This is adapted from a talk I gave recently.
Many of us have been around our local church for a long time. Some of the people we see at church have grown up with us since childhood. Others may have joined while we were at school, where we get to see each other more often than almost anyone else we know. Some more would have joined recently. Hopefully we would have developed good relationships with people whenever they have joined, so that they could call us real friends, not just Facebook ones.
This is all great, it is nice to have people around that we get along with, and can have lots of fun with, and are in many ways a lot like us. But how often do we often stop and think about: is this it? What is the difference between this particular group of friends at church, from all the other friends I have from work, or uni, or whatever other social setting I belong to? What is so special about this particular group that I should care about, more than any other group? Sure, we are all Christians, which make things different and special, but what does it mean to be together and relate to each other as Christians?
This article is titled More than Friends, because that is what I hope we will discover—that we, as God's people gathered together, are more than just friends. I want us to rethink what we should expect to put in and get out of the relationships we have with each other at church. I suspect that for many of us, and many churches, it is something that we need to be both thankful for, but also something we need to work on.
I hope this article will show us one thing—one thing about the Christian life that is fundamental to our being, and what this means for us as we live together as a church.
Father is the Christian name for God
How do you describe the place of a Christian before God? The usual way we answer is that we are right with God. We were guilty of sinning against God, and deserving of his punishment. But Jesus bore the punishment in our place on the cross. And so we now no longer guilty in God's sight, Jesus' death completely washes us clean, and we now wear his righteousness. We have been saved, we have been justified.
The doctrine of justification very important. Many of our spiritual ancestors died defending that truth. But there is another dimension to our place before God that, curiously, we tend to overlook. Consider this:
Look at how great a love the Father has given us that we should be called God’s children. And we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it didn’t know him. Dear friends, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet been revealed. We know that when he appears, we will be like him because we will see him as he is. And everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself just as he is pure. 1 John 3:1-3 (HCSB)
John was writing to the church in light of false teaching. He wanted to assure them that Jesus has saved them, and so they should continue to follow him confidently as they become more like him. But look at how John describes us, as those who follow Jesus: God’s children. God is our Father. Just like Jesus, who called God his Father, we can now call God our Father.
It is not just the apostle John that uses this sort of language. The writer to the Hebrews does something similar when describing Jesus:
For in bringing many sons to glory, it was entirely appropriate that God—all things exist for him and through him—should make the source of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. That is why Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers, saying:
I will proclaim your name to my brothers;
I will sing hymns to you in the congregation.
Again, "I will trust in him". And again, "Here I am with the children God gave me". Hebrews 2:10-13 (HCSB)
Here, the writer to the Hebrews tells us that because we have been sanctified by Jesus, we share the same Father as him. Jesus is not ashamed to call us brothers. Therefore, we are all in the same family—we have the same Father, we have the same brother in Jesus, and we are brothers and sisters of each other.
Consider this: what is privilege it is to be in the family of God! God could have just left it at justification—"OK, you're now not guilty, off you go"—but he did not. He said, "Come into my family. Be near me. Share in my glory and in the inheritance." He elevated us to a level of intimacy with him that is higher than anything we could ever experience: an intimacy that is only reserved for Jesus and his people.
J. I. Packer, as usual, sums it up perfectly in this:
If you want to judge how well a person understands Christianity, find out how much he makes of the thought of being God's child, and having God as his Father. If this is not the thought that prompts and controls his worship and prayers and his whole outlook on life, it means that he does not understand Christianity very well at all. For everything that Christ taught, everything that makes the New Testament new, and better than the Old, everything that is distinctively Christian as opposed to merely Jewish, is summed up in the knowledge of the Fatherhood of God. "Father" is the Christian name for God. J. I. Packer, Evangelical Magazine 7, p 19f, emphasis added
As people saved by God, we are now in God's family. God is our Father. Jesus is our brother. Let us revel in it.
Brothers and sisters
Now, what does it mean to be brothers and sisters?
Consider how we respond differently to the same situation, but involving friends versus family. Quite often we would respond to a situation differently if it involves our family, especially close family, as opposed to our friends. For example, if one of your close family members is in financial trouble and asks you for a loan, you are probably more likely to give it to them than if a friend or work colleague was in the same situation and asked.
We treat our family differently compared to our friends, because the nature of the relationship is different. We value them differently, and there are situations where family are the only ones you would turn to. You choose your friends, but you cannot choose family.
If we know the difference between our friends and our human family, should we not be mindful of the even bigger difference when it comes to our spiritual family—our brothers and sisters in Christ? While they are both kinds of relationships, just as apples and oranges are both fruits, but they are completely different. Our relationships with our spiritual family is not based on a shared university or employer, or shared home location or lifestage or interests, or even shared genes. Rather, our relationships are based on our adoption as God’s children, our shared Father in God, our shared brotherhood in Jesus.
Because of that, our spiritual relationship with each other is a greater kind of relationship than friends, or even our human family. Friends and family are great gifts from God, but it is our relationship as God's children, as Jesus' siblings, as brothers and sisters in Christ, that testifies to the glory of God's goodness into eternity. And so it would be inadequate and dishonouring to God if we merely treat our brothers and sisters in Christ in the same way as our friends. It misses the point of why God gathered us together like this in the first place. It is like going to a wedding and chatting to the bride and groom as your friends, but forgetting to congratulate them for getting married.
I suspect that for a lot of us, we have the wrong expectations from our relationships at church. We expect people at church to be our friends—that we should all get along, have fun, and nothing more. When the relationships do not meet our expectations—when relationships get difficult, when we do not get along with everyone, when there are clashes in personalities, when we are rebuked—we get disappointed. We sulk. We get bitter. We shy away. Sometimes we leave.
We should expect better. We are more than friends; we are family—spiritual family—brothers and sisters in Christ. We should expect godly, distinctly Christian relationships from each other. The quality of our relationships should not be measured by how much we get along with each other, rather, it should be measured by how much we encourage each other to grow spiritually in the family of God.
The following diagram is a comparison. On the left hand side is a list of things one may use to evaluate a friendship. While the list may be pretty good, but it is not what Christian relationships are about.
On the right hand side is a partial list of things one may ask when evaluating a Christian relationship. Notice how it is not about how close one is to each other, rather it is about how one are helping each other draw closer to God.
This has all sorts of implications in the way we relate to each other. Just one example: I suspect that some of us have not taken spiritual care of our brothers and sisters at our own churches as we should. We may get so carried away with our own social circle that we have neglected those outside. Negligence of our brothers and sisters is not appropriate in the family of God. It is not God-honouring.
I also suspect that some of us are genuinely disappointed with the relationships we have at church. We may feel that we have been neglected. We may have been wronged in the past, but healing has not come. We may grow bitter at a result. But bitterness against our brothers and sisters is not appropriate in the family of God. It is not God-honouring.
Let's change. Let's recognise the ways we have dishonoured God and repent. Let's expect better from our relationships at church. Let’s value each other as we really are—children of God. We are in God’s family. God is our Father. Jesus is our brother.