by T. Austin-Sparks
"But Christ as a son, over his house; whose house we are, if we hold fast our boldness and the glorying of our hope firm unto the end." Heb. 3:6.
"Whose house we are..." that clause may act as a title to this meditation. The thought is of the church as a family. Perhaps we might link another passage or two with this one. Ephesians 2:21: "In whom each several building, fitly framed together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord". And Ephesians 3:15: "From whom every family in heaven and on earth is named".
Before we proceed we might note the significance of those two passages. In the former the phrase is: "each several building", or, every building. In the latter the phrase is: "every family". Both of these passages apply to the same thing. They both apply to the church. In the former the church is regarded as being collective, corporate, an aggregate, one object with many parts. "Each several building", yet one church; one holy temple in the Lord; many making one. The same principle governs the second passage. Literally it is: "The family in every part". "For this cause I bow my knees unto the Father, from whom the family (in every part) in heaven and on earth is named". The church as a family is made up of many parts, but it is one thing.
To return to the main idea (that is, of the church as a family) this truth and this reality in a very special way comes in with the New Testament age. It is a peculiar feature of Christianity. What are the great words of the New Testament? What are the great words of Christianity? They are such words as "Father", "Child", "Sons", "Household", "Brethren". And then we know that the great theme of love, which is so fully developed in the New Testament, is connected with the idea of the Christian family. This is God's own thought, God's own conception of His own, that all of His own comprise a family.
We know how the spirit of this was breathed in the early days of the church amongst the first believers. We read those early chapters of the book of the Acts, and we find a predominating family spirit; their breaking of bread from house to house; their spiritual homes being the domestic circle of believers; their letting go everything of a private and personal character to have a family life of all things in common. The family features were very clearly discernable in those first days.
How far we have travelled from that conception! The church, as it is known today, is a long way from that. There is an estrangement from the very idea in the main. What we have now as representing the church is congregations, preaching places, special forms for church life and church practice, and particular apparels, and a multitude of other things, all of which are utterly foreign to the idea of a family. When we gather our families together for the family circle we do not have special forms and put on special dress or go to a special place to meet. We have gone a long way from God's pure thought about His own people; so much so that many who come to these preaching places and constitute these congregations and speak about "the church", know little or nothing about one another and have very little in common - very little fellowship. They come and they go, and as for sharing one another's needs and entering into one another's lives with a view to being mutually helpful, that is quite foreign to many, and all too limited at best. And yet these great governing words and ideas remain, "Father", "Children", "Sons", "Brethren", "Household", "Family". No wonder a great deal has been lost to the Lord's people!
With all that the Lord needs and desires to do in the recovery of His first thought, His original idea for His people, not the least is the recovery of the spiritual family. Any fresh movement of God which relates to His original thought will most certainly reintroduce the spiritual family, and all that that means. That may mean the breakdown of a lot; it may mean that a good deal of misconception will have to be set aside; it may be that a whole traditional system will have to be discarded.
There is a tremendous value connected with the spiritual family life and with the training in the family. There is no training better than the training in the family. You cannot find an adequate substitute in the institution. Really, the Lord's responsible and useful men and women are not trained in the institution; they are trained in the family. It is because of the lack of that family background of training that so often those who go out into the Lord's work break down in the matter of relationships. The tragedy of so much of the work of God is the tragedy of broken relationships between workers who are put together in an organised way, and they have never gone through the discipline of family life to know how to live triumphantly with difficult people. There is an immense value in the training of the spiritual family and that necessitates very close relationships. We have heard Christian people (church-going people) say that they do not want to come into too close an association with their fellow-Christians and church members; they would rather not know too much. That is defeat, and that means the loss of a very great deal for the Lord. The Lord's way is to bring His people together in the closest relationship and not to eliminate the most difficult ones. He has a very peculiar family, made up of all sorts, and some of the sorts are very funny sorts; and that all provides the basis of a wonderful training.
The sooner we square ourselves up to that fact the better. It will bring an end to our eternal longing to get away from some people, to be in another world. It will bring an end to a good deal of our defeat; defeat which comes simply because we have not faced right up to this thing and said: I have got to learn how to live in victory with that person. It is the family life and the great values thereof. That is very different from once a week meeting certain other people who are religiously disposed, perhaps passing the time of day with them, and seeing them no more for another seven days. That is not the New Testament way.
