Using the word "family"

‘Family services’ have been around in churches for a long time but, in recent years, local churches have increasingly used the word ‘family’ to describe their membership and ethos, on signs outside their buildings and even in the name of the church. This is understandable at a time of insecurity and uncertainty, when the idea of a family looking after us may be appealing, and it may be attractive at a time when loneliness is on the rise and people have a desire to belong. It’s also often intended to change the perception of church from being quiet and ordered to relaxed and full of activity.

However, overuse of the word ‘family’ in churches can also give unintended and unfortunate signals, perhaps indicating that a church is not for those who are single or childless. Our surveys tell us single people see both sides of this: appreciating that they’re part of God’s family in the local church, but also feeling put off by the emphasis on families – in name and practice.

We take a look at the social and Biblical concepts of ‘family’, share the reactions of single people, and offer some thoughts about how best to approach the idea of family in a way that includes everyone…

How does the Bible use the word ‘family’?

The word ‘family’, as we commonly understand it, does not appear in the first English translations of the Bible, or in the King James Version (KJV). Instead, the word used was ‘household’. A household included servants, hired hands, boarders, travellers and all others who lived and worked in one location. It could also describe an extended group of blood relations, usually amounting to a tribe.

In the early Authorised Version of the Old Testament, the word ‘family’ is only applied to a large kin-group or tribe (Genesis 10 v 5; 12 v 3; Jeremiah 1 v 15; 31 v 1; Ezekiel 20 v 32); the kin group of a common father (Leviticus 25 v 41); and a couple of times to a household (source: Young’s Analytical Concordance).

In the New Testament, the only time the word ‘family’ appears at this time (in the KJV) is to describe all created beings as offspring of God (Ephesians 3 v 14-15):

‘For this I bow my knees unto the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ, of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named…’

In more recent translations, the other concept translated as ‘family’ was ‘brothers and sisters’ of Jesus, adopted into a relationship with God the Father by grace. By extension, this applied to any mention of the ‘house of God’. So the passage of 1 Timothy 3:15, in a translation from the year 1611, reads:

‘But if I tarry long that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of living God, the pillar and ground of truth.’ (KJV)

But in a 1995 translation, it reads:

‘I want you to know how people who are members of God’s family must live. God’s family is the church.’ (God’s Word Translation).

The changing meaning of ‘family’ in society

What we understand by ‘family’ has also changed over the centuries, and now has several different meanings. The use of the word ‘family’ to mean a couple and their children is actually only around 150 years old, which is why it doesn’t appear with this meaning in older English translations of the Bible.

The word ‘family’ first came into use in the English language around the turn of the 15th Century. It came from the root Latin word famulus, meaning servant, and this was the original meaning: a household, either describing the servants within the household, or a group of blood relations together with their servants.

Later that century, the word was extended to describe a large kin group or lineage from a common ancestor (usually aristocrats and royalty). A modern equivalent would be the expression the ‘House of Windsor’. This meaning was also extended to mean any large collection with a common aspect – for example, the family of nations, or the family classification of a species.

According to cultural sociologist Raymond Williams, in the 17th century it could still be written that ‘his family were himself and his wife and daughters, two mayds and a man’. Before the 17th century, there is no reference – either in common use, or in translations of the Bible – to the word meaning a small group of blood relations. So how did it come to signify a couple and their children, usually occupying one house?

The answer lies in the Industrial Revolution and the changing nature of work. For the first time, there was a distinction between a man’s work, and his wife and children. The man went out to earn a wage to support his family, and the immediate family group began living in smaller houses, separate from other people. Capitalist society changed our living habits towards what we now call the ‘nuclear family’ (husband, wife and children), and that became the predominant meaning of ‘family’.

However, other meanings are still used, and when reading the Bible or using it in our churches, we need to be clear to what we refer. There are now five general uses of the word, the first now historic (and used in the Bible), the other four in common parlance:

  • Household – a group of servants, or a group of blood relations and servants, living in one house
  • Lineage – a group of people with (usually) a common ancestor (eg the House of Windsor)
  • A group of some type that share a common aspect (eg species, nations, organisations).
  • A large kin group (now called extended family)
  • A small kin group (now called a nuclear family)

The last one – the nuclear family of parent(s) and children – is the now the predominant meaning attached to the word, and the one our minds immediately think of when we hear the word.

