Perspective: Overlapping Webs of Complex Relationships

I don’t read advice columns looking theological insights, but this recent “Ask Amy” item in the LA Times caught my attention. A woman who signed herself “Wedding Blisters” was getting married and planned to exclude her brother’s wife from her “family wedding.” She said her sister-in-law was always unpleasant, scowled at every family get-together, and she dreaded the attitude this person would bring to the occasion. The writer said that her mother was afraid that she was “breaking up the family” by excluding her brother’s wife and she wanted Amy, the columnist, to help her find a way to “fix this rift” with her mom.

In her reply to “Dear Blisters” Amy wrote, “It’s your wedding and you are determined to have only supportive and loving people around—which makes me wonder if you’ve been to a wedding. Weddings are family events. And families tend to be populated not by universally supportive and loving people, but by overlapping webs of complex relationships, featuring some challenging (and sometimes downright awful) people” (LA Times, 8/6/2015, p. E8).

In “Believing, Behaving, Belonging,” the book I wrote on the church which, Adventist Forum published years ago, I described several influential metaphors for the church—army, business, family—and concluded that of these three the image of family was the best way to express the biblical view of the church. As the Apostle Paul in particular envisions it, I proposed, the church, like a family, is a close-knit community whose members care deeply for one another, bear one another’s burdens, and share each other’s joys and sorrows. At least, that’s the ideal. And that’s what I had in mind in BBB. Amy’s answer jarred me with the realization that the family metaphor includes other features of family life as well. In fact, her description of a family sounds like something Paul might have written about some of his congregations. And it sounds like the way Adventists behave from time to time.

As the Apostle’s correspondence makes abundantly clear, however, the ideal he describes was never easy to reach. The letters he wrote to the various Christian groups he helped to found, in Corinth, Ephesus, Colossae, and Galatia, for example, indicate that there was often a lack of unity and mutual good will among their members, even though he never lost hope that they would become everything God wanted for them.

With the controversial actions taken at the recent General Conference session, this facet of family life becomes apparent, too. Some are so discouraged by the vote on women’s ordination that they are tempted to “give up on” the Adventist church, and look for other sources of spiritual meaning, support other forms of religion, if they do so at all.

This is where the other aspect of the family metaphor comes to mind. There is a givenness to one’s family. We don’t choose our family; we just find ourselves a part of it. Your family is the people you belong to, and who belong to you, whether or not you agree on everything or even enjoy each other’s company. Who doesn’t go to a family get-together now and then where things are strained, people find it hard to talk to each other, some come as late as possible and leave as soon as they can?

Still, families endure. No matter what the tensions and diversity, we generally manage to cope with and affirm each other over the years, in spite of our differences. This feature of family life has an application to the church, too. The church is our family. It is part of our identity. It’s the group we belong to, for better or worse, when we are happy with it, and when we are disappointed. True, there are people who would like everyone in the church to agree on things. There are even some in the church who would like those whose views on certain issues differ from theirs to pack up and leave. But this is not a picture of the church we need to accept, and we should not allow others to impose it on us.

Am I happy with every position the church takes and every decision it makes? Of course not. And I know others in the church are not always happy with mine. Still, I’m convinced that the things that unite us in the Adventist family are more fundamental than our differences. I know my family members are not going away. But neither am I.

Richard Rice is a professor of Theological Studies at the Loma Linda University School of Religion.

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I don’t know the extent to which the scowling sister-in-law would have ruined the wedding, but I know the anxiety of sending an invitation to a disgruntled family member whom you fear has the potential of destroying the peace and happiness of the celebration. The virtue of the family, though, is that we have the opportunity to model civil behavior toward each other and, in the process, allow those who are uncivil to benefit from that example - to behold it and to become changed. It doesn’t always work, but the potential exists for the family influence to have a healing effect on those who need it most.

It wasn’t the actions at the GC session that were controversial. Rather, it is the constant push for women’s ordination, especially after the vote, and the continued rebellion by those Unions and other entities who vow to continue ordaining women which is controversial. The GC Session was there for everyone to meet together and decide what to do and they did. They upheld Biblical teachings. That’s not controversial, unless you’re comparing it to worldly thought. In that case, the tightening up of FB 6 was also controversial. But then, liberal Adventists are always telling us we should be counter-cultural. Well, aren’t the results of the GC Session the perfect example of counter-cultual. You got what you wished for.


As a daily reader of Amy’s column I got the impression that the future sister-in-law had a reputation of drunken behavior and rude remarks in the past. This would have been sufficient for most folk to eliminate her from attendance at a wedding which should be a happy occasion for everyone there.

It’s the same behavior that would cause disturbance in a church service and the aid of ushers to remove such a person from the sanctuary. Rude behavior is always unacceptable and especially on such celebrations.

(My earlier comment here disappeared. Will check to see if this one stays.)


