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The Arts, Biblical Theology, and Proof I’m Not a Complete Philistine

My last post generated some helpful feedback about the place of the arts in the Christian life. In that post I took an exegetical approach to the topic, examining one Scripture passage and challenging how it is sometimes used in defense of extravagant artistic investments. But most questions about Christian living are not decided by a solitary Scripture passage—and especially by a passage that isn’t directly about the topic at all, as I argued is the case with the story of the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet.

So in this post I’d like to begin to set the topic of the arts within a larger biblical framework—thus doing what is often called biblical theology. (And if you persevere to the end, I even have a cute picture to share.)

First, here are some lines from the feedback I received:

Why do we have to have verses to justify everything that we do...

I don’t have a proof text for the arts

I’m not sure that I can supply a Biblical basis in support of the arts…

These comments are quite natural, given the relative silence in the New Testament about the kinds of activities we classify as “the arts.” So I agree: It’s pretty hard to point to one Bible verse, especially any verse written expressly as a directive to Christians, and say that we’ve found “a proof text for the arts.”

I suggest, however, that this lack of a proof text does not leave us entirely free to develop our own philosophical or emotional apology for our personal artistic preferences. Rather, our double task is to trace the big story that God tells us in Scripture and then to accurately understand our time and place within that story. (This is one of the tasks of the discipline of biblical theology—to consider theological themes as unfolding trajectories within the larger biblical narrative, rather than as the isolated observations of textual exegesis or the timeless conclusions of systematic theology.)

Some of the feedback I received hinted in this direction:

I’ve recently been wondering if a negative view of arts is a result of a “leave the earth, God’s going to destroy it anyway” mentality, instead of becoming part of God’s redemptive project on the earth, in which man’s signature counts…that is, he is by virtue of his very nature, his likeness to his Creator, creative

Here we see hints of some key plot developments in the story of our world: restoration (the return of Christ at the end of the age), redemption (God’s plan to rescue from sin), and creation (mankind created in the image of the Creator). And of course redemption reminds us also of the fall. This gives us all four of the plot movements commonly identified by Reformed theologians: creation, fall, redemption, and restoration.

(See here for verbal and visual explanations of each. And I have suggested that naming the final movement glorification might better reflect the fact that Christ’s return will usher in not merely Eden restored, but a new world where we will realize an eternal consummation of God’s vision beyond anything ever experienced in Eden.)

Another response also pointed to creation:

I would offer a defense based on the nature of man. Artistic expression is a part of every known culture, even cultures that make efforts to eliminate them. I suspect its just a part of who we are, like language. In fact, art IS a language. Attacking artistic expression seems dehumanizing...

Another response complicated these four plot movements a bit by mentioning Israel (as well as restoration):

As I read about the intricacy of the artwork that went into Solomon’s Temple, I have to think that this too was intended to honor and glorify God.
What about some of the scenes involving the musical art in Revelation, what was its prime purpose?

N.T. Wright’s biblical theological scheme might help us here. He suggests that the Bible carries God’s authority by telling the story of the world in five acts. He identifies them as follows:

(1) Creation; (2) Fall; (3) Israel; (4) Jesus. The New Testament would then form the first scene in the fifth act, giving hints as well (Rom 8; 1 Cor 15; parts of the Apocalypse) of how the play is supposed to end.

As Wright points out, understanding the Bible as a five-act play (or as a four-movement plot, if you prefer the Reformed system) has implications for our hermeneutics (paradigms for how we interpret Scripture and what it says to us today):

The church would then live under the ‘authority’ of the extant story, being required to offer something between an improvisation and an actual performance of the final act. Appeal could always be made to the inconsistency of what was being offered with a major theme or characterization in the earlier material. Such an appeal—and such an offering!—would of course require sensitivity of a high order to the whole nature of the story and to the ways in which it would be (of course) inappropriate simply to repeat verbatim passages from earlier sections…

The New Testament is written to be the charter for the people of the creator God in the time between the first and second comings of Jesus; the Old Testament forms the story of the earlier acts, which are (to be sure) vital for understanding why Act 4, and hence Act 5, are what they are, but not at all appropriate to be picked up and hurled forward into Act 5 without more ado. The Old Testament has the authority that an earlier act of the play would have, no more, no less…

The story has to be told as the new covenant story. This is where my five-act model comes to our help again. The earlier parts of the story are to be told precisely as the earlier parts of the story. We do not read Genesis 1 and 2 as though the world were still like that; we do not read Genesis 3 as though ignorant of Genesis 12, of Exodus, or indeed of the gospels. Nor do we read the gospels us though we were ignorant of the fact that they are written precisely in order to make the transition from Act 4 to Act 5, the Act in which we are now living and in which we are to make our own unique, unscripted and yet obedient, improvisation.

