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Going Public: Why Baptism Is Required for Church Membership — Jamieson (Review)

Jamieson, Bobby. Going Public: Why Baptism Is Required for Church Membership. (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2015). 243 pp. Publisher’s description and PDF of first chapter. Author interview and book quotes. (Amazon new price: $18.86 paperback, $11.99 Kindle, cheaper used.) Going Public: Why Baptism Is Required for Church Membership

For Anabaptists, baptism was and often remains a hot topic. And for a rite that has been central to the entire Church since its first moments, there is a surprising diversity of thought within Christianity at large. Basically everyone besides Quakers and the Salvation Army agrees that water baptism is important, but there is disagreement on nearly every other point.

In conservative Anabaptist circles, there are at least several points of dispute: Which mode of baptism is best? How closely should baptism be tied to conversion? And how closely should it be tied to church membership?

Given our disagreements about church membership, this last question seems to be an especially active point of discussion. I’ve heard quite a few young people suggest that baptism is too closely tied to membership in our churches. Some say this feeds into the perception that “joining the church” is the essence of salvation, with true repentance and regeneration apparently being secondary. Some don’t like all the extra-biblical church rules that are thus tied to baptism. On the other hand, most church leaders I’ve heard seem to value the connection between baptism and membership. Usually this means they don’t think it is wise to practice baptism without membership.

Bobby Jamieson’s new book, Going Public, affirms the connection between baptism and church membership. But his main concern is one we don’t usually wrestle with in our conservative Anabaptist churches. He doesn’t think it’s wise to practice membership without baptism. His primary goal is to show that “baptism is in fact required for membership in a local church” (p. 2).

Going Public Cover

Going Public is aimed primarily at credobaptists (those who affirm believer’s baptism) who are divided over whether to include as members those who have been baptized as infants. Baptists have been debating this “for nearly 350 years” (p. 11), and John Piper helped renew the debate in 2005 when he argued for what Jamieson calls “open membership”—the inclusion of those baptized as infants. (Read and hear more from Piper and his church on this debate; his church ultimately retained “closed membership.”)

Jamieson thinks infant baptism (paedobaptism) is not baptism at all, but because he assumes “virtually everyone who will read this book is a credobaptist,” he doesn’t spend much time defending that point. Rather, his goal is more focused:

In one sentence: in this book I argue that according to Scripture baptism is required for church membership and for participation in the Lord’s Supper, membership’s recurring effective sign. (p. 8)

Or, in more detail:

The thesis of this book, then, is that baptism and the Lord’s Supper are effective signs of church membership: they create the social, ecclesial realities to which they point… Therefore, what this book offers is not merely an answer to the question of whether baptism should be required for church membership. Instead it offers an integrated account of how baptism and the Lord’s Supper transform a scattered group of Christians into a gathered local church… It lays theological foundations for understanding what the local church is from the ground up. (p. 2)

Going Public is a product of 9Marks, a multi-faceted ministry founded by Calvinist Baptist pastor Mark Dever that aims “to help pastors, future pastors, and church members see what a biblical church looks like, and to take practical steps for becoming one.” Jamieson is a Ph.D. student in New Testament at the University of Cambridge and a former assistant editor for 9Marks.

Summary of Book

Part 1 is called “Getting Our Bearings.” After explaining and justifying his goals in Chapter 1, Jamieson critiques “six reasons open membership feels just right” (p. 21) in Chapter 2. “This chapter… is an exercise in critically analyzing aspects of the prevailing evangelical worldview, the broader culture which informs it, and the unique pressures baptists feel because of both. It’s an attempt to help the fish notice the temperature and currents of the water he lives in and therefore takes for granted” (pp. 21-22).

Part 2 is called “Building a Case.” Chapter 3 presents a short theology of baptism, arguing primarily that baptism is “where faith goes public,” a phrase repeated many times throughout the book. “Becoming a Christian is not a private act… The New Testament speaks of baptism as an integral part of what it normally means to become a Christian. As such, it often uses baptism as shorthand—specifically, a synecdoche—for conversion… Two implications… First, all who profess faith in Christ are obligated to be baptized. Second, infant baptism is not baptism and should not be counted as baptism” (p. 52).

Chapter 4 argues that baptism is “the initiating oath-sign of the new covenant” (p. 55)—that is, baptism is a sign (a symbolic act) that functions as an oath, an oath that initiates a person into the new covenant. “If someone believes but has not yet been baptized, he has not yet fully entered the new covenant… You might say that an as-yet-unbaptized believer belongs to the new covenant privately but not yet publicly, and God intends the two to be inseparable” (p. 78).

Chapter 5 presents a similar argument using kingdom imagery rather than covenant imagery. “Jesus… has authorized local churches to serve as embassies of his kingdom… Baptism is the swearing-in ceremony for citizens of the kingdom” (p. 96). “Because baptism is the passport of the kingdom, baptism is a necessary though not sufficient criterion by which the church is to recognize someone as a Christian” (p. 99). “Baptism is an effective sign of church membership: it creates the ecclesial reality to which it points” (p. 100).

Chapter 6 turns to the related topic of the Lord’s Supper, calling it the “renewing oath-sign of the new covenant,” the event where we “repeatedly ratify the new covenant” (p. 135). “Baptism binds one to many, and the Lord’s Supper binds many into one” (p. 122). “Baptism must precede the Lord’s Supper. You must perform the initiating oath-sign of the covenant before you may participate in its renewing oath-sign” (p. 134). “The Lord’s Supper should only be celebrated by local churches as churches. It normally entails membership in a local church. And a gathering which regularly celebrates the Lord’s Supper is a church. Why? Because the Lord’s Supper, like baptism, is an effective sign of church membership” (p. 135).

Chapter 7 addresses church membership more directly. “Yes, God creates his people through the gospel. But if faith stayed invisible, there would be no church on earth, only individual Christians, or at best vague, indistinct associations of believers… Baptism and the Lord’s Supper make the church visible. They are the hinge between the ‘invisible’ universal church and the ‘visible’ local church. They draw a line around the church by drawing the church together” (p. 142). “Baptism and the Lord’s Supper give the church visible, institutional form and order… ‘Church membership’ names the relation which the ordinances create. The ordinances mold the church into a shape called ‘membership.’ …Therefore, we can’t remove baptism from membership because without baptism, membership doesn’t exist” (p. 157).

Part 3 is called “The Case Stated, Defended, Applied.” Chapter 8 mercifully summaries Part 2 in less than eight pages. Chapter 9 responds to seven arguments against requiring baptism for membership. Here Jamieson engages opponent-friends as prominent as John Bunyan and John Piper. “Baptism draws the line between the church and the world. We are not at liberty to draw it elsewhere… Paedobaptists are denied membership because they lack not the substance of a credible profession but its form” (p. 191). Chapter 10 presents seven final arguments in Jamieson’s favor—arguments against “open membership” (membership that is open to those not baptized).  “You can’t put error regarding baptism into the structure of the church. Why? Because baptism, along with the Lord’s Supper is what structures the church… If an individual’s conviction trumps the church’s confession, it’s not the church that has the authority but the individual” (p. 207). Chapter 11 gives practical advice for practicing baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and church membership, including “a transition plan” for churches who wish to newly adopt Jamieson’s position of requiring baptism for membership (pp. 210-11). Finally, an appendix is provided for “explaining why baptism is required for membership in three minutes” (pp. 227-28).

