Chapter Five of When the Church Was a Family, “The Church in the Roman World,” notes the high bar of commitment expected of church members, including leaving professions regarded as immoral or corrupt. Churches would routinely see to the financial maintenance, care, and feeding of those obliged to make such choices because of familial solidarity. Hellerman contrasts this with the modern individualistic church where “we bend over backward . . to accommodate the radical individualism of people who come to us to find a ‘personal’ Savior who, we assure them, will meet their every felt need” (104). Using contemporaneous reports from both Christians and pagans, Hellerman persuades that the driving force behind early church growth was the quality of relationship, love, and care the church demonstrated not only among its members but also toward pagans. Those in the church who were well to do exhibited their radical commitment not by impoverishing themselves, but rather through their generosity toward the poor. The church’s powerful testimony of compassionate concern penetrated and dismantled paganism despite the latter’s initial contempt of Christians and their ways.
Also, in evidence, a radical commitment to the Messiah and his people which supplanted commitment to pagan families. This is hard for us to read, but in a culture where the government made Yeshua-faith commitment a capital offense, this hard boundary was absolutely necessary because when one was in line to be martyred, the pressure was strong and unrelenting from one’s pagan family to simply acknowledge the gods of Rome and therefore live. The choice had to be made. And it was. The chapter includes an assortment of stirring illustrations. All demonstrate the high group familial commitment characteristic of the church in the Roman world.
For illustrations of what is said here, see our YouTube video on this chapter, to be found HERE.
Setting aside the theoretical dialectic of collectivism versus individualism, we may consider the practical financial requirements demanded by Hellerman's vision. Meeting the financial exigencies of modern Christians and pagans is something which has been already incorporated into the American public social economy, now administered by its secular government in a society that was formerly based on a biblical worldview. It has been extended into a post-Christian culture, but it is not necessarily administered by Christians or anyone truly informed by or committed to a biblical worldview. Consequently, gentile Christians who would wish to ensure that the financial exigencies of modern Christians and pagans are supported must somehow direct these existing resources, for which their taxes have been already expropriated, as well as to collect an additional store of wealth from which to supplement such resources when they are insufficient. However, the source of such compassionate concern may be less likely to be recognized by its beneficiaries than it would be when it is the only source from which its benefits are administered. Christian assemblies would need recourse to dedicated financial professionals and shared resources, as well as administrators trained and capable of negotiating a labyrinthine system of public service providers, in order to accomplish the desired goal. A scenario of amassing sufficient resources in isolation from the existing public system, to be administered independently by Christians, is unlikely to be successful precisely because of the existing economic and governmental structures and the lack of strong pressures such as the threat of martyrdom.
The benefits of an artificial messianic family then are more limited to social and spiritual ones. Financial assistance is not as likely to be a primary concern or capability. A few months ago this blog cited the benefits of havurot as embodiments of such artificial family, but I'm not sure if they would satisfy what Hellerman is advocating.