Joseph H. Hellerman’s book When the Church Was a Family: Recapturing Jesus’ Vision for Authentic Christian Community is more than a book about the church, but it is certainly not less than a book about the church. Given the importance I place on the church identifying and living as a family, I am going to review this book in three parts: Strong Group Identity, Sharing Life Together, and Decision Making and Leadership. This post contains the third part of my review: Decision Making and Leadership.
Of the three parts of my review, this one will probably be the most difficult for Western thinkers. Why? Because aside from our personal times, individualistic thinkers pride themselves on making their own decisions.
But, according to Hellerman, one of the aspects of strong group thinking is shared decision making, both decisions that affect the group and decisions that seemingly only affect the individual. Why? Because all decisions actually affect the group. This includes life decisions such as occupation, marriage, and place to live.
[B]ig decisions are best made in community, in the context of the church family – especially big family decisions. (pg 168)
More than advice-seeking is at work here. It will not do simply to challenge American evangelicals, who otherwise live life as isolated individuals, to seek counsel from others only when they come to a defining fork in the road of life. In the strong-group church family model, input from others is a way of life, not a resource to occasionally draw on as one of several items on a checklist that purports to tell us how to find God’s will for our lives…
This is quite important because what I am advocating here is not an institutional program… More often than not, input comes in a less structured, more organic way, as long-term relationships with brothers and sisters in the church family provide the natural context for speaking wisdom into one another’s lives in a variety of settings. (pg 170-171)
Hellerman recognizes that Christian leaders can be helpful in making decisions, but he says that most decisions should be made in the context of the whole church. Unfortunately, I think Hellerman’s examples fail him at this point. All of his examples (unless I missed some) were of church leaders (pastors) instructing individuals about decisions they should make. I wish he would have included many examples of community-wide decision making that affected individuals. (I’ll touch on this point again later in this review and interaction.)
Hellerman suggests several methods of helping a church organization transition to a “family-oriented church model” – recognizing that this is not a model to be implemented but a different way of understanding and living life. He says that the content of teaching and reconsidering the social context can be very beneficial.
What does he mean by “reconsider the social context”? He says:
But teaching our people about the church as a family will not suffice to alter deeply ingrained patterns of behavior. We must also reevaluate the social contexts of church life, the ways in which our ministries are executed. The priority most churches place upon the success of the Sunday service subtly but powerfully communicates the message that this impersonal, once-a-week social environment is quintessentially what “church” is all about… [S]o it is essential to provide for our people the kind of social settings in which church family relations can be experienced firsthand. (pg 177-178)
I think Hellerman is correct that we (that is, all believers) should recognize that all interactions with other believers are important. (This is one of the reasons that I started my “Church Life” series.) I would add that it is also possible to make the Sunday (or weekly) meeting of the church less of an “impersonal, once-a-week social environment.” The church meeting can be very personal and interactive, but we must be willing to change from our current models and ways of meeting together.
Finally, in a strong group community such as Hellerman describes (that is, the type of community that he finds in the New Testament), he recognizes that there exists the danger of abuse, especially from leaders. Hellerman says that following the biblical mandates of plural leaders and servant leaders will help to balance this danger.
I would also add that removing the decision-making authority from leaders will also balance this danger. Remember that when Jesus spoke to his disciples about the way worldly leaders exercised authority, he said, “It shall not be so among you.” That is pretty clear to me. In the church, leaders are servants, not decision makers. Decision making is the responsibility of the whole church together.
I would hope that the church would recognize mature, serving people as their leaders, and that those leaders would offer godly guidance and wisdom. But, the responsibility to make decisions should remain the function of the church, not the leaders.
In the last few years, my thinking about the church has changed drastically. Primarily, my understanding of the church has changed because I recognize that the church is a family – not that the church should become a family, but that the church is a family. Thus, many of the statements in this book are familiar to me. However, Hellerman brings up many aspects of family and strong group life that remain difficult for me to consider. But, I must consider these aspects of family life as well.
I would recommend this book to any Christian. For many, this book will help them along a journey that they have already started (like me). For others, this book may begin to put some pieces into place. For still others, what Hellerman writes will sound strange, impossible, and undesirable. But, for all of us, I think Hellerman can help us understand more clearly what the New Testament authors wrote. It remains to be seen what our response to that understanding will be.