Book Review: ‘When the Church Was a Family’ by Joseph Hellerman

I grew up hearing a lot about how the Church is a family, and I’m thankful for that. Sometimes I would hear it described as an institution, and it struck me as funny to hear. For a long time I’ve tried to remind myself that Church is family, but I haven’t been challenged quite like I was when reading Joseph Kellerman’s When the Church Was a Family: Recapturing Jesus’ Vision for Authentic Christian Community.

We’re funny in the contemporary West. When we meet people we ask them “what do you do?” instead of “Who are you related to?” Sound funny? Exactly. Kellerman has to begin his book be reorienting us to exactly how people in the “Bible world” saw family, in particular how sibling relationships were usually depicted as more important than spousal relationships.

I know, real weird. But after using examples from history and literature, Kellerman highlights all the uses of “brother” terminology in scripture to emphasize how close the Church really was meant to be. Jesus “appropriated” the family relations of the Mediterranean in order to teach his people about his spiritual family, which was, as Kellerman echoes, “a living organism,” a “society of surrogate siblings.

Then Kellerman really challenges us by confronting us with what he calls the “anti-family” words of Jesus. Think of how often in the evangelical world we come to equate religion with merely being “pro-family.” But why does Jesus tell people to follow him instead of bury their fathers (Luke 9:60), call people to “hate” their family (Luke 14:26), and seemingly dismiss his own family (Mark 3:35)? Kellerman argues that we have domesticated Jesus to a figure that endorses family and Church as separate things, and that the Church suffers as a result.

Unbelievers are not truly family.” This might be one of the most challenging statements in his book. But it brings the matter home. In the Kingdom of God, the blood of man doesn’t bind us together, but the blood of the Lamb. When we become Christians, our decisions, our lifestyle, our values, should be shifting away from our physically family and into our spiritual family. That’s easy to say when our physical family are Christians, harder when they are not. I grew up in the Church with my family, even extended family. I took it for granted that they were Christians. Yet even in my case this book was challenging. Why?

For one thing, I’m still a product of our time. I am bred to find it weird for a couple to marry only after they have the approval of an entire village, or for a couple to seek a wisdom counsel before buying a house. And as much as my Church family shares, we don’t share like the examples in the book of Acts.

Kellerman’s examples from scripture, history, and illustration continually reorient us toward this family model. Do our brochures say more about individual spiritual attainment and less about living in community? Does our theology “introduce God’s family only as a sort of utilitarian afterthought”? Is our Jesus merely a personal savior? Do we expect people to convert, and then get involved in the Church?

So what is life together in this authentic family model? Kellerman boils it down to 4 principals:

  1. Share stuff—As in, as much of it as possible
  2. Share hearts—Open up, share experiences as one
  3. Stay together—Stop moving around from place to place, church to church
  4. Be family beyond the family—”Family” should not primarily mean our parents/kids.

One of the best aspects of Kellerman’s book is the personal examples he gives as a minister. He provides specific scenarios he has witnessed or been a part of over the years that exemplify successes and failures to live out this family model, including a challenging incident of couple who seeks the wisdom of the elders before marrying. Kellerman concludes from these experiences that good Church leadership, like good family leadership, should be plural and service-oriented. In a healthy extended family, there often a patriarch, but in our family that role belongs to Christ. All of us are servants in his kingdom.

Kellerman believes that with stable boundaries and relational solidarity, a Church truly can create authentic community as scripture and history communicates to us that the early church did. His book makes for a challenging study. It may or may not work with a small group Bible study. Much of it is very dry and based on case studies and research into history (it does derive from a dissertation, after all). It is a great resource for Church leadership who want to challenge themselves to reorient their Church into an authentic family model.

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