Vineyard. Family. Business.

Return of the Prodigal Son. Rembrandt. One of his last works before he died. Located in St. Petersburg, Russia.

What does it mean to be a family? The question can seem trivial, but it is one of the least trivial questions we can ask. One of the hardest ones we can ask. One of the most profound and far-reaching and powerful questions we can ask.

It matters enormously in our immediate personal lives, but it is also on the model of families that we create nations. Natality and Nazi both come from the same root, and the connection goes far beyond a linguistic coincidence. Nations in general, and nationalist movements in particular, really are the result of where and how and to whom people are born. The innocence of babies stands in the starkest contrast against the taboos and difficulties of even talking about nationalism, as well as sex. For followers of Jesus, the question of family raises all kinds of questions, because our most fundamental language for God is family language. The Christian message, in a nutshell, is that through Jesus we can all be adopted as his siblings, becoming the family of God.

What would it mean to have a truly human nation, or even a truly human church? What would it mean for there to be a church or nation that looked like all of humanity, without turning into a monster? This is the question that Jesus invites us into, as the Son of Man who has inaugurated a Kingdom in which all of God’s image bearers become the egalitarian ‘ruling family’ of God. It is precisely on the basis of deep and extensive and constant appeals to divine family, with all of the work that familial talk does in our bodies, that the church has created a nation of 2 billion people throughout the world. We are at least supposed to be a family of people born on the soil of the Earth that the meek are supposed to inherit, even though the ground seems to be held by murderously jealous nation-states.

I’m thinking about what it means to be a family deeply right now, because the national (!) director of VineyardUSA has brought it into view for us in the midst of some real family drama. In this, I think he is wise, and hopefully even foolish. Here we will look at Brother Jay Pathak’s response to the sudden and unexplained loss of the Anaheim Vineyard, and we will notice how constantly he has used family language in both the written communication and the video alongside it, here.

The written statement repeatedly mentions family, and it is significant that both the whole Vineyard as a family, and the Wimbers as the special “royal family” come into view. This is all the more moving, because Brother Jay has had his own challenges with family, which makes him one of us, one of us humans. Here are the repeated uses of family in the text, excerpted:

If you aren’t familiar with our Vineyard history, you may be wondering why this is such a difficult moment for our family of churches…

…Many of us have personal ties with the remaining members of the Wimber family, and have deep sympathy for their pain and outrage in regard to this decision…

…There are thousands of people in the Vineyard movement, both locally in Anaheim and all over the world, expressing their conviction that the decision to suddenly remove Vineyard Anaheim out of our family of churches is an action of extreme betrayal. They are looking to us to help answer their questions, and help them make sense of the pain they are experiencing…

…We do not believe that there is a dichotomy between relationality and accountability in church life, any more than there is in a marriage or a family

…For all of these concerns and questions, we recognize that Alan and Kathryn and their team are our brothers and sisters in Christ, as well as family members in the Vineyard — which makes the suddenness of this all the more painful…

…We will continue to call each other to deeper commitment as brothers and sisters in Christ, and as part of this family called the Vineyard. We are incredibly excited about the future for the Vineyard in our nation and around the world.

Notice, especially, that he uses sibling language rather than parental language to talk about the relationship between Anaheim and us. I think this is wise and significant. There’s a real sense in which it feels like Anaheim is the “mother church” of the movement. Here in Columbus, I regularly observe Funkadelic Parliamentary Procedure and refer to the large church that planted our own as the “mothership.” There is a poetic logic to it, and this is all good fun.

But on closer analysis, the egalitarian nature of siblinghood is extremely important to center in church life. While we might use parental language in the church in a very rough way, I think that the baptism that makes us siblings in Christ creates a hyper-real familial connection: like adoption, but turned up to 11, it really makes us siblings. As siblings we aren’t dependents in a normal sense, even as we all depend on each other. We are equals within a greater structure that we didn’t create. And more importantly, if we are ultimately brought into a parental relationship with God through Jesus, it means that none of us are (spiritually) the parents of any other. Although the church rapidly moved away from this teaching in uncanonized early texts, I think it is important to take this commandment of Jesus from Matthew 23:9 with the utmost seriousness. I think we should apply it literally in the context of spiritual relationships in the church:

And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven.

Of course, people find all kinds of excuses for dismissing this in the church, as we do with all of Jesus’s most dire commands. But the speech we engage in, the songs we sing, and the language we use in writing all deeply structure our relationships. The act of naming someone as a spiritual father very much structures a particular kind of relationship, and I think that Jesus and the author of Matthew 23 really meant what they said here. The injunction stands at the Gospel’s point of highest temporal danger, the run-up to the Mount of Olives discourse, and Jesus is explaining what leads to national death. On the very short of list of things that go there, calling humans father, in a spiritual sense, is one of them. When we make people our spiritual fathers, it can seem like the familial language of church doesn’t work. That’s because Father (and Mother) are traditionally reserved for God alone in Christian tradition.

