Sefer Shpiel - "When the Church Was a Family" - (Chapters 6-8) - We Are Fam-i-ly!

January 15, 2020

Here we continue our summary of and comments upon Joseph Hellerman's When the Church Was a Family. Chapter Six considers “Salvation as a Community Creating Event,” using this theme as a platform for considering the limitations and liabilities of individualism and individualist schemas of salvation. He begins by discussing Evangelical statements of faith and how they are monolithically vertical in their focus, considering who God is to the individual and factors related to the individual’s salvation, sanctification, and final destiny. Such statements of faith fail to note and to deal with matters of spiritual family membership and the attendant expectations and responsibilities. Helpfully, he points out the communal context of the last six of the Ten Commandments and the constant communal references growing out of doctrinal commitments in the writings of Paul.

His goal in the chapter is to reunite the horizontal and vertical aspects of salvation. He examines the Four Spiritual Laws and similar constructs which treat the church like a utilitarian afterthought, a place where people who are personally and individually saved may find support and usefulness.  He insists that instead finding Christ and joining his family are inseparable. There is much textual basis for this, as Paul, in 53 of 54 references, speaks of salvation and or being joined to Christ in the plural.

He holds that Israel was constituted a people in the Exodus, and by implication, at Sinai, and he views both the Exodus and Pentecost as community creating events. Referencing Dallas Willard, Hellerman insists that ours is not a barcode faith, one in which God’s only concern and ours as well is to see if we were certified as saved during our earthly life. This leaves out the indispensable and intrinsic life of communal relationship which is the arena, school, and test of our faith and its actuality. The church is the place where the power and graces of the gospel are marifest. 

People come to Yeshua faith by first developing relationships with the people in this family. Having then been drawn to the family, they pass through the gateway of Yeshua-faith to then become responsible family members, responsible to care for others, and expectant of being cared for. He examines various metaphors for salvation and demonstrates how these are either useful or not in various cultural settings. And while forensic justification once was adequate in the American context, the culture has shifted since the 1960s, and what people now hunger for is familial connectedness, expedited by reconciliation to both God and people.

Of great interest to me and for my research, he makes brief reference to the Moravians, and their apostolic level of success in community building, and how the proving ground and incubator of discipleship was in the home. “A person was not genuinely converted in their judgment until he or she evidenced a strong-group commitment to one of the small, home-based Moravian church families” (140). This is household spirituality!

He closes the chapter lamenting how individualized people reflexively and without concern leave churches when conflict arises, instead of learning the lessons in relationship mending which they are meant to learn and to exemplify. “It is time to inform our people that conversion to Christ involves both our justification and our familification, that we gain a new Father and a new set of brothers and sisters when we respond to the gospel. It is time to communicate the biblical reality that personal salvation is a community-creating event, and to trust God to change our lives and the lives of our churches accordingly” (143).

With Chapter Seven, “Life Together in the Family of God,” Hellerman turns the focus of the book from theory to practice: how does all of this work out in the contemporary context? Here he wisely cautions that although the values of the strong-group congregation remain the same, the shape this will take from context to context differs. In the chapter he focuses on four New Testament values which he says will serve as our roadmap: (1) We share our stuff with one another; (2) We share our hearts with one another; (3) We stay, embrace the pain, and grow up with one another; and (4) Family is about more than me, the wife, and the kids.

Under sharing our stuff with one another, Hellerman focuses on material solidarity, providing ample examples from the life of his church, Oceanside Christian Fellowship, in El Segundo, CA. He reminds us also of Paul’s collection which was a demonstration of familial love from the Gentile churches to the home church in Jerusalem. Under sharing our hearts with one another (affective solidarity), he speaks first of Paul and his relationship with the believers in Philippi and in Thessalonica. He stresses that such affective solidarity is not simply sentiment. Rather it is grounded in spiritual concern, and results in actions, not simply feelings. Again, he illustrates from his life and that of his flock.

Considering staying embracing the pain and growing up with one another, he again tells compelling stories from his ministry life and that of his church. Appropriately, he stresses more than once that this kind of familial love and engagement is hard work, and goes against the individualistic grain of all concerned. He calls us to both learn and to practice patience and reconciliation in the nitty-gritty of relationships.  This kind of persistent commitment to each other and to the process is only possible for those who have accepted the demanding boundaries of a strong-group relationship. On the other hand, individualism almost inevitably leads to temporary relationships, to people bailing out when the demands of discipleship are displeasing to them. Again, we need to develop skill in handling conflicts, disagreements, and sin. And yes, a commitment to stay is indispensable and imperative if hassles are to be resolved.

Under family being about more than me, the wife and the kids, he talks about his family’s relationship with Marge, a woman in her fifties who is like a member of the family, and is in an out of the house at will. He highlights how Marge provides a level of companionship and understanding to his wife Joanne which a man cannot supply, no matter how hard he tries. Also, as in many other cultures, other women being part of the household provides for a broader palate of parenting and a salutary exchange of wisdom for living. He uses this discussion to illustrate that in the strong-group church model, there is something of a porous membrane around the nuclear family.

He holds that for modern American churches to move toward this model, nuclear families will need to embrace being extended families. He also expresses serious reservations about a stratified ministry model with members separated out according to age or stage of life. He reminds us that Paul did not generally separate people out in this manner, and that God intended “that we should go through life together” (162).

He continues his emphasis on practical considerations in Chapter Eight, “Decision Making in the Family of God.” He begins by discussing a couple whom he calls “Nick and Tina,” members of his church family who wanted to get married the following December. However, after considering their past relational history in consultation with a family therapist on his leadership team, Hellerman counselled the couple to wait another year, at which point he and the church family would be happy to fully support the wedding. The couple went away, disappointed, to consider the matter, which, surprisingly, they accepted. The wedding was in fact done in June, and the couple was grateful for the delay which turned out to be wise. Although it goes against the grain of our native individualism, such deference to group consent is intrinsic to the strong-group ecclesiology Hellman holds to be biblical and wise. A side effect the behaviors of leaders and Nick and Tina in this matter was the example they set for others in how tough situations should be handled and the fruit of handling them in the manner described here. After this occasion, Nick and Tina became willing advocates of this kind of restraint in situations analogous to theirs, and volunteered to be consulted by couples who were in such situations.

Many lessons are found here concerning being willing to do the right thing because it is right even when it is hard.

He discussed another situation in which a church member decided to divorce his wife for unsupportable reasons, and Hellerman describes how it is the small group in which he and his wife had been involved which constituted the “church” who would need to be informed of his intransigence in accordance with the third step of the Matthew 18 process. He then discusses a college and careers bible study group in which he himself had been long involved, and some lessons in good and bad decision-making. He is convinced that, “the closer a Christian group approximates the strong-group, church family model that characterized early Christianity, the better the decisions that are made by the group’s individual members and nuclear family units” (170). For members of such groups, “input from others is a way of life” (170).

Such groupness affects choices of mate, vocation, and location. But not only these big issues. Rather, commitment to God cannot be separated from commitment to God’s group. We are already a group, a community. The only issue is, “What kind of community are we?” He begins discussing matters of transition—how to we become a strong-group community?  He wisely states that much of our works against this goal due to its individualism. Similarly, our theater-style worship spaces defeat the horizontal relationship-building we most need. Also, “the priority most churches place upon the success of the Sunday service subtly but powerfully communicates the message that this impersonal once-a-week social environment is quintessentially what ‘church’ is all about. After all, this is where most church leaders count heads, and this is where we collect the money” (177). He suggests that too often church leaders use business world metrics to measure the success of their endeavors. 

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