God willing, our family will soon be moving to Atlanta, Georgia. In my last post I dropped some hints about us moving to “really bad farmland,” so I thought I should share the news here. Continue reading for a rambling post full of theological and personal reflection.
Five years ago this month we moved to Iowa from New York City, after about seven years in The Big Apple. We came here to support my wife Zonya’s parents as her father’s health declined. Since Albert died in December, we have been “in transition mode,” asking God what’s next for our family. Many options and invitations came our way. Of the many, The Big Peach (aka “Atlanta”) gradually claimed center spot in our thoughts.
I’ve never felt good at making major decisions, but I have learned (slowly, repeatedly) that we can fully trust God to to care and to guide as he sees fit.
There is much mystery in how God guides our steps. I do not believe that it is normally the case that God has one detailed, perfect plan for our lives that he is keeping secret from us, a plan that we must beg him to supernaturally reveal lest we fall short of his perfect will. When we read about God’s will for us in Scripture, it is a much deeper matter: His will is that we be conformed to Christ in all dimensions of our character. In the specific “accidental” choices of life, he usually gives us much freedom. For example, in the choice of a marriage partner, we are to marry “in the Lord” (1 Cor. 7:39) rather than to look for Mr. or Ms. Right. So the normal call in decision-making is a call to walk in wisdom within the moral boundaries God has provided.
But then there are also times when God speaks dramatically into our lives, giving very specific guidance: “Come over to Macedonia and help us” (Acts 16:9). Often such special guidance comes unexpectedly, both in the sense that we aren’t seeking special guidance at the time and that the content of the guidance surprises us. Yet Scripture also records multiple cases of God’s people specially seeking him during times when important decisions are made: “While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for us Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them'” (Acts 13:2).
To sum it up, it seems we should follow the example that Paul shares in passages such as Romans 1:9-15, Romans 15:18-32, and 1 Corinthians 16:5-9. Garry Friesen summarizes Paul’s approach in six bullet points:
Purposes: Paul adopted spiritual goals that were based on divine revelation.
Priorities: He arranged his goals into wise priorities determining what should be done first, second, third, and so on.
Plans: Next, he devised a strategy for accomplishing his objectives.
Prayer: Through prayer, he submitted himself and his plans to the sovereign will of God…
Perseverance: When providentially hindered from accomplishing his plans, he assumed that the delay was God’s sovereign will. This conviction freed him from discouragement…
Presentation: Paul explained his decisions on the basis of God’s moral will and his personal application of wisdom. 1
I—like some other people whose decisions I have respected—have found Garry Friesen’s book Decision Making and the Will of God to be freeing. I might tweak Friesen’s discussion in a few spots, such as his understanding of special guidance through spiritual gifts such as prophecy. But I think his approach sets a strong biblical foundation for making decisions that please God. (For a very similar approach in a much shorter span, see Kevin DeYoung’s Just Do Something: A Liberating Approach to Finding God’s Will.) Turn your heart passionately after God and trust, child-like, that he will guide you.
So how has God been guiding us toward Atlanta? I’ll give the “short” version in another series of bullet points:
We began intentionally praying for guidance immediately upon Albert’s passing in December, and we began asking counsel of long-time friends and advisers early this year.
God began working much earlier. I’ll start with my shoulder problems which began about June, 2014—though I could trace God’s sovereign hand back to my birth and before. These shoulder problems drastically reduced my hours at work for over half a year—which gave me much more time to launch this website.
A “Steve Smucker” sent me a Facebook message in mid-February that included this:
Dwight, I’ve been following your posts for a short while now and have been thoroughly enjoying your thoughts and writings… I am curious about a statement you made a while back that seemed to insinuate the possibility of you relocating to another area… [A friend] and I have been in discussions for the last few months about the possibility of starting an Anabaptist church here in the city… Last week your name came to my mind for some reason. My wife and I have been wishing for several years to have another couple or two join us in ministering to the community. We have contacted two other couples in the last year but it has not worked for either. Obviously there would need to be a lot of discussion to see if we are compatible both in our spiritual understanding and vision as well as general life. As I mentioned before I have found many of your posts resonating strongly within me… I know this is abrupt and as far as I know you don’t really know myself or my wife. We do see a lot of opportunities to serve and witness throughout Atlanta and see it as an area that is needing a rebirth of genuine Scriptural teaching as well as authentic Christianity in our lifestyle. Please prayerfully consider this. I completely understand if you already have somewhere God is taking you and your family, if there is hesitation about us due to not knowing us or any other reason, so if this is something you know right away is not for you feel free to let me know.
This message led to some written dialogue, followed by several long phone calls.
By May, Zonya and I felt peace about reducing our many options to a short list of three, one being Atlanta. (I’m leaving out some really significant pondering and dialogue regarding other options.)
In June we visited Atlanta. I think it was my first time in the city. It was certainly our first time meeting Steve and Christy and their family. On our way there, I told Zonya that this felt a bit like going on a first date: We might walk away from this never to return, saying “Well, that was interesting!” Or it might be all fuzzy and unclear when we’re done. Or it might be instantly life-changing. Which was it? Well, all ten of us (they have three young boys, we have three young girls) hit it off famously and immediately during our four-day visit. Within minutes the children were happily playing by themselves, and we adults spent long hours comparing life stories and personal convictions and biblical understandings and visions for church and ministry. By the time we left, we knew we had at minimum gained new friends.
The rest of June and July we communicated more with the Smuckers and also followed up on our other short list options. (One of these is part-time teaching at a Bible school. We have applied and are awaiting a response.)