Assessment of Book

The subtitle of this book is “Why Baptism Is Required for Church Membership.” I came to this book already convinced of this basic idea. It seems very clear to me that the New Testament portrays baptism as an initiation into both Christ and his body, and that you can’t experience one without the other.

Jamieson added some theological richness to my prior understandings, such as in his discussion of covenant. Modern Anabaptists usually don’t spend as much time thinking about the Bible in terms of covenants as Reformed thinkers do, which is a shame given our historic clarity about the significance of at least the new covenant. “Is the new covenant inaugurated by an oath?” (p. 65). “Is baptism an oath?” (p. 67). I’m not sure I’ve ever considered such questions before. Good questions can lead to richer understandings.

I also liked Jamieson’s irenic (peaceful despite disagreements) tone. While he is certainly capable of absolute statements, he also evidently loves those with whom he disagrees, even counting them as fellow Christians despite theological statements that might suggest otherwise.

Yet, despite agreeing with so much in this book, I found it a somewhat frustrating read. The book could be shorter if trimmed of redundant repetitions. On the one hand it is structured carefully, with a logical progression of chapters, a summary chart of “headlines” at the end of each chapter, a summary chapter and appendix, and lots of “this is where we’ve been and this is where I’m going” material. But I also felt at times as if the author thought we readers might be convinced if he simply repeated his assertions (“baptism is where faith goes public,” etc.) often enough.

I also found the end of the book a bit of a let-down. After so many strong assertions throughout the book, when it came time for practical suggestions about church life, qualifiers and compromises appeared. For example, Jamieson strongly asserts that “infant baptism simply isn’t baptism” (p. 53) and that “without baptism, membership doesn’t exist” (p. 157). Yet in his “transition plan” he suggests that “if you currently have unbaptized paedobaptist members, I’d suggest they should be ‘grandfathered in’—that is, remain members… I don’t think their refusal to be baptized necessarily amounts to grounds for excommunication” (p. 211). I’m not saying I disagree with Jamieson’s advice. But it feels to me like this belated retreat from idealism to realism suggests that Jamieson’s position is not as absolute as he first made it appear. Maybe it would have been more honest to have acknowledged this earlier.

Update: Here is another example of how Jamieson’s strong idealistic assertions clash with later compromises.

Jamieson asserts for about 200 pages that infant baptism is no baptism at all. He argues even more strongly that true (that is, believer’s) baptism is essential for church membership. Then he suggests that paedobaptists who are within baptist churches should go start their own churches… Do you feel the tension? Now read this explanation buried in a footnote:

Some readers may wonder how I can recognize a paedobaptist church as a true church since, in principle, all its members could be unbaptized persons and therefore unfit ‘matter’ for a church. I would suggest that because a paedobaptist church preaches the gospel and practices the ordinances together [HT Martin Luther], they are in fact a church. (Remember, it’s not that paedobaptists don’t baptize believers; it’s just that they ‘baptize’ infancts, too, thus preventing them from being baptized if they come to faith.) Not being baptized, did these individuals have authority to form a church? Perhaps not. But once they’re a church, they’re a church. The situation is analogous to a couple who were each unbiblically divorced before marrying each other. They lacked the authorization to marry, but once they’re married, they’re married. (p. 203)

If your head stops spinning after that, add another dance number to the mix:

If you’re the only church in your city, and you’ve got convinced paedobaptists coming to your church, and they remain so despite your best efforts to convince them otherwise, I’d suggest that your long-term goal should be to help them start a new church… You and your other elders can help raise up church leaders from within their number or connect them to other believers who might be able to find them a pastor. When they’re ready to being meeting as a church, you can pray for them and send them off with your blessing… (p. 187)

So, to go back to the marriage analogy: If you have a couple that are each unbiblically divorced, and thus without the right to remarry (I’m assuming Jamieson’s understandings of divorce and remarriage for the moment), but who nevertheless share the conviction and desire to marry each other, what should you do? Sounds like your “long-term goal should be to help them start a new” marriage. You could even “pray for them and send them off with your blessing.”

My, theology can be confusing.

This retreat from idealism also opens the door for arguing in favor of other compromise positions. There is no direct biblical basis for Jamieson’s compromise position. Thus I’m not sure there is any clear biblical or logical line between Jamieson’s compromise (grandfather in current members baptized as infants) and Piper’s compromise (accept as members those baptized as infants). Jamieson is compromising more on the Bible’s teaching on welcoming all Christians, and Piper is compromising more on the Bible’s teaching on believer’s baptism. Both are seeking compromise in a difficult situation where not all Christians agree. Neither are managing to follow the NT example perfectly. (Nor are we.)

But what really made this book a wrestling match for me was Jamieson’s “local church membership” lens. It seems to me that Jamieson’s perspective on church membership (a perspective shared by 9Marks and many other evangelicals and by many Anabaptists too) is only loosely biblical. I began critiquing this aspect of the book in a previous post and will reflect more here, but this topic really deserves more attention than can be given in a book review.

What is Jamieson missing? Briefly: The language of church membership comes from the NT’s language about members. And member language in the Scriptures is associated with body language. (Today we are more likely to say a body has “parts” than to say it has “members,” but we still might say a body has been “dismembered.” The ESV mirrors this by switching randomly between “members” and “parts” in its translation of the Greek word μέλη in 1 Corinthians 12.) And—here is the crucial point—when the Scriptures talk about the body of Christ and its members, they are almost always emphasizing the universal church, not the local church. (I hope to write a post or essay sometime to defend this claim.) Yet we are so used to extra-biblical phrases like “local church membership” and “the local church body” that we tend to read these NT references to member and body as referring to local churches. Of course the realities of the universal church must also be lived out locally. But not at the expense of the universal realities upon which the local ones rest!

Jamieson briefly acknowledges the importance of the universal church:

What if someone were to argue that baptism initiates one into the universal church, not a local church? I agree that there is a sense in which baptism initiates one into the universal church as it is visibly, publicly expressed on earth. Just as Christians all share one faith and one Lord, so also there is one and only one baptism (Eph. 4:5). And as I said, when a Christian converted in Chicago moves to Detroit, he need not be baptized again; he brings his baptism with him. Baptism is an affirmation of kingdom citizenship. And local churches, as embassies of the kingdom, are bound to affirm all the kingdom citizens they are presented with. Thus, insofar as baptism is an affirmation of kingdom citizenship, it confers a status which transcends the local church that grants it. (p. 102)

There is much good in this paragraph! (Ponder the second-last sentence again, and wrestle both with Jamieson’s thoughts about paedobaptists and the membership requirements of many of our own churches; here is an ideal we should reach towards, whether or not we can perfectly reach it.) But there are also fascinating shortcomings. Jamieson writes “there is a sense in which baptism initiates one into the universal church.” Why such hesitancy to affirm what the Bible so clearly teaches? And how did he manage to quote Ephesians 4:5 without quoting the verse right before it, which begins, “There is one body…” There is one body! The index indicates that Jamieson never quotes this verse. This is a significant lapse in a such a weighty book on membership. And after this paragraph he soon retreats again to focus narrowly on “local” church membership.

The following statement about the local church is more typical of Jamieson’s thought patterns:

It’s the body—I’d argue the only body—that has the authority to declare to the world who does and does not belong to the kingdom of Christ (Matt 16:18-19; 18:17-20).

