Part II of our argument for committing to first principles is framed in large part by another book “When the Church was a Family”, by Joseph Hellerman. Hellerman, who is a pastor and NT professor, basically lays forth the claim that 1st century Christians would have no idea or framework to understand faith as we do in America and the West today. It is just too much about an individual’s rights and freedoms…radical individualism. Rather he says, the groups of believers in that time were just that…groups. And they had a very strong group identity. This is why Jesus was so emphatic about His coming bringing splits in the family…brother from brother, mothers and sons, fathers and children. Jesus came not to give a metaphor about a new family, but to actually give us a new family. I am not to treat fellow believers as if they were brothers and sisters, but rather I am to consider them my blood relatives….and that I would afford them the same treatment I would give my biological siblings. Therefore anything I have, money, position, power, whatever is to be considered their stuff as well. I realize that may not be the way we always treat our families, but that is sort of the point too. That is, we should have a stronger group mentality than we do an individual one…and we simply don’t. Let me use some of Hellerman’s own blogging to illustrate the main points he is making:
via Hellerman’s Blog...
It is a simple but profound biblical reality. We grow and thrive together. Or we do not grow much at all. None of this is terribly novel. We all know it to be the case. Why, then, do we so often sabotage our most intimate relationships, seek help from others only after the damage is irreversible, and continue to try to find our way through life as isolated individuals, convinced somehow that God will remain with us to lead us and bless us wherever we go? Why do we continue foolishly to operate as if our own immediate happiness is of greater value than the redemptive relationships God has placed us in? Why are we seemingly unable to stay in relationship, stay in community, and grow in the interpersonal contexts that God has provided for our temporal and eternal well-being?
Some would attribute our inability to remain in long-term relationships solely to the sin and selfishness that have been around since Adam. Social scientists offer a more culturally nuanced explanation for the particularly pervasive loss of social capital and lack of genuine community that characterize life in America—and in our churches—today. We are a radically individualistic society, oriented toward personal fulfillment in ways profoundly more ‘me-centered’ than any other culture or people-group in world history. And it is our individualism—our insistence that the personal rights and satisfaction of the individual must take priority over any group to which one belongs—that has seriously compromised our ability to stay in relationship and grow in community with one another as God intends.
The church in the West has become utterly intoxicated by the elixir of radical individualism. Consider the messages that have dominated my own church experience over the years. Back in the 1970s, when I became a Christian, I was informed, through a popular Gospel tract, that God had a wonderful plan for my life. Sometime later, during the “rediscovery” of spiritual gifts in the church in the 1980’s, I was assured that I would experience great personal fulfillment, if I could discover my spiritual gift(s) and find my unique place in the body of Christ. And then along came the seeker-sensitive 1990s, when this baby boomer was delighted to be told, in no uncertain terms, that God longed to meet my needs, to help me improve my marriage, to make me successful in my career. The proliferation during this same period of worship songs extolling subjective religious experience only served further to commend an increasingly individualistic approach to the Christian faith…..
The early Christians had a markedly different perspective on personal fulfillment and spiritual formation. And it is a perspective that has great promise for renewal in the church today. Jesus’ early followers were convinced that the group comes first—that I as an individual will only become all God wants me to be when I begin to view my personal goals, desires, and relational needs as secondary to what God is doing through his people, the local church. The group, not the individual, took priority in a believer’s life in the early Christian church. And this perspective (social scientists refer to it as “strong-group”) was hardly unique to Christianity. Strong-group values defined the broader social landscape of the ancient world and characterized the lives of Jews, Christians, and pagans alike. Note Josephus’s perspective on activities at the Jerusalem temple:
At these sacrifices prayers for the welfare of the community must take precedence over those for ourselves; for we are born for fellowship, and he who sets its claims above his private interests is specially acceptable to God (Josephus, Contra Apion 2.197).
Strong-group thinking is so counterintuitive to us that we tend to miss it when it is right before our eyes—even in the pages of Scripture. In Paul’s letters, for example, the apostle refers to Jesus as “my Lord” only once (Phil 3:8). He writes “our Lord” fifty-three times. If Paul were here today, I suspect he would be much more concerned about what God is doing among us, than about what God is doing in me…..
The social model which best accounts for the relational expectations reflected in our New Testament epistles—and for the social solidarity of the church in the Roman world in the centuries to follow—is the Mediterranean family. Most of us are familiar with the surrogate kinship language (“brother,” “sister,” “Father,” “child,” “inheritance”) that permeates the New Testament. “Family” remained the dominant metaphor for Christian social organization in the writings of the Church Fathers, as well.
We will need to combine (a) the strong-group orientation of the church during the New Testament era with (b) the early Christian conception of the local church as a surrogate kingship group, in order to grasp the idea that a local Jesus community in the ancient world functioned ideally as a strong-group, surrogate family. Since strong-group family life is so foreign to our own social world, it will prove helpful to illustrate a key difference between ancient and modern family systems by recourse to a popular film of a decade or so ago.
Many of us saw the 1998 blockbuster movie, Titanic. You may recall the heroine’s dilemma. Rose was a high-society girl engaged to be married to an arrogant, distasteful fellow for whom she felt no affection. In a memorable scene Rose’s mother reminds her daughter that the arranged marriage is in the best interest of her family. It seems that Rose’s father had died after squandering away his fortune, so for Rose’s mother and her family the impending marriage represents the only hope of maintaining their wealth and preserving their social status. Rose has been set up with a man she detests in order to guarantee an honorable future for the group, her extended family.
But then one evening Rose meets a street kid named Jack on the deck of the ship, and the encounter ignites the flame of a romantic fling that serves as the main story-line for the rest of the movie. Rose is caught in a quandary. She loves Jack. But she is engaged to a highly unappealing man whom she is obligated to marry for the sake of her family. Whom will Rose choose?