What must be said with utter clarity and (adoptive) literalness is this:

We are a family, and we are siblings.

So it is encouraging to me that Brother Pathak treats Anaheim and its leaders as a sibling, and not as if he is their parent. We may be the older siblings in the story of the prodigal church that we are living through, but we are not the Father in this story. That’s God, and we’re not God. And the responsibility of modeling good siblinghood is not LESS the responsibility of the top national leader, but is all the more the responsibility of the top national leader, because they are supposed to model a life of faithfulness to Jesus. I’m grateful that Brother Jay understands this, and I love the way his discussion begins with an invitation to reflect on “autonomy” in a way that closely reflects current Orthodox disputes about “autocephaly” surrounding Russian politics today. Still, “autocephaly” nicely names one precise aspect of autonomy: the capacity to choose one’s own leader. (Do the churches of VineyardUSA enjoy autocephaly, by the way? Who exactly chooses our leaders? Another good question for a family of siblings to consider.)

I’d also note that Brother Pathak is activating the two deep frames that we also use to understand the Trinity: SPEECH and FAMILY. We understand God most fundamentally, in Biblical Christian theology, as Speaker-Word-Breath and as Father-Son-Mother, and the sacred baptismal formula beautifully and strikingly mixes the two frames in a perfectly jarring and de-reifying way: Father-Son-Breath. Here, I’ve written out a relevant section of Jay’s video presentation as well, and I’m grateful that he breathed something out to us instead of just writing something. Notice the deep frames in use, and where they’re in use in Biblically appropriate ways. I’ll share my own reflections on it afterward.

Autonomy is a word we use a lot in the Vineyard. And it’s a word that we probably have to reflect on a little bit. How much are we actually a family? How much are we actually submitted to each other? And in what ways can we CHOOSE to trust one another in new ways, for the sake of what we believe God has called us to be together as a group, as a movement of Vineyard churches, not just our own specific church.

And we’re also drawn to ask questions about the nature of the prophetic. How do we hear God’s voice? How do we weigh those things together? What does it mean when a leader says, “I think God has spoken to me.” I mean, how do we understand the prophetic? Is that the sort of thing that is to be interpreted within a group of leaders, maybe even within a movement? Or if they just say, “No, this is what God has said.” how do we think about that? What does it mean to hear God’s voice and to be lead by His Spirit?

And as we look at all of these things that are happening and many things like this, many things have happened in the past and many things are going to happen in the future. One of the things we need to pay attention to is, “How do we react as leaders when emotions are high and information is low?” How do we fill in those gaps? And I think one of the things I’m learning watching our movement as a whole is how many folks in our movement have residual hurts and pains, they have moments that they’ve had throughout their history in pastoral ministry or maybe within Vineyard that when emotions are high and information is low they sort of … we all have a tendency to do this … is to fill in the gaps with suspicion or who’s doing what or why are they doing that or I know what’s happening because that’s what people do or that’s what leaders do or that’s what the Vineyard has done before. And I think some of that is natural. Frankly, it’s part of what it means to lead is that you’re trying to discern what’s going on so that you can use your gifts to impact and influence.

But there are questions around, “How do we process those things as a family?” These are all things that we’re going to have to consider, that we’re going to have to process through. And as we’ve done this work it hasn’t been just thinking about this one church or this one set of leaders. I mean, you may or may not know this, but the Vineyard has a massive connection to the larger body of Christ. I mean, I’ve been getting calls from all over the world, from all kinds of different movements and denominations of people checking in. “What’s going on? How can we be helpful? We’re praying for you.” And even in some of our communications and the way we’ve been working with leaders in this process, we’ve really been weighing our larger responsibility to the larger body of Christ. What does it mean for us to be a part of the body of Christ, to care for the whole body of Christ in these issues and in these considerations?

So these are all things we’ve been processing and we’re going to have to continue to process together in days and weeks and months ahead. We’re going to have these conversations, because you know, a movement like ours is not that old when you really think about it. I was talking to an older leader who said, “You know, your movement’s not that old. You know, generations have time to think and talk about these things and build ways of relating. This might just be a time, Jay, where as your movement is coming into its own its an opportunity to ask some deeper questions about how you behave as a family and the kind of movement you think God is calling you to be.”