(See here for the source of these quotes and for fascinating suggestions about how God mediates his authority through the story told by the Scriptures.)

So, where are we in the story of biblical theology?

Using the traditional Reformed scheme, we are in the third movement: redemption. God is still busy redeeming this world from sin. We are living after the cross, but before “the time of restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago” (Acts 3:21).

Using Wright’s scheme, we are in the final act, Act Five. We are no longer living in Acts One through Four. But we are also not yet living in the final scene within Act Five.

So, in either scheme, we are living in some tension, in a partially-redeemed state within a world that is not yet restored. We must not forget God’s creation purposes, yet we cannot simply live as if we are still in Eden. We must lay hold of God’s vision of restoration, yet we cannot live as if we are already on the new earth. This is still the time of spiritual warfare and of Great Commission living.

What does this mean for the place of the arts in the Christian life?

At minimum, this:

  • It means that pointing to our nature as creations who create is crucial, but insufficient.
  • It means that the artistic intricacies of Solomon’s temple are illuminating, but not determinative.
  • It means that the heavenly artistic grandeur described in Revelation awakens our hope, but does not define our current experience.

Artistic delight now is a reminder of Eden and a foretaste of Glory. It is a concert performed for soldiers who are on temporary leave from the front lines, healing their wounds before they return to battle. It is recess between classes at school. It is love-making between the duties of tilling the soil and raising the children.

Consider that last analogy further in light of Scripture. Let’s use the four Reformed movements to examine marriage through the ages:

Creation: God makes humans male and female. He declares “it is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him” (Gen. 2:18). The one-flesh union is blessed by God and humans are told to be fruitful and multiply.

Fall: Marriage is deformed in many ways post-fall, with polygamy and divorce permitted thanks to the hardness of man’s heart. Marriage is still the normal state, but normal marriage is not particularly normal. God does strange things like apparently blessing his kings with multiple wives and using a pagan beauty contest (that’s far too mild of a term for what actually happened) to save his people from genocide.

Redemption: God both uses marriage and operates beyond marriage to bring his Son into the world. His Son never marries. He blesses marriage, calling people back to God’s creation purposes. Yet he also blesses celibates—those are “eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven”—and says “Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.” (See Matt. 19:10-12.)

Paul, likewise, paints a double picture. On the one hand, he paints a glorious picture of marriage as a type of Christ and the church. (See Eph. 5:22-33.) On the other hand, filled with passion “to secure… undivided devotion to the Lord,” Paul says that he wishes all were single as he is. Notice his appeal to our place within the big story that Scripture tells: “This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none… For the present form of this world is passing away.” (See 1 Corinthians 7:7-8, 29-38.)

And significantly, both Jesus and Paul suggest that both marriage and celibacy are gifts, given differently to different persons.

Restoration: In words that probably shaped Paul’s vision, Jesus noted that “in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage” (Matt. 22:30). Instead, we have the consummation of the eternal reality toward which earthly marriage points: the marriage supper of the Lamb (Rev. 19:9; 21:2, 9-11).

I think we can see parallels with the arts through the ages. Here are some tentative suggestions—I am certainly moving beyond exegesis into theological deduction:

Creation: I do think that the Bible blesses the image of humans as creations who create. We see hints of this in Adam’s naming of the animals and care of the Garden, or even in his poetic praise of his new bride. Some Anabaptists need to ponder this more. I’m thinking of those who bless quilting bees, agricultural arts, and a cappella four-part harmony but leave little room for photography, literature, or the performing arts.

Fall: The arts certainly go to seed post-fall. Consider idolatrous images, pagan hymns, or even the heavy taxation and slavery used to build Solomon’s temple. The latter example reminds me of how the Roman Catholic Church during the middle ages siphoned off the wealth of Europe to build cathedrals and glorify the Vatican. Or consider the star-centered and commercialized nature of so much Christian art today. But should we also consider economic inequalities and indulgences closer to home?

Redemption: Little is said in Scripture about the arts in this movement; hence the need for discussions like this. Based on the marriage analogy, I offer a few suggestions.

Jesus was a carpenter, he told astounding stories, and he did sing hymns. To call him an “artist” might be stretching the evidence, however. There is no suggestion that he spent hours practicing on the harp or even that he led his disciples in multi-part choral works. He didn’t own a home and didn’t seem impressed by the grandeur of the temple, so architecture wasn’t high on his list of active priorities. I don’t think we read anything about him engaging in any visual arts besides writing in the sand. His mud pies were decidedly utilitarian, designed for healing eyes. Even his parables, magnificent as they are, were not staged performances as our artistic endeavors usually are, but rather woven into the fabric of everyday life.

