The Christian Church a Family*

Bibliology
Guest Writer Frederick W Robertson

“Our Lord Jesus Christ, of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named” (Ephesians 3:14, 15).

Preached at Trinity Chapel, Brighton, England, 11 January 1852

In the progress of the months, we have arrived again at that period of the church year in which we commemorate the Epiphany, or the manifestation of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles; and in the whole range of Scripture we could not find a passage more suited to our purpose than the one before us today.

In the verses immediately before the text the Apostle Paul has been speaking of what he calls a “mystery” (3:3)—that is, a revealed secret. And the secret was this: that the Gentiles would be “fellow heirs and of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ by the gospel” (3:6). It had been kept secret from the former ages and generations (3:5); it was a secret the Jew had not suspected or dreamed. The Jew considered it his duty to keep as far as possible away from the Gentile. Circumcision, which taught him the duty of separation from the Gentile spirit and Gentile practices, taught disdain toward Gentile persons, until, at length, in the good pleasure and providence of God, “in the fullness of time” (cf Ephesians 1:10; Romans 11:25), through the instrumentality of men whose heart, rather than intellect, was inspired by God, the truth came out: God was the Father of the Gentile as well as of the Jew, “for the same Lord over all is rich to all who call on Him” (Romans 10:12).

In considering this passage we shall divide it into these two branches: the church defined and the church named.

THE CHURCH DEFINED

The Christian Church, taken in its entirety, is “the whole family [of believers] in heaven and earth.” But to understand this better, it will be necessary for us to break it up into its different terms.

• The Church of Christ is a “family,” bound by natural, not artificial, affinity. In ancient times common interests drew men into guilds or corporations for mutual protection. In modern times creeds or opinions have bound men together under shared political principles. Similarity of taste has united men together in associations or societies for particular purposes. But as these are artificial contrivances, so their end is, inevitably, dissolution. Societies pass on; guilds and corporations die; leagues become dissolved; associations or societies break up and come to nothing.

It is on another principle altogether that what we call a family, or true society, is formed. It is built not on shared interests, creeds, opinions, principles, or tastes, but on natural affinity. We do not choose our father or our brother; we cannot deny our mother or our sister. The family circle depends not on what I want or what I prefer, but on what is. And precisely in the same way is the Christian Church formed—on natural affinity, not on artificial contrivance. “The family, the whole family; in heaven and earth” is composed not of those who call themselves brothers, but of those who are brothers; it is founded not on principles of association, but on principles of affinity. A men’s club is an association, if you will, but a family it is not—a Church of Christ it cannot be …. The Church rises out of the family. Such is the first principle. A man is born into a family, and is not made a son by appointment or by association, though he may be made so by adoption.

• The Church of Christ is a whole made up of manifold diversities. We are told here it is “the whole family,” taking into it the great and good of ages past, now in heaven; and also the struggling, the humble, and the weak now existing on earth. Here, again, the analogy holds good between the Church and the family. Never more than in the family is the true entirety of our nature seen. Observe how all the diversities of human condition and character manifest themselves in the family.

There are diversities of gender: male and female, together, not separately, make up the whole of man. There are diversities of affection: the affection a man bears for his father is distinct from that which he feels for his mother; there is one affection for a sister, another for a brother. There are diversities of character, from the mature wisdom and stern integrity of the father to the warm tenderness of the mother. One sibling is brave and enthusiastic, another thoughtful, still another sensitive. One is remarkable for being full of rich humor, another is sad, mournful, even melancholy. There are diversities of conditions: one perhaps an heir, sustaining the name and honor of the family through primogeniture; another perchance a soldier, in whose career all the anxiety and solitude of the family is centred. Then there is perhaps the businessman, to whom the family looks, trusting his advice, expecting his counsel. Another, perhaps, has been an invalid, from the very cradle trembling between life and death, drawing out all the sympathies and anxieties of each member of the family. These diversities are not accidental, but essential to the makeup of a family; if any of them is lost, so far the family is incomplete. A family made up of one gender, all boys, no girl … one parent, not two … all devoted to one pursuit … no diversity of temper and disposition—the same monotonous repeated identity—this is not a family; it is an anomaly.

