The Four Canons – “Authentic Family (Part 1)”

4canonsgears2016Romans 8

14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. 15 For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16 The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.

Some years ago an article appeared in the British paper The Mirror about a family that had so terrorized the village in which they lived that they had been essentially banned from the entire village. They are called the “Terrible Thompsons.” They are accused of harassing the village, intimidating its other inhabitants, assaulting their neighbors, and, in general, being a family of complete nuisances and menaces.

I thought about the Terrible Thompsons recently and went online to see what the latest was. Sure enough, there they were, in an article from last year, still causing trouble, now banished yet again and living on the streets. They have been hauled before the authorities constantly over the years for the same old things: fighting, public disturbances, threatening their neighbors, cursing, and, in general, demonstrating a continuing inability to function in society.

One of the original articles I read about this family explained how the authorities were initially compelled to take action against the Terrible Thompsons.

A problem family has made Asbo history by becoming the first to be banned from an entire village. The Terrible Thompsons – dad Tom, 48, and sons Leon, 19, and Shane, 18 – are barred from all the 900 homes in Moresby Parks except their own. A judge also ruled that they can only use one road – leading to the local shop and church.”[1]

So the judge said they could only use one road…and it led to the church. One wonders whether or not such a sentence would be handed out here. Of course, it is only a wise sentence if the church to which that road led itself modeled a version of family that was better than the one they already knew. Certainly there are churches that are themselves like the Terrible Thompsons. Most, we hope, are nothing like them. But it does raise an interesting question. If a dysfunctional family came into our church would they find here a functional family, an alternative model of family that could demonstrate to them how they are to live?

Put yet another way, are we a healthy family, a functional family, an authentic family? It is an important question, for one thing becomes abundantly clear when one reads the New Testament: family is one of the primary images the New Testament writers used to describe the nature of the Church and the nature of the Kingdom of God. The Church is to be an authentic family. One of the key texts that speaks of this reality is Romans 8:14-17.

Salvation means adoption instead of slavery.

One of the most fascinating ways that the New Testament speaks of the Christian life in terms of family is through the metaphor of adoption. Paul speaks of salvation in terms of adoption and then contrasts that adoption with slavery.

14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. 15 For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!”

When Paul speaks of those “who are led by the Spirit of God” He is speaking of those who have been born again, who have been saved. Romans 8, a most amazing chapter, begins in this way:

1 There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2 For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.

Those who come to Christ have been set free by the Spirit of God and are being led by the Spirit of God. We are saved “by grace through faith” in Jesus, as Paul said in Ephesians 2:8-9. But specifically how that happens is through an act of adoption. “You have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’” writes Paul.

What does this mean? One way to answer that question is to ask what that word “adoption” would have meant to Christians in Rome two thousand years ago. That is a question we must always ask, for it is always important that we understand the original context of the writings of the New Testament.

When a person in Rome heard the word “adoption” two millennia ago they would naturally have thought of the Roman concept. William Barclay has offered some very helpful background information.

Roman adoption was always rendered more serious and more difficult by the Roman patria potestas. The patria potestas was the father’s power over his family; that power was absolute; it was actually the power of absolute disposal and control, and in the early days it was actually the power of life and death. In regard to his father a roman son never came of age. No matter how old he was, he was still under the patria potestas, in absolute possession, and under the absolute control, of his father. Obviously this made adoption into another family a very difficult and a very serious step. In adoption a person had to pass from one patria potestas to another. He had to pass out of the possession and control of one father into the equally absolute possession and control of another. There were two steps. The first was known as mancipatio, and it was carried out by a symbolic sale, in which copper and scales were symbolically used. Three times the symbolism of sale was carried out. Twice the father symbolically sold his son, and twice he bought him back; and the third time he did not buy him back, and thus the patria potestas was held to be broken. After the sale there followed a ceremony called vindicatio. The adopting father went to the praetor, one of the Roman magistrates, and presented a legal case for the transference of the person to be adopted into his patria potestas. When all this was completed then the adoption was complete. Clearly this was a serious and impressive step.