Church and the concept of ‘family’

When local churches use the word ‘family’, it is naturally perceived as the nuclear family, even if it’s intended to imply other meanings. So what implication does this have for signs outside churches advertising that they’re ‘family friendly’; or churches that call themselves ‘family churches’ or have ‘family services’? We asked single Christians for their reactions…

‘Family-friendly church’

This term clearly targets people with children and is interpreted as services where it’s fine for children to make noise; with children’s and youth groups; and at least some services that include all family members. However, it can also be perceived by some single people as a place where they are not particularly welcome.

Family-friendly churches are all very well, but what about me? Are they single-friendly too?’

‘When I go to a “family-friendly church”, no one talks to me. Without a husband and children, it’s like I’m invisible.’

‘Family services’

The intended meaning of a ‘family service’ is the ‘church family’ meeting together – all the congregation, including children. It’s an opportunity for youngsters to join parents in a service appropriate for all, and not separated off into Sunday School or age groups. In practice, most churches ensure that the parent/child family is involved in leading the service. Single people are rarely represented in reading the Bible, leading prayers or other liturgical acts. Therefore, most attendees would interpret it as being by and for nuclear families – in other words, a ‘families service’.

‘I struggle with family services and just attend evening services those weeks. They are really children’s services.’

‘I avoid them. Not because I have an issue with everyone being included, but because they deliberately pander to families/children, to the detriment of any other individual.’

‘I don’t really like family services because they’re mostly around children and families. Single people like me can't relate to the service.’

‘Family church’

This name may be intended to imply all members being part of the family of God. However, it’s often interpreted as being aimed at nuclear families. There is a difference in perception between the ‘church family’ and ‘family church’. Single Christians appear to respond warmly to being part of the ‘church family’, while noting that ‘family church’ might be off-putting.

‘I see it as a positive. We have been adopted into the family of God. You feel like you're family – loved and nurtured.’

‘Although I'm single, when I meet people at church, I call them my church family. God's people become family.’

‘The leadership will tell you they’re trying to convey the idea of church as family, but I've had single Christian friends find the name off-putting.’

‘My local church has changed its name from Fellowship to Family Church. What that says to me is that this church isn’t for the likes of me.’

It’s helpful for church leaders to remember that signals such as ‘family friendly’, ‘family services’ and ‘family church’ often imply the nuclear family, particularly to those not yet attending. They may want to consider whether or not this was their intention, and what it implies for people who are single or childless.

Some brief theological thoughts…

‘Seventy-two images of church in the Bible, but family is not one of them.’ This was written in one PhD thesis after a careful study of images of the church in Scripture. So where does the current strong emphasis on church family come from?

The reason is simple: it’s a powerful and helpful image, using the 20th century meaning of the word for immediate kin to say that we’re all brothers and sisters of Jesus, adopted as children of the same heavenly Father

‘Yet to all who received Him [Jesus], to those who believed on His name, he gave the right to become children of God – children not born of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” (John 1 v 12-13)

Furthermore, in Roman law during New Testament times, you could disown a child you birthed, but if you adopted a child, you were forbidden to ever disown that child. [source: Rick Warren].

However, there are also some dangers in describing a local church as family…

1. We look inwards

According to minister and writer Tony Robinson, a report by a consulting firm for a church in USA urged them to give up their use of the word family, saying: ‘The purpose of the church is to transform both society and individuals to be more Christ-like. This concept goes way beyond family.’ There could be a danger of being comfortable as a family community, and not outward-looking as demanded by the Gospel.

2. We think of the local church as a nuclear family

Another danger is that we start thinking of the congregation as children, with a father/mother figure leading them. Jesus saw this danger and said, ‘Call no man father’ (Matthew 23 v 9). We are all – bishops, priests, leaders, laity – in the same relationship of brothers and sisters (although churches sometimes adopt the worldly language of calling esteemed people ‘father’ or ‘mother’ based on 1 Tim 5 v 1-2).

3. We think in terms of ‘us and them’

There is a danger of adopting the nuclear family image for the local church, as distinct to the larger church family – the God-family of all believers (John 1 v 12-13). The signal intended to bond all who follow Christ can be used to divide and separate.

A word of encouragement for leaders

As a church leader, you may have already thought about the use of the word ‘family’, or this may be a new concept for you. You may be prompted to think about what might be interpreted in different contexts. Language changes, and we’re not arguing for pre-17th century meanings! We just suggest that the word is not used in a way that alienates single and childless people, who would otherwise feel part of the community of faith.


With thanks to: Andrew, Belle, Catherine, Claire, Joanne, Frances, Lee, Miriam, Mike, Philip, Rosina, Victoria and Vida.



Raymond Williams 1976/1983 Keywords: a vocabulary of culture and society Fontana: London p131-134 (Family)

Rick Warren

Tony Robinson Quit thinking of the church as a family 5 June 2012