The Lord put His people together in spiritual families, to have the closest relationships. You will notice that all these letters in the New Testament are letters with the family idea in view. Those even which are to individuals, such as the letters to Timothy, are all connected with the family. Paul said to Timothy that he wrote that Timothy might know how to behave himself in the church, the house of God. The letters are not treaties upon some doctrine, or doctrines; they are correspondence with spiritual families, that those families, by enlightenment and encouragement, by exhortation and warning and sometimes rebuke, might come into the place where they triumphantly live out the testimony of the Lord Jesus in their relationships. How much the relationships of believers are dealt with in these letters! We might almost say that that forms a larger part of the letters. The church is not an organisation. You can never bring about a family by organisation.
The church as a family is concerned primarily with certain things. As a family it is concerned with the birth of new family members. Not the advertising to get them, not the organisation to obtain them, not any kind of means to attract them; but to take an interest in their birth. The church ought to be in such a condition that the birth of any new family member sends a thrill right through; they should be interested in that matter, feel the tremendous value of that matter, and be set upon that matter. The birth of a new member into the family is a real event. As a family the church is concerned, in the first place, with such a matter.
Then, after that, it is concerned with the nurturing of the spiritual children. There is an underlying challenge about these things, as well as a statement of fact and of truth. No doubt we are ready to accept the challenge of the first thing and we do feel one in heart with that and are really there, where the birth of a new member into the family is a matter of real interest and concern. There may be room for improvement in that matter. Perhaps we are not really as given up to the birth and the salvation of souls as we should be. If that brings a challenge to us let us definitely receive the challenge.
There is also this same element at the back of the second thing: concern for the nurturing of the spiritual children. It is so easy to mark the features of immaturity in Christians, and to make a lot of those and to register the fact that they are still children, and to register that in not an all-too-sympathetic way. Let us get the family atmosphere in a matter like that; set ourselves in a family. If you regard yourself as an elder brother or sister, what is your attitude towards the infant? Are you always going to be blaming the infant for not being older than it is; saying to a three or four year old: Why, in all the world, are you not six years old? To the little one: Why are you not bigger than you are? You see how absurd such a suggestion is. There is room for this greater concern for the nurturing of spiritual children, as over against the blaming for the absence of what we have no right at present to expect.
A true family has in it a care for the spiritual children, and that comes to our hearts with a measure of rebuke. What attitude are we going to take towards those who are not as fully developed as we are ourselves when it is not to be expected of them? It is quite another thing when, by reason of the time, they ought to be able to teach and they still need someone to teach them. A true family is marked by this concern for the nurturing of the spiritual children, and our attitude and our concern in that matter will determine very largely how far we have got the spirit of the true spiritual home.
The church as a family is concerned with the service of the sons. These are features, as you will recognise, which we are only extracting from the New Testament itself and putting them in very simple form. We can go through the Acts of the Apostles and show all that which was the expression of a concern for the nurturing of the spiritual infants. Then we could pass on to see that the service of those who have got past spiritual infancy and are not entrusted with spiritual responsibility, was a mutual concern of all and all were exhorted to have that concern; that wherever responsibility lay in the house of God, that responsibility was to be the concern of all in the house. Wherever the Lord had placed someone in a position of responsibility and stewardship in service, to hold the position for Him, everyone in the church was to make that stewardship, that service, that responsibility, their business.
Then again, the church as a family is concerned for the realisation of the Father's vision concerning His children. The family does take account of what the Father has in view for His family and seeks the realisation of that. That stands over against each one seeking their own, having their own ambitions, their own interests, their own line of things and independently following their own way and pursuing their own course. The family is made a concrete whole because it is working to the Father's vision. And that is no small matter. You will see how these letters bring into view God's eternal purpose, and how we are called according to that purpose, and that that purpose can only be reached by the whole. It is a purpose which concerns the family, and all our mutual lives (our lives in relationship to each other) are to be occupied with that eternal purpose, that calling of God in Christ and we find our fulness by way of the mutuality of our concern for the eternal purpose.