            But it is the consequences of adoption which are most significant for the picture that is in Paul’s mind. There were four main consequences. (i) The adopted person lost all rights in his old family, and gained all the rights of a fully legitimate son in his new family. In the most literal sense, and in the most binding legal way, he got a new father. (ii) It followed that he became heir to his new father’s estate. Even if other sons were afterwards born, who were real blood relations, it did not affect his rights. He was inalienably co-heir with them. (iii) In law, the old life of the adopted person was completely wiped out. For instance, legally all debts were cancelled; they were wiped out as if they had never been. The adopted person was regarded as a new person entering into a new life with which the past had nothing to do. (iv) In the eyes of the law the adopted person was literally and absolutely the son of his new father…[2]

With that background in mind, hear once again the words of Paul.

14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. 15 For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!”

When Paul writes that we have been adopted, he was therefore saying that there has been a definitive break with our past family associations, which the New Testament calls “the world,” and an unqualified entry into a new family, the family of God.

We have been adopted. As a result, we have received the Spirit “by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’” This image of our Spirit-empowered crying of “Abba!” is powerful. The Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary explains:

“Cry” or “cry out” (krazo) is used in the Gospels of people who “cry out” under the influence of demons (e.g., Mark 3:11; 5:5, 7)…Since Paul has been describing the believer as a person, in a sense, “possessed” by the Spirit, we may view this “crying out” here as “ecstatic” in nature. If so, however, we must carefully qualify the idea to make clear that this exclamation is the product not of mindless possession but of conscious understanding.[3]

So thorough is our immersion in Christ and our filling by the Spirit that we cry out joyfully that we now have a Father and that Father is God Himself! The Christian life, then, is a beautiful expression of awe-filled wonder that we who were on the outside of the family of God because of our sins have now been brought in through Jesus and that now, through the power of the Spirit, we cry out in wonder and worship that we have a Father!

Salvation means community instead of isolation.

If we have a Father, we also have a family.

16 The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God

It is compelling to note how quickly Paul moves to the corporate, communal aspect of our salvation. Salvation means that we have been adopted into the family of God. That is, salvation means we are now in a community.

The pronouns of verse 16 are plural: “our spirit…we are children of God.” Paul says that “the Spirit bears witness with our spirit” about this amazing transformation. To understand this, we must once again understand how adoption was carried out among the Romans. William Barclay offers further explanation.

The adoption ceremony was carried out in the presence of seven witnesses. Now, suppose the adopting father died, and then suppose that there was some dispute about the right of the adopted son to inherit, one or more of the seven original witnesses stepped forward and swore that the adoption was genuine and true. Thus the right of the adopted person was guaranteed and he entered into his inheritance. So, Paul is saying, it is the Holy Spirit Himself who is the witness to our adoption into the family of God.[4]

What this means is most powerful: whenever the devil challenges our standing before God and tempts us to doubt that we are children, the Spirit of God rises up as an indisputable witness to that fact. The devil whispers, “You are not really God’s child. You have done too much. Look at yourself! You are so unworthy! What arrogance!” But the Holy Spirit rises up immediately and says, “You are wrong, Satan. I was there when the Son of God laid down His life in payment for this child’s sins. I was there when Jesus rose from the dead in victory over sin, death, and hell. I was there when this child called in faith and repentance on the name and finished work of Jesus. I bear witness to these things! This is a child of God! She is in the family! She belongs! She is a citizen of the Kingdom!”

What must be grasped here is that Paul says we are one of many children. To be saved is to be one of many, it is to be a child among children. At this point we must come to terms with the ways in which modern American society wars against the idea of belonging to a group or to a family. One way to get at this is to think about “strong-group societies” versus “weak-group societies.” Bruce Malina explains.

