Tag Archives: Family

When the Church Was a Family

When the Church Was a Family by Joseph H. Hellerman, (2009; B&H Publishing) is one of those books that is revealing, refreshing and readable all at once.  Hellerman unveils history’s curtain for us to peer into the pagan culture during the time of the early church and get a sense of how life was experienced by our fellow believers in those ancient times.

Yet it’s more than that. Hellerman teaches us how the culture of the ancient family, so different from our Western families, was impressed upon the church back then.  When people came to faith in Jesus, they understood that their loyalties and familial allegiances were radically switched. This was no easy thing for the Christian to do. Often it meant severe rejection and ostracism by one’s own blood-family; which also had negative ramifications within one’s own village or city. To understand the dynamics of what real faith and conversion meant to believers in the early church helps us to see how radical, daring and even severe it was to trust in Christ.

As Hellerman teaches us what life was like in that day, he also contrasts the family culture of the ancients with the individualistic culture of our time.  It is this assessment that underscored how our individualistic, disconnected and often dysfunctional family life has impacted the way we view and behave within God’s family. I think his critique, sadly, is spot on.

However, at the same time, the book is refreshing because most of it presents the many positive features of becoming a genuine, loyal member of Jesus’ family.  These features made my heart long for the kind of love, affection, intimacy, loyalty and connectedness these believers experienced together as a Christian family.  These qualities Hellerman unfolds for us is the reason I highly recommend this book.

Here are some excerpts:

Spiritual formation occurs primarily in the context of community. People who remain connected with their brothers and sisters in the local church almost invariably grow in self-understanding, and they mature in their ability to relate in healthy ways to God and to their fellow human beings. This is especially the case for those courageous Christians who stick it out through the often messy process of interpersonal discord and conflict resolution. Long-term interpersonal relationships are the crucible of genuine progress in the Christian life.   Hellerman, Joseph H. (2009). When the Church Was a Family (Kindle Locations 43-47). B&H Publishing.

 

Social scientists have a label for the pervasive cultural orientation of modern American society that makes it so difficult for us to stay connected and grow together in community with one another. They call it radical individualism.   Hellerman, Joseph H. (2009). When the Church Was a Family (Kindle Locations 109-110). B&H Publishing.

 

The New Testament picture of the church as a family flies in the face of our individualistic cultural orientation. God’s intention is not to become the feel-good Father of a myriad of isolated individuals who appropriate the Christian faith as yet another avenue toward personal enlightenment. Nor is the biblical Jesus to be conceived of as some sort of spiritual mentor whom we can happily take from church to church, or from marriage to marriage, fully assured that our personal Savior will somehow bless…   Hellerman, Joseph H. (2009). When the Church Was a Family (Kindle Locations 170-174). B&H Publishing.

 

The “let us meet your needs” approach to marketing the church, which became so popular among baby boomers in the 1980s and 1990s, has only served further to socialize our people to “prefer a variety of church experiences, rather than getting the most out of all that a single church has to offer.”1   Hellerman, Joseph H. (2009). When the Church Was a Family (Kindle Locations 213-215). B&H Publishing.

 

We don’t desire growth for growth’s sake but rather a community that grows slowly through natural introductions. We don’t measure our success by numeric growth. We have decided to measure by other means, such as, How long do relationships last? Are members of the community at peace with one another? Are relationships reconciled?3   Hellerman, Joseph H. (2009). When the Church Was a Family (Kindle Locations 243-245). B&H Publishing.

 

Renewal movements have historically tended to emphasize church practice and the various expressions of the Christian life, while giving less attention to careful theological reflection and lessons learned from church history.   When the Church Was a Family (Kindle Locations 260-261). B&H Publishing.

 

[In a strong-group society] the person perceives himself or herself to be a member of a group and responsible to the group for his or her actions, destiny, career, development, and life in general. Correspondingly he/she perceives other persons primarily in terms of the groups to which they belong. The individual person is embedded in the group and is free to do what he or she feels right and necessary only if in accord with group norms and only if the action is in the group’s best interest. The group has priority over the individual member, and it may use objects in the environment, other groups of people in the society, and the members of   Hellerman, Joseph H. (2009). When the Church Was a Family (Kindle Locations 370-375). B&H Publishing.