This statement not only assumes a strongly congregationalist form of church government, a perspective which may be correct but which will not be shared by many such as Presbyterians and conference Mennonites and Catholics who are beyond his ideal readership. It also stretches the evidence provided by its proof texts. In Matthew 16 and 18 Jesus was granting authority first of all to his disciples. After Pentecost these same disciples would often exercise this kingdom-defining authority outside of local church contexts. They did this, for example, through writing letters, through traveling from church to church, and in the Jerusalem conference, which affirmed the inclusion of Gentiles everywhere and gave conditions for that inclusion.

This confusion about membership expresses itself repeatedly throughout Going Public. A few more examples:

If you’re only at a church one Sunday, there’s no time to be a member, so the theological category of ‘membership’ doesn’t obtain. (p. 130)

This may be true of Jamieson’s theological categories, but surely not Paul’s.

In lots of places Jamieson moves without warning or distinction between phrases that properly describe the universal church and phrases that describe local churches. For example:

You should not baptize anyone who is not intending to join your church. With only one exception (addressed below), no one should be baptized who is not intending to come under Jesus’ authority by submitting to his church… (p. 213, emphasis added)

In once sentence he says you shouldn’t baptize anyone who is not intending to join your church. In the next sentence he says you shouldn’t baptize anyone who is not intending to submit to his (Jesus’) church. Of course, on one level it is both. But our sphere of authority is much smaller (both absolutely and geographically) than Christ’s, so the two cannot be identical. I suggest we need to remember more clearly that the church is Christ’s, not ours. So I see no theological problem in baptizing someone who is planning to fellowship primarily with another group of believers elsewhere, whether across town or across the country or globe. Despite the need to remind all baptismal candidates of the importance of bonding with other believers, I do not think we have a biblical basis for limiting such baptisms to cases that mirror the Ethiopian eunuch, as Jamieson believes (p. 214).

Here he apparently equates the universal and local church:

Baptism… is necessary for entry into the new covenant community on earth—the membership of a local church. (p. 79, emphasis added)

Here he uses a text that deals with universal realities and seems to see only local ones:

The reality of membership—that some people are in the church and others are out—is everywhere present in the New Testament. For example, Paul writes, ‘For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside’ (1 Cor. 5:12-13). Provisionally, we can define church membership as a relation between a local church and a Christian in which the Christian belongs and submits to the church and the church affirms and oversees the Christian’s profession of faith in Christ. (p. 145, emphasis added)

Clearly, when Paul said that “God judges those outside,” “outside” did not mean simply outside a particular local church. In context, those outside were ones who were to be strictly avoided as false brothers, even delivered over to Satan. This means that the phrase “those inside the church” extends beyond any local church, too. We are to judge traveling false teachers just as surely as local ones. The membership Paul was discussing included local realities, but went far beyond it.

Jamieson’s theological categories cause him to affirm divisions (or at least withholding of communion) within Christ’s church. Here he describes the Together for the Gospel (T4G) conference:

One of the goals of the conference is to showcase the unity such brothers can enjoy in the gospel. Yet many have argued that such unity remains a sham as long as those men cannot sit together at the Lord’s Table. (p. 26)

Later he writes this:

My primary response to the ‘If T4G, then church membership’ argument is that church membership isn’t the only kind of fellowship Christians can have. By definition Christians who are geographically distant can’t be members of the same church…

Is it inconsistent to invite a minister to break the bread of life to us and not allow him to break bread at the Lord’s Table with us? I’d suggest not. First, we see in 2 Corinthians 8:18 and 3 John 5-6a that the earliest Christians would occasionally hear trusted preachers from other churches. This means the New Testament doesn’t require someone to be a member of a certain church in order to preach to that church. And if someone isn’t required to be a member, I can’t see why he would need to fulfill all of a church’s requirements for membership… Unity between churches is made of different stuff than unity within churches. (pp. 189-90)

When I read such paragraphs, my pencil gets busy in the margins. “Proof??” is what I wrote after that last sentence. And try telling Paul that “by definition Christians who are geographically distant can’t be members of the same church”! Whose definition, pray tell? Certainly not Paul’s. And can you really imagine that the Paul who rebuked Peter for refusing to eat with the Gentile believers would affirm Christians today refusing to share the Lord’s Supper together?

And consider the Scriptural examples cited. Can you imagine the Paul who rebuked the Corinthian church for failing to share the Lord’s Supper in a loving manner with all the believers present (1 Cor. 11:17-34) being happy if the Corinthian church failed to offer the Lord’s Supper to Titus and “the brother who is famous among all the churches for his preaching of the gospel” when they arrived in Corinth (2 Cor. 8:16-18)? And it seems to me that the John who rebuked Diotrephes because “he refuses to welcome the brothers” would not be content if his readers failed to welcome godly traveling teachers to the Lord’s Table (3 John 5-10).

Jamieson’s narrow focus on the local church leads him to a strange conclusion that is at odds with historic church practice:

Because the Lord’s Supper effectively signifies a church’s existence as a body, it shouldn’t be celebrated by individuals or families or any other group… And it shouldn’t be ‘taken’ to those who are homebound or in the hospital, despite the commendable compassion that evidences. To make the Lord’s Supper something other than a communal, ecclesial meal is to make it something other than the Lord’s Supper. (p. 131, emphasis added)

In contrast, when Justin Martyr records how the Lord’s Supper was observed around the year 150 A.D., he specifies that “to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons.” (See Chapter 67 of The First Apology of Justin Martyr.)

I could provide dozens more examples from Jamieson’s book of the tension that is caused by what I feel is his imbalanced understanding of church membership, but this is long enough. Jamieson says several times that “simple proof texting won’t settle the issue either way” (p. 18; cf p. 185). This may be true. But I wish Jamieson built his theological house more directly on a more careful reading of the full biblical foundation.

Conclusion

Jamieson quotes the early Anabaptist Balthasar Hubmaier to good effect several times. I wish he had taken to heart this description that Hubmaier provides of church membership. Hubmaier describes baptism as being “a sacramental oath before the Christian church and all her members, assembled partly in body and completely in spirit” (p. 144, fn 13). May we regain this grand vision of belonging to Christ’s one true, universal church!

We often (and rightly) critique the individualism that keeps too many Christians from ever meaningfully bonding with a local gathering of believers. But I submit that this same individualism is at work in those who focus on the local church without grasping the grandeur of the church universal. America is full not only with individuals who love Jesus but not the church. It is also full of people who love their local church but not the rest of Christ’s body.

If we understand church “membership” in a true NT manner–as describing a belonging to Christ and to his one universal body rather than merely to a local congregation–and if we also agree that Jamieson is right in asserting that baptism and communion are the normal markers of membership in Christ’s church, then we still face difficult questions.

To return to Jamieson’s main question: What about someone who has only been baptized as an infant? If we say that infant baptism is no baptism at all, and if we say that baptism is always essential for church membership, then we must deny such people membership. But if membership is not merely a local matter but a universal one, by denying membership we are saying not merely that those baptized as infants cannot be part of our congregation, but that we have no assurance that they belong to Christ at all!

