Joining a church is not about joining a culture. It is about joining a family.
Nearly every time the New Testament writers talk about the church, they use familial labels. Peter, James, and Paul call the recipients of their letters “brothers and sisters”; John, an old man at the time of his epistle writing, uses the phrase “little children.” Jesus called his disciples “brothers” (e.g. Matthew 28:10). Paul told Timothy, “Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity” (1 Timothy 5:1-2). In other words, Paul told the young pastor to treat the members of his congregation as the members of his family.
One of the most important and beautiful teachings in the New Testament is that God is the father of Christians. He loves and cherishes them like a father cherishes his children, providing for their needs, disciplining them, patiently bearing with their faults, comforting them, always listening to their prayers. He is Abba, which in Aramaic means Papa, or Daddy (Galatians 4:6-7). Because of the amazing, unique father-child relationship that Christians have with God, Christians are, to each other, like siblings in a family (Matthew 23:8-9).
It is much easier for churches to act as social clubs than as a family, however, because family life on this earth is intrinsically messy and complicated. Natural familial relationships are the most intimate and most permanent relationships on this earth. God’s family, the church, is the same, only more so. Earthly family bonds are not forever, but the church, the true believers of all times and places, will be united in worship for eternity.
Too often, churches are more like mini-cultural bubbles than they are like families. Church cultures are too often defined by social norms, accepted lingo, expected attire, musical styles, a preacher’s sense of humor. All these things are man-made. Artificial social expectations such as these are harmful both to those who do not “fit in,” as well as to those who, by fitting in, consider themselves safe with God. Jesus said:
So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrine the commands of men.” Matthew 15:6-9
But now in Christ Jesus you [Gentiles] who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us [Jews and Gentiles] one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. Ephesians 2:13-16
- an assembly of people, united by a common identity – redeemed by the blood of Jesus (Ephesians 1:3-14)
- for a common purpose – to worship God in spirit and in truth (John 4:23)
- with a common mission – to call the world to repentance and belief in Jesus (Matthew 28:18-20)
Anything more is inevitably artificial. This therefore is the responsibility of the church, the family of God:
We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me”… Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. Romans 15:1-3, 7