I think we all know what VineyardUSA stands for: that we are a people that exists not for ourselves, but for one another. We don’t want to do this on our own. We don’t want to just sort of make our own way, but we want to be connected together, supporting one another in this work that God has called us to in our cities, for the sake of all that God wants to do through us and in us, and to multiply out of this because, well, we’re just better when we’re together. So I’m excited to do this with you and I can’t wait to see what it’s like.

To all of this, I say a loud Amen.

And in all of this, what comes to mind the most to me is a friend who came from a Christian family. He was disowned by his family because he came out regarding his sexual orientation. They sent him a box of Bibles and abandoned him. The implication was clear: because of the Bible, we aren’t a family anymore. And all we have for you and all we are for you is a box of books, ostensibly condemning you to endless torture. It was one of the stories that I carried with me into my early conversations with our local pastor, and it has become increasingly salient to me since then. In case it isn’t clear, I think this is one of the most profound betrayals of family possible.

The story resonates especially powerfully today, because one of the hurts that I know a lot of us are feeling is that VineyardUSA and local Vineyards have acted exactly like my friend’s family on many occasions. Not too long ago, we wrote a position paper that was, precisely, the movement equivalent of disowning people (as if we are their parents, when we’re not) and shipping them a box of Bibles. In this sense, the posture was even worse than the posture of my friend’s family: as a spiritual community of siblings united in Jesus, we have even less authority to disown someone in that way. Even worse in some ways (although perhaps better in the long run) the paper was then hidden. Even today it is not listed among the VineyardUSA position papers. Still, the box of Bibles was shipped, and everyone I know who went through that whole unhealthy process (unhealthy on every side, by the way) is still deeply wounded by how it all went.

This also corresponds to hurts and confusions I’ve seen develop in our local church, and in Vineyard churches around the country, when parishioners as well as leaders are invited to leave (or are let go) suddenly and without any kind of apparent reason or logic to it. There is a wideness in the backdoor of our family that would be genuinely appalling in a real family. I don’t think the church is called to be a pseudo-family, though. I think we’re called to be a truer kind of family, not less of one. It is bewildering when you think you’re part of a family, but it turns out you’re just a drummer in the band. People quickly find out that it felt like family, and we sang about family, and we baptized people into a family, but if that was true this is the worst family system they’ve ever been a part of. It can feel like the more generous response is to conclude that the people in charge apparently only pretended it was a family. Because to think that we really are a family is to take the harder road: not seeing ourselves as a fake family (which isn’t so bad I guess), but as the very worst of families. So maybe “they’re fakes” is more kind? We can understand the feeling, at least.

It’s true, we do talk and sing and read an awful lot about being a family, the family of God. Often, we really do act like it. But as with the most dysfunctional of family systems, there are times when you suddenly realize that you can be disowned at the drop of a hat. Yeah, we were family, but here’s a box of Bibles and good luck being turned over to Satan out there. Once you hear a few of those stories, you realize that hammer really is always ready to drop, sometimes for no discernable reason at all.

In this sense, the indictment of us is this: so many have felt like the Scotts didn’t understand us when they didn’t approach the Vineyard as a real family. When they realized that what really counts are some bylaws and the ability to maneuver legally, this was experienced as a theft. We feel it viscerally and powerfully. We feel betrayed, and the incoherence of the SPEECH around the topic (supposedly prophetic, but transparently not) corresponds to the incoherence of the feeling of FAMILY. False speech about family either creates false family, which makes us liars, or it creates terrible family, which at least has the potential of making our baptisms true. When our leaders and the Scotts spoke about family, it doesn’t seem that the significance of this was communicated or truly held at all.

The haunting question that I think we need to ask ourselves is this: What if the Scotts are the ones who understood us better than we understood ourselves? What kind of repentance would be needed to become the people we think and say and sing we are, instead of the people we have too often become? Who do we as VineyardUSA and Vineyards throughout the world need to apologize to, for disowning them as suddenly as the Scotts disowned the Wimbers? Because working through these grievous soul wounds is the sort of work healthy family systems do. And if they don’t do it, they disintegrate, because all of this “hey brother” and “hey sister” turns out to just be a lie, and so it comes to feel awkward and cheesy to say it. Are we a family? And are we siblings? Have we been a family all along, or are we just going to try to become one now?

If we’ve been a family all along, then we’re going to need plenty of Jacob and Esau action around here.

For my part, I don’t think we’re a fake family. I think we really are the Family of God. That’s the hard road, the road that’s going to take real soul work. Let’s do it.



Community Organizer. Enemy Lover. Pastor. Practices honest, serious, loving and fun discourse. (Yes, still just practicing.) Author of According to Folly, etc.

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Daniel Heck

Community Organizer. Enemy Lover. Pastor. Practices honest, serious, loving and fun discourse. (Yes, still just practicing.) Author of According to Folly, etc.