And Paul? While he built tents, there is no indication he saw this as anything besides laborious commercial work. I certainly cannot imagine him investing the proverbial 10,000 hours to become an expert on an instrument such as the flute. He was too bent on the Great Commission to commission any works of art besides offerings for the poor saints in Jerusalem.

Yet the paradigm of “gifts” is also a clue. “Each has his own gift from God,” Paul wrote of marriage and singleness, “one of one kind and one of another” (1 Cor. 7:7). For over 10 years now, singleness has not been my gift. My prayer before I met my future wife was that God would lead me to someone with whom I could serve him better than how I could serve him alone. I believe God answered that prayer for me, at least for this season of my life.

Similarly, my artistic engagement has varied through seasons of my life. For several years while in college, I often achieved from 3/4 hour to 1-1/2 hours at the piano daily. Now I often play less than that in one week. I confess that, just as I am weak and have felt a “burning” need for marriage (1 Cor. 7:9), so I often feel a great need for the refreshment that is offered by the arts. Accompanying fellow musicians and performing for others has brought moments of ecstasy. Other times the only prayer I have been able to offer is to let my fingers wander over the piano keyboard, searching alone for the groans of the Spirit.

And often this refreshment comes through the artistic gifts God has given to others. When I was a youth, listening to Beethoven taught me on a deep heart level that joy is often found only after great struggle. Mozart’s Requiem and Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 have been played at high volume to soothe my youthful (and sometimes not so youthful) angst. The poetry and song of Rich Mullins has stirred me to my depths. And Phil Keaggy’s song “Play Through Me” has been my prayer, too:

Up late again tonight,
I feel a song coming on…

Maker of all melody fill my heart with song,
Play how You feel, oh play thru me.
Healing can come through the song
Your own hands upon,
This is for real, no fantasy.

(And since I am “up late again tonight,” too, I better soon wind down the crafting of this post.)

Restoration: Given the symbolic language of much of Revelation, I think we can say little concretely about arts in the world to come. If we take the function of metaphor seriously, however, we must conclude that there is something similar-but-grander in the heavenlies to the very best of earthly art. While I admit the song “The Music of Heaven” is not among my personal favorites, I do anticipate that Jesus’ presence will bring a passion and fulfillment beyond anything I have experienced in the best moments of musical ecstasy here on earth.

So what is the conclusion of the matter? I think in this age of redemption, in these middle scenes of Act 5, we will rightly see traces of God’s good creation purposes among his people. Just as we rightly celebrate Christian marriages, so we can rightly celebrate Christian artists. (I’m not insisting here on a specifically “Christian art”; that is another discussion.) We will see and bless a diversity of both gifts and callings. There must be room for poets and painters and potters in our churches. Even banjo players. Artistic excellence does indeed show something of the glory of God.

But we will also recognize that here we have no abiding symphony. In this world we will have trouble staying on key. More than that, we will weigh our artistic desires, examining our hearts: are we getting “entangled in civilian pursuits” or pleasing “the one who enlisted” us (2 Tim. 2:4). We will remember the Great Commission mission of the church. We will ask ourselves hard questions: Am I worshiping the creature or the Creator? Am I serving God and my neighbor with my approach to art, or am I merely serving myself? (Sometimes our neighbors can best help us answer this question. And who is my neighbor?)

I think my previous post left a few readers worried that I was anti-art. I’m not sure if this post will help or not. In a last-ditch effort to redeem myself, let me sign off with a picture. Hopefully this proves I’m not a total Philistine. Tonight I put my middle daughter to sleep to the sounds of Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin, and Schumann. Hopefully she heard a faint echo of her Savior singing over her:

PianoShaniSleeping
Please forgive the exposed umbilical cord socket.

What do you think? How should we navigate the “already but not yet” tension surrounding the arts? Share your thoughts (preferably in sonnet form) in the comments below.


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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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On Translation Choices and Pastoral Concerns

This morning I noticed an example of the NIV being very politically correct–or, to be kinder, very pastorally aware:

The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. (1 Cor. 7:4)

The Greek text for this verse has no word that corresponds to the NIV word “yields.” The ESV translates the end of each sentence well: “but the husband/wife does.” This translation supplies the implied verb, “does.” The KJV does not supply any implied verb. So it is less clear but mirrors the Greek even more closely: “but the husband/wife.”

