It Takes a Christian Village
“To pull the metal splinter from my palm
my father recited a story in a low voice.
I watched his lovely face and not the blade.
Before the story ended, he’d removed
the iron sliver I thought I’d die from.” (Li-Young Lee)
I married Shai four months after he got down on one knee. Among the invitations that went out, I invited my father to walk me down the aisle. Despite being a Jehovah’s Witness who does not often step foot in a Christian church, he gladly came. He was the beaming father by my side, handing off his 27-year-old daughter to Shai on one of the most important days of my life.
I love watching a father walking his daughter down the aisle because of all it represents: a father who has walked along his daughter in life, protecting and shepherding her until he places his precious child into the hands of a man who will take equally good care of her. That wasn’t our story, of course. He was there to give me away but had not been there to raise me. But I was hoping that grace and forgiveness could make up for those many years in which I had been left to walk down the aisle of my life alone.
I went from Wingo to Linne and I was now, for the first time, part of a married household. Shai and I knew we wanted children, if the Lord would provide, and more than anything we wanted to raise them in a loving, God-filled home. But coming up, neither of us had seen these things lived out in front of us. In the world we grew up in, the type of picture we had carefully painted in our minds was, to our peers, a social oddity.
One of the problems with growing up in a “broken home” is that you never get to experience a two-parent one. Unsurprisingly, when children from single-parent homes grow up and have their own children, many of them will pass on the cycle of marital instability or not get married at all. Especially when those children come from educationally disadvantaged homes, they are less likely to marry. We tend to copy what we’ve seen—or (since the soft, secure everyday mundane reality of marriage is unknown) idealize what we’ve never had. The truth is that marriage and family are God- given and blessings to be pursued and enjoyed—but also that in this fallen world they’re not perfect, and they will require living out the gospel, which brings with it realism, repentance, and forgiveness. Sometimes our ideals of marriage must be sacrificed in order to settle into the real covenant of loving your closest neighbor—your spouse. Marriage is hard at times. Some days are good and others challenging. And it’s harder if you’ve never seen it lived out in front of you, with its ups and downs, for better and worse, and richer and poorer, and in sickness and in health, until death.
I needed to shed my theoretical ideals, and I needed to see marriage and family in practice. I needed to see fathering with a microscope rather than a telescope. By God’s grace, in the months before I walked down the aisle to marry Shai, I had the privilege of observing a father or two. Looking back, this was God preparing me for my marriage.
During those two months before getting married, I moved from Los Angeles to D.C. While waiting for our basement apartment, which was 16 blocks from the Capitol, to be move-in ready, I lived with one of my soon-to-be pastors and his family for two weeks. It was the first time I witnessed firsthand how a Christian family could and should interact with each other. I watched as this Texan raised-on-a-cattle- farm, cowboy-boots-wearing brother led his wife and kids. I watched as he cared for and provided for them. When it was time for the children to go to bed, I was invited to participate in their nighttime routine. It was sweet, for the first time in my life, to not only observe but participate in family worship led by a man at home. Of course I had observed Momma worship God. She was the first Christian I ever met who would be up before sunrise each day praying fervently and reading her Bible. But I had never witnessed a husband and father lead his family spiritually. These children did not have a perfect father in this man, but they did have one that sought to be present and influential in teaching his children to value Jesus, his word, his church, and their family.
As I settled in, I then began to nanny for another pastor and his family, and I soon realized that what I’d initially observed in my host family was common in many of the other families I was now brushing shoulders with. What was so new to me was simply ordinary for them. I watched this father get up to play with his sons before he left to go work at the church office to serve other families. When one of his sons was having a hard day, I would give his father a call, and he would speak to that son and let him know that he would come home to address him if necessary. He prioritized his family. As I got to know the rest of the church, I observed dads spending one-on-one time with their daughters, encouraging their sense of worth and pouring on their love. I heard of fathers being intentional with their sons by getting up early to read them Bible stories before work. It was a beautiful sight to behold. My church was teaching me what fathering looked like. My church was showing me what we should pursue in our own marriage and, God willing, some ways we could love our children if the Lord were to provide them.
Everyone naturally desires family. Family is necessary for our human welfare. Without male and female coming together to procreate, the entire human race will end. And yet parental responsibility doesn’t end there. An infant requires years of nurturing and provision. If a child does not have some form of family, their very existence is in jeopardy. This is true naturally and spiritually.
This is the great gift the local church can offer to those who grew up in homes where Jesus was not Lord, and especially homes where dad was not around—an opportunity to see gospel-shaped marriage and parenting up close. This is a way that a local church can help break the cycle. This is one of the great privileges and responsibilities of being the local church. Many of us who are fatherless have been so used to figuring out life on our own, living in isolation—but in the church God says, Here is a family to walk with you and help you along.
