Spiritual Orphanages

My friend and neighbor John Gilman produces a regular email letter (that kind of resembles a blog) ... his latest message is entitled "The New Commandment and Spiritual Families". Below is an excerpt from John's message ... I think that it is one of the most insightful writings that I have read lately ... enjoy.

The New Commandment, also called Christ’s Law and also called The Lord’s Commandment:
“Love one another as I have loved you.”
I will maintain in future letters that the apostles and the early church considered this commandment the key concept of their new life in Christ, and the supreme good of their life on earth.

The difference this makes is like the difference between a family and an orphanage. Happy is the baby born into a good family—much happier than one born into a good orphanage. Institutionalized care is not God’s intention. Families are. This is true spiritually. Converts are supposed to be the result of family life and to be born into spiritual families; instead, they are often born into spiritual orphanages. Orphanages run by good people with good programs, but still orphanages[1]. In these institutions, spiritual babies are not getting in-depth loving personal attention; rather, they are getting some classes, recruited to work, and left to make it on their own. Since this is all they see, when they wither they think it is their fault, or that Christianity doesn’t work, or that they should pretend they’ve “found it” and help make the orphanage bigger by making as many babies as possible.

This is a generalization; there are degrees of exceptions. I had a good church experience growing up, and there was a sense of the congregation being a family. We met three times a week plus parties and other events. The congregation was large enough to offer good programs and small enough that everybody knew everybody. On the other hand, there was not a place for in-depth, personal attention, and so these noble God-fearers lived a life of ethical stoicism and closet loneliness. Of course, there are a lot of physical families that don’t experience in-depth, personal attention either.

Socially, we emphasize making good families, and then let babies happen. Spiritually, we are supposed to do the same. Dallas Willard almost says it: “… intend to make disciples and let converts ‘happen,’ rather than intending to make converts and letting disciples ‘happen.’”[2] But since institutions measure success differently than families, our orphanages measure success with what pastor Randy Frazee calls the ABCs of church: attendance, buildings, and cash. I am not against attendance, buildings, and cash, per se. I am for strong spiritual families. The measure of success for a family is far different. (Pastor Frazee has written a book that is the best I’ve read so far on the problem, and he proposes innovative ideas. It is The Connecting Church and it is highly acclaimed by Larry Crabb, Dallas Willard, J.I. Packer, and others. He says many things better than I, and some I hadn’t thought of. Get it and be amazed.[3])

The apostles labored to build strong spiritual families where the members mature and flourish and the family builds itself up in love[4]. Their letters to the churches are mostly about making good spiritual families and only a little about making babies. You make good families, and babies will happen—and thrive. You make babies without families, and they will wither in institutionalized care. It can be argued that we are producing converts to Christian propositions, not love children.

[1] I do not blame the orphanage directors (the pastors); they’ve grown up in an orphanage culture. I just believe every generation of the church is influenced by the age it is in and has to find its particular corrective. Everything the orphanages do is good and biblical, but the most important, fully experiencing the New Commandment, is missing.

[2] “Almost every problem that we see afflicting, paralyzing, and even killing Christians and groups of Christians today would never even arise in a context where the primacy of apprenticeship to Jesus is accepted and developed through a corresponding course of training … the intention to make disciples is essential. It will not happen otherwise. We are, of course, not talking about eliminating nondisciple, consumer Christianity. It has its place. But we are talking about making it secondary, as far as our intentions are concerned. We would intend to make disciples and let converts ‘happen,’ rather than intending to make converts and letting disciples ‘happen.’” The Divine Conspiracy, p304

[3] John Engler reviews the book and makes important observations, pro and con, at: http://www.barnabasministry.com/review-connecting-frazee.html.

[4] Paul in Ephesians 4:1-16: “As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called—one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it…. It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.”


  1. Outstanding. I had never thought of it that way, but now I will never forget it. Thanks!

  2. I was going to say almost exactly what Codepoke said. I have got to go and chew on this some more. I think one of the hardest parts of Christianity is to take "The Great Commission" to it's final command: "and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you".

    To take a spiritual baby into maturity is not a task for the impatient, nor for the proud. Babies need to be fed, bathed, clothed, taught, trained, and even cleaned up (after they have messy diapers).

    I love the thought, K-Bob. I'll surely be delving into it this weekend. Thanks!

  3. KB - I really enjoyed this perspective. Discipleship is so important so that our new "babies" can learn to grow spiritually.


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