Summary: The apostle Paul pointed out 4 major characteristics of healthy families in his writings in the New Testament – affection, unity, sharing and loyalty. In a healthy Kingdom community, these characteristics will be consistently and frequently present.
In the last post, we learned Jesus prioritized God’s family over his physical family, although it wasn’t socially acceptable. A sign of a disciple of His is those who do the same.
But this doesn’t mean you should expect to see a church acting like a family at the beginning. After all, behaving with the characteristics of a healthy family doesn’t happen overnight. It takes knowledge and practice plus time for a group of people to be built together in agape love.
Just ask some of the early churches who motivated most of the letters of the New Testament to be written. OK, I know you can’t ask them, but just pretend you did :). The Corinthians were suing each other, splitting on the basis of social status and dividing based upon their analysis of the Christian worker they liked the best. The Romans were dividing by their race. The list goes on.
How did the apostles respond? By writing letters and doing periodic visits to train them to think (and therefore behave) differently. Specifically, they were out to train them to think and behave like they were loving brothers and sisters that were a part of a healthy spiritual family. He pointed out how people in the world sue each other when they are wronged, but loving brothers would rather be wronged than stay in conflict with their siblings in Christ (I Cor. 6:1-8).
And how did everyone know when a church was starting to act like a family? It was when they started to naturally and consistently show the characteristics that mark healthy families. In his writings, the apostle Paul pointed out 4 of these major characteristics…
A sign of a healthy family is physical affection. No, I’m not talking about walking around pews and shaking each other’s hands for 5 minutes. I’m talking about affection that is culturally and relationally appropriate for families to show each other. Do you shake hands with your immediate family members? I hope not (that would be a whole other issue)! In our culture, most families at least hug while many require nothing less than a kiss on the cheek (Italians, Greeks, etc).
But this shouldn’t be expected to happen the first time a group of people meets together. This is not some sort of mechanical law to be extracted out of biblical text and followed because you “have to.” The classic text here is “greet one another with a holy kiss” (I Cor. 16:20). That would likely be forced and unnatural. Affection is a sign of the natural growth of emotional bonding within a group of people.
A sign of healthy family is when they stand by each other despite their conflicts and stop at nothing to work through them. As mentioned earlier, good brothers and sisters would rather be wronged than sue. Good brothers and sisters don’t divide over opinions or disagreements. When confronted with a choice between what’s good for them individually and what’s good for the group, good brothers and sisters put the group first.
A sign of a healthy family is when individuals relinquish the idea that they own any of their possessions. Instead, they understand that material things are owned by God and available to be used by anyone in the family, especially when people are in need of basic necessities like food, clothing and shelter.
Now this doesn’t mean that anyone can take anyone else’s things, or that a group of people has one bank account, lives in one house, etc. My wife and our parents don’t have the same bank account and we respect each other’s possessions. But there’s an understanding that our resources are shared and available for any needs that may arise. It’s very frequently that resources are passed back and forth without keeping a tally of who owes who what.
One of the biggest travesties in the Church in our culture is when money is collected by institutions to be distributed to those in need. Are you shocked that I say that? Think about what that does to the relationships between brothers and sisters. What if you gave part of your resources to a charity and every time your brother or sister needed something they went directly to that charity for help? Do you see what happens here?
The relational gift of giving and receiving between people is basically eliminated from the group. Instead of being motivated to give out of love and compassion, people are persuaded to give to “obey the Lord.” Instead of 100% of their resources being available to their brothers and sisters (the New Testament law), they give 10% to an institution to delegate how they see fit (the Old Testament law). Without sharing, building relationships that act like family is essentially impossible.
Take a look at the mindset of the apostle Paul when he was motivated to help the Church in Jerusalem that was struggling to meet their basic needs…
It is not that there may be relief for others and hardship for you, but it is a question of equality – at the present time your surplus is available for their need, so that their abundance may also become available for your need, that there may be equality. As it has been written: “The person who gathered much did not have too much, and the person who gathered little did not have too little. (2 Cor. 8:13-15)
A sign of healthy family is the resolve of its members to stay loyal to one another. They don’t allow their individual preferences and desires to drag them away to commitments that don’t benefit the family as a whole. Their allegiance is given to the family first and to everything else second. For the Christian family, this means allegiance is given to other believers first and to unbelievers second, no matter what the physical relationship ties may be (even marriage).
Joseph Hellerman summarizes how serious the apostle Paul’s argument was about this in When the Church Was a Family when he said…
Apparently, even a marriage relationship between believing spouses must take second place to the priority of the broader values and goals of the family of faith.
But at the beginning, the first churches struggled with this. They wanted to stay loyal to all the people and groups they had given their loyalty to before they came to Christ. Paul had to work hard to change their minds. As Hellerman puts it, they had to be taught that…
God, in Jesus’ great work of redemption, was not establishing a series of isolated personal relationships with His individual followers. He was creating a family of sons and daughters – siblings – who are now “all one in Christ Jesus.”
As a community of believers grows, these signs of healthy family life should grow naturally with them. If you’ve been meeting with a group for a while and these characteristics haven’t sprung forth how they should, it’s a sign that the group needs to be trained to behave like their beliefs.
The rest of the posts in the Collectivist Community series are here.