As Christian families consider what it means to live for the Lord as families, one important question they should ask themselves is this: “What are we known for?”
Within your neighborhood, you may be known for your dog, your mailbox, or the volume of the stereo as you drive home in the evening. Many houses are recognizable by the smell when you walk in the door—and similarly, households have a particular aroma. In Christian households, we hope to find an all-pervading fragrance of love. One of the great evidences of the fact that Jesus Christ is alive from the dead is found in the aroma of the loving lifestyles of Christian families.
Admittedly, families are often a source of great strife, and no one can or should try to control their wife or husband, their son or daughter, their mother or father. None of us can choose Christian obedience for anyone else. And so we need to show a great deal of understanding to one another when our households have an unpleasant “odor.” Many loving and obedient Christians have been a part of unhealthy families. Yet we also need to understand what we are seeking, what we are praying for, and what we are working for as we trust God to work in our families. What does a healthy Christian household look like? If we understand this, we can help lead our families on this path by God’s grace, and we can seek to be obedient as individuals even if others in our families resist God’s call.
In 1 Corinthians 16, Paul holds up the household of Stephanas as just such a family. They were “firm in the faith,” they were “strong,” and all that they did, they did it “in love” (vv. 13–14). Paul says that we ought to pay attention to families such as this one, and he suggests three ways that they had a godly aroma in the ungodly city of Corinth.
The first thing Paul says about Stephanas’s family is that they were converted: “You know that the household of Stephanas were the first converts in Achaia” (1 Cor. 16:15). We’re not told that they were religious people. We’re not told that they were churchgoing people. We’re told that they were converted people. They were once in darkness, but now they were walking as children of the light (Eph. 5:8). In other words, the household of Stephanas had heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit had illuminated their hearts to understand and believe it, and so they had confessed faith in Jesus and were marked as those living under His lordship together.
One of the great evidences of the fact that Jesus Christ is alive from the dead is found in the aroma of the loving lifestyles of Christian families.
The reason many households do not have the aroma of Christ is simply that they are full of people who do not yet know Him. A family does not become godly through parenting styles, disciplinary strategies, dinner-table prayers, or family devotions—good and helpful as all those things can be. A family becomes godly when its members encounter God in Christ and are transformed by the Holy Spirit. So if we wish to see our family reflect the love of God, we need to do all in our power to make clear to them that Jesus is the person He claimed to be and the Savior they need. We need to be persistent in prayer for them and faithful in communicating the Gospel to them. We have been called to a ministry of Gospel persuasion and proclamation—in both word and deed—to all our family members, whether they are nine or ninety years old.
And if your household does believe, ask yourself: Is it known as a converted household? Can others see that there is something different about you all? It ought to be no secret to those around you that you are a family that has a Savior in Christ and that by trusting unreservedly in Him, you have been changed, forgiven, ransomed, restored, and so on. Our friends and neighbors ought not to look at us and say simply, “Those are good people.” Remember, Jesus Himself said, “No one is good except God alone” (Luke 18:19). So even if they don’t believe quite it themselves, they ought to look and say, “There is a family that loves Jesus Christ.”
Stephanas’s family also understood that conversion is not a terminus; it’s a starting point. And so we read that once they had been converted, they “devoted themselves to the service of the saints” (1 Cor. 16:15, emphasis added).
Devotion is simply what conversion leads to and then looks like on the outside. Just as a newly married couple gazes at one another without command, the converts didn’t need to be encouraged to be devoted. It was only natural! A lack of devotion to Christ their Savior would be a sure sign of poor spiritual health, just as it is a bad sign in a new marriage. If we find ourselves and our families lacking devotion, then, we ought, with great humility, to go back and examine our conversion.
How does such devotion reveal itself? One doesn’t simply sit in a corner alone, turn one’s stomach a certain way, and say, “I am devoting.” For Stephanas’s household, as for each of ours, devotion was to reveal itself specifically in service to God’s people. In the story about the sheep and the goats before the throne of judgment, Jesus taught His disciples that serving others was the same as serving Him: “As you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (Matt. 25:40). Paul also says elsewhere, “Let us do good to everyone,” adding, “especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Gal. 6:10, emphasis added). Devotion to Christ overflows in love to everyone, and it feels a special responsibility for the needs of the brothers and sisters in Christ.