 

American men (and increasingly women), define themselves primarily by what they do, by their individual achievements. Our personal identities are rooted in how we answer the vocation question and in what we accomplish in our pursuits in the working world.   Hellerman, Joseph H. (2009). When the Church Was a Family (Kindle Locations 535-537). B&H Publishing. [Note: Hellerman contrasts how in the family or group culture, one’s identity was so knitted into the family unit that he could not easily perceive of himself or herself as totally independent from the family or group. The author points out both the obvious and not-so obvious implications for such connectedness.]

 

The choices we possess in our radically individualistic society have come at a tremendous emotional price. We pay dearly in the stress department for our freedom to decide for ourselves, and as a result many of us are now emotionally bankrupt. How much inner turmoil, how much soul searching and self-evaluation, how much pressure do we experience in individualistic America as we make—and take personal responsibility   Hellerman, Joseph H. (2009). When the Church Was a Family (Kindle Locations 584-586). B&H Publishing.

 

As Bellah and others have observed, the origin and popularity of clinical psychology can be directly traced to the increasingly individualistic slant of Western relational values. In other words, the great majority of people on this planet never needed therapy until society began to dump the responsibility for making life’s major decisions squarely upon the lonely shoulders of the individual. Our freedoms, as intoxicating and exhilarating as they often are, have pushed us over the edge emotionally. We are reaping the consequences of decisions that were never meant to be made—and lives that were never meant to be lived—in isolation.   Hellerman, Joseph H. (2009). When the Church Was a Family (Kindle Locations 671-675). B&H Publishing.

 

But in a number of instances, the people in our congregation utilize psychotherapy as just another resource to enable them to continue along their own selfish quest for personal autonomy, an autonomy that seeks to escape—rather than courageously to engage—painful, real-life relationships.   Hellerman, Joseph H. (2009). When the Church Was a Family (Kindle Locations 693-695). B&H Publishing.

 

Pastors (if we are honest with ourselves) will acknowledge a similarly unimpressive won-lost record in our gallant but often futile attempts to grow our people in the context of relational accountability.   Hellerman, Joseph H. (2009). When the Church Was a Family (Kindle Locations 699-700). B&H Publishing.

 

As reasonable as all this sounds, for the Christian faith a neutral approach to cultural differences proves highly problematic where the distinction between strong-group and weak-group societies is concerned. The reason for this is quite transparent. The collectivist social model is deeply woven into the very fabric of the gospel itself.   Hellerman, Joseph H. (2009). When the Church Was a Family (Kindle Locations 714-716). B&H Publishing.

 

My soul takes pleasure in three things and they are beautiful in the sight of the Lord and of men: agreement between siblings, friendship between neighbors, and a wife and husband who live in harmony. (Sirach 25:1)   Hellerman, Joseph H. (2009). When the Church Was a Family (Kindle Locations 783-785). B&H Publishing.

 

There are striking differences between the way we do family and the way that strong-group cultures conceive of family relationships.   Hellerman, Joseph H. (2009). When the Church Was a Family (Kindle Locations 805-806). B&H Publishing.

 

While marriage was important for those reasons, the closest same-generation family relationship was not the one between husband and wife. It was the bond between siblings.   Hellerman, Joseph H. (2009). When the Church Was a Family (Kindle Locations 817-818). B&H Publishing.

 

It is imperative to recognize, however, that the way in which Americans do family would have been quite foreign to first-century sensibilities. The early church functioned like an ancient Mediterranean family—not a modern American family. We need to resist the temptation to read our idea of “brother” or “sister” into the biblical text. Instead, we must learn to grasp the way in which “brother” would resonate with a strong-group person, since the New Testament church family model reflects the relational values and priorities of kinship systems in the first-century world.   Hellerman, Joseph H. (2009). When the Church Was a Family (Kindle Locations 823-827). B&H Publishing.

 

In Mediterranean antiquity, blood runs deeper than romantic love.   Hellerman, Joseph H. (2009). When the Church Was a Family (Kindle Location 864). B&H Publishing.

 

[M]arriage in Mediterranean antiquity: Marriage, therefore, is a legal and social contract between two families for (1) the promotion of the status of each, (2) the production of legitimate offspring, and (3) the appropriate preservation and transferal of property to the next generation.2   Hellerman, Joseph H. (2009). When the Church Was a Family (Kindle Locations 867-870). B&H Publishing.

 

• The closest family bond in ancient Mediterranean society was not the bond of marriage. It was the bond between siblings. • Correspondingly, the most treacherous act of human disloyalty in an ancient family was not disloyalty to one’s spouse. It was the betrayal of one’s brother.   Hellerman, Joseph H. (2009). When the Church Was a Family (Kindle Locations 896-899). B&H Publishing.

