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Presented to

Dr. Joseph Hellerman and Dr. Michael J. Wilkins

Talbot School of Theology

Biola University

In Partial Fulfillment

of the Requirements for the Degree

Doctor of Ministry


Jeff Kennedy

February 2011


Joe Hellerman’s When the Church was a Family: Recapturing Jesus’ Vision for
Authentic Christian Community is an eye-opening journey into the world of first century family
life.1 The book offers invaluable insights regarding the social priorities of first century believers.
When the Church was a Family begins with a detailed examination of the characteristics
of ancient family life. First, group loyalty was paramount in the ancient world. This “group
comes first” mindset is the polar opposite of Western individualism. Secondly, the patrilineal
kinship system was the basis of this strong-group framework. The primary allegiance of the
typical Mediterranean family was to those who shared the patrilineal bloodline. In the first
century, the determining factor of a person’s identity was his/her family of origin.
After establishing the foundation of the patrilineal kinship group as the dominant
expression of family in the ancient world, Hellerman then cross-examines the Scriptures to see
how the New Testament Church adopted this family model. The teachings of Jesus and Paul
reveal that the Church assumed this cultural family paradigm as the basis for the Messianic
Paul in particular employed this language to encourage the people of God to relate as
siblings in the Father’s household. This resulted in the early church showing the same kind of
sibling loyalty to each other that existed in bloodline families. Hellerman argues that this
solidarity among believers was the spark that ignited the Church to become a global movement.
This commitment to “family” and its open-invitation to outsiders was the catalyst for world
evangelism. Though we have tended to see the expansion of the church as an ideological
victory, Hellerman insists that it was driven in large part by these sociological factors.
Lastly, Hellerman turns to the implications of this strong-group model of church life for
our extremely isolated culture. What are the transferable social values of early Christianity that
should characterize a modern expression of God’s family? The author addresses the various
practices of the early church such as sharing common possessions, compassionate service to
outsiders, and a plurality of healthy servant leaders. As it turns out, transferring the principles of
the strong-group culture to a weak-group world is possible (though never easy).

Joe Hellerman, When the Church was a Family: Recapturing Jesus’ Vision for Authentic Christian
Community (Nashville: B&H, 2009).


Hellerman begins with a compelling illustration of how the “radical individualism” of
Western culture conditions the believer to live in isolation from the church family. He recalls the
story of “Roberta,” a woman with emotional, financial, and relational baggage who briefly
attended Oceanside Christian Fellowship where Hellerman is a pastor. Unfortunately, Roberta’s
story is all too familiar. Instead of accepting the offer of counseling, resources, and discipleship
from the church family, she chose to “go it alone.”2 This story serves to prep the reader for the
extreme culture shock of New Testament family life.
The Group Comes First
The first principle Hellerman introduces is that the world of the early church was a
collectivist society. In what sociologist call a “strong-group” culture, choices regarding
vocation, spouse, and residence are made in the community (and sometimes by the community),
not apart from it. The modern view of the church existing “to help me continue to grow in my
personal relationship with Jesus” would have been a foreign idea for the strong-group world of
the early church.3 Hellerman offers many examples of this strong-group framework both from
the ancient world and those that exist today.4
Marriage Takes a Back Seat
One of the most shocking aspects of ancient family life was that marriages were
“contractual unions intended to strengthen the larger extended family through alliance building
and the production of offspring.”5 In Western culture, the spousal relationship is considered the
most significant opportunity for relational satisfaction and meaning. In contrast, the ancient
world viewed marriage in far more utilitarian terms. In the strong-group culture of the

Hellerman, When the Church, 2-5.

Hellerman, When the Church, 15. The author argues persuasively that the modern preoccupation for
“God’s will for my life” would not have been a question that preoccupied ancient people. This is precisely why this
subject is altogether absent from the writings of the New Testament (perhaps with the exception of Rom 12:1-2.
However even in this classic passage on God’s will, Paul clarifies with the phrase, “I say to all of you…”).

Hellerman, When the Church, 16-20. Hellerman cites the examples of Josephus preferring to be killed in
place of his Jewish countrymen and modern Korean culture, among others. Many other examples are cited.

Hellerman, When the Church, 35. The author concedes that romantic love transcends cultural barriers, but
also demonstrates that romance as the primary driver of the choice of a spouse was a secondary concern at best.
However, it must be noted that what “was” is not necessarily what “ought” to be.

Mediterranean world, the sibling bond was the closest possible relationship.6
Hellerman notes that the “brother and sister” concept dominates the relational language
of Jesus and Paul.7 Though it is tempting to import our weak-group notions of sibling
relationships into these New Testament passages, Hellerman skillfully redirects the modern
reader to consider ancient categories.
First, membership in ancient strong-group families was determined by the “common
patriline – a bloodline traced from generation to generation solely through the male offspring.”8
This means that the typical male would regard the “members” of his immediate family as his
father (paterfamilias), his brothers and sisters (consanguine relationships), and his offspring.
But, this membership would not include his mother nor his wife.9 Hellerman offers many
examples of sibling loyalty:
1. The loyalty of Herod to his sister Salome, over his wife Merriame;
2. Octavia’s commitment to her brother Octavian, over her husband Mark Antony;
3. Lusius Casesar’s sister laying down her life for her brother;
4. Augustus pardoning Jewish protestors of King Archelaus, but killing Archelaus’
kinsmen who participated in the revolt;
5. Lastly, Jesus encourages Peter that no one who has abandoned “home, mother or
father, brothers or sisters, or fields” will be denied compensation for his sake (Mk 10:28-

In many of the above cases, the love and passion between married people could be strong. But
when the marriage relationship came into conflict with the sibling loyalty of the patrilinial
kinship group, it took a subordinate role to the brother-sister bond.11 At times, conflict between a
female and her husband’s siblings would potentiate a break in the marriage bond (to put it

Hellerman, When the Church, 36.

