Jesus Creed

Jesus Creed


Church as Family

posted by Scot McKnight

ChFam.jpgIt would be easy to say low church evangelicals clamor for community because there is so much individualism at work, but that’s a cheap shot that misses the target. Liturgical churches can struggle as much with community too. But what needs to be observed, and it has been observed across the spectrum in the last century, is that the NT and the early churches taught a family concept of the church. 

The best book I’ve seen on this of late, and almost everyone makes comments about individualism but do little more than make comments, is Joseph Hellerman, When the Church Was a Family: Recapturing Jesus’ Vision for Authentic Christian Community
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Hellerman combines three elements: a solid grasp of the New Testament, a firm grip on the development of the early church, and a grounding in cultural anthropology so that he can speak of such things as “strong group.” The combination is insightful.
“… the preeminent social model that defined the Christian church was the strong-group Mediterranean family. God was the Father of the community. Christians were brothers and sisters. The group came first over the aspirations and desires of the individual. Family values — ranging from intense emotional attachment to the sharing of material goods to uncompromising family loyalty — determined the relational ethos of Christian behavior” (119).
Let’s hear from you about a reinvigoration of church as family. What are the problems? What are the strengths? Why do we talk so much about this but do so little about it?

Three critical observations:
1. In the NT world the group took priority over the individual.
2. In the NT world a person’s most important group was his blood family.
3. IN the NT world the closest family bond was not the bond of marriage. It was the bond between siblings.
Here’s the kicker: Hellerman is a pastor and a professor. So, the second part of the book is about praxis, and he begins by taking aim at Jesus as my “personal Savior” and how overly individualistic this can become. Hellerman, helpfully I think, sees salvation as “familification” — a really ugly word but one that makes his point well. This perspective is shifting how his church does evangelism — family seems to be the first step (belong before believe idea).
One of the big ones: he addresses making decisions and sees an order like this:
God’s Family — My Family — Others
(God and God’s family can’t be completely separated in NT.)
And another one: church leadership is plural, not single.
Friends, this book will make it. It deserves a wide reading, and I hope colleges and seminaries will use it in ecclesiology courses.


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John W Frye

posted October 19, 2009 at 8:06 am


There was a pejorative view of the church as “family” in the now defunct church growth movement. The thinking was that “the church as family” impeded growth because a family can only be so large. When growth was Lord of the church, family dynamics served as obstacles. Thanks, Scot, for informing us about Hellerman’s book.



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Cliff

posted October 19, 2009 at 8:07 am


As Dr. Hellerman’s TA, I can testify to the fact that this book represents the great passion Dr. Hellerman has for the Church and it’s need to operate like a family. Thanks Dr. McKnight for your positive reveiw and enthusiastic recommendation of the book. I will be sure to point him to your post.
Cliff



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Ian Packer

posted October 19, 2009 at 8:10 am


One of the issues in this part of the world (Australia) is the mobility of people. There’s a kind of presumption that you can count on people maybe being around for 4-6 years and then they can be gone because of work changes, moving home (upscaling because of growing family, ‘aspirations’, whatever)…
And mobility also applies where people travel in their car whatever distances they can tolerate to go to the church ‘they like’.
Michael Walzer talked about some of these things in “The Communitarian Critique of Liberalism” – worth reading! (reprinted in Walzer, Thinking Politically (Yale UP)



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Wayne Cox

posted October 19, 2009 at 8:26 am


You write that “familification” is an ugly word that makes the point(!). I remember several years ago in discussions on Luke-Acts, Joel Green used a similarly odd word to communicate the work of the gospel. He said to become a follower of Jesus was to be “re-familied.”
And while western individualists need the familification, or re-familying, I think the order of “God’s Family” before “My Family” is also a helpful corrective to the glorification of the family in the contemporary Christian culture, i.e., “family values,” and the false elevation of marriage.
Thank you for the introduction to Hellerman.



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Tom Smith

posted October 19, 2009 at 8:31 am


I read his academic book and it really challenged my thinking … it recaptured my imagination of what church as family means in our shattered South African world. In our white middle-class spirituality the biological family has become THE arena for living the faith. Hellerman helped us to recapture some of the family metaphors in our faith community so that it flows in and through our biological families.



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Michelle Van Loon

posted October 19, 2009 at 8:33 am


I came to faith as a teen, and for the first three years of my Christian life, I was forbidden to attend church by my Jewish parents. I spent hours reading the Bible and listening to sermons on Christian radio, and formed some pretty strong ideas about what it would be like to finally be able to gather freely with other believers.
I have spent most of the last 32 years looking for the family I saw depicted in the NT. I saw the struggle and sin in the pages of my Bible – but I also saw the description of community that went far beyond a scripted hour on Sunday mornings.
I don’t know how to reconcile what I know is possible with the paler imitation I’ve experienced during the last three decades.
This book goes to the top of my wish list.