 

Based on what we have learned we can expand our list of key principles: Principle #1: In the New Testament world the group took priority over the individual. Principle #2: In the New Testament world a person’s most important group was his blood family. Principle #3: In the New Testament world the closest family bond was not the bond of marriage. It was the bond between siblings. Corollary 1 The central value that characterized ancient family relations was the obligation to demonstrate undying loyalty toward one’s blood brothers and sisters. Corollary 2 The most treacherous act of human disloyalty was not disloyalty to one’s spouse. It was the betrayal of one’s brother.  Hellerman, Joseph H. (2009). When the Church Was a Family (Kindle Locations 1129-1137). B&H Publishing.

 

So this is how a New Testament believer would have conceived of his relationship to his church family: What this means is, first of all, that the person perceives himself or herself to be a member of a church and responsible to the church for his or her actions, destiny, career, development, and life in general. . . . The individual person is embedded in the church and is free to do what he or she feels right and necessary only if in accord with church norms and only if the action is in the church’s best interest. The church has priority over the individual member.8   Hellerman, Joseph H. (2009). When the Church Was a Family (Kindle Locations 1151-1155). B&H Publishing.

 

He said, “Here are My mother and My brothers! Whoever does the will of God is My brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:31–35) These words, spoken in the hearing of a large crowd, were utterly scandalous in the cultural context in which Jesus lived. In   the social world of Jewish Palestine, Jesus, as the oldest surviving male in His family (we may presume that His father Joseph had died), was responsible to defend the honor of, and provide leadership for, His patrilineal kinship group. In a single stroke Jesus dishonored Himself and His family by refusing to exercise that crucial family role. And He did so in a public setting.   Hellerman, Joseph H. (2009). When the Church Was a Family (Kindle Locations 1252-1254). B&H Publishing.

 

The way we handle these disconcerting sayings is quite revealing. In our efforts to understand what Jesus said about family, we generally set aside these passages and begin to develop our theology of family from the more positive teachings. We gravitate toward those portions of the Gospels in which Jesus exhorts His followers to honor their parents or to refrain from divorce. Only after we have persuaded ourselves that Jesus is truly family-friendly do we return to the thorny passages cited above and somehow try to fit them into a pro-family reading of the Gospels.   Hellerman, Joseph H. (2009). When the Church Was a Family (Kindle Locations 1259-1263). B&H Publishing.

 

It is simply to observe that the Jesus of the Gospels often seems to be concerned with something quite different than the material typically found in our creeds and statements of faith.   Hellerman, Joseph H. (2009). When the Church Was a Family (Kindle Locations 1315-1316). B&H Publishing.

 

The operative question for the first-century Palestinians who were confronted with the miracles and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth was not What is Jesus like? The operative question was What is God like?   Hellerman, Joseph H. (2009). When the Church Was a Family (Kindle Locations 1319-1321). B&H Publishing.

 

The right-hand side of the chart approaches the Jesus question from an entirely different angle. Here we are not asking, What is Jesus like? We are asking, What is God like? Since Jesus claimed to be speaking and acting on God’s behalf, we ought to be able to answer this question by observing Jesus in action. If we want to find out what God is like, we simply observe what Jesus said and did. Pretty straightforward. Yet this is precisely where Jesus’ contemporaries in first-century Palestine had a serious problem with Him.   Hellerman, Joseph H. (2009). When the Church Was a Family (Kindle Locations 1341-1345). B&H Publishing.

 

By behaving in a totally counter-cultural way and by demonstrating His right to do so with stupendous signs and wonders, Jesus was asserting to His contemporaries, “God is not like you think He is—God is like me!”   Hellerman, Joseph H. (2009). When the Church Was a Family (Kindle Locations 1357-1359). B&H Publishing.

 

As history has repeatedly demonstrated, the church can hold unequivocally to orthodox Nicene Christology—Jesus is God—and nevertheless assume that this “God” somehow affirms or desires the forced conversion of unbelievers (Charlemagne), the destruction of indigenous peoples in the name of Manifest Destiny (American colonists), human slavery (Euro-American enslavement of Africans), or racial apartheid (South Africa)—just to mention a few of the atrocities perpetrated by persons who claimed to be followers of Jesus.   Hellerman, Joseph H. (2009). When the Church Was a Family (Kindle Locations 1373-1377). B&H Publishing.

