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 first part of my review: Strong Group Identity.
(This book is a more popularized, readable, and accessible version of Hellerman’s academic book The Ancient Church as Family.)
Hellerman begins this book by describing the strong group identity of the ancient Mediterranean region. From Old Testament, New Testament, and other sources, he demonstrates that the needs of the groups was more important than the needs of the individual. Through various scriptural and historical accounts, Hellerman shows that people often made decisions for the good of the group instead of making decisions for the good of the individual.
Next, Hellerman goes a step further to describe the type of strong group identity that is found in that time and region. The people did not form their own groups, but they instead found their identity in their father’s family – that is, it was a partrilineal group. Thus, father, brothers, and sisters were more important than the spouse or the spouse’s family.
This sounds very strange to our Western, individualistic minds. In fact, it sounds wrong. But, this is not a matter of right and wrong. Instead, if we wish to understand the significance of familial language in the New Testament, we must approach the Scriptures from this point of view.
Thus, when the first Christians began following Christ, they were not just accepting a new God, they were joining a new family – a family that immediately took precedence over all other group bonds and relationships, and a family that immediately became more important than the individual.
How important? Well, to the extent that the new family would make decisions for one another – life decisions such as where a person would live, who a person would marry, what a person would do for a living. Again, this sounds very strange to our mindsets, but that is only because we have bought into an individualistic mindset. Since the new family affected both a person’s life and decisions, I will cover those aspects of the book in separate posts in the review.
Hellerman successfully describes the strong group identity of the first Christians, and he successfully places the New Testament teachings within that cultural milieu. More importantly, Hellerman recognizes how different this way of thinking is to modern American (and other Western) ways of thinking.
For those who recognize the benefit of this kind of life – that is, a life that is focused on the group instead of the individual – it should also become immediately apparent that adding a program or an activity will not affect this type of change. Instead, moving toward “church as family” requires a paradigm shift – a different way of thinking.
While the author covers several aspects of this different way of thinking, two stand out to me: 1) Sharing Life Together, and 2) Leadership and Decision Making. I will examine each of these different ways of thinking in the next two parts of this post as I continue to review and interact with When the Church Was a Family.