Before we consider the two errors I have in mind, it is appropriate first to briefly consider the meaning of the Jeremiah text, in which God promised through the prophet Jeremiah that He would one day establish a New Covenant with His people, a promise which found its fulfillment in Jesus Christ:
NKJ Jeremiah 31:31-32 “Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah -- 32 not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them, says the LORD.”
Here the Lord says that the New Covenant will be different than the Old Covenant which the the people of Israel broke, and He implies that the difference will be that it will be an unbreakable covenant. That this is so – and how it is so – becomes clear in the following verses:
NKJ Jeremiah 31:33 “But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.”
The New Covenant will not be like the old, breakable covenant because God will ensure that those who participate in the New Covenant have the law within their hearts. Indeed, there will be no one who has partaken of the New Covenant who does not have a new heart. Ezekiel put it this way:
NKJ Ezekiel 36:26-27 “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them.”
So we can have assurance that we will be preserved in covenant faithfulness such that we will never lose the blessings of the New Covenant, and this will come about through the gift of the Holy Spirit and the transformation of our hearts. But there is more:
NKJ Jeremiah 31:34 “No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, 'Know the LORD,' for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.”
There are two New Covenant blessings mentioned here:
First, unlike the Old Covenant, everyone who is a member of the New Covenant community knows the Lord.
Second, unlike the Old Covenant, everyone who is a member of the New Covenant has his sins forgiven.
It is clear that when God says that all in the New Covenant will know Him, He does not just mean that they will know about Him, but rather that they will have a personal relationship with Him as believers who have been forgiven by Him. Nevertheless, there are two current errors that deny this fundamental teaching, either expressly or by implication.
The Error That the New Covenant Church is Made Up of Believers and Their Children
The first error is held – and has been held for centuries – by our Presbyterian brethren. This is the error that teaches that, like the Old Covenant community, the New Covenant community is made up not only of believers, but of believers and their children. This means that the New Covenant Church includes unbelievers and covenant breakers. But the problem with this view is that is treats the New Covenant like the Old Covenant in the precisely the way in which God said it would be different! For He clearly indicated that the New Covenant would differ from the Old in that it would be an unbreakable covenant consisting only of those who truly know Him.
Now, I certainly do think we may have hope that children born to believers may indeed come to faith in Christ and thus become a part of the New Covenant community. But there is no such promise in Scripture. All we can do is pray for our children who have not yet come to know Christ and continue to lovingly share the Gospel with them, with the hope that God in His providence has placed them in our families for this very purpose.
The Error That the New Covenant Church is a Family of Families
The second error is held by a small but growing minority of our Baptist brethren, even by some who would call themselves Reformed Baptists. This error is remarkably similar to the previous one and teaches that the local church should be viewed as a “family of families.” But the problem with this view is that, as with the previous view, the Church is viewed as being like the Old Covenant community in the inclusion of our children, whether or not our children are believers.
Now, some who describe the church this way would definitely not want to agree with the implications of the Presbyterian view. For example, Voddie Baucham has sought to distance himself from some of the errors associated with the "family of families" concept, here and here. He admits that the phrase is potentially problematic, and he is forthright about the way the terminology may lead or has led some to wrongly conclude that it is an attempt to describe the nature, rather than the ministry, of the church. However, even though he admits that this terminology – terminology which he and his church have helped to promote – is "enigmatic," I think he fails to see how much the terminology has been taken by many common advocates of the Family-Integrated Church Movement (FICM) themselves as descriptive of the nature of the Church, his own belated protestations notwithstanding.
In addition, Scott Brown, another man who has done much to advance the "family of families" view of the church, has posted a series of articles responding to Reformed Baptist objections to this terminology. One of these articles is entitled The Church is a "Family of Families" -- Part 5 and is subtitled "What have we learned from this controversy over 'Family of Families'?" In this article Brown speaks to the way he believes FICM advocates have often been misunderstood and of the way the National Center For Family Integrated Churches (NCIFC) will make use of the phrase "family of families" in the future. Although he says that it no longer appears in current NCFIC literature and has been removed from their core document, "A Biblical Confession for Uniting Church and Family," he also states that, "We have no intention to abandon the use of the phrase or the concept behind it. It is a very important principle that undergirds a biblical understanding of church and family life."
Thus while Brown obviously sees that the phrase "family of families" has been problematic when used as a descriptive term for the Church, so much so that it has been removed from all of the NCFIC literature, he nevertheless thinks that there is no need to abandon use of the phrase among FICM advocates.
So we have a situation in which two of the leading voices of the FICM recognize the problem with the "family of families" terminology, but sadly neither are really willing to stop using it. I find this deeply troubling, since the phrase is clearly not just problematic because it leads guys like me to misunderstand them as making a statement about the nature of the Church when they really don't intend to do so, as Baucham suggests in the defense posted above. Rather it leads to problems among FICM advocates themselves, a number of whom I have encountered in pastoral ministry and who have clearly seen the term "family of families" as describing the nature of the Church. And, frankly, I can understand why they have thought so, since this is a hard conclusion to avoid given the nature and grammar of the phrase when tacked onto the sentence "The Church is." Thus, when they have consistently heard the motto, "The Church is a family of families," how does it not sound like an expression about the nature of the Church? And how, by the way, was such a problem with the language not foreseeable? I think we all know how a slogan can take on a life of its own, and this one has definitely done so.
In addition there is often a strong, consistent, and Biblically unbalanced emphasis among FICM advocates upon the biological family that eclipses any emphasis upon the Church as a spiritual family, an emphasis that tends to reinforce the notion that the term "family of families" is indeed descriptive of the nature of the Church.
So confusion is rampant, and astonishingly the blame for the confusion is usually placed by them on those of us who disagree. But, again, we do not see the language as problematic just because it leads to a misunderstanding of their position by those on the outside who might be critical, but also because it leads many within the FICM movement to erroneous ideas about the Church. Yet we are still told that we are just being too critical and unwilling to listen attentively to the way they qualify the language. However, in my opinion, the confusion that has come about is their fault, for they are the ones who have employed such easily misunderstood language in the first place. And until FICM advocates such as Baucham and Brown are willing to reject such language entirely, this confusion will continue to reign among many (and guys like me will have to keep writing posts like this one).
I will conclude by saying that this is more than a little disturbing to me as a pastor, whose primary objective is to help the Church understand God's Word better rather than to accept the obfuscation of important theological matters. And I have to say frankly that I just can't get my head around the idea of a pastor who does accept the use of such language, apparently just because he can't let go of a pet term no matter how truth-distorting it might be.
Such a situation just makes me think that some of these men have lost sight of what is really important. In elevating an emphasis upon the biological family to a place of such central importance that it eclipses clear Biblical teaching about the true nature of the Church as a spiritual family, along with an unwillingness to state that matter in a fundamentally sound way, they may just be losing sight of some truly essential matters. For example, if the need to state important Biblical truths in a way that helps to promote clarity in understanding is not seen by them as being of grave importance, then they have got a bigger problem than we all might think. I, for one, think that stating Biblical truth in a clear and understandable way is always a crucial matter. And I think that seeking to avoid the use of language that distorts important Biblical teaching and easily leads to misunderstanding is equally important, don't you?