I've seen this question come up a lot lately. I saw it in this blog post here last week. Ben Witherington says it's not.
A lot of people are pointing out that Jesus did not exactly triumph the family first mindset that many preach today. Some are going so far as to say it is unbiblical to care for your family first. Jesus famously even called us in Luke 14:26 to "hate their father and mother."
A book I read this last spring for a seminary class, "When the church was a Family" said so too.
Below is my review of that book... and why I think both Ben Witherington and Joseph Hellerman are overstating their case about the family in ways that if fully taken to heart, will only perpetuate and hurt the family in ways that for the last several hundred years the church -and especially the evangelical pastorate- have been notorious for.
This is a long and theological blog post. Beyond what I normally do, as it is essentially a seminary paper on my blog. If it interests you and you want to wrestle with this, then I hope this helps. If your'e a student ministry pastor like I am, then I think it has profound impact on the gospel we preach and the role we call families to have. I'd encourage you to read it and the book it is interacting with.
Oh.. and for what it's worth. If google brought you here via a search for a book review, don't copy and paste my paper to plagiarize it for your own seminary class. #justsayin
DC 501: Discipleship in Community. Spring 2012. Bethel Seminary San Diego.
Hellerman, Joseph H. When the Church Was a Family: Recapturing Jesus' Vision for Authentic Christian Community. Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2009. E-book accessed on in April 2012, from Kindle Edition.
In this book, as the title implies, Hellerman is declaring war on the individualism and CEO mentality of American Christianity both in the congregation and at the pastoral helm of leadership, arguing that it is neither helpful nor Biblical to live a Christian life apart from community. In fact, Hellerman would consider the phrase “personal Christian life” to be an oxymoron. He goes to great length to build his case for a collective spiritual development, examining everything from first century Mediterranean culture and literature to modern psychology to the Biblical texts themselves. He leverages everything he can toward this premise; even taking odds with the way the gospel has largely been presented in evangelical circles to date. To this end, Hellerman writes, “There is, in fact, no better way to come to grips with the spiritual and relational poverty of American individualism than to compare our way of doing things with the strong-group, surrogate family relations of early Christianity. This is the central focus of this book. The New Testament picture of the church as a family flies in the face of our individualistic cultural orientation.” (pp. 6-7). Therein lies the purpose: to challenge the modern day American Christian to return to a Biblical model of church as a family, to which one is both redeemed for and sanctified through.
This book is primarily about the following three propositions.
- In a healthy Christian life, the body of believers to which one is a part are to be a surrogate spiritual family. The mindset of the first century Mediterranean culture, not unlike the culture that is still there today, was one of the “group comes first”. In this context, it was and still largely is, the norm for decisions about life, family, and faith to yield to the needs of the whole above the individual. In our ego driven and narcissistic culture we live in today, it is critical that we understand that this is not God’s design for social interactions. We are called to be a part of a community. So much so, that when we are out of touch with a community, we should recognize we are out of touch with God’s best.
- Jesus did not come to be our “personal Lord and Savior.” He came to be our collective Redeemer and Restorer. To this end, Hellerman argues that the way we have presented and even crafted the gospel is unhealthy at best and unbiblical at worst. He argues that one cannot commit their soul to Jesus without committing their life to the community of faith- the church. It is absolutely necessary that when we call someone to give up their life for the gospel, that we call them to take up the cross of the community. The call of God on the life of sinner is not only to yield one’s life to Jesus for redemption of sins, but to commit to a community in which God will use each of us for the benefit of the whole in order that we all might be sanctified, working out our salvation together until the day of Christ Jesus.
