The following was written in partial fulfillment of the requirements of Dr. Keith Whitfield's Christian Theology III class at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.
In When the Church Was a Family, Joseph D. Hellerman argues that the health of the church depends on embracing what he describes as a strong-group culture mentality. Based on insights from sociology, he maintains that the “family” language of Scripture, and especially that of the New Testament, should lead believers to embrace the same kind of cultural norms that characterized families in the ancient Mediterranean world where the Bible was written. He first explains how that strong-group culture works, contrasting it with the individualistic (or “weak-group”) culture of the west: individual desires are sublimated to those of the group, and decisions are made both within the context of the group and with the good of the group foremost. He then defends the idea that this was how the New Testament church community was structured, before turning to a general discussion of how the practice of the Western church might need to change to accommodate this kind of cultural shift. In this practical turn, Hellerman considers a number of cases studies for how this has played out in his experience, as well as the implications for leadership.
While Hellerman’s argument has much to recommend it on the whole, his treatment of the Bible’s relationship to strong- and weak-group cultures leaves a great deal to be desired. Granted that the Bible clearly rejects the kind of radical individualism that characterizes contemporary evangelicalism, and granted further that Hellerman rightly emphasizes the communal and familial language of the New Testament in particular, nonetheless he substantially overstates the case for “strong-group” communities, and in doing so partly undermines an otherwise strong and helpful book. Hellerman repeatedly argues that the Bible clearly and unabashedly appropriates and affirms the strong-group culture of the surrounding world. This is the thesis with which he opens the book, and he dedicates the first half of the book to defending it from the pages of Scripture and the early years of church history.
Unfortunately, Hellerman’s thesis cannot be sustained—at least, not as he presents it. Scripture does appropriate at times from the strong-group ideas of the surrounding culture at times, but it never does so unreservedly, and it often corrects those ideas. First, while Hellerman argues repeatedly and at great length that the dominant understanding of group identity and especially family from the surrounding culture presented patrilineal family groups as primary, and sibling identity as trumping all others, including those from marriage, God rejects that approach to the family itself from the earliest pages of Scripture. Very much unlike the culture Hellerman praises, with its prioritizing of blood families over a spouse, Genesis clarifies that the pattern for God’s people is that the new relationship formed in marriage takes first place (Gen. 2:24; cf. Eph. 5:31). Likewise, many of the very passages that Hellerman cites as evidence for the strength of the new community Jesus formed among his followers—and especially the most challenging passages where Jesus speaks of hating father and mother and siblings for his sake—implicitly undermine the surrounding culture’s understanding of community and systems. Hellerman rightly sees that these passages emphasized the commitment the new Christ-followers were to have to the eschatological community; he misses the inherent critique of the existing structures.
The same pattern plays out in Hellerman’s readings of Acts, the Epistles, and early church history. Regarding Acts, for example, he asserts:
The radical discipline Ananias and Sapphira experienced at the hand of God demonstrates that the collectivist ‘group comes first’ conviction constitutes a central principle for New Testament social ethics. To lie about this aspect of discipleship is to undermine the very foundation for the community God is building.
In reality, as the passage itself makes clear, their sin was lying to the Holy Spirit. The issue of communal responsibility was irrelevant—except, perhaps, insofar as it provoked them to act in a way that would garner group approval. In his treatment of the Epistles, Hellerman asserts but does not demonstrate that the writers approved of their culture’s view of family. Yes, the early Christians called each other brother and sister; no, they did not necessarily therefore affirm everything their culture meant in that. That the church constitutes a family is clear; that that family should behave in line with the honor-driven, insular fashion of the New Testament world is not. Ancient Mediterranean families would cut off those who stumbled and shamed them; the church gave succor to just those people. Similarly, he takes the consistent testimony to Christian love in the history of the early church as evidence for his theme. In fact, many of the examples he cites serve to demonstrate just how broken the surrounding strong-group cultures were, and how the church thrived by forging a different way. In all of this, Hellerman repeatedly fails to acknowledge how thoroughly the work of God has been a work of both the group and the individual. Both Old or New Testament resound with stories of personal success and failure side by side with those of God’s people. The Biblical picture is both-and: individuals mutually serving each other and giving themselves up for each other, but not in the process losing their individuality or the unique insight and vision God has given them.
Unfortunately, it is clear that Hellerman’s thesis drives his exegesis—he never even considers evidence that might right contrary to his thesis. This is too bad. Hellerman’s claim that the Western church needs a healthy dose of strong-group thinking does not stand or fall with the idea that strong-group culture is God’s preferred culture. Indeed, his argument would have been much stronger had he acknowledged the ways that God’s new culture takes the best of strong-group culture (as it does the best of weak-group culture!) and forms it into something new and better. Indeed, the Western church does need to retreat from its comfort in highly individualistic, weak-group cultures. American evangelicals have a great deal to learn from strong-group cultures—whether those in the pages of the New Testament, or those of many Majority World cultures. Recovery of the kinds of values Hellerman outlines, and their practical application, will indeed be necessary for thriving and healthy churches. But Hellerman’s approach fails to take seriously the ways in which all human cultures are broken, strong- and weak-group alike. Hellerman knows the weaknesses of weak-group cultures quite well; whether he has ever seen the failings of strong-group cultures up close seems doubtful given his lavish praise of those cultures and how little good he has to say of weak-group cultures.