Years back, at an ETS (Evangelical Theological Society) gathering, I heard Dr. Sue Russell speak on brother- sister relationships in the first century church. It was brilliant. So it seems a perfect fit for her to join us this year at our Summit. We are walking through the biblical idea of Kingdom living as a blessed alliance. Brother – sister relationships are crucial to understanding how we, the Church, are to live, love and serve. I wanted to do some prep work before the Summit so Dr. Russell suggested three books. I’ve gobbled them up. In passing I mentioned one of the books to a friend. I was elated when he sent me an email sharing his ideas about the book. a. It’s rare someone reads my “geek” books let alone then get excited with me. So I asked Bill if he would share his insights with you too. Here’s what he said.
Dude, you’re doing it wrong . . .
I can’t even recall how it came to be that Jackie recommended the book by
Joseph H. Hellerman, “The Ancient Church as Family” to me. Like most good books, I’m happy she did but upset at the same time. For me, it’s not a good book (especially on theology, social sciences or philosophy) if I don’t have the urge to toss it across the room once or twice. Or at least blurt a few expletives as I make my way to the last page.
This was a good book . . .
However, if your looking for an exciting page-turner to take on vacation with you – keep looking because this one ain’t that. If you’ve ever wondered how the social, cultural, political and behavioral influences that have occurred over the last two thousand years might have “just slightly” effected how we worship in the church, how we relate to each other in the church and the priority we place on the church . . . then read on.
It’s not that the subject matter isn’t interesting, just the opposite. However, this book is an exhaustive and academically oriented study of the first three hundred years of the church and how the social constructs of family were both adopted and turned on their ear by the early church.
One of the aspects of the book I found fascinating was that it relied on and referenced so many other works of early church figures. I had never fully entertained the idea that there were so many authority figures that came along after the first authors that significantly influenced the early church.
The first thing that Hellerman lays out is that in those days, the relationship, loyalty, and practices amongst siblings overrode the relationship between spouses. There are remnants of that remaining . . . but the primary bond today, certainly in the Westernized world, is between husband and wife and the children of that union. Two thousand years ago . . . not so much.
Back then, and even today in many cultures, the role of a woman begins and ends with motherhood. A woman is markedly unvalued if she is not married and even more so if she is married but unable to have children. The relationship between brothers and sisters (both directly expressed, and secondarily expressed in the relationship to uncles and aunts) was dominant, pervasive, and -according to Hellerman played a major role in the growth of the early church.
So, how does all this relate to the remarkable growth of a very small number of followers during the first few centuries?
One significant factor was that unlike most all other affinity groups of the time, i.e. trade/skill guilds, geographic location, spiritual beliefs, etc., the early church accepted all sorts into their fold while at the same time it demanded exclusive worship of one and only one God. This strengthened the bond of those who joined while greatly expanding the numbers of potential members.
Another factor was the charity that the membership exhibited to others. Though exclusive in worship and beliefs, the early church was incredibly non-exclusive in their expression of concern for the welfare of others. They showed love to others without regard to the faith, lack of faith, or ethnic origins of the folks they helped.
Whether it was caring for the sick and dying during time of widespread illness, or sharing their resources during dark economic times, the early church expressed their love for all of God’s creation in an incredibly open and non-judgmental manner. They didn’t compromise their beliefs, but they took to heart the instructions to love one another. This made a huge, positive impact on the population around them and caused their numbers to grow and even sustain that growth under adverse political and sociological circumstances.
One more factor was the abundant grace and forgiveness they showed to those amongst them who, in times of persecution, recanted their faith but then had a desire to come back into the fold at some point down the road. The typical response of most bonding groups was that if you left – that was it. The early church recognized that, like the prodigal son, people make choices that they regret, and like the father who welcomed his son back because he was once lost and was now found, they were willing to forgive and accept formerly apostate members back into the fold. This uncharacteristic grace and forgiveness was unique and further caused their numbers to grow.
You can see how the believers in the early church expressed the theme of family. If you have siblings (I have two) the characteristic of “family” is that you are accepted without question, that you help your family in times of need, and you forgive them when they stray . . . and welcome them back if they return. I realize that this is a gross over-simplification of a complex relationship but the point is made that family is special and that those bonds are unique.