- People who fail to honor the family of God will fail to become all that God has created them to be. To this end, it is impossible for a believer to move towards sanctification outside of the church. Just as in the New Testament we can scarcely find a new convert who is not then almost immediately baptized, we also cannot find an example of a lone Christian. Whether it is the community responsibilities of the law within the nation of Israel or the collective benefit of Spiritual gifts given by God for the benefit of the church, the group has always been a necessary part of full faith development. While Hellerman doesn’t necessarily bring focus to the “wisdom literature” of the scriptures, the truth remains that what Hellerman has argued is also all over this genre of literature in the Scriptures. “Do you see people who are wise in their own eyes? There is more hope for fools than for them.” (Pro 26:12) Perhaps most famously, “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor: If they fall down, they can help each other up. But pity those who fall and have no one to help them up! Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone? Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.” (Ecc 4:8–12) It is both a Biblical reality and social truth that people do not, and cannot, become all that God has created them to be in this broken world apart from the collective soul shaping of the body of Christ.
I found this book to be a pleasure to read and resonated with a lot of what I’ve been thinking and feeling as a pastor and follower of Jesus in the last decade or so. I found the balance of historical data, theological musing, and personal stories to be a great mix that moved me along as a reader and invited me to seriously consider the weight of Hellerman’s argument. I thought his premise was well thought out and his argument solid on two levels.
First, I thought his proposal that the gospel is about the body more than it is about the individual to be profound and timely. I think that the idea that someone can make a “personal commitment” to Jesus on a whim and end up in eternity because of a prayer is a whole lot of theology based upon a couple of verses and a story of a thief on a cross. The vast majority of the material in the Scriptures is not about God saving an individual, but rather calling a people. While I agree that a group is made of individuals, I think it is critical that we also understand that if an individual does not connect with a group, they are missing a massive piece of what it is Christ came to redeem and begin again. Not a religion, but a community of believers who would love God and love one another in ways that would transform them and the world around them into the imago dei.
Secondly, I thought his argument that the priority of the individual over the group has left us with few disciples and a church that is moving towards irrelevance is spot on. I found the history, biblical texts, and personal stories about how a congregation can transform individuals in ways that an individual alone never could were very well written and supported. It made me want to recommend the book and highlight huge sections of it as prophetic for the church and discipleship at large. I already did so for my own leadership team at our church.
By way of a critique, I do think Hellerman goes too far in his observation about first century group culture. He goes to great lengths to recognize the cultural norm of the day is a “group first” mindset. He explains how that influenced both Paul and Jesus’ teaching. However, he then concludes that the church today desperately needs to understand that it is not one’s own blood family that Jesus most cares about, but it is one’s church family. This may have been well and true in a collectivist society where Jesus was being countercultural in his message. But today, I wonder if Jesus’ message to the church would not have been something like, “Don’t call your spiritual disciple your son or your fellow Christian your brother if you won’t disciple or care about the ones in your own home.” I’m not arguing against the message that we are called to care for and shepherd more than just the immediate blood family that God has given us. But I do think it’s overstating the case and missing the need in our current American culture when one says, “Care about your surrogate church family” more than you do the one in your own home. I’ve seen far too many homes destroyed by parents who cared about work or school or even leading in the church at the expense of their own marriage and parenting. The consequence is not one where I now think we should challenge people to do a better job at taking care of the church, so you can do a better job at home. The cart is not before the horse. The reality is, that in America today, telling the average believer to take care of their brother in Christ before their own brother is equally unbiblical when we understand that the first century Mediterranean culture was doing this by default and our culture rarely does this at all. If you take the cultural desire to do this away, then what you end up with is only half the story.
It is true that Christians need to understand the value of church as a faith forming community. It is true that the modern day believer needs a solid reminder that “personal Lord and savior” is not a phrase pulled from the pages of the Scriptures. It is true that the evangelical world today needs to redeem the idea of community and value the call to be brother and sister with those in the family of God. It is also true however that we need to remind and re-teach a generation what it means to be the family. The idea that we can pull from Luke 14:26 that Jesus cared little about the family is just selective hermeneutics. The family of God is only as valid a metaphor as the family is healthy. Even passages like Hebrew 12 have difficulty being understood today when the discipline of an earthly father is often (a) not present and (b) punishment rooted instead of healthy and corrective. When the metaphors that illustrations are built upon break down, the message changes with it, and often the metaphor and the message must be adjusted to compensate for the new cultural reality if the same message is still to be rightly communicated. In the world of absentee Dad, single parenting, rampant divorce, abuse and infidelity, and a multitude of sins that destroy and divide homes, I’m not at all convinced that the message from Jesus today would be, “leave your kids and follow me.” Just as Paul advises those in slavery to honor God within that system, so I think Jesus, if he was giving a word to the American family today, would not call us to care less about our marriages and kids and care more about him. Instead he might retrain and remind an entire generation that parenting matters and flows from the Holy Spirit’s leading. He would take us all the way back to Deuteronomy 6 and remind us of the way the Shema was to be lived out among a family, and then as a people. In this, Hellerman overstates his point to correct a misreading of the “brother” concept in the Scriptures and to counteract the “personal Lord and Savior” imagery. I’m not convinced however, that he shared the other side of the coin. In many cases, I more felt like he simply flipped the coin over. Instead of a expanding the picture of family to include the church, I felt like he tried to undo the family in favor of the church.