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Phil

posted October 19, 2009 at 8:52 am


I think what much of this comes down to in praxis is fear.
–Fear of rejection from others as they pull out their faith litmus test.
–Fear of hurting someone as a church leader as you reevaluate programs and goals.
–Fear of people not catching, or desiring family.



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Henry Zonio

posted October 19, 2009 at 9:26 am


Reading your blog is really expensive! :) Yet another book I will be ordering and reading.
Being involved in children’s and family ministry, I think this book would be a critical book. I am concerned at the trend in contemporary family ministry paradigms that, with the best of intentions, while trying to help parents be more proactive in the spiritual formation of their children end up putting too much of an emphasis on the nuclear family. Instead of individuals focused on their personal salvation, you have individual families focused on their nuclear family’s salvation. We create family-centric churches and say that by doing so we can be inclusive of those who don’t fit the mold of a nuclear family… I don’t think that is possible in praxis. We need to recapture the idea of Church as a larger family or village.
One issue that I see as a potential problem, though, is people grabbing onto this concept without fully understanding and using God’s Family as an excuse for neglecting My Family. There needs to be a balance. If you truly understand God’s Family, then My Family will be healthy. If My Family isn’t healthy, then one has a perverted view of God’s Family.
Another issue that I see as a problem is using the idea of God’s Family as an excuse to not have any healthy boundaries and be disrepectful of people’s boundaries. Something like the concepts in the Cloud and Townsend’s book Boundaries need to be taught/reinforced with people. In other words, people need to understand how to have good realtionships.



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Michael W. Kruse

posted October 19, 2009 at 9:51 am


Hellerman’s “The Ancient Church as Family” is one of the most important books I’ve read on the culture of the NT world. I look forward to reading this one.
I do have concerns about the family metaphor. A few years ago I did a standardized visioning program with several small PCUSA churches. When asked how they would characterize themselves, each one of these dying congregations, without exception, said, “We are a warm loving family.” So warm and loving that they hadn’t looked outside their “home” in years and you would need a crowbar to pry your way into their fellowship. :-) Outreach was done because “Without new people our family will die,” and not as in a missional response to God. I don’t know many families who have the vision of incorporating others into their midst. When I hear “church as family” this is the first thing that comes to mind and I know it is for others as well.
I have no desire to return to the world of the New Testament family nor do I believe that is where God is calling us. Yet the excessive individualism of our culture is not helpful either. New ways of relating are needed but I confess I cringe a bit at the “church as family” metaphor, even knowing Hellerman’s distinctions. I look forward to seeing how he frames this for modern praxis.



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T

posted October 19, 2009 at 9:56 am


Thanks for this recommendation. I wonder what this book read side by side with Learner-Centered Teaching (I think that’s the title you recommended) would do. It might be too much to take in close proximity! The preface to Learner will likely be enough to have my church’s leadership team read it, as it concerns the confidence level of those who are “taught” in prevailing educational methods (teacher-centered). Being in the inner-city, building the skills and the confidence of those in the community is a central goal. The whole topic reminds me of RJS’s frequent comment of building peers; more churches need to be in the business of building peers.
Interesting, too, about sibling relations being the closest in the NT world. It made me think of Jesus laying out the family roles to the 12, “Don’t let anyone call you ‘father’, because you have a father, and you are all brothers.” I’m glad the author mentioned plurality of leadership in re-establishing the family dynamic in the church. I don’t know if pastors realize how much plurality of visible leadership is key to creating the family dynamic (establishing that we’re all siblings), not to mention a better way to teach and reveal Christ. I don’t think we do anything about this because family relations are hard and not as private as we’d like and because we like the co-dependency of the teacher-centered way of doing church; it’s comfy for everybody concerned.



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T

posted October 19, 2009 at 10:14 am


Michael,
I don’t think the problem there is with the “family” concept, but with a failure to understand and join the family business.



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Samuel

posted October 19, 2009 at 10:18 am


I haven’t read the book yet, but I am intrigued with the premise that in the NT, the strongest familial bond is not between husband and wife, but between siblings. How does that aid in our understanding of the relationship between Christ and the Church, or even God and Israel in the OT? Pls help..



