Dr. Joseph Hellerman was one of my professors during my Doctor of Ministry Residency at Talbot School of Theology. I have great respect for Dr. Hellerman and his honest desire to see the Church live as a family. His book, The Ancient Church as Family is a very inspiring book and worth your time. Unlike other books that are rooted in populist drivel, Hellerman provides a well researched book that make some positive challenges to the way we do church. Following is my review and interaction with the book. In future posts, I will share some very practical applications in the way I do church. For now, this book is a great place to start.
Hellerman’s book adds a key component to the ongoing discussion of what caused the early church to spread so rapidly and with such power. The author contends that beyond the ideological distinctive, the sociological system of kinship groups provides the most persuasive explanation for the cohesiveness of the early church which thrived in the midst of great social turmoil and persecution.
Hellerman analyzes the character of the early Christian community in the context of the Mediterranean family systems, e.g. Judean and Roman. The author observes that the structure and values of the early church community are reflective of the dominant social groups of the day which included Professional Associations, Domestic Associations, Cultic Associations, Philosophical Schools, and Jewish Synagogues (p. 6). Christian ekklesia was certainly marked by its voluntary association, sharing of common meals, study of the Apostolic teaching, exclusive allegiance, and a unique egalitarian structure. However, the strongest characteristics of ekklesia was its stalwart religious orientation, a trans-local nature, social inclusiveness, counter-cultural approach, and familial emphasis.
The patrilineal kinship group was the defining model for the local Christian community, and the author traces these roots in the writings of Paul, through the writings of various second century authors, and into the third century traditions of the North African church. Hellerman concludes with a strategic argument that the familial terminology is not primarily religious but descriptive of the ontological nature of ekklesia and defined the ethos and pathos for the community.
The main thrust of this book is to explain the early expansion of the Christian faith through the use of sociological factors. One of the key ideals, Hellerman contends, common to all the groups within the Roman world was the patrilineal kinship group (PKG). These kinship groups were defined not by blood or belonging, but through the relationship of one member to another via the one key living individual. The strongest bonds in the family were not between the married couple but between the siblings. The family existed in large part for of the good of the whole, whose needs took precedence over the needs of any one individual family member. The model of the patrilineal kinship group became the framework around which the early followers of Jesus built their communal expectations and practices.
In support of his thesis, Hellerman examines first how the people of God concept is expressed in the Hebrew Scripture. While the surrogate family metaphor is not a dominant theme in the Old Testament, still there are some key passages which emphasize Yahweh as Father over the sons and daughters of Israel (p. 60). This underlying theme was manifest in the practice of PKG sibling solidarity which also formed the core of prophetic promise related to Israel’s future. These same features are strongly present for the Jews of the Second Temple period, the Qumran community, and in the communities formed by Jesus Himself. In these groups and their writings, Hellerman finds a great deal of support for the PKG terminology and ideals. Moving on to the writings of Paul, the author finds more evidence for what he terms the “indisputable centrality of the family model” (p. 126). Giving special attention to Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church, Hellerman observes strong evidence to support the PKG values of generalized reciprocity, priority of sibling loyalty, truthfulness and honesty, and a common set of behavioral expectations.
As the book progresses, the second main contention is that as the church moved into the post-Apostolic period it become institutionalized and the familial terminology was adapted to fit this new structure. In support of this statement, Hellerman quotes writings from both Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch. Clement tended to emphasize the authority of Church leaders and the institution of church (p. 134). Ignatius lacked a solid dependence upon the New Testament literature and extended the kinship model to pagan relationships (p. 143). Ignatius also disdained the plurality of elders for the leadership of a single man as Bishop (p. 144). In these later developments, the ideal of one Heavenly Father became more distant and was replaced by the ideal of many earthly “fathers” who ruled over the community. Justin Martyr was impacted by his Hellenistic training, and broadened the PKG ideal into the secular so as to strip it of its unique meaning within the community of faith (p. 152). Hellerman concludes his analysis of the PKG in the second century with a study of the writings of Clement of Alexandria, and Irenaeus of Lyons. He also provides support for his thesis through writings representative of the church in North Africa. The family theme is deeply imbedded throughout the Passion of Perpetua, the writings of Tertullian, and the many letters of Cyprian. Regardless of the modifications and adaptations of time, the most identifiable characteristic of the Christian community over the first three centuries was the conception of church as the surrogate kinship group comprised of God’s children.