In the same way there are diversities of character and conditions in the Christian Church. In times past it was the delight of the Church to canonize one particular class of virtues—for instance, purity or martyrdom—as now there is a tendency to canonize Sabbath-keeping and church attendance. But is there in God’s Church to be found no place for litany, psalm-singing, doing the will of God, struggling for principles, contending for the truth, living as one whose prayer is action, whose aspiration is continual effort? As there are diverse personalities within the home, so there are diverse personalities within the Church.

Or again, in every age, among all men, there has been a tendency toward hero-worship—leading us to an admiration of certain noble qualities. Wherever this tendency to hero-worship exists, there will be found side by side with it a tendency to undervalue and depreciate excellences of an opposite character—humility, meekness, and reserve. But it is precisely for these that the Church of Christ finds place. “Blessed are the poor in spirit … blessed are they that mourn… blessed are the meek … blessed are they who hunger and thirst after righteousness … blessed are the merciful … blessed are the pure in heart … blessed are the peacemakers … blessed are the persecuted” (Matthew 5:3-10). In God’s world there is a place for the wren and the violet as truly as there is for the eagle and the rose. In the Church of God there is a place—and that the noblest—for Dorcas making garments for the poor (Acts 9:36-43) and for Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus (Luke 10:38-42) as truly as there is for Elijah confounding a false religion by his noble opposition (1 Kings 18:17-40), for John the Baptist making a king tremble on his throne (Mark 6:14-28), or for the Apostle Paul “compassing sea and land to make disciples” (cf Matthew 23:15).

Once more, there are ages, as well as our own times, when we esteem charity as if it were the only Christian character. Wherever this tendency is found there will be found at the same time, and side by side with it, a tendency to admire the spurious form of charity, which is a sentiment and not a virtue. False charity can sympathize with crime, but not with law, can be tender to savages, but has no respect for national honor. And, therefore, the Apostle Paul calls on us to esteem another character trait: justice. Justice was seen in the warriors and prophets of old, who perhaps felt stronger recoil from vice than sympathy with virtue. Their indignation toward wrong and hypocrisy was more intense than their love for good. This sense of justice is the material, the character, out of which reformers, prophets, and saints are made.

The Church of Christ is marked by not only goodness, but every excellence representing Him for whom the Church is named. He is “wonderful in counsel, and excellent in working” (Isaiah 28:29). “His name alone is excellent” (Psalm 148:13). He has “obtained a more excellent name” (Hebrews 1:4), “a name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow” (Philippians 2:9, 10). In Him is centered all excellence—a righteousness that is “perfect and entire” (cf James 1:4). But when we speak of the perfection of righteousness, let us remember that it is not one exaggerated character, but all virtues united. In Him are found, therefore, that tenderness toward sinners that has no sympathy with sin; that humility that can be dignified and yet self-respecting; that simplicity that is to be met, side by side, with true majesty; that love that can weep over Jerusalem at the very moment He is pronouncing its doom (Luke 19:41-44) ….

There are only two perfect humanities. One has existed already in the person of our Lord Jesus Christ; the other is found in the collective Church. Once, only once, has God given a perfect representation of Himself, “the brightness of the Father’s glory, and the express image of His person” (Hebrews 1:3). And if we ask again for a perfect humanity, the answer is, it is not in this Church or in that Church, or in this man or in that man, in this age or in that age, but in the collective blended graces, beauties, and humanities, which are found in every age, in all churches, but not in every separate man “till we all come”—collectively, not separately—“in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man”—in other words, to a perfect humanity—“to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13).

• The Church of Christ is a society that is forever shifting its locality and altering its forms. It is the whole church, “the whole family in heaven and earth.” So, then, those who were on earth, and are now in heaven, are still yet members of the family. Those who had their home here, now have it there.

The dead are not lost to us. There is a sense in which the departed are ours now more than they were before. There is a sense in which the Apostle Paul or the Apostle John, the good and great of ages past, belong to this age now more than to that in which they lived—in which they were not understood—in which the commonplace and everyday part of their lives hindered the brightness, glory, and beauty of their character from shining forth.

So, it is in the family. It is possible for men to live in the same house and eat at the same table, day to day, year to year, and yet remain strangers to one another, mistaking the other’s feelings, not comprehending the other’s character. It is only when the Atlantic Ocean rolls between, and half a hemisphere is interposed, that we learn how dear they are to us, how all our life is bound up in deep anxiety with their existence. Therefore, it is the Christian feels that the family is not broken. Think you that family can break or end? that because the chair is empty, therefore he, your child, is no more? It may be so with the coarse, the selfish, the unbelieving, the superstitious; but the eye of faith sees the transformation. He is not here, he is risen. You see the place where he was, but he has passed to heaven. So the heart of David of old, walking “by faith and not by sight” (cf 2 Corinthians 5:7), when speaking of his infant child, said, “I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me” (2 Samuel 12:23).

