by Rachel Campbell

What would you say are today’s ‘in’ words and phrases? With our three kids living at home, my husband and I are constantly made aware that there are things you should say, and things you shouldn’t. And it is a fast-moving evolution of language. Things we thought trendy (now there’s an example – who says that anymore?) to drop into conversation in our own youth are now a big no! Even words kids used a few short years ago have been over-used to the point of annihilation.

Phrases come and phrases go, but for a while, a dynamic phrase will be the key to success, the key to motivating others, the key to accepting the authority of the speaker. You know what I mean, if a presenter doesn’t include the word ‘empathy’ are they really worth listening to?

And we all know that there are buzz phrases in the Church too. Some of those will have originated externally and been adopted into church-speak. Think how often we talk about roles in the Church and yet this isn’t even a scriptural word!

Other words and phrases circulating in our churches will have arisen more organically. One phrase I hear repeatedly is ‘church family’; it’s in the notices; it’s in sermons; it crops up in conversation. It is a phrase intended to invoke a sense of inclusion and pastoral care which, of course, should be intrinsic features of Church life. After all, each of us wants to belong and feel accepted and appreciated within our local expression of church and by extraction within the Church universal.

However, ‘church family’, like the word ‘role,’ doesn’t actually occur in most common translations of the Bible (except in The Message and only then in 1 Cor 5: 1-2), although I’m sure we can all recognise the biblical principles behind it. It is a phrase grounded in among other things Peter’s reference to the family of believers (1 Pet 2:17), and Luke (in Acts), Paul and John all make repeated use of what modern translators interpret as ‘brothers and sisters.’ And some of the loveliest New Testament verses speak of our adoption into the family of God:

For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ in accordance with his will. (Eph 1:4-5)

So even with a cursory glance at the New Testament we can understand where the inclusive concept of a ‘Church family’ comes from. But is this inclusivity as extensive as we think? For while we are adopted into God’s family through Christ, and we understand what Peter means as the family of believers, we may not feel quite the same inclusion into the often lovingly, but sometimes inaccurately, used description of ‘church family.’ In fact, many of us will have had experiences of being decidedly unaccepted in churches because of our demographic, or our income bracket, or our race, or our marital or parental status, or numerous other reasons. In those circumstances, the ready usage of the phrase ‘church family’ by those who have found acceptance may actually wound those of us on the periphery. What is usually well-meant can actually turn out to be spiritually damaging.

So, how can we recapture a spirit of acceptance for all of God’s family?

Perhaps a way forward is to consider how the ‘church family’ descriptor is a subtle diminishment of the Apostle Paul’s preferred metaphor of ‘the body of Christ’ (Rom 12:4-5, Eph 4:16, Col 1:18). You see, while ‘family’ exhorts unity, care and belonging, ‘the body’ is more extensive, testifying to the contribution of each and every member – each individual as important, valued, necessary and gifted in and to the Church as the next.

Let me illustrate. Until 100 years ago, a diagnosis of Type 1, or Juvenile, Diabetes was a death sentence. Type 1 occurs when an autoimmune response is triggered causing the body to attack the Beta cells in the pancreas that make insulin. Without insulin your body breaks down its own fat and muscle leading to an awful death. Insulin is vital! But the pancreas is a multi-functional and somewhat inaccessible organ (a reason why transplants are a challenge), tucked as it is behind the stomach. It is not as glamourous as the heart, as admired as the brain, as expansive as the lungs, or as indulged as the skin. We barely think about it at all … until it malfunctions, and then Type 1 sufferers live with the devastating imbalance that that creates, with the whole body being affected. We each need a fully functioning pancreas! And when the pancreas, or indeed any other organ, fails, the consequences are devastating.

Similarly, the Church needs every part of its body to function in the way God intended. Paul’s message to the dysfunctional church in Corinth (1 Cor 12:12-30) was more robust than just giving them a feeling of belonging, it endorsed the collaborative and vital utilisation of the gifts of all its members. Paul instructs them in the necessity of growing and functioning together, and by so doing become more like Christ.

And that leads us to a further importance of the body metaphor. While ‘church family’ risks looking inwardly for its reason for being and solutions to its problems, ‘the body’ looks upwards to Christ as its Head, the reason for its existence, the Giver of its gifts, the Includer of all who come to Him.

The brilliance of the metaphor of the body is that it is simultaneously inclusive and diverse. And it is because of those dual and defining characteristics that each of us is vital to the Church even though we may on occasions feel disregarded, unglamorous and somewhat tucked away.

Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. (1 Cor 12:27)

Rachel Campbell is from the UK; she is married to New Zealander Grant and they have three children. In recent years she has undertaken a ministry course and an MA in Theology. Rachel believes God’s gift of life in all its fullness is found in family, friendships, community, and God’s wonderful Word and world. Her Twitter feed is linked here, and her Instagram account is here.


Cover photo by Johnny Briggs on Unsplash