Christian Science carries the metaphor too far. they address and worship a Father/Mother God. They see the Mother in the dominate role. I like the concept of adoption. So if I am invited to be so bold as to address God as Father, I mustn’t also be so insightful as to call my neighbor Kin. tom Z

What makes the members of a church a family? Is it the membership as it’s listed on some roster - is it the baptismal certificate - is it having been born to parents who are members, passing membership on to their kids?

I would submit, the only thing that make individuals part of a family is their common ancestry. Church members are bound by the same thing - their common Father and Brother. It certainly isn’t some bureaucratic organization. Just because there are individuals that are part of an organization, doesn’t make them part of the same family. We, of course, can’t tell who the actual family members are; or who are just visitors at the table. The only clue comes from - “By their fruits shall you know them.” and “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”


Your perceptive comment:
“Church members are bound by the same thing, a common Father and Brother— It certainly isn’t some bureaucratic organization.”

We can never divorce ourselves from our biological family (although we can distance ourselves). However, we can always “vote with our feet” from an organization of which we are an uncomfortable member. We are not bound by genetic ties!

Many of us are experiencing a dismaying distress, an embarrassing unease with the current stance of Adventism, it’s misogyny, homophobia and hierarchical control. We would prefer not be associated with an entity so flagrantly politically uncorrect. But more pertinently, an institution seemingly so lacking in love, compassion and humanity.

Our denomination does not save us. We can still have a Father and a Brother, without being under the GC umbrella. Christ is our “genetic” tie – closer than any organization or man made institution! Adventism does not have a monopoly on salvation. Many will vote with their feet, taking their donations with them!


Corporations are not people, and institutions (like the SDA denomination) are not family.


I’m with you Elaine on this one. No one needs a turd in a punch bowl at such a happy event as a wedding. By her behavior this woman has eliminated herself for her unacceptible behavior.

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Welcome to the club, Elaine. My comment on a another thread also disappeared. I think they want to keep us in the lounge. :wink:

While I agree with the author on weddings being family affairs, with all the warts and so on, I do think the comparison with the church is inaccurate. For one thing, a wedding has few standards to be met: come and celebrate, and don’t be disruptive (those who cause disturbances can be removed, just as you said occurs at a church service). But not all attendees at a wedding are family members. Same at a church; not all those who come are members–but they are still welcome. But to be adopted into the church family, one must meet certain standards. No one forces anyone to join; it is voluntary, and the entry requirements are plainly stated. Those who don’t like the doctrines and standards shouldn’t join. They would be happier in another church family with beliefs similar to theirs.

As for the GC taking “controversial actions,” that seems to be the opinion only of those who did not get their way at the session. Sour grapes, perhaps?


I agree with the author that the family “metaphor” is the most powerful one when we think about the fellowship of the church. And, it does have important reminders for us of how tolerant, respectful and even loving we must be towards the brothers and sisters who belong to this family.

But there are important differences from the family metaphor that also need to be considered, differences that can diminish or overwhelm the ethical and emotional power of that metaphor.

For example, in families where all its members are adults, the hierarchical nature of adult/children families has matured into an egalitarian dynamic of friendship. This does not happen in a church structured like ours in which hierarchy is seen as essential to unity and order.

Secondly, while family disputes can be loud and rancorous, no one in the family has the authority to force another member “out” of the circle, as the church may. Granted, some families shun and isolate other members and that leads to a loneliness similar to disfellowshipping, but biology cannot be erased as church membership or employment can be.

Thirdly, the church family’s need for some kind of doctrinal cohesion is often so intense, those who see themselves as “guardians” of that cohesion will not tolerate other members whose understanding may threaten it. Families may disagree even on things like evolution, but they do not fracture nearly as easily as church families often do.

While Adventists quote Ellen White’s warning that “we must never take the position that our doctrinal views can never be changed,” we find it (especially in leadership) almost impossible to believe it.


I cringed when I read this article. I have had difficulty in using the metaphor of a “family” in dealing with church people or church issues. It was an interesting article “Perspective: Overlapping Webs of Complex Relationships” 2 October 2015 by Richard Rice when he concluded saying:
“Still, I’m convinced that the things that unite us in the Adventist family are more fundamental than our differences. I know my family members are not going away. But neither am I.”
I am having lots of difficulty in using the concept of “family” as a metaphor for what I am looking for in a church. In recent years I’ve had to quit thinking of the church as a family. “Our Adventist church is just like a family.” This is a common claim in many Adventist congregations, perhaps especially in smaller ones. Some go further, “This church is my family.” Sounds good, don’t you think? I don’t agree with the metaphor. It doesn’t work for me any more. Church is church, family is different. A Pastor friend of mine explained to me why he did not use the family as a model for church life.
At first I objected and reminded him that Jesus spoke of “all those who do the will of God” as his kin? (Matthew 12:50). The pastor-friend elaborated: “The purpose of the church is to transform both society and individuals to be more Christ-like. This concept goes way beyond family.”