Overall, the book is very well documented and full of references to aid further study. The book lacks a topical index that would otherwise assist the reader in tracking various themes. Hellerman’s unique approach to understanding the expansion of the early Christian community is much appreciated for its scholarly merit and practical usage.
Without question, the book provides a fertile ground for rethinking the way we practice church in the 21st century. There are, however, a few statements in the book which remain unconvincing. Hellerman’s main theme is that church functioned as family (p.216). He concludes that the family model was used as a rhetorical model to engender organizing power and integration of vision. He also asserts that family model impacted the practice of daily social life. The one key ingredient missing from Hellerman’s argument is the exploration of church as ontological reality. In truth, Paul’s use of the family metaphor was not founded in culture, rhetoric, or praxis, but in the ontological reality that each Christian is born again by the power of the Holy Spirit. The church did not grow and expand because it adopted the dominant practice of Mediterranean culture. Nor did the church expand because it discovered people would conform to the social ideal of PKG as the common standard. Primarily, the church grew because God was able to transform people at the core of their very being. It is not just theory, but reality that through the death and resurrection of Christ, the Holy Spirit unites us to Yahweh as Father and Jesus as brother and we are literally made one family. Thus God used the timing of Christ’s incarnation to take full advantage of the Mediterranean culture so that His Divine-ideal for church as family would be easily understood and lived out. To miss this key component of ontological reality is an unfortunate oversight.
The second difficulty with the book is Hellerman’s conclusion that “… the social organization of the pre-Constantinian house churches was perhaps the single most common and identifiable characteristic of the Jesus movement” (p. 225). This comment is problematic for two reasons. First, the main theme of the entire book is that the PKG is the most common and identifiable characteristic of the Jesus movement. Yet at the very end on the last page, a new theme is introduced that suggests the most important element of the early church was that they met in homes. How this conclusion is drawn form the well-organized arguments which precede it is not clear.The second problem, and corollary to the first, is that little or no supporting material is provided that would suggest Paul, or any other teacher in the first three centuries, instructed the church to meet in homes. The book is full of examples of familial terminology and instruction, but no evidence is provided to maintain this conclusion as a logical result of the previous pages. There seems no compelling reason to assume that the PKG model can only be sustained within a home setting or that it must be maintained as a defining characteristic of the Christian Family.
There are however several elements to this work that are quite timeless and instructional for the church in every age and culture. One of the most compelling conclusions is that when the church functions as a family, She is able to properly care for those who are weakest and most displaced in society (p. 220). This is true when it comes to the poor, the elderly and the widow, but it is also true in our modern world where nomadic urbanites find themselves disconnected from any meaningful support structure. Our modern society is extremely fragmented and insular. Today it is not just the financially poor, but the financially well-off and poor in spirit who need to find a community that will embrace them as family. It is not just the widow without a husband who needs a surrogate family, but the church needs to become a family to the single mom who longs for stability.
The most powerful assertion in this book is related to the structure and leadership of the church. The church today is dominated by a polity which promotes the pastor as CEO of the church corporation. And even when there are elders, they are seen as governing fathers and not as older siblings. If Hellerman is right in his assertion that these are later developments of the second century (p. 134), then it is important that the church take heed of how these leadership structures distract from the PKG taught by Paul. A serious look at Hellerman’s work must prompt the pastors and elders of today to remake the church in the biblical image of family, rather than the cultural image of corporation. If the church could simply learn to live out the two examples as stated above, it would go a long way to bring healing and hope to many Christians who live in isolation because they do not experience on a day to day basis the true power of the church as family.