“Radical individualism. What this amounts to is simple enough. We in America have been socialized to believe that our own dreams, goals, and personal fulfillment ought to take precedence over the well-being of any group—our church or our family, for example—to which we belong. The immediate needs of the individual are more important than the long-term health of the group. So we leave and withdraw, rather than stay and grow up, when the going gets rough in the church or in the home.”
(p. 4). Kindle Edition.
“As church-going Americans, we have been socialized to believe that our individual fulfillment and our personal relationship with God are more important than any connection we might have with our fellow human beings, whether in the home or in the church. We have, in a most subtle and insidious way, been conformed to this world. “
(p. 7). Kindle Edition.
“Note this well. In Mediterranean antiquity, blood runs deeper than romantic love. “
(p. 38). Kindle Edition.
“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 This represents a radical reinterpretation of what it means to follow Jesus.”
(p. 74). Kindle Edition.
“People did not convert to Christianity solely because of what the early Christians believed. They converted because of the way in which the early Christians behaved.”
(p. 105). Kindle Edition.
“We need to reconsider our approach to evangelism and to rethink the very content of the gospel we proclaim. The biblical model of the Christian church as a strong-group family offers a great tool to help us refine the doctrine of salvation to better accord with the beliefs and practices of the New Testament church.”, Joseph H.
(p. 122). Kindle Edition.
Due to the individualistic tendencies of our culture, and the correspondingly loose connection in our thinking between soteriology and ecclesiology, it is not uncommon to encounter persons who claim to be followers of Jesus but who remain unconnected to a local faith community. In contrast, we do not find an unchurched Christian in the New Testament.
(p. 123). Kindle Edition.
“This strong-group perspective runs throughout both the Old and New Testaments. It has been God’s design from the beginning. The one-sided emphasis in our churches on Jesus as “personal Savior” is a regrettable example of Western individualism importing its own socially constructed perspective on reality into the biblical text. Our individualistic culture encourages us to assume that God’s main goal in the history of humanity consists of getting individual people saved. Salvation is all about what God has done for me as an individual. I suggest instead that we view God’s work in human history as primarily group-oriented.”
(p. 125). Kindle Edition.
“But something else happens when we are saved, which is just as real in God’s eyes, on God’s positional ledger sheet, so to speak, as our justification, something I like to call our “familification.” Just as we are justified with respect to God the Father upon salvation, so also we are familified with respect to our brothers and sisters in Christ. And this familification is no less a positional reality than our justification. “
(p. 132). Kindle Edition.
“We set ourselves up for great disappointment if we overidealize the concept of the church as a surrogate family. Even the warmest blessings of living out the church family model do not come without their own challenges.”
(p. 155). Kindle Edition.
“The American evangelical model of the CEO pastor who functions as a spiritual father to his congregation and as a business executive with his staff—but who relates to no one in the church as a peer brother in Christ—directly betrays the New Testament metaphor of the church as a family. “
(p. 181). Kindle Edition.
“Christians in America do not need pastors who are celebrities. They need pastors who are mature brothers—pastors who walk alongside them hand-in-hand, overcoming the same spiritual obstacles that their sheep face, in the context of the interpersonal accountability and relational integrity that God has provided in His church family. “
(p. 194). Kindle Edition.