Is the Church Really a Family?

Yes, the church is a family!  Not just a metaphorically, but the church in its local expressions is really a family.  Joseph Hellerman proved it!  His two books make a definitive case for the fact that the concept of family is core to the apostolic understanding of the church.

When the Church Was A Family, Joseph H. Hellerman, B & H Publishing, 2009 [WCWF]

The Ancient Church As Family, Joseph H. Hellerman, Augsburg Fortress, 2001 [ACAF]

Here are a few excerpts from his books and from my review of his books.

“It is hardly accidental that the New Testament writers chose the concept of family as the central social metaphor to describe the kind of interpersonal relationships that were to characterize those early Christian communities.  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.”  From the introduction of WCWF.

“The centrality of the family matrix for early Christian social organization calls for a careful examination of the nature of family in Mediterranean antiquity and the appropriation of the surrogate family model on the part of the early Christians.  This leads to the subject matter of this book.  I will demonstrate in the following pages that the ancient Mediterranean family provided the dominant social model for many of the early Christian congregations.  Specifically, local churches understood themselves to constitute surrogate patrilineal kinship groups, and local leaders expected their members to behave in a manner consonant with such a model of interpersonal relationships.”  From Chapter 1 of ACAF.

I admit that I read these books because I had already come to similar conclusions as the author on the basis of what I consider to be biblically normative teaching.  I hoped that they would help me deepen my convictions through additional substantive research in Scripture, church history, and sociology.  The essence of the church as “a family of families” (or better, “a household of households”) is already expressed as a foundational concept in the First Principles of the Faith discipleship resources and Leadership Series courses of BILD International and the Antioch School of Church Planting and Leadership Development, ministries with which I am associated.  These books did much more than provide data that back-filled my understanding of the church as family.  They significantly enhanced my understanding by forcing me to sharpen my thinking in many areas, both as a scholar and a practitioner of the church as family.

Interestingly, I read these books on a trip to India (and even wrote the review on the return trip) because I was eager to benefit from the extended isolated focus that you can have during an international flight.  However, my focus on these books extended far beyond reading them on a plane.  I found myself vigorously recommending this book to leaders of church planting movements all over India.  As it seems that God is currently pouring out His Spirit in a special way in India, particularly in North India, these leaders have the opportunity to shape the future of the church.  It is my sincere hope that they take seriously the normative biblical teaching that is explained so clearly and effectively by Hellerman in these books.  Entire church movements may depend on it.  Other church planting movements have derailed because of pragmatic adoption of Western evangelical models and ideas rather than doing fresh theology-in-culture built on serious consideration of the biblical authors’ intentions of normative teaching that transcends culture.

The significance of these books is implied in their titles, particularly in the bold yet subtle claim of the title “When the Church Was A Family.”  Although it is easy to overlook it on the book cover, “the” and “a” are italicized, stating that the church “was family” in its essence, not just “like a family” in some of its characteristics.  Don’t minimize the significance of this implication.  In the final chapter of one book, Hellerman powerfully makes the point.  “Here, finally, is the rub, is it not?  When we define Christian community in such a way as to embrace the biblical teaching about relational solidarity, while at the same time rejecting the robust boundaries we see reflected in early Christian literature, we are left with nothing but an emasculated, localized, postmodern, Western version of ‘community’ that bears little resemblance to the surrogate family model of the ancient Christian church, and which is actually no longer worthy of the name Christian at all” (WCWF, p. 219).  I concur that the stakes are indeed this high, both for the church in the West and the emerging (as distinct from Emergent) church in places like India.

One may have a tendency to think about The Ancient Church As Family (ACAF) as a thorough presentation and analysis of the data and When the Church Was A Family (WCWF) as a popularized version, particularly because ACAF is drawn from Hellerman’s dissertation and WCWF makes consistent illustration in and application to Hellerman’s church.  However, this would do a grave disservice to the contributions of the books.  The illustrations and applications to Hellerman’s church provide substantial additional analysis and insight, particularly as they are connected with the much more substantive critique of Western evangelical culture that is found in WCWF, such as rejection of the false common hierarchical prioritization of God/Family/Church/Others (pp. 73-74) and comparison of the ancient Mediterranean concept of family as group with the Western emphasis on individual autonomy and Western evangelical concept of salvation as personal conversion.  ACAF does more analysis of biblical and historical data, but WCWF does much more analysis of ecclesiology in both abstract and practical forms.  Thus, it is crucial that one read both books, not just one to benefit fully from Hellerman’s contribution.

It should also be noted that these books are especially readable for works based on so much data and research.  This is particularly true of WCWF.  Its illustrations and applications don’t feel tagged on, but are well edited and fit rather seamlessly into the more direct treatment of the data.

You can also read my complete review of the books, including sections on the “Framework of the Books,” “Key Contributions,” and “Concerns and Issues to Explore Further.”

I hope that the starkness of the titles of Hellerman’s books shock you into paying appropriate attention to the data and analysis in them.  Everyone seems to want to have a “New Testament church.”  Hellerman has done a great service to help us actually know what a New Testament church is and how to participate in it as New Testament church members, namely be deeply part of an extended family, God’s household.

Despite the tremendous scholarship and pastoral concern of Hellerman, I don’t think he has begun to grasp the significance of his contribution.  These books should fundamentally transform the way most Western Christians (and those influenced significantly by Western Christians) conceptualize church and participate as church members.  It is up to us to carry forward the implications of his research, along with the research and resources already provided for this purpose by BILD International and its Antioch School of Church Planting and Leadership Development.