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Your Name

posted October 19, 2009 at 10:29 am


This is interesting topic for me. I grew up in a pentecostal church. People were refered to as “Brother Smith or Sister Smith” Even the pastor’s title was Brother not pastor. Tomorrow is my grandmother’s funeral. She was a matriarchal figure in our family as well as her church. There will be lots of references to Sister Smith not Sophia or Mrs. Smith. So for me growing up, it was natural think of the church as a “family” However, my formal traing never really encouraged this. It encouraged me to treat the church as a “profession” a vocation or a career. So how do we train pastors to be leaders of families? Here’s my suggestion….
I think a good book to balance this is Friedman’s “Generations to Generations”. If we are going to think of the church as family then we need to understand family dynamics. He does a great job of showing how family systems impacts the church body.



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nathan

posted October 19, 2009 at 10:58 am


part of the challenge is pastoral in nature.
some people will bristle at the idea of family simply because “family” speaks of dysfunction, chaos, abuse, etc.



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Jeremy Berg

posted October 19, 2009 at 10:58 am


Which NT images are used to describe the church? You have the body with many parts, spotless bride, the household of God with adopted sons, brothers and sisters, and so on. You will notice a strong emphasis on ORGANIC and FAMILIAL images with little or no mention of more BUSINESS, ORGANIZATIONAL, PROGRAMATIC terminology — you know, the corporate business model with pastor CEO at the wheel.
If we began seeing the universal church of Christ as precious living BRIDE to cherish and love instead of cold, impersonal BUSINESS to “run”, would this not change the tone of our interdenominational dialogue and personal critiques of the state of the church? My personal filter, of late, for watching my tone and attitude in offering critique of the church is to ask: Would I speak like this to the King’s bride on her wedding day? If not, maybe I should change my tone and attitude. (Sorry, I’m a little off topic.)
Again, I hope this book helps reinvigorate the church with a more organic, intimate fellowship model that can brings healthy, loving critique and correction to current entrenchment in the corporate business model.



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Jonathan Markham

posted October 19, 2009 at 12:27 pm


One of the most insightful observations on this subject I have seen comes from S?ren Kierkegaard “Jesus does two things when he sees a crowd: the first is to disperse it and isolate each individual one-on-one with himself. Having done that, the second thing he does is reintroduce these individuals to one another as brothers and sisters making a crowd into a community. A true Christian community is always a community of prayer?



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Your Name

posted October 19, 2009 at 12:37 pm


My question is…
Didn’t the early church need a strong identity because of persecution? It just seems natural that would be needed for any group that is threatened (sometimes with death) by outsiders.
While I know that persecution exists in the world still, for the most part, in the affluent West, it’s not a real issue. It makes me wonder – is it harder to think of ourselves as family simply because we dont really have to? or at least we dont have to in the same way the early Christians did.
I also have concerns that saying to a nonchristian, “my church is like my family” is waaaay more loaded now than it would have been 2000 years ago. Being “like a family” isnt necessarily a good thing.



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pds

posted October 19, 2009 at 12:37 pm


Peeling Dragon Skin
The early church gathered like a family in a home around the table for a common meal. Now we generally gather for performance and a lecture. How we gather affects how we understand the family metaphor. I recommend Robert Banks’s “Paul’s Idea of Community.”
“Ekklesia” doesn’t mean “church,” as most people understand it:
http://peelingdragonskin.wordpress.com/2009/07/06/the-biblical-teaching-about-ekklesia/



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Michael W. Kruse

posted October 19, 2009 at 1:07 pm


Jeremy #14
The Greco-Roman and Palestinian households were not purely consumptive units as they are in modern industrial and post-industrial societies. They largely produced most of what they consumed and bartered for the rest. In the large households, thePaterfamilias, head of the house, oversaw the work of the household through his household manager. All this is to say that the household wasn?t just a domicile for organic relationships, it was a business enterprise under the direction of the paterfamilias accomplishing whatever ends the paterfamilias directed. It was family and a business. Thus, when you see fictive family and household metaphors in the NT, this is the image that is conjured up.
I think the characterization of the family as purely an organic relational community with intimate fellowship is every bit as much an imposition of 21st century ethos on the NT as is the calculating business CEO model. Robert Banks points out that koinonia, which we translate community or fellowship, as it is used in the NT was always something that emerged from joint participation toward a common goal.



