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Church as Family

Church as Family

I haven't had a lot of time on my hands since Olivia was born. But I have carried a lot of babies. Throughout the final months of Alaina's pregnancy she was forbidden to carry Kenzie and Judah. So I got all the duties. While Alaina was recovering from birthing our largest (aka heaviest and longest) child I continued these duties AND added the occasional holding of Olivia. Anyone who has held a newborn child will tell you that some kind of chemical voodoo goes on and the world is practically perfect.

The Problem's Description

All this time carrying children has given me time to dwell on some conceptual problems that I have with specific ecclesiological practices. I need to address the context of these problems first. Only then can I address in brief their description.

It seems to be common to refer to the church as family or community. There is a church every other block, it seems, that stresses this concept. This is significantly telling. It speaks a lot towards our culture's departure from family at every possible point. It also speaks to the church's desperate grasp to fill the void of the culture.

Family has been replaced with a more mobile "good feelings towards others under the same roof." The emphasis has been placed on consensual, conjoining relationships (e.g. "come together," "live life together," etc). Neighborhood communities have gone the same way. Once defined by proximity, the world of transportation (and ultimately the internet) creates communities solely from like-minded individuals. Individuals will travel significantly for this community. Or worse, they may not travel at all but find satisfaction in non-personal communication. This is a natural response given the circumstances but it does not make it correct. Community is much easier this way but it has disastrous affect on the health of the local church.

But does this model accurately represent our innate experience of family? And should the church look like this? In Sunday School we recently joked about how the church should be loving, caring, kind, and forgiving towards one another always. I quipped that it wouldn't look much like a family at that point. The class laughed because the stereotype held. Families are messy. We have differences and flashed of conflict. These are natural things in a fallen world moving towards resolution. Families are not the conjoining of like-minded individuals. There are dangerous clashes and there are eventual resolutions. In applying this analogy to the church we must ask are churches truly groups of people coming together under a "common confession?" These answer to this should probably be no.

The shared father and not shared confession is what determines a family. Paul uses this type of language about the heavenly family as well (Eph 4:4-5). Many American churches have dispatched with this traditional sense for a more clique based approach. I am not speaking directly against churches with historic confessions but churches that mandate public confession (credo-baptism churches). Multiple church documents could be evaluated but I will highlight the ones which I am most familiar.

The Church's Entry Ritual

The first major issue is how a church is defined and to whom their entry ritual extends. In this regard it is helpful to solely evaluate Protestant variants: credo-baptism and paedo-baptism. A major problem of baptism discussions today is when the soteriological elements alone are considered. As a "church sacrament" baptism is an ecclesiological issue. The discussion over who should receive baptism is actually about who is excluded from the family,

A New Testament church of the Lord Jesus Christ is an autonomous local congregation of baptized believers, associated by covenant in the faith and fellowship of the gospel...The New Testament speaks also of the church as the Body of Christ which includes all of the redeemed of all the ages, believers from every tribe, and tongue, and people, and nation. (BF&M, VI)
The visible Church, which is also catholic or universal under the Gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children. (WCF, XXV.II)

Both of these confessions highlight that the visible church is a group of people that share fellowship in the gospel. This is an appropriate outlying boundary. The family of God does not consist of those who deny the God who became Incarnate to redeem His creation. Thus exclusion is a necessary element of the Christian faith. The baptist would argue that paedobaptism undermines the confession of the church "universal under the Gospel...that profess the true religion." Their stance would be that children are excluded from the church until they are "associated by covenant in the faith." That this does not reflect the analogy of family is not an issue of they are correct. The reformed argue the Bible teaches otherwise. The Bible teaches a gospel message from Eve to Mary that incorporates generations of covenant people. My fully position on baptism has been addressed frequently (there is no true baptist covenant theology ... theirs is merely a covenant-among-history theology). But the Lord's Supper is the more telling exclusion.

Non-Invite Family Dinner

Up front, my position is that the BF&M restrictions at the Lord's table denies "the church as the Body of Christ." The Westminster Confession of Faith makes explicit that the Lord's Supper is for the church catholic. There is no confusion over who is permitted to partake. Anyone who is baptized and has put their faith in Christ may partake. However, the Baptist Faith & Message has some built-in confusion,

The Lord's Supper is a symbolic act of obedience whereby members of the church, through partaking of the bread and the fruit of the vine, memorialize the death of the Redeemer and anticipate His second coming. (BF&M, VII)
Our Lord Jesus, in the night wherein He was betrayed, instituted the sacrament of His body and blood, called the Lord's Supper, to be observed in His Church...to be a bond and pledge of their communion with Him, and with each other, as members of His mystical body. (WCF, XXIX.I)

Though it speaks of two churches (local and universal) it only speaks in terms of membership about one of the two church: the local church. It also only speaks of "observing the two ordinances of Christ" in the paragraph about the local congregation. Whether intentional or not, the BF&M actually permits excluding non-members of a local congregation from the table. I even argue this is the only consistent position given that baptism (by immersion) "is prerequisite to the privileges of church membership and to the Lord's Supper." The ideas of local "church membership" and "the Lord's Supper" are virtually synonymous.

This understanding directs my reading of the statement that "members of the church" participate in the memorializing the death of Christ. It is my belief the baptists would hold to closed communion are correct if their standard is the BF&M. This is the natural outworking of confession-oriented theology. This does not make it wrong but certainly reinforces the idea that the baptistic paradigm runs counter the covenantal aspects of the Old Testament. In the Old Testament, God's covenant are quite literally built around family. Many point to the early generations of Abraham as if they contain some secret loop-clause for baptistic thinking. But the points remains that by the entry into Egypt and the exodus from bondage God's covenant is firmly established with twelve men and their descendants. And so it remains for over a thousand years.

Even if one does not adopt the paedocommunion position it should be clear that the trajectory of baptistic thinking (though gratefully not baptistic tradition today) is the exclusion of all other Christians from their table. I do not say these things expecting baptists to nod their heads. I understand that many baptists do not agree with these tendencies. But it would seem the majority response is to go the non-denominational "real life, true church, my church, etc." avenue. The number of evangelicals have dispensed with this avenue and found comforting homes in liturgical churches of different orders. Retaining their faults, these liturgical churches have maintained through the sacraments some semblance of the church universal. The confession-oriented churches (credobaptism) have dispensed with this unity for a modernist community of convenience and exclusion. This is not an analogy of family. Nor is it consistent with Scripture.

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