How often have you heard the term “Household of God” in sermons or scripture readings? Do you think of a big church with a massive altar and ethereal lighting?
Jesus, in the Gospel according to John, says, “In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” (14:2) We understand the Father’s House to be Heaven. But what if the Household of God isn’t only something we wait to see but also where we live right now?
As Catholic Christians, we believe that we have been adopted into God’s family. St. Paul writes frequently of our status as children of God, “no longer a slave, but a son [or daughter], and if a son, then an heir” (Galatians 4:7). Jesus Himself frequently uses parables about family relationships to explain how God cares for us, forgives us, gives His gifts to us, and gives His own Son to die for us. So we, right now, as God’s adopted children are part of this Household of God—one Divine family.
Over the next few weeks, we are going to explore what it means to be part of the family of God and how it is expressed in our church, particularly in how the Apostle Paul reveals to us how we are to live as sons and daughters of God the Father, as brothers and sisters of Jesus, and as a truly Christian family.
BRIDE AND BRIDEGROOM
Paul talks about the relationship between Jesus and the Church much like the relationship between a man and woman in marriage.
This image is not new in Christianity. The People of Israel were often depicted as the bride of God throughout scripture, most notably in Song of Songs, but also in the works of prophets like Isaiah and Hosea. However, the People of Israel were frequently not a faithful bride, so the image of God as bridegroom was one of constancy in the face of rejection.
Jesus also used the image of a bridegroom in parables to speak of Himself: as one for whom the wise and foolish virgins wait in Matthew 25; as the Son of a king who has prepared a wedding feast in Matthew 22; and as a bridegroom with whom His followers celebrate in Matthew 9:15 and Mark 2:18. However, the letters of Paul really develop this image of Jesus and what His sacrifice means for the faithful.
In 2 Corinthians 11, Paul speaks of the church of Corinth as if he were a jealous father guarding his betrothed daughter: “I feel a divine jealously for you, for I betrothed you to Christ to present you as a pure bride to her husband” (11:2). Paul wanted to give the Corinthian church completely to Christ and wanted their commitment to the gospel to match his fervor.
In Ephesians, Paul compares a husband’s commitment to his wife to that of Christ to His Church: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her” (5:25–26). A husband’s love for his wife is supposed to be self-sacrificial, just as Christ sacrificed Himself for His Church. This, Paul says, is a mystery, that two shall become one (5:31–32).
In Colossians 3:18, we see the often misunderstood exhortation that wives be subject to their husbands. But the same exhortation occurs in Ephesians in a different context. Couples are to submit to each other mutually (Ephesians 6:21). So marriage is not about one having power over another, but of a mutual self giving. The relationship between Christ and Church should be the same. Christ empties Himself out for us, so we should empty ourselves out and be filled by Him.
CHURCH AS GOD’S HOUSE
We talk about the Church as God’s household, and we sometimes refer to our individual chapels as “God’s house.” However, the Greek word ekklesia, which we translate as “church,” actually means “assembly.” Still, Paul talks about the Church as if it were a building project—something we construct as a community together.
As Raymond Collins notes in “The Power of Images in Paul,” Paul writes in both 1 Corinthians and Romans about laying foundations on which others build. “For no other foundation can anyone lay,” Paul writes, “than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 3:11). And in Ephesians, Paul writes that those in the Church are “fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord” (Ephesians 2:19–21).
Paul’s words allude to passages in Hebrew scripture that prophesy Christ’s coming. In Isaiah, the prophet writes, “therefore thus says the Lord GOD, ‘Behold, I am laying in Zion for a foundation a stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, of a sure foundation: 'He who believes will not be in haste’” (Isaiah 28:16). And again in Zechariah, the prophet writes, “Out of them [the house of Judah] shall come the cornerstone, out of them the tent peg, out of them the battle bow, out of them every ruler” (Zechariah 10:4). The Lord says, of these people, “I will bring them back because I have compassion on them, and they shall be as though I had not rejected them” (10:6).
Jesus is the cornerstone of the foundation built on the apostles and prophets, and we are the bricks that make up walks, the timbers that support the roof, the tiles that keep out sun and rain. But we’re also the builders, constructing the house where God lives and comes to us.
BROTHERS AND SISTERS
Adelphoi—this Greek word means “brothers” or “brethren” and is usually now translated as “brothers and sisters.” It is hands down one of the most common ways that Paul refers to the faithful throughout his letters. In fact, the word adelphoi occurs 18 times in the “Letter of Paul to the Romans” alone!
