Who you are depends largely on who you have been with. And most of what you know you have learned from other people. If these statements are true, then it must be vitally important to be intentional about our relationships.
A Christian’s most vital relationship is with Christ. If your relationship with him is all it should be, then he can help you survive even the worst set of human companions. The normal way that Christ strengthens and trains us, however, is through human relationships.
What kinds of relationships will help you grow? Diversity helps. Let me suggest a sample:
People who have known you well for a long time.
People who are wiser than you—mentors.
People who are eager to learn from you—disciples.
People who are like you, who help you feel at home.
People who are different from you, who make you feel not-at-home.
People who don’t know you well.
The last couple categories might be less obvious, or at least less comfortable. If you are surrounded only by people who don’t know you well, it can be hard to develop a secure or accurate self-identity. (See my poetic musings on that possibility.)
On the other hand, if you are surrounded only by people like youself, then your picture of yourself might be rather two-dimensional, lacking depth and perspective. Spending all your time with people just like you won’t teach you much about the rest of life, either. This is why youth need adults, men need women, and you need the city.
Why should you care about cities? I’m sharing three reasons in this blog series:
This post will discuss the third reason. Why should you care about cities?
You Need the City!
This might be the least expected reason why you should care about cities, but it might also be the most important. If you would be a wise and effective Christian, then you must first be a learner. And Christians, including rural Anabaptists, have much to learn from the city.
Cities can help you learn about yourself. When I was in Thunder Bay, I was one of a team of five Mennonite adults surrounded by First Nations youth. When went to college, I was the only Mennonite in my city. When I taught school in the Bronx, I lived in a neighborhood that was about 80% Hispanic. When we lived in Queens, there were at least seven ethnic groups on our immediate block—Chinese, Puerto Rican, Guyanese, Sri Lankan, African American, and, including us, two white households.
Each of those contexts taught me things about myself. Now we plan to move to a neighborhood in Atlanta that is over 95% African American, also within reach of multi-ethnic college populations. I anticipate many new learning opportunities.
I think it would do most people good to live for at least a year as an ethnic or cultural minority. When you live as a minority, you learn that you are not normal—most people are not like you. You learn that your heritage has some unique strengths. You also learn that your culture has some besetting sins (perhaps selfishness with time and possessions, thanklessness, or impatience). And you probably even learn that you have some unexpected racist tendencies (I did).
Cities can remind us that we really don’t understand “the lost” as well as we think we do. Here I begin with a point I made in my last post—that too often conservative Anabaptists think of missions in terms of caring for the poor, tending to overlook other kinds of people. But a happily married (gay or otherwise) university professor or plastic surgeon with a six-figure income needs the gospel just as much as the whino on the curb.
A friend and I were recently discussing the idea of Anabaptists doing missions in Toronto. This friend has lived in Toronto for eight years and continues to work there. Here is some of what she had to say:
It irks me to no end to hear about “mission trips” to Toronto that consist simply of people standing on street corners handing out tracts—likely to tourists because that’s who hangs out around the Eaton’s Centre. How exactly is that addressing the needs of the hipster in Liberty Village, the professor in the Annex, the young family in Riverdale, the public servant at High Park, the gay couple on Church, the young graduates in the Beaches, the writer in the Junction. Those are my friends and colleagues. And they have spiritual lives and needs too…
I am puzzled by the notion that our life in in city is different than life in Elmira or Parry Sound or Newton or Harrisonburg or Shipshewana or Walnut Creek. Urban people do the same things—go grocery shopping, volunteer at school, walk their dog, visit the library, help out with neighbourhood events, go out to eat, see plays and hear concerts, enroll their kids in swimming lessons. If we as Anabaptists believe in lifestyle evangelists—just go. But check out the demographics of more than the poor and needy. If God is truly no respecter of person, then the urbane, literate, middle class professionals are in as much need of Christ’s love as anyone. But if you are going to live in their neighbourhoods (because let’s face it—the best way to get to know someone is through their kid or dog), you need to be able to afford it. This means having a profession that is transferable to a urban centre and being socially fluid.
We like to talk about how Jesus hung out to the poor and marginalized. But Matthew was a tax collector and Joseph of Arimathea was wealthy. Imagine being friends with the policy wonks, decision-makers, financial investors and cultural creators of our times!