ALL IN THE FAMILY
Throughout the Bible, God commands his people to care for the fatherless:
“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” (James 1:27)
God knows that orphans are dealing with affliction. God knows that the fatherless have special needs. I always find it encouraging when God foresees what I will need and places it in Scripture. This is another way that God’s omniscience and care for us is put on display. As daughters and sons of God, we are able to find a loving, committed family through the church. Through our brothers and sisters in Christ, we can experience restoration so that we do not repeat the sins of our earthly fathers, nor do we have to be crippled by them.
Genuine “religion” will lead us to a holy life which isn’t only about understanding right doctrine or going to a “solid” church but also works itself out practically, with us taking care of those who have been rejected or considered castaways.
The call for the church is clear. God wants to use the church to satiate the fatherless child’s deepest longing for family and love. This is why the Scripture says that we should love one another with brotherly affection, contribute to the needs of the saints, and show hospitality (Romans 12:10,13). Our Father is calling us to be family. As we open up our lives and homes to welcome those who come from broken homes, we have an opportunity to show the same love and comfort that God has lavished upon us. Those who have had fathers who faithfully lived out the Scriptures can then model that for spiritual sons and daughters who did not.
It is not enough to purport to love God without exhibiting a tangible love for the church. Growing in maturity is not primarily measured by the amount of information we can retain about God; rather, it is measured by the amount of love we display towards our neighbors, especially the household of faith (Galatians 6:10). Peter wrote in his first letter that we are purified through our obedience, and he outlined what that purity would lead to and look like:
“Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart.” (1 Peter 1:22, my emphasis)
An emphasis on the family is often missing when we think about our spiritual adoption. God requires us to love both God and people. If one of those two elements are missing, then we are not really doing the other. Christ is the head of his body, the church (Colossians 1:18). God has ordained it so that the head and body work in unison. We need to be careful not to neglect the truth that in redemption not only do we gain God as Father, but we gain the church as our family. The church is meant to be an extended family structure, consisting of spiritual siblings and spiritual parents (1 Timothy 5:1-2). It is not an accident that the Bible uses the word “household” to describe the church (Ephesians 2:19; Galatians 6:10).
In church, fellow believers become our spiritual brothers, sisters, mothers, and fathers. Although we may not have had a dad, we can pray that God will send us a family in our church that will be willing to care for us and provide us with a father-figure who will be the masculine influence we need for our development. After all, in Christ, we actually have more in common with a father-figure who is a believer than we do with a biological father who is not. There are some things our fathers would have taught us had they been there. Since they were not, we’ve been left to figure these things out by ourselves. This is not God’s plan, since he has not left us alone. We have a church family to help us walk through life.
STEP BY STEP
Of course, when the word “family” comes up, it doesn’t always bring with it warm thoughts of gathering by the fire and singing “Kumbaya.” This lack of warm fuzzies may well apply both to our natural families and to our spiritual families. Families are messy, and church families are no different.
The first church I attended after becoming a believer had a lead pastor who engaged in spiritual abuse, sexual misconduct, and financial theft. At the same time, the assistant pastor committed adultery. It was a place where the pastors gave us just enough gospel so that we could know God but withheld enough so that we would be dependent upon them. They had turned what should have been a house of prayer into a house of prey. I spent six years attending there, and when I left I was running for my life. I am so thankful that I had the guts to speak up and seek outside counsel from someone who encouraged me to leave. I am also very grateful that with God’s help, I never used that as an excuse to turn away from the wider church. But I wonder how many years of being exposed to this church were due to me not having the protection of and direction from a Christian father.
Many have experienced worse than I have when it comes to the church. But there are pastors and congregations who genuinely love God. After my six years of being led by a wolf in sheep’s clothing, I landed in a congregational church where there was a plurality of elders, which created a healthy space for accountability. That was such a blessing and reassurance for me. Of course, that church was (and is) not perfect, but it was a beautiful pointer to my heavenly Father, and it was my striving-to-be-holy family. These elders took their responsibility as pastors seriously, and it was a balm to soothe the hurt caused by my previous church.
Truth is, God cares about his family. Of course he does— he is a perfect Father. So he warns us of those who have an appearance of godliness while seeking to do harm to the people of God by targeting the vulnerable (2 Timothy 3:1-9). And he promises to hold to account those who tempt “little ones” to sin (Luke 17:2). God cares about those of us who are fatherless because we can be particularly disposed to be taken advantage of: we often tip-toe into churches, already fighting against our own hurt, abandonment, and fears, thirsting to belong but not quite knowing how to. Those who have been burned by a church that did not act as a godly family can know with certainty that, even if there seems to be no consequence for the wrong they have endured, God will repay.