[In a strong-group society] the person perceives himself or herself to be a member of a group and responsible to the group for his or her actions, destiny, career, development, and life in general. Correspondingly he/she perceives other persons primarily in terms of the groups to which they belong. The individual person is embedded in the group and is free to do what he or she feels right and necessary only if in accord with group norms and only if the action is in the group’s best interest. The group has priority over the individual member, and it may use objects in the environment, other groups of people in the society, and the members of the group itself to facilitate group oriented goals and objectives.[5]

America used to be a strong-group society. Families were tightly knit together. Communities and neighborhoods were very close. But over the years our society has become a weak-group society. We now view ourselves primarily as individuals, as isolated loners. We now have families and we even belong to some groups, but, overall, American society stands in contrast not only to other strong-group societies in the world (like, say, Japan) but also to our own society of just some years ago.

If you do not grasp this, you will not understand the ways in which the bent of our society wars against the New Testament idea of the Church as a family. In Joseph Hellerman’s amazing book, When the Church Was a Family, he writes:

The New Testament picture of the church as a family flies in the face of our individualistic cultural orientation. God’s intention is not to become the feel-good Father of a myriad of isolated individuals who appropriate the Christian faith as yet another avenue toward personal enlightenment. Nor is the biblical Jesus to be conceived of as some sort of spiritual mentor whom we can happily take from church to church, or from marriage to marriage, fully assured that our personal Savior will somehow bless and redeem our destructive relational choices every step of the way. You may be surprised to discover that the expression “personal Savior” occurs nowhere in the pages of Scripture…Consider Paul’s perspective. In his letters, Paul refers to Jesus as “our Lord”—that is, as the Lord of God’s group—53 times. Only once, in contrast, does the expression “my Lord” appear in Paul’s writings (Phil 3:8)…We must embrace the fact that our value system has been shaped by a worldview that is diametrically opposed to the outlook of the early Christians and to the teachings of Scripture. As church-going Americans, we have been socialized to believe that our individual fulfillment and our personal relationship with God are more important than any connection we might have with our fellow human beings, whether in the home or in the church. We have, in a most subtle and insidious way, been conformed to this world.[6]

If you keep your eyes open and watch Christian publishing and media, you can see reflections of modern American radical individualism within Evangelical Christianity. For instance, did you notice how, some years ago, it seemed like every other Christian book cover and Christian magazine cover and Christian cd cover had some version of a picture with an individual standing alone beside the ocean or atop a mountain or in a field with his or her arms outstretched the heaven? These images were usually employed to communicate something like worship or the believer’s rapture before the glory of God. But the one common factor was isolation: the figures in these images are always of lone, solitary people.

Now we must not go to the other extreme and say that individuals do not have a walk with Jesus. Of course we do! Your walk with Jesus is very important. Even so, it is almost a certainty that the earliest generations of Christians would have found these book and magazine and cd covers odd. They would have asked, “Why is he alone? Where is everybody? Where is the church?”

Again, we do not want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Extreme, radical, isolated individualism is a problem, but so is mindless groupthink and the destruction of the individual. The warnings of something like George Orwell’s 1984 rightly caution us against the mindless collective in which the individual loses his or her personhood. But let us note that the Bible does not ask you to stop being the unique you that God has created you to be. Rather, God asks you to be the unique you He called you to be in community with and being sharpened by and standing side-by-side with all who are in Christ. You do not stop being you simply by being in a family. On the contrary, you will never be the you that you could be if you insist on a life of isolation.

Allow me to give you another example of how we do not understand strong-group communities. Consider John 14:2. The King James Version says, “In my Father’s house are many mansions…” Because of that, we think of Heaven as something like a large country club with huge white-columned mansions. As a result, we get a song like Ira Stanphill’s, “I’ve Got a Mansion.”