On Translation Choices…

In the NIV Paul sounds like he is urging voluntary mutual submission in this verse, rather than providing a reason why such submission is important. It is more likely, I think, that Paul is urging mutual submission in the previous verse (“The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband” 1 Cor. 7:3.) and then adding a reason why in this verse. In other words, I think verse verse 3 says what married people should do–give each other their conjugal rights–and verse 4 says why–because married people don’t possess autonomous authority over their own bodies.

There, I find myself being PC, too! There is no word “autonomous” in the Greek to soften the force of Paul’s assertion.

The ESV, interestingly, shows it agrees with my understanding of how verses 3 and 4 are related by adding a “for” at the start of verse 4, even though none is present in the Greek.

So is there any linguistic basis for the NIV’s choice here? There probably is, for the NIV is usually very intentional. I’m speculating here, because I don’t know what discussion the translation committee had on this verse. But I suspect the textual basis for their choice is found in the verb “have authority over.” They may understand this as “keep authority over,” concluding, therefore, that the opposite idea is to yield. But it seems odd to me, if this is really what Paul was thinking, that he would end his sentence with “but the husband/wife.” Rather, it would be more natural, if he understood the verb this way, to end, “but yields it.” This, of course, is how the NIV translates the end of the sentence. So the NIV provides what Paul should have said if their understanding of the verb is correct, not what Paul actually said!

At least, that’s my best guess at what’s happening linguistically here with the NIV.

Let me contrast the NIV and ESV translations another way. In the ESV, Paul is contrasting persons: Who has authority over the husband’s body? Not the husband but the wife. In the NIV, Paul is contrasting actions: What does the husband do with his body? Not rule it himself but yield it to his wife. I think the ESV reflects the Greek more accurately.

I quickly surveyed all 50 translations on Bible Gateway. If I counted correctly, only the Phillips, the Message, the NLT, and VOICE translations agree with the NIV here. That’s not proof that the NIV is wrong, but neither is it a ringing endorsement.

A few translations find other ways of “softening the blow,” such as EXB’s “The wife does not have full rights over her own body; her husband shares them…” This translation softens the blow at two points: by adding the word “full” before “rights” (but they add a note after “full rights” that provides a literal translation: “authority”) and by providing the word “shares” in the final clause, where the Greek gives no suggestion of anything being mutual.

Probably little real damage is done by NIV’s choice, and it may prevent some dangerous misapplication. But it’s yet another reminder of (a) how pastoral concerns can shape translation choices, and (b) the importance of comparing translations when we can.

And Pastoral Concerns

The pastoral concern that probably motivated the NIV translators is legitimate: We do not want to encourage abusive spouses to demand sexual rights from their spouses. Just as slave owners have pointed to texts commanding slaves to obey their masters, so abusive husbands have pointed to texts like this to convince their spouses that they must submit to abuse.

The pastoral problem is very real. So is there another way to address the problem besides rewriting Paul’s thoughts (as I think the NIV is doing)?

I think there is. I think the answer is to preach and teach “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). We need to constantly discourage people from building theologies and practices on isolated proof-texts. I believe proof-texting can be legitimate and even important; the NT authors do it regularly as they quote the OT. But we must not use isolated proof-texts. Our proof-texts must reflect the whole counsel of God. We can do this by choosing proof-texts that are balanced within themselves. We can also do this by providing multiple proof-texts. And we can avoid proof-text problems by remembering that, according to Scripture, Scripture often requires explanation, not mere quotation (see Neh. 8:7-8).

Here is an example that parallels the problem in our text: The question of relating to civil authorities. Paul says some very hard-to-swallow things about this question, too:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. (Rom. 13:1-2)

Taken in isolation, this can be a dangerous proof text. But we don’t solve this problem by rewriting Paul. We don’t translate Paul like this: “Let every person be subject to those governing authorities which have been instituted by God.” (At least, I hope we don’t.) Rather, we recognize that Paul is stating a foundational principle. We quote this principle and feel its full force. Then we pull in other Scriptural data and recognized that there are exceptions. For example, the apostles said “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29) and Jesus even commanded his disciples to flee authorities who tried to persecute them (Matt. 10:23).

If we apply these parallels to the question of conjugal rights and sexual submission in marriage, then several conclusions are suggested: (1) There are times when one spouse will need to tell the other, “I must obey God rather than you.” (2) There are times when a spouse will need to flee abuse.

Other passages could enrich our observations here. My point is that I think this kind of theological and expositional legwork is a good way to address the pastoral concerns of a text like 1 Corinthians 7:4. I appreciate when translations try to avoid leaving misimpressions. But I don’t appreciate when they do this by changing what the text actually says. So, in this case, I prefer the ESV over the NIV.

What do you think? Leave a comment and share your perspective.


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