Finally, let’s note that the Stephanas household “devoted themselves.” Devotion, in other words, isn’t something that just happens to us; it is a self-imposed duty. The Holy Spirit gives devotion to Christians along with the faith of conversion, but we still exercise our wills in the process. Parenting styles, disciplinary strategies, dinner-table prayers, family devotions, and other habits and duties may not save us by their own power, but by God’s grace, they can stir our families up “to love and good works” (Heb. 10:24) as we seek to establish our devotion to God together.
Among the services that this family gave to the saints, Paul remembers a particular one that Stephanas himself gave: “I rejoice at the coming of Stephanas and Fortunatus and Achaicus, … for they refreshed my spirit as well as yours” (1 Cor. 16:17–18). In other words, they encouraged him. They offered him fellowship and companionship that recharged him and helped him in his ministry. Stephanas and his companions were refreshing to be around, and they built up those with whom they spent their time.
Togetherness in Christ builds up, heals, and restores. Togetherness protects us from danger, disappointment, disaster, and difficulty. “Like cold water to a thirsty soul,” says Solomon, “so is good news from a far country” (Prov. 25:25). These three men came walking in from a distant land, and Paul said, “I was glad when they arrived. I was lacking; they filled me up. I was exhausted; they refreshed my spirit, and yours also.” While we all need time to ourselves, there is no Christian who doesn’t also need regular provision, encouragement, and refreshing from their brothers and sisters in Christ.
Is your household a place of encouragement? Do the words and works of your family build up and refresh, or do you tear down and exhaust one another? Is your home a place of refuge or a place from which your family members flee at the first opportunity? Fathers, do you “provoke your children to anger,” or do you exercise godly discipline with self-control (Eph. 6:4)? Children, do you honor your father and mother and submit to their discipline (Eph. 6:1–3), or do you bristle at their authority and make parenting a chore for them? Wives, do you submit to your husbands “as the church submits to Christ” (Eph. 5:24)? Husbands, do you love and lay down your lives for your wives at every opportunity (Eph. 5:25–33)? Is your home a place of hospitality, where others feel welcomed and comfortable?
Togetherness in Christ builds up, heals, and restores. Togetherness protects us from danger, disappointment, disaster, and difficulty.
Families are often a place of special strife such as can be found in few other environments. Few people can “bite and devour one another” (Gal. 5:15) like those who live in close proximity and know each other intimately. But it need not be this way. As households are converted to faith in Christ and grow together in devotion through service, they can become places of blessing unlike any other in the world.
A Household Worth Knowing
As Paul praises the godly virtues of Stephanas’s family, he also moves beyond the realm of family life to the wider life of the church, urging the other Corinthian believers to “be subject to such as these” (1 Cor. 16:16) and says of Stephanas and his two companions, “Give recognition to such people” (v. 18). It is appropriate for the church to show honor to individuals and families who display godly virtues and to follow their leadership as they follow Christ together.
Stephanas and his household were leaders in the church—but not the sort that walk around with a clipboard, telling others what to do. “Clipboard leadership” can kill a church. What most churches need, what most families need, are a few folks with the dirt underneath their fingernails, eager to lead through example. Stephanas’s family helped lead the Corinthian church by putting on the apron of humility and lovingly serving and encouraging others out of devotion to Christ.
Faithful ministry isn’t just about formal teaching. Even the word ministry, after all, doesn’t mean “teaching”; it actually means “service.” Within God’s family and the many families that comprise it, some are involved in service that seems inconsequential because of its low profile. Some are involved in service that seems shameful because it largely is undesirable. Some are involved in faithful ministry that can seem useless because those who are served don’t always respond to it. While such service may seem negligible, it is actually crucial to the health of God’s household. We ought to recognize and build up our brothers and sisters who serve humbly in such roles, and we ought to follow humbly in their footsteps.
Whether our churches will have an impact on our communities will not solely, or even primarily, depend on high-profile servants like the preachers; it will be related to ordinary people faithfully following in the footsteps of Stephanas and his household. As we depend on God’s grace to shape us, may we, too, make it known that Jesus is alive through that same aroma of love, service, and devotion.