Friday I used the idea of “corporation” to refelect on the nature of the Church. I think the corporation mentality is more common among larger congregations. Members see themselves as “shareholders” of the church and the Church exists to serve them. I don’t think many congregations explicitly think in terms of being a corporation, but there are many who are inclined to see the pastor as an employee of “the owners,” even in small congregations.
When I have had the opportunity to do consulting with congregations I have often asked the leadership “What kind of church are you? How would you describe your congregation?” Except for a couple of occasions, the answer has always been… shall we say it unison… “We are a warm friendly family.” (Even as they are on the brink of dissolution because no one will join them.) On a few occasions I have asked a follow up question, “If you are a family, who are the parents?” More than once the response has been “the pastor.” I have been in settings where I have asked the question and the answer was “God is the father of us all.” But the idea that the pastor is a parent, and the congregation the family, is disturbingly common. Even for those who intellectually can give the right answer I sense something much different at the emotional level. Pastor as parent is probably only slightly more common than the perception by some controllers in congregations that they are the parents and everyone else including the pastor are the children.
Congregation as family is a common and frequently encouraged metaphor, especially in smaller churches. Plastered all over our church bulletins, and even in some church names, is the word “family.” So is the family metaphor a helpful metaphor for our context? God refers to us as children. The New Testament writers frequently referred to each other as brothers and sisters. Paul writes of the “household of God.” The idea of adoption is one of the most powerful in the Bible. What could be wrong with the metaphor of family? If we are not sensitive to cultural context, plenty!
Family metaphors work in our context only if our present understanding of family closely approximates that of the Greco-Roman era. Therein lays the problem. There are at least two significant differences. How we define who is family and the purpose family serves.
If you are a Westerner like I am, you likely include your parents, siblings, spouse and children as part of your family. Beyond that, you likely include both your father’s and mother’s siblings (uncles and aunts) and their children (cousins). If you attend family reunions you will likely meet 2nd Cousins, great aunts and uncles, and so on. While more distantly related, these folks are still part of your kinship group. I will call this the American Kinship Group (AKG).
The AKG is dissimilar to the family framework of the Greco-Roman world. Families in the Greco-Roman world were structured according to a Patrilineal Kinship Group (PKG) model. In this scheme, only the male linkages are relevant. I am related to my parents, siblings, spouse, and children. However, my mother’s parents, her siblings, and their children are of little consequence. My father’s siblings and his brothers’ children are my family, as are the families of my brothers.
When a woman marries in this system her ultimate loyalty is to her father and brothers, not her husband’s family. The marriage serves more as an economic and political bridge between families, enabling men to perpetuate the all important family line. Producing children, especially male heirs, is the wife’s central purpose. While a wife’s status does not depend on producing heirs in our culture, it was paramount in the PKG culture of New Testament times.
The head of the Greco-Roman household, the paterfamilias, essentially had life and death control over the members of his household (although the wife in Roman culture had some minimal rights.) While sons were very important to fathers as the ones who would give the father immortality by carrying on the family line, emotionally close relationships with fathers were not the expectation. Son’s revered their fathers and the father ruled over his children until he died.
Joseph Hellerman, in his book The Ancient Church as Family, shows that in both the AKG and the PKG, marriage is intended to provide offspring and sexual fulfillment. However, while marriage is to provide emotional support in the AKG, siblings provided emotional support in the PKG. This is absolutely essential to understanding the metaphors of family in the Bible. Siblings were the primary relationship of emotional support and caring.
If we want to tell deeply disturbing stories in our culture, we tell of spousal betrayal. The frenzy around the Scott and Laci Peterson case is a prime example. For the Romans, the most disturbing event they could imagine was two brothers at odds with each other. The great mythic story of Rome’s founding includes Romulus killing his twin brother Remus, a deeply disturbing act to Roman sensibilities. Siblings relationships were the primary relationships.
The metaphor of calling each other “brother” and “sister” in the early Christian communities becomes all the richer when we appreciate the context. It means so much more than our use of the same words. It was the most intimate of all relationships to the Greco-Roman hearers of the biblical metaphors. If the only image had been the one of God as a “father” or paterfamilias, we would only have had reverence for God. But Jesus came as one who is “closer than a brother,” tells of adoption, and shows that we are made co-heirs with Christ. This casts a whole new light on the New Testament metaphors and the character of the triune God. It also means that allegiance has been transferred to God, the paterfamilias, as we are now brothers and sisters in Christ.
So we can see that the structure of the family has important implications for our understanding, but there is one more important difference. The paterfamilias' household was not just a residence. It was a business. The members of the household were employed in the family business. The household might include the paterfamilias' sons and their families, slaves and their families, as well as bond servants and free laborers. Economically, the household was not just a unit of consumption; it was a unit of production. Any use of the “household” metaphor would of necessity include this assumption of productivity.
It is estimated that in 1885, in the United States, families produced more than 80% of what they consumed. They resembled most families in most places in time throughout history in this regard. By 1915, just thirty years later, families purchased more than 80% of what they consumed. The Industrial Revolution has transformed families almost exclusively into economic units of consumption. Families have become places of emotional support, recreation, and childrearing. They are our retreat from the economic environment, not the core of it. They exist to serve our personal needs. They family that engages in economic activity as a family in our culture is now seen as a novelty or the product of immigrants from other cultures.
When we superimpose our Twenty-First Century American Kinship Group model of family on the biblical metaphors of the New Testament, we wreak havoc on the concept. The biblical model is of “brothers” and “sisters” in Christ, participating in the “family business” under God the paterfamilias’ loving (in God’s case) direction. Because we have superimposed our contemporary family systems on the construct, our relationships lack the devotion and vitality of the New Testament model and the church becomes a place of “spiritual consumption,” existing to meet our emotional needs, with paid professionals to be surrogate fathers and mothers who will take care of us. Add to this the dysfunctional state of the family in our culture and we end up with many dysfunctional expectations in the church based on the family metaphor. In my estimation, fewer things have done more to cripple the church in our culture than this misappropriation of the family metaphor.
I ended my post about corporations by asking, “What business are we in?” Paul says we are the household of God. I have just written that the biblical model is of “brothers” and “sisters” in Christ participating in the family business under God the paterfamilias’ loving (in God’s case) direction. So once again I ask, “What business are we in?