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Your Name

posted October 19, 2009 at 1:12 pm


It takes time, years, being around the same people in a setting where sharing can be personal and we can get to know the people, truly love one another because we know their strengths and flaws and still struggle on how to love them. That makes family, the time and quality of time spent with the same people.
I’m in a house church and when we get above 14 people we split into family groups to meet during the week. No more than 12 people to a group. This allows for the personal, the intimacy to occur. Then all family groups meet Sunday evening for a combined time. We have no pastor. We have some who act as elders, we have some who are teachers, all of us are expected to bring to the services what God has given us. It is expected we make the church what it will be, week to week. *We*, not some people but all of us. On some times that does mean just listening but it is an active role during the week to look to God for what he has us to bring that week.
We don’t worry about missional-outreach. There tend to be people who bring new people. The latest, a couple women did prison Bible study and began to bring the women newly released from prison. Another woman has a knack at finding famililes in need and we minister to them in varied ways. The thought is God brings who he wants when he wants and our faithfulness is to continue looking to Him.



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beckyr

posted October 19, 2009 at 1:13 pm


your name is me, beckyr.



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pds

posted October 19, 2009 at 1:43 pm


Peeling Dragon Skin
Michael (#19),
Interesting point, but I don’t think it is really accurate to call modern families “purely consumptive units.” Modern families operate as important economic units in today’s society. They both produce and consume. The economics, structures and accounting may be different, but modern families function as businesses too. There are plenty of family run businesses and family farms that are run out of the home.
Also, the household businesses then were smaller and more intimate and relational than most Fortune 500 companies today. That seemed to be Jeremy’s main point.



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Paul

posted October 19, 2009 at 3:09 pm


A book after my own heart! Thanks for pointing it out.
I recall, several years ago, while teaching an adult SS class going through 1 John and highlighting the importance of love for other believers as a sign of true faith, saying something like “We must focus on our spiritual family, not just on our biological one! In fact, there are as many if not more references in the NT to loving our spiritual family as to our biological one.” Since this class included many people who worked at an org that “focuses” so much “on the [biological] family” I got not a few wrinkled foreheads and it did not fare well with me. Sad.



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Jeremy Berg

posted October 19, 2009 at 3:44 pm


Thanks for the background Michael (#19). I agree that we must avoid the extremes and ideals of both ends of the spectrum in the conversation and efforts to become biblically faithful ekklesia.
I, personally, used to be very critical of the church — especially in seminary when we liked to put it under a microscope and pick all of it’s flaws and shortcomings apart. I naively believed there was a perfect NT church to “get back to.” A sudden shift occurred after attending a church leadership conference in 2007 at Mars Hill called “Isn’t She Beautiful: A conference of leaders celebrating the local church.” The title alone impacted me more than the entire weekend of messages. I realized that the church is not primarily an business or organization to run but the precious bride of Christ to love and cherish — warts and all. This subtle shift in perspective has enormous power to monitor our speech about the bride Christ died for and insists on using, despite all her flaws and imperfections, to manifest his kingdom on earth.
The main point I was driving at above (#14) was this: Businesses and families are both fragile, complex relational entities presenting many challenges to achieving corporate health and well-being. Yet they are also different. I believe we do (or should) approach our family units with more gentleness, honor, loyalty and grace than we do the company or business we work for or manage. When conflicts arise in our church, do we treat one another as business coworkers or family members? There’s a big difference. When we face conflict or disappointment in our church do we storm out the door like a dissatisfied customer, demand a refund and “shop” elsewhere next week? Or, do we treat the problem as family quarrel, seek reconciliation and forgiveness and let love have its way? I hope we don’t just leave our families every time conflict arises (though, tragically, this is common too.)



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BeckyR

posted October 19, 2009 at 6:38 pm


YES!!! Jeremy to your last paragraph. Church hopping has been a concern of mine for a long time. When things get tough, that’s when love one another is put to the test. When things are easy, it’s easy to love one another. You said it well.



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Tim Hallman

posted October 20, 2009 at 9:43 pm


Michael #9 and YourName #17 tag two of my gut reactions to the premise of the book. Alas, I won’t be making time to read the book anytime soon, though it will be on my radar for the future.
As helpful as the “family” metaphor can be, pressed too far and it becomes confusing. I wonder if the most helpful themes from the “family” metaphor are that of loyalty and hospitality, forgiveness and reconciliation, vulnerability and familiarity.
Family is not an “end” but a “means”. To talk about church as a family ought not to be merely a description of what we are like, but describe the process by which people grow up and go out into the world.
Does that make sense?



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Diane

posted October 21, 2009 at 4:53 pm


I don’t comment often, but feel strongly that before we can attempt to make the church family again, the church has to teach people what family means. I look at our church and think about the number of people who talk about the church as family but don’t have a biblical concept of what a family is.
So while I agree with the premise that we need to return to the church as family, we have to start before that and define family and teach families to be family with their own family.



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