 

The earthly ministry of Jesus of Nazareth constitutes the one time in the history of humanity when heaven fully and finally came to earth. In Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, we have the opportunity to see the question What is God like? answered in the flesh-and-blood world in which we live. During His incarnation Jesus not only procured our way to heaven. He also showed us how to live on earth.   Hellerman, Joseph H. (2009). When the Church Was a Family (Kindle Locations 1388-1391). B&H Publishing.

 

The loyalty conflict is not about making a choice between God and people. Rather, it is about choosing between one group of people and another—between our natural family and our eternal family. Recall from the previous chapter the three central social values of the ancient Mediterranean world: 1. In the New Testament world the group took priority over the individual. 2. In the New Testament world a person’s most important group was his family. 3. In the New Testament world the closest family bond was the bond between siblings.   Hellerman, Joseph H. (2009). When the Church Was a Family (Kindle Locations 1427-1434). B&H Publishing.

 

[W]e see that Jesus’ concept of the family of God was tangibly realized through the sharing of material resources, as Jesus and certain of His followers traveled together. Here is a group of people, unrelated by blood, who nevertheless spent a significant period of their lives together and who related to each other according to the standards of ancient kinship solidarity. They understood themselves to be a surrogate family.   Hellerman, Joseph H. (2009). When the Church Was a Family (Kindle Locations 1489-1492). B&H Publishing.

Apparently, leaving one’s father and following Jesus constitutes for Mark a paradigmatic example of what it means to “Repent and believe in the good news!” Again, exchanging one family for another is at the very heart of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. Luke 14:26  Hellerman, Joseph H. (2009). When the Church Was a Family (Kindle Locations 1539-1541). B&H Publishing.

 

I. H. Marshall draws for background upon a Hebrew root that has the sense “to leave aside, abandon.”5 A. Jacobson agrees: “‘Hate’ here probably does not mean ‘dislike intensely’ but ‘sever one’s relationship with’ the family.”6   Hellerman, Joseph H. (2009). When the Church Was a Family (Kindle Locations 1547-1549). B&H Publishing.

 

N. T. Wright, in a ground-breaking study of the life of Jesus, asserted that “the only explanation for Jesus’ astonishing command is that he envisaged loyalty to himself and his kingdom-movement as creating an alternative family.”9   Hellerman, Joseph H. (2009). When the Church Was a Family (Kindle Locations 1583-1585). B&H Publishing.

 

This is a key point. In the markedly collectivist social setting of rural Galilee, people would not simply have related to a prophet-teacher like Jesus as isolated individuals. Jesus would have been much more than their “personal Savior.” They would have joined His group. As   Hellerman, Joseph H. (2009). When the Church Was a Family (Kindle Locations 1589-1591). B&H Publishing.

 

An ideal and not uncommon situation, we might surmise, would see the conversion of a whole household, with the disciple’s natural family embedded in, and serving the mission of, the dominant surrogate family of faith. In this case there would be no conflict of loyalties. But even here the natural family existed to serve the designs of the family of God, and not vice-versa. The focus was on the church—not on the family. And where conflict between the natural family and God’s family did arise, the faith family was to become the primary locus of relational solidarity.   Hellerman, Joseph H. (2009). When the Church Was a Family (Kindle Locations 1619-1623). B&H Publishing.

 

(1st) God — (2nd) Family — (3rd) Church — (4th) Others This list of priorities misses the whole point of the above discussion. The strong-group outlook of the New Testament church meant that the early Christians did not sharply distinguish between commitment to God and commitment to God’s family. Cyprian   Hellerman, Joseph H. (2009). When the Church Was a Family (Kindle Locations 1628-1631). B&H Publishing.

 

Jesus and His followers did not define loyalty to God solely in terms of a low-group, individualistic “personal relationship” with Jesus. Nor, by the way, did they define it as loyalty to the church as an institutional organization (more on this later). For the early Christians, loyalty to God found its tangible daily expression in unswerving loyalty to God’s group, the family of surrogate siblings who called Him “Father.” This is the lens through which we need to read Jesus’ variegated teachings about family in the Gospels. People in Mediterranean antiquity had to leave one family in order to join another. If we are truly serious about returning to our biblical roots, where our relationships with our fellow human beings are concerned, our priority list should probably look something like this: (1st) God’s Family — (2nd) My Family — (3rd) Others   Hellerman, Joseph H. (2009). When the Church Was a Family (Kindle Locations 1638-1645). B&H Publishing.

 

 

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Filed under Book Review and Excerpts, Book Review and Excerpts on the Church, Church as Family