One of the hallmarks of early Christianity was the devotion that members of the community exhibited to each other, as if all were members of an extended family. In the Gospel of John, Jesus tells His apostles that people will know them by their love for one another (John 13:35). Tertullian, a third-century father of the early Church, made mention of the reactions of the non-Christian gentiles to Christian communities in his writings: “‘See,’ they say, ‘how they love one another,’ for themselves are animated by mutual hatred”
Raymond Collins notes how often Paul relies on kinship language in his letters to convey the attitude Christians should have toward one another. We are brothers and sisters in Christ! We need to act like it and love one another!
Sometimes Catholics and Christians act a little too much like brothers and sisters.
In the opening of his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul stresses kinship bonds: “I appeal to you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no dissensions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment” (1:10). Paul is saying what should be obvious to all of us. Brothers and sisters should be building each other up and supporting each other, not tearing each other down.
Without love, we are merely noisy gongs or clanging cymbals (1 Corinthians 13:1). To Paul, this brotherly love is the essence of Christian life, and the kind of love that our Savior showed for us in life and death.
What would your house look like if it operated with no rules? It would be a bit chaotic, wouldn’t it?
Every home has rules of one kind or another, and Paul most definitely had some opinions about what kinds of rules a Christian home should have. In fact, he has two separate lists of rules that have been given a special name by scripture scholars: Haustafel, which means “household code” in German. (1 Peter 2–3 also has one such list.)
We’ve already talked about some of these rules and how they relate to husbands and wives. Paul stresses mutual self-giving and sacrifice: “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21). Of course, Paul talks about the obligations children: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right” (6:1). But he also talks about the obligation of fathers to rule the home justly: “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in discipline and instruction of the Lord” (6:4). He even adds a word about how slaves and slave owners should act toward one another. (Keep in mind that slavery was very common and accepted in Paul’s time.) Every person in the house has obligations toward every other person. We also have obligations to work as if we’re serving God (Colossians 3:23). Our work should always be an offering to our Lord.
Paul knew, as the Church today knows, that charity begins at home. The Church sees the family as the fundamental place where Christian living is modeled and taught. It even refers to the family as the Ecclesia domestica or “domestic church” (CCC 1655).
Our house rules are one way that we can teach the values that our faith preaches. We learn to act lovingly in a loving home. From there, we need to go out and be Christ’s love to the world.
Our house rules don’t put up barriers between us. They make it so that we can live together in peace and harmony.
IT’S A BIG, BIG HOUSE…
“In my Father’s house there are many rooms” (John 14:2). When we hear this verse, I think many of us often conjure up an image of a sprawling mansion with manicured gardens and lawns. But Jesus was also giving as an image of community and inclusivity.
For Paul, this sense of Christian community was paramount. One of the problems he seems to be responding to in 1 Corinthians 11 is that the people were making distinctions based on wealth or social rank, and that some members of the church weren’t sharing table fellowship with those of other social classes during meals held before the liturgy. “[D]o you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?” he writes (11:22). To Paul, such divisions were a desecration of the Eucharistic celebration.
In other letters such as 2 Thessalonians, Paul is concerned with false teachings that set up divisions among Christians, or in factionalism caused by Judaizers (Galatians) or by spiritual elitism (1 Corinthians 1:11–13). Paul frequently reminded the churches he founded that there is only one gospel and one body of Christ. All members need to work together for the good of the whole.
Sadly, internal division hasn’t gone away in our own time. Too often our Church is divided by disagreements about doctrinal orthodoxy, social teaching, or proper liturgical practice. Disagreements may be inevitable, but we need to accept each other where we are and continue to help each other on the road to salvation—like one big family. We should always teach the truth but do so with love.
The word “Catholic” comes from the Greek word katholicos, which means “universal.” That word reflects the many cultures, rites, and expressions found in the Church today. God’s house, the Church, is big and all embracing. There is room for all of us here.
Catechism of the Catholic Church. Washington D.C.: United States Catholic Conference, 1997.
Collins, Raymond F. The Power of Images in Paul. Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2008.
Horton, Fred L., Kenneth G. Hoglund and Mary F. Foskett. A Basic Vocabulary of Biblical Studies For Beginning Students: A Work in Progress. 2011. 6 August 2011
Johnson, Luke Timothy. The Writings of the New Testament. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999.
“Lexical Concordance.” The Apostolic Bible Polyglot. First Edition. Newport: The Apostolic Press, 2006.
Tertullian. “Apologeticum.” 1 June 2005. Christian Classics Ethereal Library. 5 August 2011