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 second part of my review: Sharing Life Together.
As I mentioned in the first part of this review (Strong Group Identity), Hellerman demonstrates in this book that the early church saw itself as a new group – God’s new family – with a strong group identity in which the group becomes more important than the individual and more important than any other group. This type of group identity affected the way these early Christians lived.
The problem in Western culture is that our individualized way of thinking has left us unable to contemplate sharing life with other people. As Hellerman states:
As cultural analysts will tell us, people in our relationally fragmented, increasingly isolated, techno-culture are highly sensitive to the need for healthy relationships with their fellow human beings. We long for community, but our own family experiences have often left us painfully aware of the tremendous difficulties involved in cultivating such relationships with the resources the secular world has to offer. We are left wholly unequipped to satisfy our deepest relational longings and needs. (pg 138-139)
Thus, the images in Scripture of early Christians sharing not just the gospel but their lives with one another is very appealing, but also very confusing to modern readers. While many would love to share in that type of community, few realize or are willing to sacrifice what it takes to get there.
For example, Hellerman covers four “New Testament family values”: 1) We share our stuff with one another, 2) We share our hearts with one another, 3) We stay, embrace the pain, and grow up with one another, and 4) Family is about more than me, the wife, and the kids. (pg 145)
Even these four family values demonstrate that community life begins by giving, not getting. It begins with pain, not comfort. Although life in a New Testament community can be encouraging, beneficial, comforting, caring, etc., there will also be friction and disagreement, especially as believers learn to shift from an individualistic mindset to a group mindset. (Of course, there would have been some friction among those first Christians as well, but they would not require a paradigm shift, only a group shift – which can still be painful!)
Sharing material possessions, time, hopes, dreams, tears, decisions, etc. does not come readily for modern Western thinkers. We’ve been taught to demand our own rights and to strike out on our own if necessary. Thus, we never move through the pain of giving in order to live in a real community. (I wrote about this previously in a post called “The depths of community.”)
Another difficulty for modern believers is the lack of example. There are very few people willing to live in and demonstrate community for us. Even many leaders are more interested in making decisions than in being part of a community. Then, once we find a community, we find that it looks nothing like our community. Believe it or not, this is natural. Hellerman says:
What would Christianity look like if we truly recaptured Jesus’ vision for authentic Christian community? It would likely vary considerably from person to person and from church to church, since the surrogate family values we observed among the early Christians would manifest themselves in different ways in different church environments. The values themselves – group loyalty and sharing of material resources, for example – would remain much the same. But these fundamental expressions of social solidarity would surely express themselves in our churches in a myriad of ways. (pg 144)
So, as we share our lives together – beginning with each person sacrificing their own rights for the benefit of the group – the community that forms would probably look different than another Christian community. Each community is made of people (obviously) and all the people are different (obviously), so we should expect the communities to look different, although they will share common values as directed by the Holy Spirit who indwells both the individuals and the community.
Two particular ways that we share life together as a community are in the areas of decision making and leadership. I will discuss these community/family concepts in the next part of my review and interaction of When the Church Was a Family.