Once more, the Church of Christ is a society ever altering and changing its external forms. “The whole family”—the Church of the patriarchs, and of ages before them, and yet the same family. Remember, I pray you, the diversities of form through which, in so many ages and generations, this Church has passed. Consider the difference between the patriarchal Church of the time of Abraham and Isaac and the kingdom Church under David; or the difference between the Apostolic Church and the Church so existing; the difference between the Apostolic Church and the same Church four or five centuries later; or, once again, the difference between the fifth-century Church and the Church as it exists in the present day. Yet diversified as these states may be, they are not more so than the various stages of a family.

There is a time when the children are all in one room around their mother’s knee. There comes a time, still farther on, when the first separation takes place, and some are leaving home for marriage or career. Afterward, when all in their different professions, trades, or occupations, are separated, at last comes the time when some are gone from this world. And, perchance, two survivors meet at last—an old, gray-haired man, and a weak, worn-out woman—to mourn over the last graves of a household.

Christian brethren, which of these is the right form—the true, external pattern of a family? Say we not truly that it remains the same under all outward mutations [changes]?

We must think of this, or else we may lose heart in our work. Conceive, for instance, the feelings of a pious Jew when Christianity entered this world; when all his religious system was broken up—the Temple-service brought to a violent end; when that polity he thought was to redeem and ennoble the world was cast aside as a broken and useless thing. Must the Jew not have been as gloomy and as dreary as the disciples on the Road to Emmaus when He who they “trusted should have redeemed Israel” (Luke 24:21) was dead? In both cases the body was gone or was altered—the spirit had arisen.

And precisely so it is with our fears and unbelieving apprehensions now. Institutions pass—churches alter—old forms change—and high-minded and good men cling to these as if they were the only things by which God could regenerate the world. Christianity appears to some men to be effete [ineffectual] and worn out. Men who can look back on the times of Venn, Newton, and Scott—comparing the degeneracy of their descendants with the men of those days—lose heart as if all things were going wrong. “Things are not,” they say, “as they were in our younger days.”

No, my Christian brethren, things are not as they then were, but the Christian cause lives on—not in the successors of such men as those. The outward form is altered, but the spirit is elsewhere, is risen—risen as truly as the spirit of the highest Judaism rose again in Christianity. And to mourn over old superstitions and effete creeds is as unwise as is the grief of the mother mourning over the form that was once her child. She cannot separate her affection from that form—those hands, those limbs, those features—are they not her child? The true answer is, her child is not there. It is only the form of her child.

And it is as unwise to mourn over the decay of those institutions—the change of human forms—as it was unwise in Jonah to mourn over the decay of the gourd that had sheltered him from the heat of the noontide sun (Jonah 4:5-11). A worm had eaten the root of the gourd, and it was gone. But He who made the gourd the shelter to the weary—the shadow of those who are oppressed by the noontide heat of life—lived on: Jonah’s God. And so, brethren, all things change—all things change and alter outwardly; but the God of the Church lives on. The Church of God remains under fresh forms—the one, holy, entire family in heaven and earth.

THE CHURCH NAMED

“Our Lord Jesus Christ,” the Apostle says, “of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named.”

Now, every one familiar with the Jewish modes of thought and expression will allow here that name is but another word to express being, actuality, and existence. So when Jacob desired to know the character and nature of Jehovah, he said, “Tell me now, I beseech You, Your name” (Genesis 32:29). When the Apostle here says, “Our Lord Jesus Christ, of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named,” it is but another way of saying that it is He on whom the Church depends—who has given it substantive existence—without whom it could not be at all. It is but another way of saying what is expressed elsewhere—“that there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

Let us not lose ourselves in vague generalities. Apart from Christ there is no salvation; there can be no Christianity. Let us understand what we mean by this. Let us clearly define and enter into the meaning of the words we use. When we say that our Lord Jesus Christ is He “of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named,” we mean that the very being of the Church depends on Christ—that it could not exist without Him. Now, the Church of Christ depends on these three things: (1) a common Father, (2) a common humanity, and (3) a common sacrifice.