This may be stiff but necessary medicine for many stuck or declining congregations. The purpose of the church is to change lives. That’s the “business” we are in. While some families certainly do that, forming and sustaining faithful and courageous people, the use of the “family” concept in congregations often seems to mean something else.

Many of the congregations that claim “We’re a family,” lose sight of larger transformative purposes and settle, instead, for the comfort and satisfaction of their members. The core purpose of a congregation — growing people of faith and helping people and communities move from despair to hope — gives way to lesser and even contrary purposes like keeping people happy. While it may not be a necessary outcome of the use of the family image, many congregations that gravitate towards it seem to make member comfort and satisfaction their de facto purpose.

That may be because “family” suggests to people something like, “We’re all loving and nice here.” That in turn often means no hard questions are asked and no honest challenges are allowed. It wouldn’t be nice.

I can think of other reasons to be cautious about “family” as our image for church. Families sometimes keep secrets that shouldn’t be kept in order to keep from bringing shame on the family name. And families aren’t typically that easy to join.
Another issue with this “family” model for church is that the use of the term “family,” may communicate to people who are not married or to the married without children that they don’t quite fit. “Our church is a family,” morphs into “our church is for families.”

Keeping the family members happy, having everyone know everyone else and get along like “a happy family,” isn’t really the point for Christian congregations. Their goal and purpose is both different and higher.

Perhaps other biblical images like “People of God,” “Creation of the Holy Spirit,” or “Body of Christ” are better ecclesiological images? It’s not that these images don’t also have potential pitfalls. It is the case, however, that unlike “family” they are uncommon enough that people seldom have their own set ideas about what they mean. In some congregations, I hear leaders address the congregation simply as “church.” That too seems promising, reminding the gathered community that they are the Church of Jesus Christ (and the building is not).

If we must use “family,” we should be aware of the way that Jesus, while using “family,” also subverts conventional understandings of family and challenges their usual boundaries with a thoroughly new vision of “family.”


I like the family analogy. When we get married, no matter how much we may think we have in common, we soon discover that we are very distinct and often opposite in personality. My husband and I are both eldest children, used to ruling the roost. We are both of some Irish descent, with the accompanying Irish temper. Yet, we believed we had made lasting vows to each other and over the years, we have learned to get along much more peaceably. I think church is like marriage. It is God’s school in which we learn to have tolerance, acceptance, and love for each other. In my particular church there are a number of people who are a little “different” and perhaps embarrassing, but we have learned to love them with a fond tolerance.


As I see it, this is the philosophy of every religious persuasion that creates compliant members. For the LDS, RC or JW who for “better or worse” stick with the church. If Luther held this view there would have been no Reformation neither for that matter no Separatist or Puritans coming to America. Jesus would never have dared to openly criticize temple leadership because Judaism was his “family.” It places a muzzle on any opinion that upsets the majority of the “church family” and silences visionary descent. The “church family” becomes the voice and the will of God to the soul.


Church is NOT a Family.
Church is similar to Wal-Mart.
Joining Church is like applying to Wal-Mart and becoming an Associate.
The Application says what Beliefs, what Traditions, what Dress Code, what Eating Code, what Group Meetings one is expected to attend [if not at least infrequently].
Associates have no control over Management, no control over Beliefs, Traditions, Dress Code, Eating Code. Management and Home Office make all the rules with very minimal to NO input from the Associates.
When ever Home Office has a delegate meeting, it is mostly Management in attendance with no voices from the Associates, or if so, only token representation.
Management and Assistant Store Managers have the right to decide WHO will remain an Associate.
Associates may form friendly bonds with other Associates, but they are NOT family.
When there are problems at the Local Wal-Mart, one realizes they are NOT family when one Associate pits themselves against another, or an Assist. Store Mgr decides an Associate is “Not Obeying the Employment Rules.” or is Questioning the Rules of Employment.


The “best” metaphor is still metaphorical: a comparison that sheds light,but is not a literal description.

I imagine Rick would agree that one’s loyalty to a church community could, in principle, fray to the point of disintegration. Church-wide resistance to truth over the long haul–resistance, for example, to gender equality–could certainly justify, at some point, severing one’s connection with a church community.

But the “family” metaphor underscores an important idea, namely, that we do need to be patient with one another. The connection we make at baptism is truly akin (though in a limited sense) to the connection we have with our own brothers and sisters.

But the conversation Rick’s article has generated does underscore urgency with respect to matters of such moral consequence as gender equality. Denominational leaders want, as it seems, to force a long-suffering and morally serious minority of its members to abandon conscience for the sake of institutional uniformity: we must ALL toe the line and embrace, as it seems to this minority, an injustice that favors men over women and thus betrays the Gospel of Christ.

On a matter of such seriousness–a matter so long considered by thoughtful and well-meaning members–trampling on conscience puts the church as “family” in grave danger. When the option presented in San Antonio would have substantially accommodated differences of conscience worldwide, church leaders at the top made no case for it.

Practically no language I can think of would constitute too strong a protest against such irresponsibility.