Jamieson takes pains to clarify that he is not saying this. One way he attempts to escape this trap is by saying that withholding membership is not denying someone’s faith, only refraining from affirming it. More precisely, it seems that Jamieson believes that there are cases where Tom as an individual can believe that Brother P (paedobaptist) is a Christian, and Dick can believe this too, and so can Harry, but that Tom, Dick and Harry together as a church must not affirm this by granting Brother P membership (pp. 166-67). Brother P may indeed be a Christian, and the church is not saying he isn’t. It’s just that they can’t say his is. Thus Jamieson disagrees with Piper’s claim that refusing membership is “preemptive excommunication” (p. 171). I’m not so sure. And the only way Jamieson’s argument works, as I see it, is if there is a local “membership” that is different from how the Bible uses such language.

How to move forward? While I strongly affirm believer’s baptism as the biblical pattern, I think I might be more comfortable acknowledging that we sometimes fall short of the biblical ideal in our understanding and practice of baptism than I am with trying to clone Christ’s body into thousands of separate “bodies.” How many bodies does Christ have?

Or is there a middle path that can avoid compromise on both baptism and membership? I am still pondering and listening.


This book is a valiant effort with a significant flaw.
I give it 3-1/2 out of 5 stars.

What are your thoughts? Do you agree with Jamieson and me that baptism and membership are integrally connected? Do you think Jamieson is hearing the heartbeat of the NT about “membership”? Am I? Are we conservative Anabaptists? Share your insights in the comments below.


Disclosures: I received this book free from the publisher in exchange for a review. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 <http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html> : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

I am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com.

 


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When the Church Was a Family — Hellerman (Review)

Hellerman, Joseph H. When the Church Was a Family: Recapturing Jesus’ Vision for Authentic Christian Community (Nashville, Tennessee: B&H Academic, 2009). 240pp. Publisher’s description and author video. (Amazon new price: $14.79 paperback, $0.99 Kindle) Buy on Amazon.

I just finished a book that I underestimated. Sometime over the past months I snatched up When the Church Was a Family on Kindle for 99 cents. Between the low price and the warm photo on the cover, I somehow assumed this was another one of the hundreds of hastily-written, opinion-packed popular-level books on church that are being produced these days. I was wrong.

When the Church Was a Family: Recapturing Jesus' Vision for Authentic Christian Community Buy on Amazon When the Church Was a Family is indeed as inviting as its cover, and accessible to a wide range of readers. But it is also based on solid scholarship. On page 156 I finally discovered why Joseph H. Hellerman, the author, is able to speak with such confidence: “I researched and wrote my UCLA [Ph.D.] dissertation about the church as a family.”

“Spiritual formation occurs primarily in the context of community.” This brief opening line captures the thesis of the book. But in order to support this thesis, Hellerman covers an impressive amount of ground. In this review I’ll simply summarize each chapter of this book, providing a few excerpts and a little commentary.

Chapters 1 and 2 describe the family bonds of the ancient NT world. Since our family is considering major decisions at present, Hellerman’s discussion of decision-making struck home:

Collegians and young singles are well aware that the choices they make in the three areas outlined above [vocation, spouse, residence—we’re currently evaluating 2 of those 3!] will radically affect every area of their lives—for the rest of their lives. But this makes the process all the more painful, and it generates a certain theological dissonance as well because the Bible says almost nothing about making the kinds of decisions that face young adults. One cannot find a passage detailing a series of criteria for choosing a mate or a text that will help a collegian decide which major to pick. God’s Word is relatively silent on these topics. And we should not be surprised. For all its timeless relevance, the Bible remains a collection of strong-group documents written by people who shared a collectivist worldview. People in biblical times simply did not make major life decisions on their own. An ancient Israelite, for example, typically did not have to determine whom he was going to marry, what he was going to do for a living, or where he was going to reside. All these decisions were made for him by his community, that is, by his family and the broader society to which he belonged. (p. 24. Kindle Edition, emphasis added)

At the end of chapter two, Hellerman provides these summary principles:

Principle #1: In the New Testament world the group took priority over the individual.
Principle #2: In the New Testament world a person’s most important group was his blood family.
Principle #3: In the New Testament world the closest family bond was not the bond of marriage. It was the bond between siblings. (p. 50, Kindle Edition)

At this point you would be forgiven for wondering, as I was, whether Hellerman is arguing that our biological families should look more like families in Jesus’ day. But Hellerman explains why he has taken this “excursion into the realm of cultural anthropology and kinship analysis”:

We have sought to make sense of ancient family systems in order to understand what the early Christians meant when they used family language to encourage healthy relationships in their churches. (p. 50. B&H Publishing)

Chapters 3 and 4 deal with NT data about family and church-as-family, focusing first on Jesus and then on Paul. Hellerman makes some fascinating observations about specific Bible passages in these chapters. For example, he examines the passage in Mark 1:14-20, where Jesus does two things: (1) Preach the good news of the kingdom of God and (2) call his first disciples. Hellerman comments:

It is no accident that Mark, writing under the inspiration of God the Holy Spirit, placed the material in vv. 14–15 before the story of the call of the fishermen. The two passages are to be read together. The behavior of Simon, Andrew, James, and John is intended to illustrate the proper response to Jesus’ message in vv. 14–15. Apparently, leaving one’s father and following Jesus constitutes for Mark a paradigmatic example of what it means to “Repent and believe in the good news!” Again, exchanging one family for another is at the very heart of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.(p. 68. Kindle Edition, emphasis added)

Hellerman provides a very helpful synthesis of Jesus’ contrasting teachings on family, arranging them in a triangle: his Pro-family Teachings (e.g. Matt. 15:3-6; 19:3-9), his Anti-family Teachings (e.g. Matt. 8:21-22; 10:34-38; 12:46-48), and his Faith-family Teachings (Matt. 12:49-50; 18:15-35; Mark 10:28-30). The tension between the first two teachings, Hellerman observes, finds its solution in the third group of teachings:

Jesus strongly affirmed the commandment to honor father and mother. Yet He challenged a potential follower who wished to do precisely that to “let the dead bury their own dead.” How do we harmonize these apparently contradictory sayings? The answer lies in the Faith-Family Teachings, which I have placed at the top of the triangle. Jesus’ establishment of His followers as a surrogate family created a potential conflict of loyalties between a disciple’s natural family and his new surrogate family of faith… A person simply could not express equal allegiance to two families in the social world of Jesus and the early Christians. Those who joined the family of God that Jesus was gathering around Him had to wrestle with their ongoing commitment to their natural families. To which family should they assign priority? The Anti-Family Teachings serve to resolve this conflict in favor of the Faith Family… When a conflict of loyalty occurred, a follower of Jesus aligned himself with his church family as his primary locus of relational solidarity. (p. 72. Kindle Edition)

Hellerman’s key point here is that following Jesus involves more than just following a “personal Savior”:

Jesus did not simply intend for His followers to substitute a personal commitment to Him for ties of blood family loyalty. He intended for them to exchange their loyalty to one family for unswerving loyalty to another—the family of God. (p. 71. Kindle Edition)

Hellerman examines Paul’s family imagery under four headings:

1. Affective Solidarity: the emotional bond that Paul experienced among brothers and sisters in God’s family
2. Family Unity: the interpersonal harmony and absence of discord that Paul expected among brothers and sisters in God’s family
3. Material Solidarity: the sharing of resources that Paul assumed would characterize relationships among brothers and sisters in God’s family
4. Family Loyalty: the undivided commitment to God’s group that was to mark the value system of brothers and sisters in God’s family (pp. 78-79. Kindle Edition)

Paul, despite operating partly in a contrasting Gentile world, shared the same concept of Jesus’ followers being a family:

Unfortunately, most Western readers treat “brothers” in Paul’s letters much as we would a punctuation mark, or perhaps as some sort of aside with little theological import. Such an approach is clearly untenable in view of what we have learned about the importance of sibling relations in the New Testament world.(p. 78. Kindle Edition)

Here I would have liked more analysis on Hellerman’s part of how ancient writers and speakers used the term “brother.” Hellerman believes Paul’s use of such familial terms indicates Paul say his churches as family units. Undoubtedly this is true, yet we also see Paul using “brother” language to describe his unsaved fellow Jews (Rom. 9:3; Acts 22:1). How close or exclusive a bond did this word imply?