Jack, of course. If Rose had chosen otherwise, the film simply would not have worked for the tens of millions of American viewers who followed the tragic tale. We are quite unmoved by the potential social dilemma confronting Rose’s extended family. Our sympathies lie, rather, with the heroine’s own personal satisfaction. As I watched Titanic, I could almost hear the thoughts running through the heads of the viewers in the theater: Forget your family’s fortune, Rose! Ignore your mother’s wishes! Dump the rich jerk! Follow your heart! Go after Jack!
What I want us to see here is that Titanic’s love-story would not be well received in cultures like those of the New Testament world. If Titanic were shown in first-century Palestine with Aramaic subtitles, the audience would be utterly appalled to discover that Rose would even consider sacrificing the good of her extended family for her own relational satisfaction. They would find Rose’s fling with Jack both risky and foolish. First-century Jews and Christians alike would expect Rose to marry the rich fellow, if such an arrangement could somehow preserve the honor and social-status of Rose’s extended family.
Among persons in the world of the New Testament, the group came first—especially if that group was one’s family. Abandon my natural family in pursuit of personal relational satisfaction? Abandon my church family in pursuit of a church experience that might better address my felt needs? Such behaviors were not even on the radar screen of persons in the early Christian church…..
And when a certain Marcus who belonged to theater, in those days they were dens of iniquities, and his body of believers were working through what that might mean for them as a family, we see how they actually did operate as a family…through the letters of one of their shepherds Cyprian. Hellerman continues…
Cyprian demanded of those in God’s family an uncompromising standard of Christian morality. No theater. No acting. No teaching others to act. God’s people would be radically different than the pagans in the dominant culture. But Cyprian made sure that the church would serve as the economic safety net for any brother or sister whose finances were adversely affected by their willingness to follow Jesus. Why? Because the church was a family. And this is what family did in the ancient world. The conviction that church members should meet one another’s material needs is, of course, central to the New Testament understanding of church family life: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” (1 John 3:17).
There is no surviving letter of reply from Marcus’s pastor, Eucratius, to Cyprian, to let us know whether or not Marcus agreed to the church’s demands. We are on solid historical ground, however, to assume that he did. Why? Because history has shown us that pagans in Carthage were consistently attracted to—rather than turned off by—the intensely moral, highly supportive, strong-group surrogate family model that characterized the North African church. Fifty years before Marcus found the Lord, Tertullian could boast to the Roman world,
Day by day you groan over the every-increasing number of Christians. Your constant cry is, that your state is beset by us, that Christians are in your estates, your camps, your blocks of houses. You grieve over it as a calamity, that every age, in short every rank is passing over from you to us. We have left you only the temples (Ad Nat. 1.4; Apol. 37.4)…..
For Hellerman, the idea then is to bring this strong group mentality back into vogue, but the overwhelming evidence is that that is near impossible. We don’t want anyone in our business…and we certainly don’t want people who refuse to get to know us in our business. Yet for us to function properly as a group that is exactly what we need. Hellerman concludes:
Commitment to such a group must remain a decision that is made by each individual member, not one imposed from above. And it will be a decision that will need to be renewed in our minds on an almost daily basis. Our friend Marcus had little choice in the matter. He would either assent to the church’s demands to shut down his acting school or lose his place in the community. We have other options. We can simply leave one church to attend another congregation across town.
We must choose, instead, to stay. For people who stay grow. And people who stay help others to grow, as well. But we had better prepare ourselves at the outset to make the choice to stay, again and again, in the face of cultural pressures—pressures often reinforced by the raging whirlpool of our own emotions—that are screaming for us to do otherwise.
So, recapping our studies. it’s a lot like marriage. You pick one gal and you stick with her…through everything. You either adapt and overcome, or you leave and break the vow. In light of our current studies it would seem that picking a group, staying with it, letting authority flow naturally from the functions/gifts each person possesses, and extending the same type of primitive care we would for anyone who is “our blood”…all make up what Jesus had in mind and what Paul, John & Peter were describing for us in the epistles. It would further seem that the words we have been taught for certain things have not been as clearly defined as they ought. In Greek, titles and offices are always…always…preceded by the article. Thus, the mayor, the governor, the apostles, all indicated an official office to be in used an authoritative way. However, what we find when we look at the “offices” we have always been told (by translators as well as pastors/preachers) are never…never preceded by the article. Thus, there is not elder but simply older people, elderly. Further many of the translations have dliberately been put into an authoritative context that simply is not there. There is no “The Shepherd” but simply a function…that of shepherding. Finally, many of the word are used interchangeably because the serve that same sense of hierarchy, and it changes many of the meanings of the text. Thus, when we are told that an elder or deacon should be the husband of one wife etc., it is more accurate to say a ship’ navigator for your life should be the husband of one wife, sober, etc. Now, we don’t all need sailors running our spiritual lives…so I’m just going to go ahead and make an educated guess that they are talking about mentors. Therefore, a correct understanding of that whole idea would be more like, “Before you have someone mentor you, make sure they are worthy of the title and aren’t jack legs themselves”…that’s not Greek that’s Mullen. It seems to be taking shape here, that there are no offices, no divisions, but rather mentoring and family…both of which have an inherent authority built into it, but that are not structured and divisive (putting one believer over another) as we function in the church today. That is the sum of our studies so far, and the argument behind rethinking church.
If you are like me about a hundred objections quickly come to mind. I believe that these, though, are a product of the erroneous hierarchical teaching that employs ideas Jesus specifically rejected. The teaching of Phariseeism. Dead organization over living organism. The questions that remain, and the seeming contradictions that exist, will be addressed in my next blog.