What made the early church so resilient is that they adopted the practices shown in “blood” family and extended it to everyone without regard to “blood” line. Paul’s instructions to the church in Galatia that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” was taken literally.
The other striking characteristic of the early church is the almost complete absence of a dominant, patriarchal figure in each body. In all of Paul’s writing’s he writes to the brothers and sisters, or the elders and deacons (and deaconesses), or the church as a body. While he certainly had a singular role of authority, the church was expected to operate internally in an equal manner in regards to the brothers and sisters.
Also, the church in those days functioned as a collective assembly. Those who had more shared with those who had less and they looked after each other on all physical and emotional levels. The modern church has expressed this trait to varying degrees over the years and across different cultures. We see this today in churches that maintain benevolence funds to help members, in churches that serve their community with food pantries, medical treatment, housing assistance, counseling, and so on.
Still, the impression that is held by some non-believers is that churches do more for themselves than they do for the community outside the church. To what degree this is true varies, but the common “knock” by those outside the church is that the money stays inside the walls and only a small portion leaves the campus to help those outside. The author does not dwell here on this point, but the implication is quite clear that this was a strong, important, and positive aspect of the early church and it was a factor that contributed significantly to the growth and ever expanding scope of Christians in the first handful of centuries after Jesus Christ’s time on earth.
One of those moments where I raised my voice and had to get up and walk around while reading this book came when the author quoted from Matthew 10:28-30 that when one decided to follow Jesus, there will be “brothers and sisters, mothers and children …” amongst the followers but noted that Matthew specifically left off “fathers”.
Hellerman’s point is that the intent of the passage is to emphasize that to become a member of Jesus’ group, the father relationship is sacrificed. This is a very strong statement in that Matthew also says that that relational sacrifice continues into heaven. In a nutshell, the role of earthly father ceases to exist in the body of the Church here and in the eternal ever-lasting. This was when I had to put the book down and get up and walk around the room . . . I don’t know about you, but this validates my changing perspective of how we are to relate to each other here on this earth AND how we will relate to each other in the Great Glory Beyond.
Given that the culture then was almost exclusively a patriarchal society, this had to also be seen as a huge departure from the norm for that time! I can also see how this radical change would not be the first thing emphasized in a patriarchal culture. It means giving up power, influence, position and all the other things that appeal to our pride and ego. The role of male dominance ceases to be the “hook” upon which the structure of society hangs its hat.
Not only did the early church turn the world upside down with its openness to all, its generosity of charity, its grace and forgiveness, it also kicked to the gutter the idea that the earthly male father figure was the standard by which it would be structured.
Certainly, the heavenly Father was the source of authority and there were believers who had roles of leadership and responsibility – but it was in the context that Paul shared with the Galatians – not the context of the existing cultural, social, and political standards of the time.
The author did note that as time went by, the organizational and administrative structure of a central body of believers (the early formation of what eventually came to be known as the Roman Catholic Church) eventually came to exert a more authoritative role of leadership in setting policy, defining the canon, mediating disputes, and so on. This grew more and more over the next several hundred years, becoming very dominant until the 1500’s with the rising of the Protestant movement and the resulting split.
The author also makes the point that the role of the church in the early centuries was in many ways very different than it is today in much of the world. He notes the major factor as the decline of the sibling dominated model (which also spans uncles, aunts, cousins, and so on) against the growth of the husband and wife model that is the dominant form today.
My take away from the book is that our individual-oriented mindset, even if it’s expanded beyond our singular self-focus to include our immediate family, is contrary to how the church formed and grew in the early years. This should radically influence our choices and decisions as we seek to follow the commandment to spread the gospel to the entire world.
So, is the book worth your time? It’s not an easy read and I hope my summary will pique your interest, if not in the book, in how you relate to others.
Whether it’s a brother or sister in the church or anyone else, the members of the early church experienced more hardship, adversities, and resistance than most of the folks reading this article will ever experience in a dozen life times. How they behaved to each other and to the world around them was different. It was radically different and it made a huge impact on all of God’s creations.
Dude, they did it right.
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