On page six (in his introductory comments) the author states that “there is, in fact, no better way to come to grips with the spiritual and relational poverty of American individualism than to compare our way of doing things with the strong-group, surrogate family relations of early Christianity. This is the central focus of this book.” The author defended his thesis well; and in the process may have provided church leaders with an answer they have been looking for. For this reason, the book is extremely helpful.
Did he overstate the current status of the problem saying that we are living in spiritual and relational poverty? Perhaps, but it is clear that there are extreme problems in western churches. It may well be that dealing with the individualistic nature of our society is the extreme and correlative answer.
The first thought that comes to mind is to challenge the authors’ assumption that the cultural norm of the first century must be duplicated today (or throughout all other times and cultures). Is it true that an individualistic society is contrary to that of the New Testament and that it brings inherent challenges? Yes, certainly, for both questions. But the question remains, must we duplicate this today? The author is convinced that we should. At this point I have two responses. First, it is extremely difficult to live within the context of community and relate to one another as the Bible demands, while living as an individualistic culture and society. At least it is within our individualistic society. Second, Galatians 4:4 states: “But when the right time came, God sent his Son, born of a woman, subject to the law.” The timing of God’s action should not be discounted in this discussion. Nor should it be treated as a coincidence that at the time God chose to act, there was a prevalent strong-group culture. We can only speculate as to exactly why God chose this time to act. However, Christians today should take notice of what was going on in the life of Christ and the first-century church; because that was clearly the most appropriate time for God to set his standard for His people. In other words, that was evidently the most conducive setting by which he could implement his church so that they would look and live in the manner that He desired.
The author brings to light several interesting ideas and thoughts that helped to explain his case; and more importantly increase my understanding and appreciation for where my congregation needs to be moving. In the first two chapters, he emphasizes three social values involving strong-group society of the New Testament world. First, the group has priority over the individual. Second, the most important group is the family. Third, the closest relationship within the family was between the siblings. Assuming that this is what God desires for His church, the church today is further from a biblical model than we may have otherwise assumed. While there may be isolated exceptions, it seems clear that we do not consistently demonstrate any of these characteristics.
This is a terribly difficult situation and highlights the quandary of church leaders, particularly those among the conservative Churches of Christ. The specific value in being presented with these ideas is that it helps to frame or identify exactly where our congregations have miss-stepped with regard to our institutional nature. In other words, as we have become more and more organizationally and institutionally focused, we have become less and less of a representation of the strong-group church of the first century. Because the individual takes precedence over the group, it is much easier for us to be a part of an organization that requires less personal investment than a family would. Going along with this idea, because we are organizationally centered, we are able to maintain superficial relationship as opposed to sibling relationships that constitute a true family.
Four primary values demonstrated in Paul’s writings relative to the strong-group family paradigm (affective solidarity, family unity, material solidarity and family loyalty) provide a terrific blueprint, or perhaps even a vision, for congregations in the 21st century. These characteristics provide us with the ability to determine a positive course of action to move away from the current individualistic based culture. In other words, Hellerman has presented information that leaves me with an insightful understanding of the daunting task of leading a congregation in the twenty-first century. Fortunately, this particular information provides the confidence that the current situation is correctable and even provides the blueprint to make it happen.
For these reasons, this book is exceptionally practical, applicable and useful.