Joseph Hellerman’s When the Church Was a Family is one of the most important books I have read in a long time. It is a remarkable contrast to another book on the church I read, the highly acclaimed Why We Love The Church by Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck, a book I read, reviewed and found came up short. When the Church Was a Family (or WTCWAF) takes a very different look at the church body compared to Why We Love the Church and most other books on matters pertaining to the church. Rather than focusing on the organization, on the hierarchy, on the methods, Hellerman looks at the idea of familification, that salvation creates not just a sinner redeemed but a community formed.
“It is time to inform our people that conversion to Christ involves both our justification and our familification, that we gain a new Father and a new set of brothers and sisters when we respond to the gospel. It is time to communicate the biblical reality that personal salvation is a community-creating event, and to trust God to change our lives and the lives of our churches accordingly.” (WTCWAF, p. 143)
Hellerman begins WTCWAF by building the cultural foundation the reader needs to understand the premise of the rest of the book. It seemed to drag on a bit but it made perfect sense once he showed how it applies to the church. It can be seductive to think about the church as we have come to know it in America and assume that it has always been this way. Hellerman makes a solid effort to show that what Christ and the apostles were speaking of meant something completely different from what we assume.
WTCWAF is a paradigm changing book, if I can use what has become a trite and overused term. It is a book that changes the conversation about the church from “I” to “we”. By that I mean, the focus is less on “I am a member of this church”, “I chose this church because” and “I need this from a church” to “We have a common salvation that binds us”, “We have these responsibilities to one another” and “We are the family of God”. I have rarely read a book that caused me to put it down to ponder what I just read on so many occasions.
I found some weaknesses in Hellerman’s book. When he speaks of believers sharing materially together, I thought he gave this important notion short shrift. In three pages (pp. 145-147) where Hellerman addresses the topic, he gives a very brief and incomplete treatment of the topic and uses as a primary example the local church where he is employed giving his home a “make-over” that apparently cost $20,000 and included “all new top-drawer Pottery Barn furniture.” I think there is a bigger point here that focuses on making sure that those among the Body have their needs met, while the idea of expensive name-brand furnishings probably wouldn’t even show up on the radar of the early church. I found this example to miss the mark. I see the idea of familial relations leading to sharing of wealth more representative of the complete abandonment of what the world holds dear (personal property along with our myriad other rights we cherish). The early church shared not out of a desire for their pastor to have Pottery Barn furniture but because they no longer saw the value in their own possessions.
I also think that Hellerman places a little too much faith in the ability of a church of several hundred “members” and regular attendees to live together as a strong-group family. I am not convinced that the model that is effectively laid out by Hellerman can really exist in the traditional mold of Western evangelicalism. We don’t hear much about the church where he is employed but based on what I have seen and even on what he writes, I just seems unlikely that a traditional church setting is going to be fertile ground for a strong-group family relationship among believers. Having said that, these small quibbles hardly impact my unreserved recommendation of this book.
I don’t want to engage in hyperbole here but this book is putting forth Biblical ideals, a radical reshaping of our priorities in the church and how we look at the church. If these principles were to gain a widespread audience and acceptance, I think we could be see an impact on the church that is analogous to what Luther’s 95 Theses had on Christianity. While Luther’s Theses were pivotal in regaining the Gospel itself, the understanding of the church as an adoptive family unit we find in WTCWAF has the potential to impact the vital “Now what?” question that the church has struggled with for so long.
If you read only one book on the church this year, make it this one!