• First, a common Father. That is the sacred truth proclaimed by the Epiphany. God revealed in Christ—not the Father of the Jew only, but also of the Gentile. The Father of a “whole family.” Not the partial Father loving one alone—the elder—but the younger son besides: the outcast prodigal who had spent his living with harlots and sinners, but the child still, and the child of a Father’s love (cf Luke 15:11-32). Our Lord taught this in His own blessed prayer, “Our Father” (Matthew 6:9); and as we lose the meaning of that single word our, as we say my Father—the Father of me and my faction—of me and my fellow-believers—my Anglicanism or my Judaism—be it what it may—instead of our Father—the Father of the outcast, the profligate, and all who choose to claim a Father’s love—so we lose the meaning of the lesson the Epiphany was designed to teach, and the possibility of building up a family to God.

• Second, a common humanity. He for whom the Church is named, took on Him not the nature merely of the noble, of kings, or of the intellectual philosopher—but of the beggar, the slave, the outcast, the infidel, the sinner, and the nature of everyone struggling in various ways. Let us learn then that we shall have no family in God, unless we learn the deep truth of our common humanity, shared in by the servant and the sinner, as well as the sovereign. Without this we shall have no Church—no family in God.

• Third, a common sacrifice.

There are three ways in which the human race has endeavored to construct itself into a family: (1) by the sword, (2) by an ecclesiastical system, (3) by trade or commerce.

First, by the sword. The Assyrian, the Persian, the Greek, and the Roman, have done their work—in itself a most valuable and important one; but so far as the formation of mankind into a family was the objective, the work of the sword has done almost nothing.

Second, by an ecclesiastical system. The grand attempt of the Church of Rome to organize all men into one family, with an ecclesiastical, visible, earthly head has been tried. Being Protestants, it is not necessary for us to state our conviction that this attempt has been a signal and complete failure.

Third, by commerce and trade. We are told that what chivalry and honor could not do—which an ecclesiastical system could not do—personal interest will do. Trade will bind men together into one family. When they feel it their interest to be one, they will be brothers. But that which is built on selfishness cannot stand. The system of personal interest must be shivered into atoms. Therefore, we, who have observed the ways of God in the past, are waiting in quiet but awful expectation for Him to confound this system as He has confounded those that have gone before. And it may be effected by convulsions more terrible and more bloody than the world has yet seen. While men are talking of peace, and of the great progress of civilization, there is heard in the distance the noise of armies gathering rank on rank—east and west, north and south—rolling toward us the crushing thunders of universal war.

Therefore, there is but one other system to be tried, and that is the cross of Christ—a system built not on selfishness, nor blood, nor personal interest, but on love. Love, not self—the cross of Christ, and not the mere outworking of human ideas.

One word only, in conclusion. On this, the great truth of the Epiphany, the apostle founds a prayer. He prays, “For this cause I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named, that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with might by His Spirit in the inner man, that Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith” (Ephesians 3:14-17). This manifestation of joy and good to the Gentiles was, according to him, the great mystery of love. A love brighter, deeper, wider, and higher than the largest human heart had ever dreamed. But the apostle tells us it is, after all, but a glimpse of the love of God.

How should we learn it more? How should we comprehend the whole meaning of the Epiphany? By sitting down to read works of theology?

The Apostle Paul tells us no. To understand love we must love. “That you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth and length, and depth and height, and to know the love of Christ that passes knowledge” (3:17-19).

One act of charity will teach us more of the love of God than a thousand sermons—one act of unselfishness, of real self-denial, the putting forth of one loving feeling to the outcast and “those who are out of the way” (Hebrews 5:2) will tell us more of the meaning of the Epiphany than whole volumes of the wisest writers on theology.

“To a true child of God, the invisible bond that unites all believers to Christ is far more tender, and lasting, and precious; and, as we come to recognize and realize that we are all dwelling in one sphere of life in Him, we learn to look on every believer as our brother.” ~AT Pierson

Copyright © 2014 Alexandra Lee

Photo Credit: Hadrian’s Wall, Northumberland National Park, England

*Adapted from Frederick W Robertson [1816-1853], Sermons Preached at Brighton / Third Series (London: Kegan Paul, Trench & Co, 1884), sermon 15. Quotes, scriptural locations, photos, links, emendations added.

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