A few days ago, a good friend of mine acquired a book by Abraham J. Malherbe called Social Aspects of Early Christianity (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1977). The title of one chapter caught my attention: “House Churches and Their Problems”. This post and the next post will be based on some of the excepts from this chapter.
Malherbe begins by discussing some of the circumstances concerning the first century Roman civilization that contributed to the expansion of the church: road systems, hospitality, and household communities. In particular, he suggests that understanding households in early Christianity is important to understanding both how the gospel spread, and how the early Christians viewed themselves in relation to other Christians.
He begins by explaining that in the first century Roman world, the household included immediate family as well as slaves, freedmen, servants, laborers, and sometimes business associates and tenants. He explains how early Christians viewed themselves as a household:
Converts would join themselves to a household church during its earliest period of growth in a particular locality. The household character of a church would be retained as it became a community with a broader constituency than it originally had. The converts also had demands placed upon them, which heightened the exclusiveness of the group. When they spoke of “outsiders,” early Christians revealed their minority group mind-set. They believed that they had been called to a higher quality of life than could be expected of their society, and they took measures to safeguard it through their communities. The implications of the preaching that called the communities into existence had to be worked out by those communities, which were private, voluntary organizations. This means that early Christians did not see themselves as isolated individuals; and the nature of those communities becomes clearer to us when we see them as household communities. It is striking how often the New Testament deals with issues in relation to the Christian community. [69-70]
In this regard, it is “striking” how few instructions are given to individuals (you [singular], he, or she), and how many instructions are given to groups (we, you [plural], or they). Malherbe suggests that this is one indication that the early Christians saw themselves as part of a family – not simply as individuals – and that they related to one another as members of a household.
While many theologians prefer to study the church using the metaphors of people of God, body of Christ, and temple of the Holy Spirit, I believe that the family metaphor is much more prominent in Scripture. Malherbe’s connection of early Christian communities with the Greco-Roman household reinforces my view. These believers did not see themselves as individuals who all happened to experience the same thing (i.e. salvation). Instead, through God’s work, they recognized that their existence was now defined in a new way: they were brothers and sisters with God as their father. (Note: This family metaphor – if it is a metaphor – is also demonstrated in the language of adoption and in the various family ethical codes which Paul and Peter included in their letters, as well as the titles of “brother”, “sister”, and “children” found throughout Scripture.)
Perhaps we have lost some of the understanding of what it means to be a family because we define “family” in more narrow terms. In modern (western) society, the family is composed of parents and children. Occasionally, an extended family member is added to the nuclear family in a close relationship. However, for the most part, we do not consider other people as part of our family, even if these other people spend large amounts of time with us and even if these other people depend on us for their livelihood. Thus, there may be people who would be included in our family – household – in the first century, but today we exclude these people from our household.
Similarly, since we have narrowly defined family and household as those who are the closest related to us by birth and/or marriage, we miss the implications of other believers being our brothers and sisters, and view it as nothing more than a nice way of saying that we are acquainted with them. Instead, as members of the same household, with God as our father, we are to live with one another just as husbands and wives, parents and children, masters and slaves relied upon, cared for, trained, submitted to, and honored one another in the first century. Just as others could be accepted into the household in the first century without regard to a physical (blood) relationship, we are to accept others into our household of faith, offering them the same privileges, rights, and responsibilities as other family members.
Then, in this mutual relationship between brothers and sisters in mutual relation to the Father, the good of the individual and the desire of the individual and the hopes of the inidividual become intertwined with the benefit of the family. This is why Paul tells us to consider others as better than ourselves and to look out for the interest of others instead of our own interests – with Jesus Christ, our elder brother, as the supreme example of how to give up ourselves for the sake of others.
In God’s household, there is no place for the autonomous individual who seeks his own desires and wants his own way without regard for the desires and needs of the family – unless, of course, he is a new member of the family. In that case, the autonomous individual needs more mature brothers and sisters to help him mature as well.