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Community Metaphors & Western Lenses

Updated: Jun 20, 2021

This blog is one in a series of reflections on chapters in the book Called to Community.

If community was a picture, what would it look like? In the essay contributed by Hal Miller, he takes an interesting approach to how we understand the fundamentals of community. To begin with, he observes that there is no singular definition for the church. Much of the New Testament is given over to the development of the early, post-Pentacost, Christian church. We get a front row seat to the mess and glory in this growing diaspora of Christian communities. Yet, Miller notes, "The church is never defined in the New Testament. Rather, it is pictured by dozens and dozens of metaphors." Among these, two of the most commonly used metaphors are a body and a family.

While both are powerful and useful in how we understand the church community, Miller notes that our Western reading of Scripture has the potential to taint or distort how these metaphors are applied. In our discussion of community, he asserts that the family metaphor is more helpful to our current context than the body metaphor. While both are valid metaphors from Scripture, Miller helps us discern how one might gravitate towards one and dismiss variables of the other as a result if our Western world-view.

Body metaphor = get people involved in their unique contribution, but the Family metaphor = showing how to do it.

He highlights these blind-spots by articulating why he values the family metaphor over the body metaphor. "First the way a body is one and many is different from the way a family is one and many. (23)" For instance, the body metaphor feeds our independent values with the "indispensability of each part." We often love our distinctions and we use the body metaphor to focus on our unique contributions to the body instead of reflecting on the inter-dependence of all the parts. The family metaphor counter-weights this tendency. In the family our identity is shared. We are all children of God and identified as His adopted and beloved. This is shared by all of us and orients our abiding identity in the gospel. "Renewing the family metaphor can help us come to terms with the things we all share in common, which are just as important as the things which make us unique. (24)"

Next, Miller observes that we have a tendency to focus on roles and how we live out those unique roles. The body metaphor is a popular framework to cast this focus on our unique roles. Miller articulates, "Second, although differences in a body are cast in terms of role and function, in a family, differences are primary in terms of maturity. (24)" In other words, the Body metaphor = get people involved in their unique contribution, but the Family metaphor = showing how to do it. Yes, we all have unique roles and gifts, but in the family, the focus is not exclusively on unique functions but allows for an inter-connectivity of learning and growing in those functions. The younger learn from the older and maturity is developed in mentoring and modeling. The family metaphor restores models of guidance and discipleship that counter the tendency towards independent, personal growth that is isolated from spiritual mentoring.

Third, Miller observes, "Similarly the body focuses more on accomplishing tasks, but the family more on day-to-day existence. (24)" Just like a hyper-focus on roles can ignore the family environment from which those roles are discovered and mature, spiritual gifts are not the ultimate determiner of function in the church. Miller explains that some things a person does, they do simply because you are a part of a family. You are not loved or nourished because of your gifts but because you are in the family. Your identity in the family supersedes your unique gifts and calls you to participate despite those unique gifts. This revelation keeps us from rejecting participation in something that needs to be done simply by remarking that this is "not our gifting." In a family, we operate with a focus on the mission and needs of the family unit. We use our gifts in this pursuit but we are not held back by our unique gifts when asked to participate with the family. We do things in a family that are simply because we are part of this family. If we can counter-balance our unique giftings with this "family mindset," we are better equip to avoid the extremes of either metaphor.

Like many people in my own geography and culture, I did not grow up in a multi-generational home. A growing trend in our Western society has been to isolate the nuclear family into a smaller unit that is no longer proximate to other family members. Miller observes this phenomenon and suggest we long for healthy multi-generational family intimacy. "The church as family can be a way of incarnating an answer to these longings. (25)"

In addition, one final and radical suggestion by Miller is that the family metaphor should reorient how we understand our pursuit of a local church. The term "church shopping" is reflective of the consumer model we employ in our understanding of church. Yet, Miller counters: "Church as family also points to both the tragedy and the fallacy of one of the important decisions of Christian life for us: finding the right church. Seeing church as family doesn’t even acknowledge that there is such a decision. Being in a given family isn’t a matter of choice at all; you just end up there. The family to which you belong gives you both your possibilities and limitations. It gives you people with whom you must deal." So how would this effect our search for a local church? Is Miller simply suggesting that we go any place so long as it is a church? After all, we don’t choose our families.

I think Miller is helpful in that we must realistically undertake community in the local church as we would a family. It is messy, wonderful, broken, and sanctifying. We should be operating much more out of a family mindset than a consumer mindset. However, this does not mean that we do not evaluate local churches based on their commitment to the triune God and the gospel. How to choose a local church is another blog for another day, but in the meantime, Miller’s observations should be pondered and discussed as we move forward in our pursuit for Christian community.

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