Monday, April 21, 2014

Book Review: When the Church Was a Family: Recapturing Jesus' Vision for Authentic Christian Community By Joseph H. Hellerman

For the last couple of years the theme of church as or is a family has appeared several times in articles I’ve read online, podcasts I’ve listened to and in my Bible reading. Due to some recent events I had been observing in my life I thought it best to explore and develop a greater understanding of this idea of church as a family. I’ve had Joseph Hellerman’s book, When the Church Was a Family on my shelf for a couple years now. It came into my possession as one of the free books handed out at Together for the Gospel in 2010. Its not the type of book I would have bought or even had a desire to read but I’m glad it was on my bookshelf when I needed it.

Hellerman is a thoughtful and engaging writer. His style, at least for this work, was interesting; he didn’t dumb down any Biblical truths nor did he over complicate his message with four syllable words that only PhD. students understand. Reading it was fluid and smooth sailing all the way.

Hellerman spends more than half the book backing up his thesis that the church is family. He points out that in the Mediterranean world family came first (strong-group society), one’s closest relatives were one’s siblings. Its interesting that it was not one’s spouse. In this world life’s big decisions, as they are today, were what am I going to do (job), where am I going to live and who will I marry. No  major life decisions were made outside the family nor would any of them been made to the detriment of the family. And so it was with the early church. The author takes us through the Old Testament, Jesus’ teaching, Paul’s teaching, the early church, and the Roman world fleshing this out for the reader. At times it was not an easy read as today, as Hellerman points out numerous times throughout the book, we just don’t think this way in today's world. And as the secular world has so influenced the modern church, we as believers do not think or behave this way, either. Many modern evangelicals would set the order of import like this

God  > Family  >  Church  >  Others

Hellerman would set the order this way

God’s Family  >  Church family  > My family  > Others

My take

God  > God’s Family  >  My family  > Church family  > Others

I would set the order this way so we do not lose sight as to what this is all about, i.e., God’s glory.

The last portion of the book is devoted to how to work out the theme of church as family. Several helpful suggestions are laid out that elaborate on examples from Scripture and the Mediterranean world. Sharing of material wealth and goods and relating to one another on a deeper level are two points I found most helpful. Conversely, I also thought this was also the weakest part of the book. Ideas and suggestions for church leaders were weak and/or blatantly obvious. Nevertheless, his personal anecdotes here and throughout the book drove his point home: the modern evangelical church is not living out the Biblical command to live as family and we need to so as to be obedient to the Scriptures.

One drawback to some readers would be the author’s emphasis that the church family is to take precedence over blood family. I, however, would agree with him. He points out that he does not want to minimize the importance of blood family but Scripture, in particular Jesus, points us in the direction of church family having first place. I’ll leave it to the reader to decide. One other area of concern for this reviewer is that at times  he so wants to press home his point that he goes too far. He shares a conversation he had with a church colleague where he stated that he would rather have folks be involved in a home group every week (because it develops the family bond) rather than be in church on a Sunday morning. This is way of the mark, of course. Sunday worship is first and foremost the worship of God and Creator and our worship is required and deserved. Everything else on Sunday is a subset of that. 

Overall, I would give this book 4 out of 5 stars. It accurately explains how church congregations should be thinking and working Biblically rather than putting themselves and families first. We are a covenant people and the world will only see this when we are a true church family.

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