Tuesday, May 25, 2010

"When the Church Was a Family"

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.


Arthur Sido said...

That was kind of my question as well, it seems that Hellerman wants the intimate family church but in a big church setting.

Alan Knox said...


I agree that this is an excellent book... one of the most important that I've read about the church. It shows just how far our thinking and living have changed since the 1st century. Unless we are willing to change the way we look at ourselves and others, I don't think we will find the community in Christ that Scripture describes.

I also agree with you about the shortcomings of the book. I also noticed that while much was said about "family," when it came to making decisions, the author was still willing to place decision-making in the hands of a few leaders.


Eric said...


Thanks for reviewing this book a while back. I'm glad I read it.

It was interesting and disappointing that the author would not take his conclusions to the logical end point. I wonder what he really believes.

Eric said...


This book really was fascinating. Thanks for recommending it.

I wonder if the author has thought through the ramifications of his conclusions. Will he allow himself to do so? He has opened up a "can of worms" that he seems afraid to fully embrace. This is a good warning to me to be on the lookout for blind spots of my own.

Jason_73 said...

I thought about this concept a while back when I heard a really popular pastor commenting on another pastor and his ministry. He began by telling his congregation that this other pastor was a brother in Christ, but was in error because of X, Y and Z... It made me think, would he have followed that same course of public critique if it was his real biological brother?

I don't think so. He might be seen as disloyal or a traitor even. Just a embryo thought on the idea..

This post also reminded me of a quote from Tim Keller in his series on Proverbs:

"The fool disadvantages the community for the sake of himself, while the righteous disadvantage themselves for the sake of the community"

Eric said...


It really is amazing how we as Americans think as individuals while much of the world still thinks as the group. We suffer because of this.