I’m satisfied with just a cottage below

A little silver and a little gold

But in that city, where the ransomed will shine

I want a gold one, that’s silver lined

I’ve got a mansion just over the hilltop

In that bright land where we’ll never grow old

And someday yonder, we’ll never more wander

But walk on streets that are purest gold

Though often tempted, tormented and tempted

And like the prophet my pillow is stone

And though I find here no permanent dwelling

I know he’ll give me a mansion my own

I’ve got a mansion just over the hilltop

In that bright land where we’ll never grow old

And someday yonder, we’ll never more wander

But walk on streets that are purest gold

Don’t think me poor Lord, deserted or lonely

I’m not discouraged, ’cause I’m heaven bound

I’m just a pilgrim in search of a city

I want a mansion, a harp, and a crown

I’ve got a mansion just over the hilltop

In that bright land where we’ll never grow old

And someday yonder, we will never more wander

But walk on streets that are purest gold

The only problem is that is not what Jesus said and Heaven is not going to be a huge country club of independent mansions. What Jesus said was, “In my Father’s house are many dwelling places.” So the proper way to look at those words would be to say that God has a mansion and we get a room in that mansion! But the point is that we exist in a weak-group society so the very apex of paradise for us is our own mansion. Admit it: does not the modern American part of you recoil a bit at the idea of living in God’s great house with everybody else? Does not he crass consumer aspect of our psyche not really want the big white-columned house on the hill…away from the masses?!

In strong-group societies like the first century, such an idea would have been strange to say the least. “Why,” they might ask, “do you want your own mansion over there? Why would you not want to be together with God’s great big family, a family of which you are a part if you have trusted in Christ?”

Our church must become a strong-group community, a community of close interpersonal and loving relationships. Let us let the words of the scriptures once again comfort us and remind us:

16 The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God

We are children…together…in a family! We have a Father. We have been enabled to come to Him and know Him through the work of His Son, Jesus on the cross and in the empty tomb.

Salvation means inheritance instead of judgment.

If we have come to Christ we have been adopted. If we have been adopted then we have been adopted into a family. If we have been adopted into a family then we possess all the privileges of that family, namely the inheritance come and coming to all of God’s children.

17 and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.

We are heirs with all of God’s children and, amazingly, we are “fellow heirs with Christ.” Paul adds the interesting and very important caveat, “provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” We might understand this in terms of Jesus’ words from Mark 8:34b, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” We must follow Christ wherever He leads.

To be in Christ like this is to be an heir. That means that together with all other believers in Christ, we share an inheritance. It has come in the riches of the indwelling Spirit and in the abundant life that Jesus gives. It is coming in the coming day of salvation when God receives His children to Himself. It is an “already/not yet” inheritance.

But it is the inheritance of a family, of God’s many children. Properly understood, worship becomes an exercise of family celebration. It is not a celebration of things. It is a celebration of the One from whom all good things flow. It is received when you receive Christ, but when you receive Christ you immediately are made part of a gathering, an assembly, a Church, a family who has likewise received Him. Then you no longer have to say merely that “you” received Christ. You can now say that “we” received Christ.

If we have received Christ and are a family in Christ, that means that, as a family, we should be exhibiting the character of Christ. Collectively, we must reflect who He is. We must be an authentic family.

Have you entered the family of God through Christ? If so, are you helping the Church, the family of God, model the character of Christ?

Come to Jesus and become a part of the authentic family of God.


[1] &method=full&objectid= 19141874 &siteid=89520-name_page.html

[2] William Barclay, The Letter to the Romans. Daily Study Bible. (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1971), p.110-111.

[3] Douglas J. Moo, “Romans.” Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary. Clinton E. Arnold, Gen. Ed. Vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), p.48.

[4] William Barclay, p.111.

[5] Quoted in Hellerman, Joseph H. (2009-08-01). When the Church Was a Family: Recapturing Jesus’ Vision for Authentic Christian Community (p. 16). B&H Publishing. Kindle Edition.

[6] Hellerman, Joseph H., p. 7.

One thought on “The Four Canons – “Authentic Family (Part 1)”

  1. Pingback: Romans | Walking Together Ministries

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