But my question must not detract from Hellerman’s strengths. Again, helpful insights into individual passages abound. For example:

I just opened my NIV Bible to 1 Corinthians 7 and found that the editors have placed the heading Marriage above the chapter. Aha! This is precisely how we teach this chapter again and again in churches all over America: 1 Corinthians 7 is about marriage. But this is simply another clear-cut example of us reading our priorities—the nuclear family—into a passage that is concerned with God’s priority—the church family. This chapter is not about marriage, at least not about marriage in isolation. It is about the status of marriage as a secondary priority in view of what God is doing to grow his eternal family in the world. (p. 90. Kindle Edition)

I will have to evaluate Hellerman’s discussion of this chapter more closely as I consider Paul’s instructions regarding divorce in the future. For example:

Paul assumed a paradigm that would have had long-standing implications for Christians in the ancient world: unbelievers are not truly family to begin with. All marriages involving a “brother” or a “sister” with an unbeliever are necessarily and ultimately tentative: “For you, wife, how do you know whether you will save your husband? Or you, husband, how do you know whether you will save your wife?” (1 Cor 7:16). (p. 94. Kindle Edition)

Jesus and Paul shake up our Western priorities:

Neither Paul nor Jesus can be cited in support of a life-priority list that generates a false dichotomy between commitment to God and commitment to His group in order to stick natural family relations somewhere in between:

(1st) God — (2nd) Family — (3rd) Church — (4th) Others

For both Jesus and Paul, commitment to God was commitment to God’s group. Such an outlook generates a rather different list of priorities, one that more accurately reflects the strong-group perspective of the early Christians:

(1st) God’s Family — (2nd) My Family — (3rd) Others

(p. 94. Kindle Edition)

Chapter 5 is full of fascinating stories of how the early church functioned as a family. Here Hellerman emphasizes that ideological reasons (attraction of monotheism, etc.) alone cannot explain the growth of the early church. Rather, a primary reason for the church’s growth is because Christians were deeply devoted to each other as family. Tertullian’s claim was only mild exaggeration:

We call ourselves brothers. . . . So, we who are united in mind and soul have no hesitation about sharing what we have. Everything is in common among us—except our wives. (Apologeticus 39.8–11, italics added by Hellerman; quoted p. 108. Kindle Edition)

Chapter 6 is entitled “Salvation as a Community-Creating Event.” Here Hellerman starts preaching to the American church:

Due to the individualistic tendencies of our culture, and the correspondingly loose connection in our thinking between soteriology and ecclesiology, it is not uncommon to encounter persons who claim to be followers of Jesus but who remain unconnected to a local faith community.
In contrast, we do not find an unchurched Christian in the New Testament. Nor do we find one in the ensuing generations of early church history. It is not hard to see why this is the case in light of what happens from God’s perspective when we come to Christ. Paul and the other New Testament writers made it quite clear that getting saved and becoming a member of the people of God are inseparable, simultaneous events: “For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor 12:13).
In the New Testament era a person was not saved for the sole purpose of enjoying a personal relationship with God. Indeed, the phrase “personal relationship with God” is found nowhere in the Bible. According to the New Testament, a person is saved to community. (pp. 123-124. Kindle Edition)

Despite his preaching, Hellerman uses a lot of theological language in this chapter. This is where he introduces his own new theological term, one I am tempted to add to my vocabulary:

Just as we are justified with respect to God the Father upon salvation, so also we are familified with respect to our brothers and sisters in Christ. And this familification is no less a positional reality than our justification.
It would follow from this that just as we need to increasingly actualize the positional reality of our justification in the spiritual formation process, so also should we long to increasingly actualize the positional reality of our familification, as we grow into the image and likeness of Christ. Indeed, as we have seen throughout our discussion, we simply cannot separate the two. To be sold out to God (and thereby actualize our justification) is to be sold out to God’s group (and thereby actualize our familification). (p. 132. Kindle Edition)

Hellerman notes the obvious—Americans have preached a very individualistic salvation. But then he astutely makes additional observations:

As long as America’s traditional social glue of relational commitment and integrity continued to hold people together in their marriages, their churches, and their communities, an individualistic “bar code” gospel could be preached and little damage done. In fact, great good was accomplished as converts took their “personal relationships with God” back into their church and family settings.
Until the late 1960s, social pressure alone was sufficient to keep people married, and it was sufficient to keep church members committed to one another in local community life. Society frowned upon divorce, and it highly valued commitment to church and civic organizations. We could preach an individualistic gospel, ignore the sociological aspects of biblical soteriology, and rely on the pressures of society to keep people in community. And for a season it worked.
But in recent decades the inherent weaknesses of such an approach to the gospel have become increasingly apparent. As we are now painfully aware, the social values that once exerted pressure in favor of relational commitment are gone. The glue that held American society together for nearly two centuries is irredeemably cracked and brittle. Now that American society has become relationally disconnected, the poverty of our “group-less” gospel is glaringly manifested.
The practical ramifications of all this for our lives and for our churches are enormous. By separating salvation from church involvement, in a culture that is already socially fragmented and relatively devoid of relational commitment, we implicitly give people permission to leave God’s family when the going gets rough—to take their “personal relationships with Jesus” with them to another church down the block or, worse, to no church family at all. And this is precisely what they do…
So here is the tragic result of driving a wedge between soteriology (salvation) and ecclesiology (church). We have removed from the gospel what the Bible views as central to the sanctification process, namely, commitment to God’s group. In doing so, we invariably set ourselves up for the relational shipwrecks that happen in the lives of countless Sunday attenders who opt for individual satisfaction over loyalty to God’s group…
Thirty years of church ministry—combined with constant immersion in the conceptual world of the early Christian church—has convinced me of an important truth. To leave God’s family is to leave the very arena in which God manifests His life-giving power and hope to human beings in the world in which we live. (pp. 135-136. Kindle Edition)

As Hellerman emphasizes that familification is intrinsic to salvation, he draws lessons both for individuals and for churches. I was intentionally listening for both, because sometimes those who emphasize church bonds seem to place all the responsibility on individuals, without considering how the social implications of the gospel should inform our church structures and practices. Here is a lesson Hellerman draws for the church as it relates with individuals:

During my earlier years in the pastorate, I conceived of this process as a linear one: (1) conversion, followed by (2) involvement in a local church, where (3) biblical education would characterize the continuing life of the believer. After all, this had been my own experience when I became a follower of Jesus at 23 years of age in 1975. I am now discovering that the “1→2→3” of discipleship often looks more like “2→1→3” in twenty-first century southern California where I minister. In other words, non-Christian newcomers to Oceanside Christian Fellowship first tend to establish relationships with our church members. Then they make decisions for Christ months or even years later. In this process of spiritual formation, it is the quality of the relationships our newcomers make with our regular attenders—and the quality of the relationships they observe among the members of God’s family—that ultimately leads these folks to give their lives to Jesus. (p. 137. Kindle Edition, emphasis added)

Hellerman connects this “2→1→3” discipleship approach with observations about theories of the atonement. He notes that different images of salvation have resonated more deeply at different times and places throughout history. For example, sometimes people have been most eager to be saved from moral evil within; at other times they have most feared external evil. Hellerman says he sees a shift happening in Western culture that suggests a change in our evangelistic approaches:

[In our] introspective, individualistic orientation of modern Western society…, until recently, the New Testament image of individual justification through the forgiveness of sins—a message dealing specifically with internal evil—has proven to be the key “facet of the jewel of the atonement” drawing men and women into the kingdom. I included the phrase “until recently” in the previous sentence because I believe that we have observed a shift in our culture that renders yet another biblical image of salvation more relevant for contemporary society. The image I have in mind is the New Testament picture of the atonement as reconciliation—an image drawn not from the temple, the marketplace, the courtroom, or the battlefield, but one drawn instead from the family. (p. 138. Kindle Edition)

Hellerman’s examples of “2→1→3” discipleship stretch me. For example:

For nearly a year Brian played his guitar on our worship team and vicariously enjoyed the benefits of Christian community before he finally became a child of God… It happened like this. One Sunday Brian approached me to let me know how much he was enjoying our church and to express his appreciation for how much Oceanside Christian Fellowship had done for his marriage and for his family. I was greatly encouraged. But then Brian remarked that he needed answers to some intellectual questions he had about Christianity before he himself would join the party. Here is how Brian expressed it: “It sure is warm and cozy in this hot tub here, Joe, but I just want to make sure the water’s clean before I jump in.” …Shortly thereafter Brian joined his wife and kids as an eternal member of the family of God. We baptized them together as a family at the beach the following August. (p. 142. Kindle Edition.)

Two things stretch me here: Brian’s participation on the worship team prior to his conversion, and how the baptism of Brian’s wife and children were delayed until after Brian’s conversion. But whatever we make of those particulars, I appreciate Hellerman’s point: when the church is a family, this changes not only the way that the individual relates to the church, but also the way the church relates to the individual. We may debate how much this family warmth should be extended to unbelievers, but (a) I think it is possible that we confuse the NT teachings about how (not) to relate with apostates with how we are to treat spiritual seekers and (b) we certainly underestimate how much family warmth should be extended to some members of Christ’s family.

 Chapter 7 is called “Life Together in the Family of God.” This chapter includes multiple stories from Hellerman’s own life. We hear stories of familial bonds within his local church, which serves as a kind of lab for experimenting with the fruits of Hellerman’s research. We also hear a fascinating description of how his own natural family has been expanded—for the sake of the church family—to include an older single lady who lives with them. Here is the outline for this chapter:

Four New Testament family values will serve as our roadmap:
1. We share our stuff with one another.
2. We share our hearts with one another.
3. We stay, embrace the pain, and grow up with one another
4. Family is about more than me, the wife, and the kids.
(p. 145. Kindle Edition)

This paragraph about church unity demands further thought:

I am not suggesting that there is never a legitimate reason for leaving a local church, but I find it rather striking that neither in the midst of the Galatian heresy nor in the context of divisiveness and immorality at Corinth did Paul instruct his readers to leave the community in order to find a healthier group of brothers and sisters. Instead, he challenged them to stick it out and partner with God to make things better. (p. 153. Kindle Edition, emphasis added)

As do these about church discipline:

Most of our churches struggle with exercising church discipline. We are overly hesitant to deal with sin in the church. And when finally we do attempt to correct a hurtful person, we often bumble around and handle the confrontation in a less-than-loving manner.
Perhaps we need to begin with the social context in which Jesus expects us to work through our conflicts and disagreements. The people involved in Matthew 18 are not simply members of an impersonal institution that assembles for a large meeting on Sunday, which we happen to call “church.” They are brothers—brothers who share their stuff with one another and brothers who share their hearts with one another. The point here is that Jesus assumes an intimate relational context for the exercise of church discipline. He assumes a family context. (p. 154. Kindle Edition, emphasis added)

In Chapter 8 Hellerman addresses “Decision Making in the Family of God” by describing a situation where his church advised a couple to delay their wedding until they first received counseling:

Recall the list of relational priorities with which our own church culture is so familiar:

(1st) God — (2nd) Family — (3rd) Church — (4th) Others

Working from this list, Nick and Tina could have reasoned just like so many other couples do when they are faced with the same dilemma: “How dare the church [3rd] tell us what to do! We each have a personal relationship with God [1st]. And God is in our relationship with one another [2nd]. We can ignore Pastor Joe’s and Pastor Steve’s advice [3rd] without being unfaithful to God [1st]. After all, family [2nd] is more important than church [3rd]. We need each other, and the kids need a mother. Let’s just get married in December.” Fortunately, Nick and Tina did not respond like this… (p. 167. Kindle Edition)

Here is the main point of this chapter:

In my 25 years of church ministry, I have observed a general principle that I believe we can take to the bank when it comes to making major life decisions. I have blocked it off in the text in order to emphasize its importance:

The closer a Christian group approximates the strong-group, church family model that characterized early Christianity, the better the decisions that are made by the group’s individual members and nuclear family units. (p. 170. Kindle Edition, emphasis added)

Hellerman cautions that reaching this goal is not easy:

But teaching our people about the church as a family will not suffice to alter deeply ingrained patterns of behavior. We must also reevaluate the social contexts of church life, the ways in which our ministries are executed. The priority most churches place upon the success of the Sunday service subtly but powerfully communicates the message that this impersonal, once-a-week social environment is quintessentially what “church” is all about. After all, this is where most church leaders count heads, and this is where we collect the money.
As a result, the one event preeminently identified with the word “church” in most congregations finds our people seated side-by-side, facing forward, with little or no interpersonal interaction with persons to the right or to the left. A fellow sitting next to me in Sunday church might have lost his job—or his spouse—that very week. Tragically, however, I would never know it. (p. 177. Kindle Edition, emphasis added)

Simply promoting a small-group program as a second option during the week is not enough. These relational settings must become central to the values of our church culture.
You might try what I did on a Sunday morning some time ago. I preached a sermon entitled “Why Sunday A.M. Is Not Church” in which I compared early church family values and practices with the way that we do church on Sunday morning… I proceeded gently but firmly to inform my people that many of them—some of whom had attended on Sunday for years—had never been to church! Then I encouraged them to begin going to church, that is, to start attending one of our home-group settings where they could cultivate the kind of surrogate sibling relationships that God intends for His children to enjoy with one another.
Some months later, I gave a presentation about Christian community at a gathering of our church’s top-level leadership team of 20 or so people. I still recall the rather horrified look on the face of a member of our stewardship committee (these are the precious people who track Sunday attendance and Sunday giving at our church) when I informed the group that, if I had to choose, I would rather have our people attending a home group than sitting in our Sunday morning service.
Genuine spiritual formation depends upon such priorities. (pp. 178-179. Kindle Edition, emphasis added)

