The church (building) is often called a House of God and the church (body of believers) are referred to as God’s household. Modern churches often struggle with that picture because the most traditional household the majority of us can think of are nuclear families. When we try to make God’s household into a nuclear family, we realize that there are missing pieces and it doesn’t quite work.
Think of the household in Downton Abbey, the immediate family, the extended family, and their servants – now subtract the wealth and fancy house and expensive fashions. What remains? You still have free men and women who have more status than their servants and men who have more status than women. But is God’s family exactly like the households that the ancient Israelites would be familiar with?
One thing scripture makes clear is that we’re all brothers and sisters. We’re to treat older men and women as fathers and mothers and younger men and women as brothers and sisters. The older men and women are not instructed to treat the younger men and women as sons or daughters. But the leaders of the church constantly refer to themselves as servants. They place themselves below the people they serve, not above them.
With the rise of mega-churches, the picture of a household of believers becomes impossible to maintain. I’m reminded of just last Sunday when as I was walking out of the church building the woman next to me says, “Oh, I don’t believe I’ve seen you before. Have you been coming for awhile?” I quickly answered that I’d been around for just a few months but afterwards I realized that we had been attending that church for nearly an entire year. My church barely has a hundred and fifty each Sunday. Truth is, I still don’t know most of their names. Such things must happen all the time in churches with many hundreds and thousands of people.
When we look at family in the Bible – we see that family is everything. From families that make up clans that make up tribes – the first book of the Bible introduces almost everyone in terms of their relations – son of so-and-so, daughter of so-and-so, wife of so-and-so, and on occasion husband of so-and-so. So in this scheme of things – where do the servants fit in? In the ancient households, it would be unthinkable fo a servant to stand up and declare the word of God when he or she ought to be out tending the animals or sewing clothing. The best examples we have of church servants are the apostles. Only their letters survive. We do have some stories – about how deacons were in charge of making certain that the widows were not over-looked in the distribution of food. These deacons were not like the deacons we see in church. The ones I know didn’t concern themselves with food-based ministries. I wrote of one church recently where the deacon decided that the soup kitchen was a waste of funds. Is it possible that our deacons have forgotten how to be servants?
Perhaps some of that is due to the fact that by and large the institution of servitude is not one we are well acquainted with. I remember learning that some of my ancestors were indentured servants who worked their way to the states, but they were eventually freed. Some people do opt to be live-in nannies or a part of a maid service, but most people cannot afford to pay to have servants. Most people don’t know how to treat servants who work for others. So we don’t have a clear picture of servitude when it comes to the church either.
But we do have a concept called servant-leadership. Leading by serving. There’s just one problem, eventually there’s so much demand on the leadership aspect that the servant aspect falls by the wayside. How could it not when a pastor of a mega-church is expected to fly all over to speak at various conferences? How could it not when pastors don’t always know the names of the ‘family’ in the household under their care?
It’s not only that, but there’s a tendency to leave room for guests. Or an expectation of guests. As I thought about hospitality, guests seem to be best defined as temporary visitors that bring honor to the household by being prominent for the duration of their stay. When the church structures itself around the arrival, entertainment, and care of it’s guests, then the concerns of the family can often get lost in the excitement. Christians are not supposed to exist in perpetual guest-hood. These guests who come to the faith are supposed to become brothers and sisters.
It seems that there are missing pieces – from nuclear households to ancient households, from servant leadership to ancient servitude, from guests to families. The whole picture is incomplete, what is taught in incomplete, and what is lived out is incomplete. That’s why our churches (buildings and body of believers) are incomplete – we have lost our family and too many do not notice and do not care.