Sefer Shpiel - When The Church Was a Family (Introduction - "Integrate or Disintegrate")

January 7, 2020

(This series of blogs coordinates with parallel YouTube videos, providing further and more formal background to what is said there. This arrangement is meant to accommodate people who learn better in one modality or the other, or others who like a multimedia approach).

  • On his personal blog, Joseph Hellerman says this of himself:

My name is Joe Hellerman. My full-time gig is Professor of New Testament Language and Literature at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University. Although my primary teaching assignments relate to NT Greek Exegesis, I am a social historian by training (PhD, History of Christianity, UCLA). I live in the house I grew up in—in Hermosa Beach, CA—with my wife Joann. We have two grown daughters. When I’m not teaching or preaching, I can be found fishing in the ocean, playing jazz-rock piano, or wine-tasting in Temecula with my lovely wife.

My books include:

The Ancient Church as Family (Fortress, 2001)

Reconstructing Honor in Roman Philippi (Cambridge University Press, 2005)

Jesus and the People of God: Reconfiguring Ethnic Identity (Sheffield Phoenix, 2007)

When the Church Was a Family (B & H Publishing, 2009).

My heart is in the local church, and I have been a pastor for most of the last 30 years—presently co-pastor of Oceanside Christian Fellowship, El Segundo, CA. The last book on the above list is a user-friendly version of my scholarship on the social organization of the early Christian church. It champions a markedly relational/organic (as opposed to institutional/organizational) approach to church life.

It is this last book which is under our consideration here. Early on he states his thesis:

There is no better way to come to grips with the spiritual and relational poverty of American individualism than to compare our way of doing things with the strong-group, surrogate family relations of early Christianity (6).

In his Introduction, Hellerman highlights the inseparability of connectedness and maturation, and therefore how the radical individualism of American culture creates serious spiritual problems and institutions that fail to solve these problems while being themselves manifestations of individualism. We need communities of accountability, and need to realize that if we do not integrate as spiritual families, we disintegrate as people, households, and congregations. There is no other option.

Spiritual maturity is inseparably relational, and modern Christian models are intrinsically individualistic to the detriment of authentic Christian identity and growth. The path forward is to return to the underlying assumptions of the early church which viewed communities of Yeshua’s disciples as surrogate families, with the family being the most fundamental social unity of society at that time.

Hellerman will spend the rest of the book explaining what that strong-group model looks like, how it was manifested biblically and historically, and why it is good news for the Church, even if it goes against our cultural grain.

He gives a nod to the Emerging Church movement, and finds common cause with them in some of their concerns. Yet he feels their open set model (not a term he uses but certainly what he means) is too theologically naïve. He speaks of preserving theological boundaries, giving himself away as most certainly a Baby Boomer with bounded set reflexes.

"Open set" and "bounded set" are terms borrowed from mathematics, and popularized by Paul Hiebert as apt descriptions for two kinds of ecclesiological structures. Open set congregations are characterized by a hot, vibrant, center of commitment and experience toward which people are attracted, moving toward that center from various distances of knowledge and experience. All people moving toward the same center, no matter how far distant, are part of the set. By contrast, bounded set congregations are defined by certain commitments and behaviors which are required as certifiable before a person or person will be admitted into the set. Therefore, such communities have a very strong sense of insider/outsider, and tend to be vigilant about their communal boundaries.

Here is a dandy article to expand your understanding of these models:

It seems that this bounded set thinking is more compatible with the strong-group model that Hellerman favors, and even insists upon.

But of that, more later, in future blogs.

Meanwhile, DO visit the YOUTUBE video coordinated with this blog post. Find it HERE.  

One comment on “Sefer Shpiel - When The Church Was a Family (Introduction - "Integrate or Disintegrate")”

  1. I can't help trying to apply this to a Jewish framework, which is characterized by both closed-set and open-set principles. The Torah covenant and its halachic response create for Jews a closed set of requirements and expectations, and yet Judaism also recognizes the category of "hozrei b'tshuvah" wherein individuals are encouraged to approach and continue to draw ever closer to a center of commitment and experience or praxis. In addition, there is a "bilateral ecclesiology" which respects a selected subset of expectations for non-Jews who may approach the center of commitment with a different praxis. I suspect that Hellerman may have neglected such distinctives in his model of "early Christianity", which arguably was not actually a "Christianity" at all at that time.

    But I think that I may agree with Hellerman about spiritual maturity and community, in that such maturity may be described as the individual recognizing and connecting and interacting with the world outside of itself. A human begins life in a manner that is limited in its perceptions, initially aware only of its own needs, becoming gradually aware of the others who fulfill those needs, self-centered by nature and slowly learning skills of socialization, recognizing the needs of others and learning the benefits of fulfilling them. All of the maturation process may be modeled as learning to reach beyond the boundaries of the self, to participate in varying increasing degrees of community, and to increase one's perceptual skills outward -- even so far as to envision and interact with the Ultimate Other Who is HaShem. The roles of family and community in this process are thus obvious and of critical importance.

    However, the principle of loving one's neighbor as oneself does nonetheless preserve the distinctiveness and importance and even the centrality of of the individual, because without it there would be no standard by which the individual could perceive the potential of loving another individual. Further, communities cannot exist but as an aggregation of individuals, and interactions between these individuals and their community can only be expressed or enacted as between the individuals thereof. A faceless indistinct aggregation or collective is meaningless and unapproachable.

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