Is the Church a Family of Families? Part 1

Any church that does not look like the ‘norm’ is always trying to explain itself.   This is a fact we know all too well at Grace Family Baptist Church.  We explain ourselves to those who visit us, those who call us trying to determine if it is a good idea to visit, those who are interested in finding or starting a church like ours, and those who are sure that we are some kind of “Patriarchy” cult.  Sometimes we explain ourselves in painstaking detail.  At other times we use shorthand.  One example of that ‘shorthand’ is our ubiquitous and somewhat enigmatic statement, “The church is a family of families.” 

For some people, this captures the essence of the distinction between the FIC, and the neo-traditional church.* For others, their presuppositions, and/or misconceptions about the FIC (along with the lack of clarity inherent in the phrase) get in the way.  This last group ranges from people who simply wish we were clearer in our statement, to those who find in the ‘family of families’ terminology the theological ‘smoking gun’ for which they have searched in an effort to discredit this “extreme overreaction” to the current crisis in contemporary youth ministry.**

We recognize that this may be an unnecessary stumbling block for those with a genuine interest in the Family Integrated Church concept, as well as those attempting to explain it to others.  Therefore, allow me to offer a bit of clarity as to what we mean when we use the term ‘family of families’ to describe the church.

What We Are Not Saying

Before explaining what we mean when we use the term ‘family of families,’ it may be helpful to explain what we are not trying to say when we use the term.

We Are Not Commenting On the Nature of the Church

One of the prevalent arguments in the FIC discussion is the idea that ‘family of families’ is a “hyper-covenantal” concept that re-defines the nature of the church.  This criticism ranges from the absurd, to the subtle.  On the absurd front, there are a host of critics whose interaction with this concept is often dishonest, unkind, and deceitful.  On the other end, there are those whose work is both helpful, and irenic.

For example, Michael Lawrence, in is 9Marks review of my book, Family Driven Faith offers this critique:

The church is not a family of families. The church is the family of God (1 Pet. 4:17; 1 Tim. 3:15). This means it's a family of believers who have been grafted into Christ and so adopted into God's family (see Jn 15; Eph. 1:4-6; 2:19; Gal. 4:1-7). It may seem like a small point, but the shift in emphasis makes a difference.***

Amen!  I agree wholeheartedly.  This is indeed the ‘nature’ of the church, and if I were commenting on the nature of the church, I could not have said it better.  However, the nature of the church is not what I had in mind.  In fact, I made this point both in the book under review, and in a personal correspondence with 9Marks (unfortunately to no avail).  Thus, instead of Lawrence stressing the need for clarity (a critique I readily accept), he branded the ‘family of families’ concept as heterodoxy.  And his assessment has led to confusion and criticism on the part of some (especially from people who never bothered to read the book).

Let me be clear about what our church believes (and teaches) concerning the nature of the church.  We are a confessional Baptist Church.  The Confession of Faith with which we identify most closely is the London Baptist Confession of 1689.  Thus, when we define the church theologically, we do so in accordance with our Confession:  

In the execution of this power wherewith he is so entrusted, the Lord Jesus calls out of the World unto himself, through the ministry of his word, by his Spirit, those that are given unto him by his Father; that they may walk before him in all the ways of obedience, which he prescribes to them in his Word. Those thus called he commands to walk together in particular societies, or Churches, for their mutual edification; and the due performance of that public worship, which he requires of them in the World (LBC Chapter XXVI.5).

This is our understanding of the nature of the church (along with the rest of the LBC statement).  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!

The difference between the FIC and the neo-traditional church is not a matter of thenature, 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.  

We Are Not Commenting On Membership in the Church

Not only has the ‘family of families’ terminology led to confusion about our view of the nature of the church, for some the concept has led to a misunderstanding about our view on church membership.  For example, some people read the ‘family of families’ concept through a “hyper covenantal” lens and assume we believe in family membership.  Though I cannot say for certain that there are no FICs that view membership this way, I can say that such is not the case at GFBC.  Membership in GFBC is, and has always been individual.  

As Baptists, we view believer’s baptism (by immersion) as the gateway to membership in the local church.  Hence,  children (or anyone else for that matter) who have not experienced believer’s baptism are not eligible for membership.  What’s more, we do not administer baptism prior to age twelve!****  Therefore, it should be clear that our use of the term ‘family of families’ is not intended to re-define the nature of, or membership in the local church.  In the part two we will turn to the affirmative case.  

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*This term is not meant to be derogatory.  I use the term neo-traditional because the concept of segregating church members according to age and/or stage of life, although common, is actually a very recent phenomenon.  Age integrated churches were the norm until the last half-century or so.

**To those of us on the inside, the FIC is a return to biblical ecclesiology, not a reaction to trends.  The trends simply point out the failure of the neo-traditional model.  The FIC represents reformation, not reaction.

***Michael Lawrence, “Book Review:  Family Driven Faith,” available athttp://www.9marks.org/partner/Article_Display_Page/0,,PTID314526|CHID598026|CIID2438258,00.html

****We recognize the fact that this age is arbitrary.  However, any age we choose would be arbitrary.  If a church refuses to baptize prior to age five, that decision is arbitrary.  There are a number of reasons we have chosen age twelve (though there is not sufficient space to discuss those here), and we do not argue that a person cannot be converted prior to this age.  This is merely a pastoral decision related to our responsibility to evaluate baptismal candidates.