Chapter 9 is called “Leadership in the Family of God.” Here Hellerman acknowledges that the NT model of strong-group familial churches can, apart from good leadership, lead to abuse:

Cults like Tizer’s [called “The Community”] give us serious reservations about the strong-group approach to community life, whether Christian or otherwise. It is important to remember our description of the collectivist church model from chapter 2:

The person perceives himself or herself to be a member of a church and responsible to the church for his or her actions, destiny, career, development, and life in general. . . . The individual person is embedded in the church and is free to do what he or she feels right and necessary only if in accord with church norms and only if the action is in the church’s best interest. The church has priority over the individual member.1

Substitute “The Community” for the word “church,” and you have a pretty accurate description of Tizer’s cult group. (pp. 183-184. Kindle Edition)

Hellerman summarizes the problem and proposes a two-part solution:

We need some checks and balances that allow us to move ahead with the early Christian approach to community but that at the same time prevent the group—and especially group leaders—from exercising authority in a destructive way. (p. 185. Kindle Edition)

A biblical, strong-group church family led by a team of persons who exercise their authority as servants of their brethren will have no problem with abuse and manipulation. Plurality and servant leadership are designed to be central to God’s model of the church as a strong-group family.(p. 186. Kindle Edition, emphasis added)

The rest of this chapter focuses on these two themes. Hellerman’s treatment of these themes is solid, but neither theme is unusual or new to me, so I won’t comment further.

The Conclusion systematically summarizes the book but also introduces new concepts. For example, Hellerman describes “two essential values”:

…Values that gave the ancient church much of its social capital and relational integrity, values that ought to characterize any community that seeks to identify itself as Christian…
I call the first value “robust boundaries”—boundaries that served to distinguish those who belonged to the local Christian community from those who did not…
“Relational solidarity” is what I call the second social value… I have in mind here the way in which the early Christians took care of one another—like family. (p. unclear, Kindle edition, emphasis added)

[Note: from here on my Kindle edition has neither page numbers nor Kindle locations, so they will be missing from the rest of my quotes.]

Hellerman is most concerned about the first value:

…The future looks quite bright for relational solidarity. There is a fresh wind blowing among a new generation of believers who are intentionally seeking to recapture the relational integrity of the early church in ways that baby-boomer Christians have not.

But the idea that we might also need to have robust boundaries in place to define the contours of an authentic Christian community does not particularly resonate with our culture. And I get the impression that this key social value of the ancient church does not particularly resonate with some of our emerging church leaders either.

I am both happy and dissatisfied with Hellerman’s discussion here. I agree with his emphasis on the need for robust boundaries, and I agree with his suggestions about what these boundaries might look like:

Issues that served to delineate the robust boundaries of the New Testament church included sexual immorality (1 Cor 5:1–8), lack of repentance when sinning against a brother (Matt 18:15–18), unwillingness to forgive a repentant brother (Matt 18:21–35), the propagation of false doctrine (2 Tim 3:1–8), divisiveness (Titus 3:10–11), and even sloth (2 Thess 3:6–15). People who lived their lives according to community standards remained part of the family of God, but those who did not were excluded. (emphasis added)

My dissatisfaction comes from what is left unsaid. Earlier I noted that it is important to ask not only about the implications of the NT church-family model for the individual (in relationship to the church), but also for the congregation (as it relates to individuals). I think Hellerman could do a better job of asking this second question here in his conclusion.

For example, in his discussion of robust boundaries, Hellerman might also ask about the dangers of creating boundaries that divide members of Christ’s family from one another. He doesn’t address the question of whether it is suitable for a local congregation to add boundaries in addition to those biblical boundaries that are provided for the universal church. Is it possible to erect robust boundaries (value 2) that actually discourage relational solidarity (value 1) among God’s children? Hellerman doesn’t seem attuned to this possibility.

This lacuna (failure to address the question of the congregation’s responsibility toward the individual) becomes more evident as the Conclusion progresses. Hellerman correctly notes that “a saving relationship with God and a commitment to God’s group were apparently inseparable in the early church.” And he warns against too hastily concluding that a person who fails to join a church is unsaved. He also has helpful advice about evangelism, suggesting we should “we inform our potential converts in no uncertain terms that commitment to Jesus also involves commitment to God’s group.” But he misses an obvious implication of his own illustration:

An illustration from the natural world will drive the point home. Under normal circumstances, babies are born into families. The social chaos characterizing America in recent decades has generated, among its various casualties, unwanted newborn babies who are left in dumpsters to die. These babies are obviously not born into families. It has become tragically clear to anyone who follows news stories like these that babies who are not born into families do not have a chance for survival.
So it is with Christians who are not born into the local family of God. Receiving Christ as Savior without church involvement is a sure recipe for stillbirth.

The obvious implication is that sometimes Christians, too—new or old—are “left in dumpsters to die.” Not every churchless Christian is churchless by his or her own preference.

To be fair, Hellerman does “put the ball right back in our court” (quote) regarding the church’s responsibility to welcome unbelievers:

Our friends and neighbors often have good reason not to like church. Most of them have never experienced church as we see it functioning in early Christianity. They only know church as an American cultural institution. They only know church as we have designed it.
The solution to this dilemma is readily apparent. We need to cultivate in our churches the kind of social environments where our non-Christian friends can come and experience firsthand Jesus’ vision for authentic Christian community.

I wish he did the same more clearly regarding the church’s responsibility to believers.

Another way to frame this is to say that Hellerman could have considered more carefully the implications of his findings on the universal church, not merely the local congregation. He does this from time to time, such as when he discusses how the early church collected offerings for distant Christians. But he could have also considered the relationship of the universal and local church in his discussion of church boundaries.

Why is this important to me? It is important because I have noticed in the past that sometimes conservative Anabaptists take books written by evangelicals, books focusing on evangelical problems and operating with evangelical assumptions, and then use them somewhat out of context to address Anabaptist concerns. More clearly: I have seen evangelical books that rightly promote the need for more church loyalty and church discipline, but that are also written with the assumption that the church has no authority to erect extra-biblical boundaries. In some such books, this assumption is so strong that it is barely mentioned, despite clear teaching about things like servant leadership. Then I have seen Anabaptist churches use such books to reinforce allegiance to extra-biblical boundaries, sometimes in ways that contradict, I am certain, the desires of the authors.

Hellerman is not writing to conservative Anabaptists, so I hesitate to fault him for this lack. But I do think conservative Anabaptists should review Hellerman’s wonderful survey of NT church-family values and teachings, analyzing them for additional implications about how we can better “welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (Rom. 15:7).

For my final quote, I want to return to what Hellerman does well—showing the implications of his findings for relationships within the local church. In the following quote he is speaking to church leaders:

…We must answer the question Who are my brothers and sisters? in terms of the people in our own congregations. It will not do for us to share our lives only with other leaders in the broader Christian community, as helpful as that might be on occasion. If a pastor is unwilling to risk openness with a handful of brothers in his church—for whatever reason—then the members will surely do likewise. We simply cannot take our people where we are unwilling to go. We must be willing to go there whatever the cost…
Only when pastors set aside our misled need to father our flocks, and instead share the oversight and instruction of our congregations with other mature brothers, will we tangibly and persuasively communicate to others the absolute centrality of the biblical model of the church as a society of surrogate siblings.

