We live in an extremely individualistic society. We probably all recognize this. However, I doubt that we understand just how much our individualistic view of life impacts the way we live out being part of the church.
In When the Church Was a Family, Joseph Hellerman discusses the church as Jesus Christ meant it to be - a family. The author challenges our modern, Western mindset about the church by showing that Jesus saw His church as being very much group-oriented as opposed to individual-oriented.
Hellerman takes a fascinating look back at the way people from Jesus' time viewed the individual and the group. The author makes a convincing case that in that day, 1) the group came before the individual, 2) the extended family was the most important group in a person's life, and 3) the closest bond came with siblings.
Hellerman goes on to show that Jesus formed His church to be a family. Jesus also asked His followers to be more committed to their new family - the church - than to their genetic family. This was challenging back then, and it continues to be challenging today.
Hellerman continues by showing how Paul also thought of the church as a family, employing family language again and again to describe the church. The author then illustrates how the church in its first few centuries followed this model.
Toward the latter part of the book, the author looks at the church today in the modern West and provides some suggestions. He makes it clear that in order for the church to function as a family, we must gather together in ways that allow us to share in each others' lives.
For the most part I really liked this book. I recommend it to anyone who wants to read about the church as family and community.
My one criticism is as follows: Hellerman serves as one of several pastors of a medium-sized church (about 250 people). Throughout the pages of this book, he speaks positively of his church family. When he talks about church as family, he always talks about small groups. In fact, on several occasions, he makes it blatantly clear that the church functions as family when it meets in small groups. For example, on page 154 the author discusses a case of a man named Bill who was facing church discipline for divorcing his wife. The question was who should be told about the situation. The author writes:
Bill and his wife had been members of the same small group for nearly a decade. It was quite obvious to us that this group was the place where they experienced the tangible reality of being part of the family of God. For all practical and relational purposes, Bill's group members were his brothers and sisters in Christ. The small group, therefore, was Bill's "church" in the New Testament sense of the word.
Here is the problem with the situation: If the tangible reality of being part of the church occurs in the small group, then what is the point of the big group? Hellerman repeatedly says that small groups are where family occurs. If this is the case and if the church is a family, then it appears that he has made the case that there is no real purpose for the big group (the large gathering of 250 people).
However, the author cannot outright say that the large group has no purpose because that is where he serves and that is where his job is. Several times he comes close to saying it, but then he backs off. Quite frankly, he seems conflicted in this area.
Overall this book is a helpful reminder that Jesus expects His church to be a family. The challenge to us, especially those of us who have grown up in individualistic societies, is to live this out.