Rethinking relationships in the church

By David McMillan 19 Jun 2003

‘Love the Lord your God… [and] love your neighbour as yourself. All the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments.’ (Matthew 22:37–40) This insight is behind the Jubilee Centre’s emphasis upon right relationships as central to human well-being and our attempt to evaluate issues through a relational lens. ENGAGE will continue this by featuring articles that encourage us to think relationally, and not just about things political.

Relational thinking challenges us to reappraise the basis on which relationships in contemporary church life should be understood. All too often relationships are shaped by an inherited institutional framework rendering them superficial and ineffective. We need to rethink relationships in the church.

Water is thicker than blood

The phrase ‘blood is thicker than water’ expresses the priority of family or kinship relationships. Scripture teaches us, however, that the bond uniting us – the church – in Christ is stronger than that of family, kinship or ethnicity. In other words, the water of baptism is thicker than blood.

In Galatians Paul addresses the nature and terms of salvation. In chapters two and three he argues that salvation is by faith in Christ and not by virtue of one’s birth or circumcision. It is important to appreciate that Paul is not merely addressing theological statements about the nature of Christ’s death on the cross and the experience of salvation. Paul is addressing the implications of ‘justification by faith’ in the building of a new community of people – Jews and Gentiles together as the people of God. The false teaching about the nature of salvation, to which the Galatians were falling victim, was not merely a theoretical issue. It centred on the claim of Jewish ethnic superiority and so perpetuated divisions between Jews and Gentiles. The outcome of this false teaching was to undermine God’s purpose for the church and the concept of the people of God as re-defined by Christ.

For this reason at the very heart of the letter (Galatians 3:26–28) Paul says, ‘You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus…There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. You are all Abraham’s seed and children of promise.’ Our familiarity with the text can blunt the shocking and radical nature of Paul’s statement. Any sense of superiority on the basis of birth or nationality is to be dismissed. Paul says that Greeks, slaves and women are all the same in the new family of faith. All are now the ‘children of promise’. The basis of relating to one another has been completely reconfigured as a result of the death of Jesus.

First-century family

Another important scriptural concept for understanding relationships in the life of the church is that of family. Family in biblical times did not merely consist of mum, dad and the 2.4 kids. It referred to the ‘household’ or ‘extended family’ and as such was a much bigger concept than that of the relatively modern notion of the nuclear family.

All too often the modern nuclear family model has been superimposed on scriptural references to family with the consequence that local church life has become another support unit for the nuclear family instead of functioning as a family. Church programmes and the deployment of gifts and resources within the life of the church tend to be targeted at individuals within the family – ministries for children, youth, women, men, singles, retired, etc. In much the same way Social Services are structured to address the needs of individuals. A ‘family orientated’ church, as we commonly use the phrase, may run many programmes and activities for family members but may not necessarily be a church which knows how to think and live as a family.

Mark 3:20–35 gives us a unique insight into family life as experienced by Jesus. Mark writes: ‘Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind”.’

Mark records the response from Jesus (3:34–35) when told that his family is outside waiting for him. Jesus’ answer is not just a smart, quick-fire remark. It is a serious point. ‘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.”’

It is clear that the concept of family – as a way of defining the relationship with and between his followers – was important to Jesus. In Mark 10:29–30 Jesus talks about those who are prepared to be his disciples in the following terms. ‘“I tell you the truth”, Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields – and with them, persecutions) and in the age to come, eternal life”.’

The ‘family nature’ of Jesus’ comment betrays his expectation concerning the community of his disciples: those who are prepared to follow him are assured of an alternative family to support them. They are not merely offered an individualistic eternal comfort or a role in a new theological institution.

This identification of the church as ‘family’ is carried on by the other New Testament writers. Paul (Galatians 6:10), James (2:14–17), Peter (1 Peter 4:17) and John (1 John 3:16–18) all refer to relationships in the church in terms of family.

A new community in Christ

A new community in Christ-1

The language of the New Testament reflects the concept of the church as a new community that functions as family, not an institution or committee based organisation – however well run. If we are to recover the church as a relational community in the way Jesus intended, we need to be prepared to make two important commitments: a commitment to care for one another and a commitment to forgive one another.

A COMMITMENT TO CARE will bring changes to relationships in church life that may be distant and unnecessarily formal. We will need to learn to speak openly and give one another permission to ask straight questions. Christians can be very good at dodging real issues with each other. Our ‘spiritual’ conversations are often no more than a codified way of being polite without trespassing into each other’s private world.

The expectation of involvement in church life is normally spelt out in terms of attendance, giving of money and contribution to the church programme. We have omitted the most fundamental commitment of local church life – the commitment to open and transparent relationships. It is hard to imagine really caring for one another without such a commitment. In addition we need practical opportunities to be together in church life outside the delivery of a church programme. Family life thrives on celebrations and get-togethers, whether for birthdays, weddings, funerals or festivals. Church life often lacks the imagination necessary to create celebrations within the church family. Failure to spend time together outside the context of formal church meetings makes it extremely difficult to know one another well enough to care for each other in a meaningful way.

A COMMITMENT TO FORGIVE will make us distinctive in our contemporary world, which is both nonjudgemental and unforgiving. Despising moral absolutes, tolerance of anything and everything is the one golden rule of our age. At the same time claim and compensation is the accepted way to deal with hurt or pain. It is, in fact, a very brutal culture that is developing, in which trust is replaced with insurance and forgiveness is replaced with litigation.

In a mindlessly tolerant society, demonstrating that behaviour matters is an important biblical responsibility. The key to meaningful Christian relationships in the church is not the abandonment of values but the commitment to forgiveness when things go wrong. However, all too often our mechanisms for dealing with difficulties are avoidance or division. Like bacteria, unaddressed difficulties grow and eventually infect all relationships, debilitating the whole body. Division too is just another way of avoiding the painful route of forgiveness. While Jesus said that there were many rooms in the place he was going to prepare, it was hardly his intention to provide accommodation that would facilitate our tendency to avoid one another!

Society in general knows very little about the practice of forgiveness. The more normal way to deal with difference or hurt is through violence, war, litigation or exclusion. The church is commanded to practise forgiveness (Colossians 3:13) and so both to model an alternative way of relating and create an honest, healthy, relational community.

Content with the institutional framework of relationships in much of church life, many Christians continue to build their most significant relationships outside the church. In an increasingly fractured society, however, those who become disciples of Jesus are going to need to know that they have inherited ‘homes, brothers, sisters, mothers and children’ in this life – as well as eternal life in the age to come – if the church is going to rise to its calling to be a new community in Christ. Clearly we have to do some serious rethinking of relationships in the church.

David McMillan is the pastor at Windsor Baptist Church, Belfast. David would welcome feedback. Do you agree with his assessment of church life? Email your views to us at

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