As usual, this has turned into more than a simple book review. Buy this book—it’s a steal at only 99 cents on Kindle! And it comes with glowing reviews from people as diverse as Dan Kimball (author of They Like Jesus but Not the Church) and J.P. Moreland (Christian philosopher and author of many books, including Love Your God with All Your Mind).

Hellerman has written an exceptionally useful book for recapturing the NT vision of church.
I give it 4.5 out of 5 stars.

What did you learn from this review? How should Hellerman’s insights change the way we read our New Testaments and live as God’s family? Share your questions and insights below!


Disclosure: I am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com.

  1. B. Malina, Christian Origins and Cultural Anthropology (Atlanta: John Knox, 1986), 19, paraphrased.

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Should Every Church Gathering Look Like 1 Corinthians 14?

Yesterday a friend of mine1 asked a good question:

Is the way you “do church” found in the Bible? I’m not asking if it’s inherently wrong, but just wondering if it’s in the Bible?

I responded with this:

No, and neither was the car I drive in to get to the church gathering. So there needs to be some flex. But: I think there’s been too much flex in most churches, and we’re missing out on potential blessings.

Another friend thought I was being too easy on our churches–that I was, to use my words, guilty myself of “too much flex.” He said that God gives us instructions in Scripture on how church meetings should be held. Then he quoted these verses:

What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up… If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged… (1 Cor. 14:26, 30-31)

What do you think? Was 1 Corinthians 14 intended to be a manual that describes what all churches must do every time they gather? Should this be, for example, what all our Lord’s Day gatherings look like? 

My friend’s helpful challenge pushed me to think hard enough that I thought I’d share my response here. Here, with minor edits, is what I wrote:


I’ll try to explain a bit more where I’m coming from with my brief comment above.

First, I am aware of various house c
hurch insights and sympathetic to most of them. In fact, from time to time I’ve been strongly tempted to get involved in such a fellowship, although in my case it would probably mean starting something new. (I won’t go into the pros and cons of me doing that now, because they are complex!) What I mean to say is that I’ve read authors such as Rad Zdero (also this) and Frank Viola and Larry Kreider and Floyd McClung and listened to people like Steve Atkerson and I really like a lot of their ideas. I think more people should be considering what they are saying. I’m a fan of house churches! I’m just not ready to say that it’s the only possible way to “do church.” Many of the above writers would agree with me.

Second, while I definitely wish we had more 1 Corinthians 14 elements in our gatherings (I’m reading Jack Deere these days), I’m not convinced that Paul intended that the verses you quoted be a manual for how all churches must conduct all their gatherings.

Why don’t I think so?

(1) Because of the immediate literary context. Those verses were written to a church that was already practicing all those gifts in abundance, but in a disorderly way. Paul’s main intent was not to try to urge his readers to use those gifts. Rather, he was trying to bring order to the chaos. Thus, in vs. 26 the only command is the last sentence: “Let all things be done for building up.” The previous sentence is not a command, but just a description: “When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. The vast majority of English translations, including the best, I think, agree on this, as do a number of highly respected commentators that I consulted, ones who know Greek well. This is either a description of what regularly happened in Corinth, or of what Paul imagined was likely to happen at a given gathering. (Commentator David Garland writes, “Paul presents a hypothetical scenario, ‘suppose that when you assemble,’ rather than a real description of what is happening.” I think it is more likely that Paul is describing what commonly happened at Corinth, but the fact remains that the sentence is almost certainly a description, not a command.) Other less important things could be noted–like that the phrase “each one” does not always literally mean every single person, but simply “lots of individuals.”

As for verses 30-31, I think it is significant that these come in a paragraph about prophets. So I think Paul is saying that when the prophets are speaking in a gathering, these rules apply. I don’t think he is saying that only this kind of (possibly) spontaneous prophetic speaking is permitted, or that all other kinds of speakers must follow these same rules, including the rule about sitting down when another receives something to say. I don’t think we have exegetical reason for applying this same sitting-down rule to, say, recognized teachers. And in this “prophets passage” it is interesting to note that Paul says only two or three prophets should speak. We need to keep this in mind when he says, two verses later, that “you can all prophesy one by one.” It seems Paul was not envisioning meetings where either prophets or tongues-speakers dominated for long periods of time. Only four to six such speakers, in total, were to speak in any one meeting. The rest of the time was for other things.

(2) Because there are other NT passages that describe other kinds of gatherings. For example, in the Lord’s Day gathering described in Acts 20:7-12 one speaker spoke all night (Paul). This speaking almost certainly included more dialogue than our sermons do (the verb used to describe Paul’s speech suggests this, for it means “to reason, argue, prove, persuade”), but one person was clearly the main speaker for hours on end. In other places churches are commanded to read apostolic letters when they gather (Col. 4:16)–something that can take from 10 to 45 minutes, depending on the letter, not counting time taken to add explanations and respond to questions. So I think we have good biblical precedent for having one or several main speakers prepared to speak at many of our gatherings–not as a replacement for every-member input, but as part of the whole edifying mix.

(3) Because of the importance of teaching both doctrine and practice, and the importance of the church being unified in the teaching it receives. (This point draws a logical deduction from Scripture and is thus less weighty than my first two points, which involve direct Scriptural input.) I think it is a terrible mistake to think that teaching can only happen “over the pulpit”! (Or, if you’re happy like me to skip the furniture, in a weekly preaching session.) But I found it interesting to hear Steve Atkerson describe the experience of his house church. They have a very strong emphasis on having a “1 Corinthians 14 meeting” that is centered on the Lord’s Supper. But they found that they were hurting because the only intentional teaching input that their church members were receiving was happening at a variety of other weekly events, times when the whole church was never together. So they finally decided that they were going to include a scheduled teaching input time in their Lord’s Day gatherings. (If you don’t know Steve Atkerson, check out New Testament Reformation Fellowship.)

So, to wrap up my thoughts, I think thriving churches will experience a lot more of what we see in 1 Corinthians 14 than what many of our churches currently experience. I agree that, far too often, our typical church practices are a recipe for boredom. (And, as it’s been said, it’s pretty close to a “sin” to bore people with God’s Word!) I also think we would benefit from sharing the Lord’s Supper every week around a common meal. (A practice that has wider and stronger early historical support than the practice of having a primarily or totally spontaneous-input church gathering.)

So I’m completely with you on thinking our churches should look a lot more like NT ones! I’m just not ready to say the NT explicitly commands that we all need to always look like 1 Corinthians 14:26.


My response here was trying to do two things at once: speak in favor of NT-style participatory house churches, while questioning the idea that 1 Corinthians 14 is a sufficient manual for church gatherings. My double aim probably leaves some of you with as many questions as answers. Some of you might be worrying I’m dropping off the deep end into house church chaos, while others might be thinking I’m still far too tradition-bound!

I won’t try to answer your questions now. Instead, I invite you to:

  1. Consider some of the house church authors and speakers I’ve named above, testing them by Scripture. (I certainly don’t agree with all of them on every point. I think Rad Zdero is at least as balanced as any of them.)
  2. Tell us what you think in the comments below. Am I off the wall? What do I still need to learn? What do you think our church gatherings should look like? Why?

For Christ and his Church!


 

  1. His name is Christopher Witmer. He has a way with good questions.

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