the weblog of Alan Knox

Family: Literal or Figurative?

Posted by on Sep 12, 2007 in definition | 11 comments

I enjoyed the question/answer format of the post about using the word “church” (see “Should we use the word ‘church’?“). So, I thought I would ask another question.

The authors of New Testament Scripture use familial language to describe followers of Jesus Christ. Here are some examples:

  • brothers/sisters – too many to list
  • father – too many to list
  • sons/daughters/children – too many to list
  • house/household – too many to list
  • born – John 1:13; John 3:3-8; 1 Peter 1:3, 23; 1 John 2:29; 3:9; 4:7; 5:1, 4, 18
  • inheritance – Acts 20:32; Eph 1:11, 14, 18; Col 1:12; 3:24; Heb 9:15; 1 Pet 1:4
  • adoption – Rom 8:15, 23; Gal 4:5; Eph 1:5
  • family – Eph 3:15

My questions to you: 1) Are there other familial terms used to describe followers of Jesus in the New Testament? 2) Is this language literal (are we truly family) or figurative (non-literal – familial language is used to represent or describe characteristics of the relations between believers)? How will our understanding of the familial language (either literal or figurative) affect how we treat other believers?


Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 9-12-2007

    Alan, you ask a great question. Okay, more than one question, but I’m only going to respond to one of the great questions.

    Literal. I’m going literal, because the scripture says we are adopted as sons. We are Abraham’s children by faith. Galatians 3:29–pulling an old Luther trick– este “you (pl) are.” I know just saying it’s to be taken literally is different than proving it. But I don’t think Jesus was exaggerating when he said his brothers, and sisters and mothers were those obeying his voice. Blood is thicker than water. Jesus’s blood that is.

    Okay, I’m answering a second question. That would have tremendous impact on the way we treated each other as fellow believers. May we know the type of love that Jesus bought for us on the cross! Oh that we would. I have tasted that love, I try to return it and many times fall short, but that love is beautiful. I will love my brother more when I love God more, but it is equally true that I will love God more when I love my brother more. May that love reign in our lives!

  2. 9-12-2007

    1. Another pair of terms would be bride/bridegroom.
    2. I’ll go literal, with the same reasoning as Wesley – and especially since these relationships will endure eternity, unlike our earthly relationships. I believe with a literal understanding, we can celebrate the eternal relationship we have with other believers, as well as our mutual connection to our brother Christ and our Father God. I wonder though if we are all just brothers and sisters, or do we not have a greater variety of family relationships within the body of Christ? Do I look to some as more of my mother/father as opposed to my brother/sister? Do I look to some as my son/daughter? I think there may be an even greater impact on the body if we see each other within these variety of familial relationships.

  3. 9-13-2007

    Part of the problem of the whole literal/figurative thing is that our 21st-century minds make figurative to mean “lesser” than literal when in reality it points to a greater truth about our relationship in Christ.

    Ephesians 5 points this out with the “but I am talking about Christ and the church” thing with regard to husbands and wives. Paul starts talking about the “mundane” relationship between married couples, and all of a sudden, he’s in this ecstatic mystical vision of Christ and His bride.

    So I don’t think that God is negating “literal” family, but He is enhancing our thinking about each other.

  4. 9-13-2007

    Wow! What great, thoughful comments! I think I may ask even more questions in the future.


    I’ve enjoyed reading about Dougald’s and your exploits in Central Asia. What a wonderful expression of family with people who you did not know and who were very different than you! But, you were all “related” to God your father through your elder brother Jesus Christ. What an amazing testimony! I hope more people read those articles.


    Thanks for the bride/bridegroom terms. Those were the terms most used in the OT, but they are also found in the NT. I also appreciate how you brought our relationships with other believers into this discussion. Paul certain said that he related to the believers in Thessalonica as both a mother and a father, and John loved to call his disciples “little children”.


    I agree that “figurative” does not mean less. You made an excellent statement: “So I don’t think that God is negating “literal” family, but He is enhancing our thinking about each other.” If anything, we should treat one another as MORE than family.


  5. 9-13-2007


    We are sons and daughters of the King of all kings!! How revolutionary that can be to our way of approaching the Kingdom and the good news of the Kingdom!

  6. 9-13-2007

    I think our big Brother, Jesus, would say it’s literal. 🙂 One thing (of many) that solidifies this for me is that when Jesus became a man He was called God’s “only begotten son” (John 3:16). He was “born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons” (Gal 4:4-5). But now, after we’ve been adopted, the Only Begotten is called “the firstborn among many brothers” (Rom 8:32).

    Galatians 4 goes on in verses 6-7:

    “And because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying out, “Abba, Father!” Therefore you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ.”

    I guess the meaning of all this could be debated, but if God is my Father, and the Father of “the Son of God,” and your Father, then we’re literally family. 🙂

  7. 9-13-2007


    When my daughter was young, I taught her that she was a real princess because her Father was the king. The idea that we are children of the king is amazing and transforming.


    Thank you for bringing these passages into this discussion. That does not look like figurative language, but a literal adoption as children of our father in heaven.


  8. 9-14-2007

    These familial terms describe a spiritual reality, and are true even if our assemblies operate more like businesses than a family.

    I think it is important to note that we are ONE family in Christ, just as we are living stones making up ONE temple of the Holy Spirit, are baptised by one Spirit into ONE body, and are each different parts of ONE body. Jesus’ prayer was that we would be ONE as he and the father are one – which is a profound statement that I’ll readily admit I do not truly comprehend.

  9. 9-14-2007


    Thank you for bringing up the unity of the family of God. That is very important to this discussion!


  10. 9-15-2007


    1. duolos (slave) was a often a family member

    2. the pedagogue, guardian and trustee (eph. 4) were often family members

    3. wet nurse, perhaps, another pauline imagery

    4. some of the not so good oens include: adulterer and bastard child

    I would say that these are both figurative and literal; as was mentioned figurative does not equal less. Clearly, Paul’s notion of communing with Christ and dying and raising and walking with Him is both and if this is the case, his familial language, which is connected to these things, is both as well.

  11. 9-15-2007


    Thank you for pointing out these familial terms. I can’t believe that I didn’t mention the husband/wife, parent/child, master/slave relationships, which were standard household relationships in the Greco-Roman period.

    As you’ve pointed out, many of these terms are figurative, others are literal, and others seem to be combinations. We can learn about our relationships with one another from both the literal and the figurative terms.