Lesson 11: A Community of Friends

Lesson 11: A Community of Friends

The biggest and most significant response to this series has been Christians who report they felt excluded every time a pastor described the Church as a “family of families.” On the other hand, I also heard from pastors, who like me, realized the limitations of the description but could not come up with anything better.

As these responses mounted, I began to think defining Church as a “Community of Friends” would serve us better. And when I shared this thought with my correspondents, most seemed to agree.

So let me recap how all this developed. During my ministry I thought those excluded were the growing number of people who were single or divorced. In the past several years I became more aware these included gays and lesbians, bisexuals and the transgendered. While writing the lessons, I began including the large group of couples who choose not to have children.

Then, last week I watched some conservative Christian television, both Evangelical and Roman Catholic. A number of programs described the Church as a “family of families” and defined the necessity of defining the family as a man, a woman, and their children. They spoke of “family values” being the foundation of any healthy society.

Even thought I am a committed family man, I sensed the hostile exclusion of people involved in this kind of talk. I sensed why young adults, who increasingly put off marrying until older, are dropping out of Church. I had strange thoughts about how celibate monks could talk this way.

Beyond all that, I found their understanding of “family values” to be founded on capitalistic rather than biblical principles. The healthy family is obviously the only place in our society where a kind of non-political communism prevails. Each member gives according to ability and takes according to need. By now, I was very uneasy about teaching Church as this kind of “family of families.”

Finally, I saw how this could bring new creative insights while worshipping at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Leila Ortez’ sermon mused about the Samaritan Woman at the well in John 4: 1- 42. Leila acknowledged she was never satisfied with painting this many-times married woman as a harlot. Perhaps she had seven husbands, because she was barren and could not have children. Perhaps men rejected and divorced her, because she could not provide a family for them. Then she suggested Jesus loved the woman just as she was and gave her an opportunity to have many, many children. She became the first evangelist who brought her friends to Jesus and established a Christian community of friends.

Her sermon was even more powerful, as she built on her children’s message. There she began with an apology for not knowing them better. She could not visit them in Sunday School, because she had to teach a class during that time. So she was going to take this opportunity to introduce herself. She threw one of her baby pictures on the wall, then a picture with her parents. She revealed she is an only child, so does not have sisters and brothers as most of them have. She projected a shot with her arms around her best friend, explaining they met at church and remained friends their entire lives. Finally, she reported she was not married and had no children. But, she said, “ I do have a godson. I participated in his baptism and continue to celebrate special days with him.” Without driving it into the ground, she made clear the church provided her with friends that made up for her lack of siblings and children.

Notice she used “community of friends” to good advantage without eliminating all family images. She still called God “Father” and referred to other Christians as “brothers and sisters.” She made this, however, a picture that included rather than excluded people. Notice, too, her picture of the church is a far more accurate portrayal of Jesus’ band and the early Church than what we often heard taught.

Anyway, all of this has led me to think we should be more careful when we speak of the Church as family. We can proclaim our tradition more accurately when we acknowledge she is even more a “Community of Friends” that is open to all.

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  1. Fritz Foltz says:

    I received more correspondence on this topic than any previous one. Interestingly, no one opposed my views. A few did express concern that we retain the positive aspects of the family model along with friendship.

    Last night the college reading group met. They, also, resonated with the ideas. They wondered when the family model became so predominant in the church. We came up with some theories, but they were pretty speculative. If I return to the subject, I’ll do some research.

    I was surprised at the response. Apparently, the topic resonated with a lot of people.

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