of the stunning aspects of this as he describes the importance of a marriage under the headship of Christ in God’s redemptive plan.
Because of the tendency of critics to take these three words out of their context, misinterpret them and claim that we are advocating a new ecclesiology we kept trying to explain it better. We kept modifying the statement to make it clearer and more reflective of scripture. Today, the term “family of families” appears nowhere in current NCFIC literature. In 2008, we explained the same concept without using the words “family of families.” Even so, we believe the term has significant value in explaining one aspect of church and family life. In this spirit, we have tried to explain the idea rather than use the term.
Here is the old statement – one of twelve articles,
Article VI — Church is a Family of Families
We affirm that our Heavenly Father designed His church to be a spiritual household — a “family of families and singles” where members know one another intimately, the shepherds understand the sheep effectively, and the various body parts function interactively (1 Tim. 3:15).
We deny/reject the current trend to value numbers and size more than intimacy and vitality by building impersonal mega-churches rather than the multiplication of family-like congregations.10
Our intent was not to redefine the church, but to acknowledge that when a family comes to church, a separate jurisdiction is there that needs to be strengthened to be faithful to their biblical callings and commands that govern family life.
In December 2008, the NCFIC updated the confession and removed these three words and replaced them with this statement, one of sixteen articles,
Article VI— The Church is a Family of Believers that Includes Families
We affirm that local churches are spiritual households that include individual family units which are separate and distinct jurisdictions that should be cared for and strengthened to fulfill their God ordained roles, not only as individuals but also as families (1 Tim. 3:15, Ephesians 5:22-33, Ephesians 6:1-4).
We deny/reject the current trend in churches that ignores the family unit, is blind to strengthening it, systematically fragments it and does not actively work to equip her members to be faithful family members.11
1 Swindoll, Charles, Foreword to: [Rainey, Dennis Ministering to Twenty-first Century Families: Eight Big Ideas for Church Leaders, Thomas Nelson Publishers: Nashville, ©2001], p. XI
2 The text for the original “A Biblical Confession for Uniting Church and Family” can be found at www.visionforumministries.org/home/about/a_biblical_confession_for_unit_1.aspx (Accessed 11/5/2009)
3 “Just as Christ must rule over all heavenly powers (Eph. 1:21-22) and over the church (4:15), he must also rule over the marital relationship (5:21-33), the family (6:1-4), and the workplace (6:5-9). A married couple is part of the church (understood as a family of families, cf. I Tim. 3:15), and it, too, is part of that spiritual warfare that resolutely resists evil (Eph. 6:10-14) and seeks to promote God’s purpose in this world (foremost the preaching of the gospel, 6:15. 19-20). Thus the marriage relationship should also be viewed in the context of Christian witness in an unbelieving environment, both directly by the husband’s and the wife’s living out God’s purposes for the Christian couple, and indirectly by being part of a Biblical church that actively propagates the gospel message.” (Kostenberger, Andreas, God, Marriage, and Family: Rebuilding the Biblical Foundation, [Crossway Books: Wheaton, IL, ©2004], p. 72, pg. 61 in the second edition).
4 Baucham, Voddie, Family Driven Faith: Doing What it Takes to Raise Sons and Daughters who Walk with God, Crossway Books: Wheaton, Illinois, ©2007, p.191
5 “Is the Church a Family of Families?” Parts 1, 2, can be accessed at www.voddiebaucham.org/vbm/Blog/Entries/2009/3/26_Is_the_church_A_Family_of_Families.html and www.voddiebaucham.org/vbm/Blog/Entries/2009/3/27_Is_the_church_A_Family_of_Families_2.html successively. (Accessed 11/5/2009)
6 Baucham, Voddie, “Is The Church a Family of Families?”, Part 1, can be accessed at www.voddiebaucham.org/vbm/Blog/Entries/2009/3/26_Is_the_church_A_Family_of_Families.html (Accessed 11/05/2009)
8 Baucham, Voddie, “Is the Church a Family of Families?”, Part 1, can be accessed at www.voddiebaucham.org/vbm/Blog/Entries/2009/3/26_Is_the_church_A_Family_of_Families.html (Accessed 11/9/2009)
10 The text for the original “A Biblical Confession for Uniting Church and Family” can be found at www.visionforumministries.org/home/about/a_biblical_confession_for_unit_1.aspx (Accessed 11/5/2009)