Then, in a final reply to the idea that the poor are often more open to the gospel (which I would argue is almost certainly true, on average), she added this:
…People who are not in desperate socio-economic straits are not open to the gospel? Using that logic, most of Mennonite-land should be impervious.
Ouch. And probably truer than we like to think.
Street-corner evangelism certainly has its place. Many have come to Christ through such efforts. But I would suggest that most are unlikely to respond to Christ unless they experience a meaningful, ongoing sharing of life with Christian friends. Why should we limit our city mission efforts to “hit-and-run” approaches?
And most of us are somewhat poorly prepared to win people to Christ. We may understand the gospel well enough (see my next point, however). But to be an effective “gospel-er” we also need to understand our audience. Consider how Paul adjusted his message to his audiences.
I still do not consider myself an effective evangelist. But I do know that I have a better grasp today than I did in my youth of how a secular, post-Christian mind can tend to think. How did I grow in understanding? By spending time around secular minds. When I was in university (or college, as they say here in the U.S.), it took me about three years before I felt that I understood my classmates and professors well enough to start writing a Christian opinion column in the student paper.
Some are faster learners than me. And even after three years I’m not sure how effective I was. But my basic point remains: Growth in my understanding took time—long, daily time spent with unbelievers. (Ask any cross-cultural missionary.) And if I had never moved to the city for school, I would never have debated Freud, traced Islamic history, analyzed Milton, read Genesis, tiptoed through feminist assumptions, debated homosexuality, and laughed in the hall with my new postmodern friends.
Such educational cross-cultural relationships can be formed almost anywhere, if you try hard enough. But they are almost unavoidable in most cities. What an opportunity!
Cities can help you understand the gospel better and experience it more fully. Nothing makes you appreciate a homegrown tomato like eating the cardboard imitation found in your local supermarket! Similarly, meeting people from other world religions can help you see the unique vitality of the Christian gospel. Wrestling with heresy helped the early church identify orthodox belief more precisely. Engaging thoughtful non-Christians today can help us do the same.
Being surrounded by undeniable, unavoidable needs can help you focus on the core message of the gospel, with its power to save. Well-manicured hands are nice, but when a patient arrives with a heart attack, you aren’t going to reach for your nail clippers. And when you are helping youth escape the sensual tentacles of mass youth media, you might not worry too much about whether they become skilled at singing four-part choral music.
Both Christians and unbelievers from other cultures can push us to do a better job of distinguishing between our cultural traditions and gospel traditions. (“I don’t see that in the Bible!”) Diversity within the church can give us a sense of proportion about the little things that sometimes divide us. (Fact: Most Christians have never given a moment’s thought to questions about how big your beard should be or whether you should wear covering strings.) As we ponder together how we can best meet the needs of our communities, the differences that otherwise might divide are sometimes revealed to be assets, turning the local church into a veritable Swiss Army knife of multifaceted strengths.
Diversity in the church gives all sorts of opportunity for growth in character.For example, some Caribbean cultures might think Germanic Mennonites are too quiet. Why don’t we show more zeal in worship? How can they tell what we are really thinking about them and their ideas when we hide our disagreement behind so much polite silence? And they might find us disrespectful. Why don’t we wear ties to their funerals? Why do we walk right past our elders at church without greeting them (even if they are in the middle of a conversation)?
So, who is right—Germanic Mennonites or Dominican Christians? Both! Or neither! But seeing ourselves through someone else’s eyes is informative, and learning to love each other is a challenge that can cause us to lean harder on the gospel. And if you lean hard enough, your shame of the gospel will evaporate when you discover, like Paul, that the gospel has the power to bring people of all cultures together as one in Christ (Rom. 1:16-17; Eph. 2-3).
Culturally homogenous churches [churches where everyone shares the same culture] are adept at targeting and attracting a certain type of person and creating a strong group identity. However, attendees at such churches are at a higher risk for creating the overly simplistic and divisive Right Christian and Wrong Christian labels that dangerously lead to inaccurate perceptions of other Christians as well as hostility and conflict. What often begins as an effective and culturally specific way to reach people for Christ ends up stifling their growth as disciples. Perhaps this is because we often fail to make a distinction between evangelism and discipleship. People can meet God within their cultural context but in order to follow God, they must cross into other cultures because that’s what Jesus did in the incarnation and on the cross. Discipleship is crosscultural. When we meet Jesus around people who are just like us and then continue to follow Jesus with people who are just like us, we stifle our growth in Christ and open ourselves up to a world of division. However, when we’re rubbing elbows in Christian fellowship with people who are different from us, we can learn from each other and grow more like Christ. Like iron sharpens iron.
