A few years ago my wife and I attended a small international church in Limassol, Cyprus. Among the congregation were several Filipino domestic workers who led the singing, a couple who were refugees from Syria, about twenty Cypriots, and four pastors! The pastor of the church was of Indian background and British citizenship. A visiting missionary was from Ireland. A French navy chaplain, who spoke no English, was from Madagascar. And then there was me. We all took pictures together. Brothers and sisters who’d never met and yet were kin in Christ. How is that possible?
Christians are referred to as brothers 139 times in the New Testament (almost always implying both brothers and sisters). Regarding each another as brothers and sisters in those days was far more radical then than we realize. In his book, When the Church Was a Family, Joseph Hellerman explains:
Principle #1: “In the New Testament world the group took priority over the individual.”
Principle #2: “In the New Testament world a person’s most important group was his blood family.”
Principle #3: “In the New Testament world the closest family bond was not the bond of marriage. It was the bond between siblings.”
Hellerman concludes, “I trust that you are beginning to see why we cannot simply import our American idea of what it means to be a brother or sister into our interpretation of the New Testament. ‘Brother’ meant immeasurably more to the strong-group authors of the Bible than the word means to you and me—it was their most important family relationship. At this point you are now prepared, perhaps for the first time ever, to properly appreciate what the early Christians meant when they referred to one another as brothers and sisters in Christ.”
So with that in mind, try to wrap your head around how radical this scene was in Mark 3:31–35:
Then Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him. A crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, “Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.” “Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked. Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”
A brother in our congregation who is from a Muslim-dominated country described the threats on his life when he became a Christian. Among other things, his uncle pressed a knife to his side, demanding he turn away from his faith in Christ. Our brother told us, “Before Christ I didn’t like my family. But when I saw Christ and Christ transformed my heart, Christ give me big love for my family, for my parents. I was really a good son. I obeyed my parents and I love them with Jesus’ love, but even though I loved them they hated me . . . I love my family, my brother and sisters, but they beat me, they hate me and it was hard to understand. I said, ‘Oh God, I am losing one valuable thing— my family—and it was very hard to understand.’ But God said, ‘I will give you a new family.’”
This is not only true for those rejected by their blood relatives, but for all believers. If you’re a Christian, your “new family,” your brothers and sisters in Christ, is actually your first family. Let that sink in.
Where Does That Leave My Spouse and Kids?
Thinking of the church as our first family sounds dangerous because we all know how families have suffered, sometimes irreparably, from neglect in the name of church. Some pastors go whole weeks without a night at home. Too many Christians have hidden at church from their family responsibilities at home. Scripture certainly does not advocate that!
The Bible tells us how to have strong marriages and families, how to honor our parents, and how to care for our extended families. The pastoral epistles of 1 Timothy and Titus give qualifications for elders that include the wise and proper care of their families. In fact, our homes are a sort of seminary preparing us for church leadership. Paul teaches us the demanding commitments of submission and love in marriage and parenting. Seeing God’s people as our first family must never be an excuse to neglect our spouse and kids.
Our church friends, Kelvin and Anne Tohme, live and serve on a Christian university campus near us. Along with their two children, Landon (ten) and Lauryn (eight), they live in a small two-bedroom campus apartment. On one occasion Anne told our congregation:
In our family there are often times when Kelvin or I are gone because of our campus duties and ministries. When we talk with our kids about this—about why mom or dad are gone—we explain to them that it’s because we are a part of two families. We have our family of the four of us, but we are also part of a bigger family—the family of God—and we have a role in both families and we need to care for both families. And yes, we may miss that person when they are gone, but we know how important it is that they go. Ultimately, our role as parents and the church is to raise up our children to advance the kingdom—shouldn’t they see us modeling that? Shouldn’t they see us (and participate with us) in loving the family of God and not just our own little family?
Anne tells about a season when their young son, Landon, was going through a rough time at school. “One day, we were just walking along and he says to me, ‘Mom, my safe places are home and at church.’ Well, you can imagine as a mother what that did to me, but that told me something that Landon didn’t even know how to articulate. He knew that at home and with the people of God he was loved. He knew that he was a part of two families.”
That’s why I say that pastors are home-makers.
LEE ECLOV has served in pastoral ministry for over forty years. He is currently Senior Pastor of Village Church of Lincolnshire in the Chicago area, where he has served since 1998. He is the author of the Feels Like Home: How Rediscovering the Church as Family Changes Everything and Pastoral Graces: Reflections on the Care of Souls. He is a regular contributor to CT Pastors and PreachingToday.com.