What do you do when the family of God has also left you with trauma, abandonment, and pain? As well as taking some time to process the pain and heal, you need to not give up on regularly meeting with, benefiting from, and being loved by God’s people. Many times it is people who cause the greatest hurt to us. Yet at the same time it is so often people that are the tools used by God for our restoration.
I often think of a friend of mine who went through three different traumatic scenarios with three different churches back to back. To start with, she was a part of a church that was steeped in legalism, so she left that church—and landed in one which taught the error of sinless perfectionism. After that she wound up in the church I attended, which contained that toxic combination of gospel teaching with spiritual abuse and secret immorality. By God’s grace, she did not give up. She is still attending church and walking with the Lord today. She found a church that is godly and healthy, and that encourages her love for God and the family of God. She wrestled through all of that hurt and disappointment and she never gave up, because her hope was ultimately in God.
We are not called to stay put in an abusive, immoral, or unsound church. We are called to keep looking until we can find people seeking to reflect God by loving and faithfully preaching his word, living holy lives in view of God’s truth, and loving their neighbors. There are genuine Christians who are serving the Lord, and we must find them, since we are their spiritual siblings. Not only will they be used in our lives to build us up, but we will be used in theirs to build them up. These believers can serve as spiritual mothers or fathers to those of us who are grappling with the absence of our natural family. In turn we will serve as spiritual mothers, fathers, or siblings to them.
And so we don’t give up. Finding God as our Father means we can find family in a church. We find our family, and we love them and are loved by them all the way to heaven.
DAYS OF OUR LIVES
Back to my wedding day—or rather the days and months after. Once we were married, it was time to begin to apply what had until then been theoretical. I had to learn to make room for my new husband. I found that hard. Being raised by a single mom, combined with the countless times when I had had to take care of myself, had left me quite independent. I believed if anything needed to get done, I could do it, because coming up I’d had to.
In our first year of marriage we lived in a tiny basement apartment in D.C. That first year, although the Lord gave us much grace and enjoyment in marriage, it would be fair to say there were also conflicts.
One area that was particularly hard for me to shake my independence from was finances. Before we married and again as newly-weds, we had sat down and talked to other church members about money: how to set a budget, raise our credit score, and invest. Shai asked other men to walk him through what his father didn’t teach him. But still, now we had to learn to live as a couple, and I was used to making my own money. I had received my first check from that Pizza Hut commercial when I was 13, and my mother had allowed me to spend the money how I wanted. Among other things, I bought for myself and a friend new outfits from Forever 21. My whole life, I had been used to determining what I would do with my money and spending it on what I felt like I deserved. Now, though, it was not my money but our money. For the first time since pre-marital counseling, Shai and I were sitting down to discuss a budget, which meant I couldn’t just spend money like I wanted. This was hard for me. I was both frustrated by it and grateful for it. My husband was considering my leanings towards covetousness, yet it was hard as the Lord used our budgeting conversations to pry my independence away.
It wasn’t only the finances. When I was in Los Angeles, I had loved taking public transportation to Hermosa Beach or Malibu. I would sometimes walk the beach for hours, rolling my jeans and squishing my toes in the wet sand as I listened to the waves strike the shore like a soothing thunder. I would wear a heavy sweater and watch the moon sometimes until midnight. A few times, I walked the two hours home. When I got married, although there was no beach in sight (unfortunately), I naturally wanted to take public transportation late at night. Shai said he didn’t want me to. I felt he was impinging on my freedom. He felt he was lovingly protecting me. And he was, but it took me time to see it. (I sometimes think back to those late-night beach trips, and I praise God he kept me safe.) Again, having the care of a husband was new.
We stayed in D.C. for a few years. Part of the reason for that was because we wanted to live around godly examples of marriage, who could help us understand how to have a marriage neither of us had seen as children—a healthy marriage that could honor God and that would endure. We decided to intentionally connect with several married couples, as well single brothers and sisters in Christ. God used the church to help us love each other.
IN LIVING COLOR
Often when we think of discipleship, we limit it to reading the Bible together, discussing spiritual things, and prayer. And all those things are great! But Jesus deals with our full person. As we walk out our faith alongside others, we should be able to talk about, and receive and give counsel on, all areas of life. Part of this means asking, and being ready to answer, probing questions about how a brother or sister’s past family life impacts them today, for better and for worse.