August arrived and we still felt peace and desire regarding Atlanta. So we specially gave the month of August to God, inviting him to say “no” or “not yet” regarding Atlanta if he saw fit. We told him we would say “yes” to Atlanta if he didn’t send an orange or red light before September 1. During this month Zonya and I took time each week to fast, pray, and listen. Steve and I also exchanged character references. All the references that Steve provided spoke highly of his character, and I also had a really good phone visit with his dad, Elmer (formerly a bishop in Lott, Texas).
It was a bit hard to sleep the night of August 31, and not just because I was sleeping in a tent in the backyard with my family. When we woke up in the morning, we finally made our decision: We were moving to Atlanta!
We’ve had some interesting conversations with our children in the past few days. Several days ago our oldest (six) asked me, “So, what church will we be part of in Atlanta?” I told her that Steves and us will be a church together. “What, a ten-person church?!” But a smile peeked around the surprised look. I assured her our goal is to invite others to join us as a church and follow Jesus together. “Dad, are there any other churches in Atlanta?” “Oh, there’s a lot, over 100.” “Are there any Mennonite churches?” “Yes, I know of two. But I’m sad to say that in some ways they don’t obey the Bible very well.” “Maybe some of them will decide to join our church.” “That would be wonderful.”
Last evening our middle daughter (four) asked me earnestly, “Dad…? Did God say Yes?” (It took me a moment to confirm she was asking about our move to Atlanta.) Well, what is the right answer? Though I have a lot of peace about our decision, I can’t point to any undisputable special revelation from God telling us he wants us to go. So I told her that, yes, I think God will be very pleased if we move to Atlanta to learn to live in love and truth with Steve and Christy and their family and invite others to help us follow Jesus. She seemed content with this answer, and so am I. God will redirect if he so chooses.
I’m excited to think of raising our family in a new church in Atlanta! History shows that most Christian organizations, including churches, go through a common life cycle that has been summarized as Man –> Movement –> Machinery –> Monument. God can bring revival that rescues us from this “death cycle,” but look around and you will see a lot of churches where most participants have long lost the vision of the founding generation. Yes, God can certainly deliver us from this death cycle. And I think one of the very best ways he prefers to do this is by sending many of us out as men and women to begin new movements—new ministries and churches that express in fresh ways the Great Commission heart of God. (This sending vision can also rejuvenate the “old” church.) So it excites me to have the opportunity to raise a family in a setting that is decidedly not at the “Monument” stage—to give them the chance to be part of the first (or second) generation in the life cycle of a church. Yes, new churches bring great challenges and dangers. But none greater than those facing old churches! (For more on these ideas, see Historical Drift: Must My Church Die? by Arnold L. Cook.)
So, that’s a peek into some of the decisions our family has been making in recent months. Now we’re facing many more: Which Atlanta neighborhood should we move into? Which house? What about employment options? Ministry options? And what about learning to make decisions as a fledgling two-family church? At this point we expect to move as soon as we settle the housing question (perhaps already this year), and I expect to continue writing for Open Hands and to seek new piano students. Much else remains to be discovered as we and the Smuckers learn to seek the Lord together.
If you think of us, please pray also that God will meet the needs that we did not say “yes” to. Pray especially for our dear friends here in Leon, Iowa. There are church needs and loved ones here that tug on our hearts. We long for God’s kingdom to come and his will to be done ever more fully!
If you want to know more about Steve and Christy, you can visit one of Christy’s excellent websites—which are way more attractive than mine, by the way:
See “Moving Out in Faith” for Smucker family adventures—including recent visits to urban churches in Philadelphia, Boston, and (soon) New York City.
And what will a move to Atlanta (God willing) mean for this website? Here are some things I expect:
My posts may be more sporadic during the months of moving.
The challenges of learning to live as a new local expression of Christ’s body will affirm and sharpen my focus on ecclesiology. What constitutes a church? What does a church do when it gathers? How are church leaders chosen? How are decisions made? Who is a church member? How do churches share the gospel? How do they make disciples? How do they serve their communities? How do they live as a community? How do they relate to other congregations in the neighborhood?
Sooner or later (probably sooner) I will need to gain a firmer grip on some tough issues like responding to divorce and remarriage.
My idealism will be further tested on the anvils of real life and real life will issue new cries for ideals worth living.
Urban living and cross-cultural relationships will reduce my exposure to traditional rural Mennonite concerns and increase my ponderings about welcoming all peoples to the gospel way.
I will likely want to read books like House Church and Mission and The Best Kept Secret of Christian Mission and A Light to the Nations and King Jesus Claims His Church and Divided by Faith and Building a Healthy Multi-ethnic Church and Our God is Undocumented and books by John Perkins and a host of others I haven’t yet seen…
My computer may overheat when The Big Peach cooks next summer, and that might be the end of Dwight Gingrich Online.
It’s a bit hard to think that my children might never learn to properly skate, let alone play hockey. Our oldest shed tears over this recently, and I nearly did, too.
But I’m excited that our family is moving into new adventures with God. He’s led the way from The Great White North to The Big Apple and The Corn State. Now it’s on to The Big Peach—and someday to the New Jerusalem on the New Earth!
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 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 2describe 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 “DecisionMaking 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.
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.
B. Malina, Christian Origins and Cultural Anthropology (Atlanta: John Knox, 1986), 19, paraphrased. ↩
“I think decision-making is inherently messy, especially when God enters the picture. It is hard enough to make a decision on one’s own; it is even harder when we consider God’s mysterious purposes.”
On the other hand:
“What counts most is that God is working in my life, writing a redemptive story. I can trust him and do his will wherever I am, whether or not I made the ‘right’ choices, whether or not those ‘right’ choices had a good outcome.”