For this reason, I believe that churches and Christian organizations should strive for cultural diversity. Regardless of ethnic demographics, every community is multicultural when one considers the various cultures of age, gender, economic status, education level, political orientation and so on. Further, every church should fully utilize the multifaceted cultural diversity within itself, express the diversity of its local community, expertly welcome the other, embrace all who are members of the body of Christ and intentionally collaborate with different churches or organizations in order to impact the kingdom. And churches situated in multiethnic communities… should absolutely be ethnically diverse. (pp. 21-22, bold added)
Let me share an hypothesis: I suggest that conservative Anabaptists risk becoming increasingly ingrown, divisive, and ineffective in missions unless more of us experience the sort of cross-cultural challenges that urban living offers.
In closing, let me repeat some advice to myself: When you do move to an urban setting, bear the gospel, yes, but go as a listener and a humble learner.
Let’s face it: All this rightfully-urgent talk about urban missions can be perverted by our pride. Among some of us, urban ministry has given us not only a sense of urgency but also a sense of superiority. For many who have cut their rural umbilical cords, urban ministry is cool (substitute the latest relevant slang). We may forget that rural and small-town living are also honorable.
We may also overestimate our preparedness for urban living and ministry. For some hard-hitting warnings to white wanna-be urban missionaries, read Christena Cleveland’s article “Urban Church Planting Plantations.” Here is the burden of her words:
So much of the urban church planting I’ve seen simply replicates and extends the power inequities between whites and people of color that were cemented years ago on plantations… I’m amazed at how quickly majority-culture pastors with no urban ministry experience acquire a passion for urban ministry and then automatically assume that they are qualified for the job… This privileged perspective on urban church planting undermines the unity of the body of Christ. If each part of the body has a unique perspective, gift and role to play, then we need to recognize that we’re not equipped to do every type of ministry and humbly collaborate with the parts that are better equipped.
Ouch. Read her whole article. Be humbled. But don’t give up on the city. Just go with a renewed determination to be a learner—a disciple-maker who is first a disciple.
I know I will have a lot to learn when we move to Atlanta. One thing I hope to learn is how Anabaptists can better participate in Christ-centered racial reconciliation. Though our heritage has unique gifts to bring to this work, most of us are either pretty ignorant or pretty ineffective. Too many of us are still happily colorblind, which is a problem, as my friend Lowell Herschberger explains. We have much to learn.
I need the city, so do other conservative Anabaptists, and so do you.
This is the end of my series called “Why Should You Care about Cities?” Much more could—and should—be said. And I’m aware that some of what I said could be misunderstood. I have spoken strongly, and I have made some generalizations. But what will it take to engage God’s people to respond to one of the greatest challenges of our time—the rise of global cities with their multi-ethnic, multi-need populations?
Rest assured:If you don’t go to the city, the city will come to you. It is already coming. It is coming in the form of your news media, the designs of your consumer products, your college-trained bankers and doctors, the teachers and curricula in your local public school, your construction products, your farm commodity prices, government regulations, the election of your next president, your Amazon orders, your cell phone apps, your Internet signal, and, hopefully soon, Dwight Gingrich Online.
Will we run to meet this Goliath? Or will we merely try to dodge his spear? Better, will we see the city as not only a giant to be slaughtered, but also a fertile field? Will we take a proactive approach to global urbanization? Or will we retreat behind ever-less-effective geographical and cultural walls?
It was in the world’s third-largest city (population c. 500,000) that Christ’s followers were first called Christians (Acts 11:26). And it was to the largest city in the world (population c. 1,000,000) that Christ specifically sent his apostle to the Gentiles: “Take courage… you must testify also in Rome” (Acts 23:11). The big city just might be the most ideal habitat one could possibly imagine for a Christian.
Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations in your nearest city!
Do you agree that more Anabaptists could benefit from urban living? What do you think we need to learn from the city? What should we learn about ourselves, our neighbors, and the gospel itself? Share your observations in the comments below.And thanks for reading!
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. ↩