Imagine you’re trying to explain a really complex subject to a child. Maybe it’s how budgeting works or where babies come from, for example.. How would you do it? What’s the best way to give a clear answer without going over their head? While there are many ways to explain complex subjects, sometimes it’s best to use a good metaphor.
God’s many metaphors for God’s people (a quick refresher)
I shared in another article that the Bible uses several metaphors to describe God’s people—that is, the church.
The church is the bride of Christ, the one Christ died to present to the Father holy and blameless (Ephesians 5:27). God’s people are the temple of the Holy Spirit, where God’s presence resides among His people (1 Corinthians 3:16). We are the body of Christ, doing greater works in His name than He accomplished for us as an individual on earth (John 14:12). We are a holy priesthood, enjoying unrestricted access to God and offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Christ (1 Peter 2:5).
All of these metaphors matter. They all point to the reality that the gospel unites us—it makes disparate people one.
The most important metaphor of them all
But there’s one other metaphor the Bible uses. It’s one that we talk about a lot from our perspective as individuals but all too rarely as a group. The church is a family.
Through the gospel, we are adopted by God and named his sons and daughters (Ephesians 1:5). We are beloved children and coheirs with Christ (Romans 8:17); we have an elder Brother who is always interceding for us (Hebrews 7:25) and a Father who loves us with, as one children’s author put it so well, a “Never-Stopping, Never Giving Up, Unbreaking, Always and Forever Love.”1 This Father gives good gifts to His children (Matthew 7:11) and is always working out all things for their good (Romans 8:28).
On some level, this is easy to understand. And there’s a sense in which to say that God’s people are saved to be a family isn’t remotely revolutionary. But it can be challenging—even controversial.
The most challenging metaphor
Family is a tricky subject to say the least. Many of us have experienced profound brokenness in our families of origin. Divorce, abuse, neglect, abandonment, and countless other sins besides.
I wish I could say that the church has always been a healthy alternative; a place of safety. But, as many of us have experienced, our churches are hardly faultless. We all sin against one another in different ways, often unintentionally.
But sometimes the ways we’re sinned against aren’t the typical sort that you would expect. Sometimes the sins we experience are much darker. As a result, this metaphor is prone to misuse and abuse, especially when unqualified, manipulative, and abusive people are in positions of influence. Because of this, it’s tempting to wonder if it’s even a helpful metaphor to use anymore. Does it communicate what it ought to?
The metaphor we still need
I believe this is a way of describing the church we can’t give up. We actually need this metaphor more than ever—especially in light of the way it’s been misused and abused. But in order to do that, we need to actually practice the hallmarks of what it means to be a healthy family.
To be a safe place
I realize the term “a safe place” might sound funny to some, especially if it brings to mind stories about safe spaces on college campuses. But what I’m talking about is one of the core ingredients of gospel culture—that our churches are places where we can be vulnerable without fear of reprisal, judgment, or manipulation. For the church to be safe, it means that we need to be compassionate toward those whose experience of family falls far short of God’s desire and standard—especially within the context of the church. Because if we truly believe that when one suffers, all suffer together, we need to live like it (1 Corinthians 12:26).
To be places where everyone belongs
Being compassionate also means helping people see that they belong. That whatever they’ve experienced doesn’t make them some kind of “other” or outcast. The weary, brokenhearted, and downcast. Those who have experienced real hurt and pain at the hands of other professing Christians that their faith is left hanging by a thread. A healthy church, one that embraces this metaphor, needs to be a place that welcomes them in and says, “you belong here.”
To be places that take their time
And in all of this, the reality is that it takes time. Hurt people don’t feel safe instantly. And they don’t belong overnight. They may even lash out at times because they’re waiting for the other shoe to drop. But a healthy church is going to recognize that, and embrace the challenges that come with being patient with people. Praying for them. Loving them in the ways they can receive.
The gospel makes the metaphor real
Ultimately this is a way that we are expressing our belief in the gospel. Jesus died for us, not just to save us from our sins, but to make us a part of his family. And that is the key—the family is his. None of us are fathers and mothers or weird uncles (I hope). God is our Father, and Jesus is our older brother who shows us the way. Who called us to love one another because this is how the world will know that we are his (John 13:34–35).
That is what the world needs to see. That is what people who have been hurt in many different ways need to experience. To see that the metaphor isn’t just a metaphor—that because of Jesus, the metaphor is real.
- Sally Lloyd-Jones, The Jesus Storybook Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zonderkidz, 2007), 36.