It is very necessary for us to see one purpose applying to the whole family and that every member of the family is related to that purpose; that no member or portion of the membership of the family can reach that purpose in fulness alone; it requires the whole family. Hence we have to work to help one another to realise all God's intention as a family; working mutually in our relationship to encourage one another, to strengthen one another, to build one another up, to help one another in relation to the one great purpose. That is family life, occupied with one object - God's purpose; and all are engaged in that.
Then finally, the church as a family is concerned with the safeguarding of the sanctities of family life; mutual loyalties within the Lord's family. The Lord's family suffers a very great deal by reason of a lack of common, everyday loyalty. It is so easy to criticise members of the family to other members, to show up the weaknesses, to bring into view (if they are not already in view) the faults. What do you think of that going on within a family? See within the compass of a family of six or seven members, some over here just pointing out all the flaws, and all the imperfections, and all the wrongs of other members of the family. What would you say? That is no family; that is a divided house. The family spirit is not there; that is not mutual love one for the other and forbearance one for the other. Extend that to the larger family, and the rule holds good. If you had genuine love for a brother or a sister in your family, what would be your attitude towards anybody who criticised that one, who spoke evil about that one, who made that one look small? You would at least be resentful; you would seek to let it be known that you were not prepared to have the sanctities of your relationships violated or injured in that way. Now the apostle says: "Having the same care one for another".
Is it necessary to apologise for being so simple? What we are saying is of an introductory nature. There is a good deal more that could be said in this connection. All that we have in mind is to point out the fact that the church is a family from God's standpoint.
Some of you have responsibility in a special way in the household of God. Is it too much to suggest to you that henceforth, perhaps as never before, you regard the whole of the church life in the light of the family; that it is your business to co-operate with God to develop family life of a spiritual character - not to hold services, have meetings, go to preaching places and draw congregations, but to constitute a spiritual family.
We are all within the family and whether we have specific responsibility in the house of God or not, the Lord wants to develop in us general responsibility in His house; taking responsibility for the babes. Let us ask the Lord for this grace and really make it our responsibility, as though the Lord said to us concerning some spiritual child "Take this child and nurse it for Me". Taking responsibility for spiritual babes is not going to be easy work.
The Lord also wants to develop in us this concern for all responsible ministry, so that we make it our business. It is so different from coming together and sitting down in a seat, and saying: So-and-so is going to be the speaker, and we shall like to hear what he has to say. That is perhaps as far as we get. If we like it, well, we like it! If we do not like it, that is as far as our responsibility goes! Is it? Do we not take definite responsibility before the Lord for every ministry, and everyone who ministers? That is our business.
Ruling out all those natural elements of preferences, this is a ministry and that ministry draws me in and I am under an obligation before the Lord to stand with that ministry, in so far as that ministry is for the building up of the Lord's people and the increase of the Lord's family. We should see marvellous growth and wonderful things if every member of the family took definite spiritual responsibility for ministries that were being carried on. There would be tremendous development if that were so. To put it the other way, there is a great deal of loss and a great deal of weakness and a great deal of defeat and failure, because of a lack of co-operation by the majority with those who are in the ministry.
If we made the ministry our mutual concern, there would be increase. Those of you who are in ministry from time to time know quite well what we are talking about. Those of you who are not in ministry; if you did know what it is to be in ministry, would know what we mean. Some of us have scanned a sea of faces to find one co-operating, and when we have found one who God was working in and we could see a spirit of co-operation and of fellowship and of concern, that has been our salvation through a hard time. That one has drawn us through and we have gone on, because there was that one there. It is a tremendous thing that the whole thing might have been in defeat, with nothing gained, but for that point of contact. Supposing all were in it like that every time; what gain there would be! The building up comes about by the family taking concern for the ministry.
What is true in those directions is true in all the other directions. Let us ask the Lord for the grace of these simple things, which count for so much. The Lord's people are a family, and it is as such that the real value is to be found. There is not a very great deal of value in the organised institution of the church with its forms - the spiritual value is very limited - but when there is this heart fellowship as one family, there is building up and making increase.