The title says it all. For so many people in our churches and in the world today, family is a loaded word. It serves to remind us of the father who abused us, the mother who abandoned us, the marriage that fell apart, or the children who refuse to speak to us. For some people in my congregation, the word family also serves as a reminder that they don’t have one: they are only children who never married, and they are alone. The word family may be one of the more divisive words in our vocabulary, and yet it continues to be one of the most common metaphors we use to describe the church. It is ironic that a word we use to be inclusive can actually result in people feeling excluded, either because their experience of family is not a good one, or because the concept of a family is so totally foreign to them.
If we look back into the history and origins of the word family, though, we discover that it didn’t always mean what we use it to mean today. We think of a family primarily as a nuclear family, a small group of people who live together and are all related to one another. But in the 14th century, when the word originally came into the English language, it referred to a household, which included not only those related by blood but also those who worked for or served in the house. In fact, the Latin word familia, meaning household, comes from the word famul, which means servant or slave.
This linguistic connection between the words family and servant is an interesting one. Perhaps families would get along better if every member of the family saw their role as serving the other members of the family. And in the church family in particular, this connection is fascinating, given Jesus’ instructions that we are to serve one another as he served us (John 13:12–16). The church family is not a group of people connected by blood relationships, but a group of people devoted to serving one another.
But in practical terms this bit of etymology or word history doesn’t help us very much. It might make an interesting sermon illustration or youth group devotional, but we can’t take a word like family back to what it meant 600 years ago and suggest that this is what it should mean today, and we certainly don’t want to revive a world of slavery and indentured service. Family will continue to mean the nuclear family, and so the word will continue to cause pain to some in our midst. We can certainly define family, when we do use it, as referring to the ideal family, not to the family as it is often experienced, but that may not always be good enough. We may also need to use additional metaphors for our relationships with one another in the church. The word family carries too much baggage to be our only image for the church.
Another image that we can use alongside that of the church family is the church being a community of friends. On the night of his arrest, Jesus told the disciples that they were his friends. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends… I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father” (John 15:13, 15 NRSV).
But if family is a loaded word, so too is friend. Many people in our churches are lonely, longing for friendship, and finding none. We have hundreds of friends on Facebook, but many of those people are casual acquaintances or even people that we have never met. The image of friendship within the church is a valuable one, but it too is a word that can be more hurtful than helpful for many people. And perhaps worse still, friend has become so commonplace that it is nearly devoid of meaning, and therefore unable to carry much theological weight.
So I wonder if we need another word, another image, another metaphor to describe our relationships to one another within the church. The word that comes to my mind is companion. We don’t use the word companion very often, and for some it is tarnished by its use as a euphemism for a sexual partner (“SWM seeks SWF for companionship”). But I think it’s a word that is worth reviving.
The word companion came into the English language in the 13th century from a French word, which in turn came from the Latin prefix com-, meaning “with”, and the Latin word panis, meaning “bread.” A companion is someone you sit at table with, someone you eat food with.
In a theological context, the word companion, understood in this way, has an obvious sacramental connotation. We are companions to Jesus and to one another, those who gather around a table and share bread with Christ and with each other. Companion, and related words like accompany, can carry a significant amount of theological freight, and are underused in our vocabulary of faith.
Words matter. And as we use more and different words to describe our church community, more people will be able to feel that they belong within it. We are a family, with God as our loving parent. We are friends, bound together by our common friendship with Jesus. And we are companions, those who gather together around God’s table in this world and in the next to share bread and wine with one another.
Alex Bisset serves Riverdale and Westminster Presbyterian Churches in Toronto. Previously, he worked as a lexicographer with Oxford University Press Canada, and edited The Canadian Oxford Paperback Dictionary and The Canadian Oxford Compact Dictionary.