This means that when an older Christian intentionally engages with someone as a spiritual son or daughter, they should be thinking beyond “spiritual things,” even though that is vital. They must also be thinking through mental, emotional and physical health, and practical wisdom. I remember how, after we had our first child, a mother in the faith came over to help me as I struggled with baby blues and nursing. My introduction to motherhood was hard, and my own mother was the breadth of the US away and wasn’t there to walk me through it. But a mother in the faith was. I remember asking my single sisters for advice on child-rearing. I wanted to bring them in and let them know that I valued their counsel just as much as that of those who had children. I took walks with a sister who was informally mentoring me. We talked about marriage, motherhood, and a biblical view of the body, and it encouraged me. God was using the church in many different ways to shape my marriage, my child-rearing, and me.
Now, some years on, I have some opportunities to mentor others and talk though their mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health. My prayer is that these sisters walk away loving Jesus more as a result of our time together, so that they can thrive in life. I have been able to help sisters recognize signs of weariness and anxiety, and be willing to ask for help when needed. I’ve come to see that the desire to be in control or the tendency to perfectionism is not just a burden for those who were raised in single-parent homes. It can wiggle its way into many hearts, even of those who always had their biological dad around.
All of this and more comes as a result of us taking the time to be known by others and taking the time to get to know others well. It is too easy to react and give advice out of our own assumptions. I remember a friend who shared with a brother in Christ about how she had to leave school for lack of money. His response was, “Well, why didn’t you ask your dad to cover the cost?” Count the assumptions he was making in those eleven words! Not everyone has a father in their life. Not everyone has a father who has the money to help them out.
I believe this is one of the benefits of a diverse church: the greater the range of experiences, the more opportunities there are to help one another, and the richer the discipleship. Walking through life with believers whose stories are very different than mine ensures that in my decisions and hopes and dreams I am worshiping Christ and loving my neighbor who may be different than me. All this takes time. A healthy church is willing to give it. It’s what we see in the very first New Testament church:
“All who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:44-47)
Those who had more gave up some of what they had to help those who had little. They broke bread together in their homes. They were family. What would things look like if each of our churches took on this mindset, sharing what we have to help others thrive in Christ and life? We could completely transform the next generation. Men and women who didn’t grow up with their fathers could be fathered by godly men in the church. Single men and women would have vibrant sibling relationships with each other as brothers and sisters in Christ, without the awkwardness they often feel around one another. Newly married couples who have never seen marriage up close could have it modeled to them and would be helped to establish healthy habits within their own relationships. And in turn they would be able to care for their children in a very different kind of household. The vicious cycle of family breakdown passing on through the generations would stop, and be replaced by a virtuous one of loving, godly, lasting marriages and families. That’s the ripple effect that the family of God could pray toward and love each other toward.
HIGHWAY TO HEAVEN
Truth is, our natural families were always meant to be temporary. Our natural families are a shadow of the spiritual family that God always had in mind for us. It is that family with whom we will dwell, sup, and worship for all eternity as we go to the eternal place our Brother, Jesus, has prepared for us (John 14:2). The church is our true and better family. It is the city on a hill. These are the new-covenant people of God, the saints in the land, the glorious ones in whom should be our delight (Psalm 16:3). They are the ones who are there to help strengthen us and also comfort us when our natural family is as broken and cracked as arid land.
A scriptural example is found in Timothy. He learned the Scriptures from his mother Eunice and grandmother Lois (2 Timothy 1:5). We don’t know whether or not he was raised in a single-parent home—it is possible that his mother was a widow or that his father was not a believer. What we do know is that it was by the influence of women in his family that Timothy was spiritually raised; and we know that Paul was a spiritual father to him, encouraging him in his gifts and trust of God. To Paul, Timothy was “my beloved child” (v 2).
This is the church’s calling and every saint’s privileged responsibility: to make and mentor disciples. Loving one another is not an optional extra, if we know the love of our Savior:
“By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.” (1 John 3:16-18)
That was the love I was shown by the family who gave me a room when I first moved to D.C.; by the sisters who were there for me in my first year of marriage and following, and when I had my babies; by the brothers who helped Shai to know how to be a godly husband; by countless men and women who have come alongside us. Here is the call: to accept this help by faith and also to be this kind of church member; to be helped and guided, and, as we are able, to offer help and guidance to younger siblings through modeling and mentoring.
When you find a Father in God, you find a family in his church. And all it takes is a Christian village to break the one-parent-absent-father stranglehold that can burden a child. Think of what we can do when we prioritize our spiritual families’ needs. When our faith meets our works. When our church members come in contact with our love. The impact on the fatherless will be life-transforming. The impact on the future could be generation-changing.
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Editor’s note: This article is taken from Finding My Father: How the Gospel Heals the Pain of Fatherlessness by Blair Linne, ©2021. Used by permission of The Good Book Company.