Hellerman, When the Church, 36-37.


Hellerman, When the Church, 36-37. Hellerman refers to this elsewhere as the “Patrilinial Kinship Group”
(PKG). See Hellerman, The Ancient Church as Family (Minneapolis: Fortress Pres), 31.

Hellerman, When the Church, 37-42.


Hellerman, When the Church, 38-48. The marital relationship is not even mentioned by Jesus due to its
comparatively insignificant status to that of the sibling relationship. Hellerman cites many other examples e.g. Azize
and Mustafa, the Old Testament and Intertestamental Literature to name a few.

Hellerman, When the Church, 42. The author notes that married partners in the ancient world most
certainly did experience romance, relational satisfaction, and a psychological bond. But this experience was an
aftereffect of the primary purpose for marriage, which was to promote status, produce offspring, and preserve
property to the next generation. 38.

mildly). The implication of this kind of solidarity was that sibling disloyalty was a socially
abhorrent act in the ancient world, while divorce was common (with ancient divorce rates
rivaling our own).12
Here are My Mother and Brothers
Hellerman then draws direct lines from this social reality to the formation of Jesus’ new
community. According to the author, it is clear that Jesus adopted the patrilineal structure in the
formation of his new group. The family of faith would be the new surrogate family for his
followers, and membership would be based on doing the will of His Father (Mk 3:33-35).
Next, the author takes on the difficult family language of Jesus. The Master states that
his “mother, brother and sisters” are those who do the will of his Father. Jesus also tells his
devotees that unless they “hate” their patrilineal family (yes, even their own life) for his sake,
they cannot be his disciples. Also, he tells a would-be-follower to abandon his kinship group at
the time of greatest need (the burial of his father). In all of these situations, the Master is directly
addressing the issue of strong-group family loyalty. On the surface, it appears that Jesus is
advocating antipathy towards ones natural family for the sake of the Master.
Though we have tended to soften the force of Jesus’ sayings to simply mean “prioritize
the Kingdom,” this is not quite what Jesus had in mind. Hellerman states, “For Jesus to organize
his followers as a strong-group family presented a potentially intractable dilemma.”13 The
scandal of these sayings to the strong-group oriented person can hardly be overstated. Jesus is
teaching that membership in his new “brotherhood” is to always take precedence over their blood
family loyalty. Any allegiance that stands between the brothers and the Master would be
intolerable. Likewise, a rift between siblings in the Messiah’s surrogate family would be equally
unacceptable. Jesus predicted that his Gospel would be a “sword” that would divide Jewish
family commitments.14 When faced with a competing loyalty (ones bloodline) they were to
always choose the Messiah’s surrogate family. The surrogate brotherhood was now the locus of
their existential identity. More shocking is the assertion that the only legitimate role the natural
family held is within the context of the surrogate family. That is, a believer does not have two
families, but one. This is how Hellerman makes sense of the positive family statements vis-à-vis
Hellerman, When the Church, 48-51.

Hellerman, When the Church, 64.

Hellerman, When the Church, 75.

the negative family language of Jesus.15

The Pauline Social Model
The term “brother(s)/sister(s)” (Gk adelph) is used in Pauline literature one hundred and
thirty-nine times. The vast majority of this sibling terminology appears in family-of-God
contexts.16 Pauline usage of “brother and sister” imagery can be categorized under four
headings: (1) affective solidarity; (2) family unity; (3) material solidarity; and (4) family loyalty.
Each of these will be briefly addressed.
First, Paul experienced a strong emotional bond with the churches (Phil 2:25ff., 1 Thess
2:17-3:18, and 2 Cor 2:12-13). He is often found gushing in his letters to his fellow believers
(affective solidarity). He also strongly upholds family unity and addresses dissention and
disunity as among the highest offenses of church life (family unity, see Eph 4:3-6; 1 Cor 1:10-
11). Additionally, Paul often encourages the pooling of resources to meet the needs of the
indigent and those in dire economic straights (material solidarity, see Gal 2:1-10; 1 Cor 16:1-4;
Rom 15:27). Paul called on the wealthy to be generous to God and this generosity towards God
was never theoretical but always practical. Lastly, disloyalty to the new family was particularly
abhorrent to the apostle (family loyalty). Family of God loyalty was among his highest values.
As an example, Hellerman argues that we have under-read 1 Cor. 7 in this matter. When
addressing marital issues to the Corinthians, Paul says nothing about relational bliss and personal
satisfaction in marriage. Indeed, Paul treats the subject of marriage as a “concession” and states
that “he who marries his virgin will do well, but he who does not marry will do better” (1 Cor
7:1-38, italics mine). To the one in a mixed marriage (believer with an unbeliever), Paul
emphasizes the spouse’s commitment to the surrogate family (fellow believers), should there be
a rift in the marital relationship. Verses 12-15 reintroduce adelph back into the discussion.
Curiously, the sibling loyalty issue is reinserted right where competing family commitment
appears in the pericope. When one has to choose between God’s family and the patrilineal

Hellerman, When the Church, 75. Hellerman points out that “hate” neither means “love less” or “disdain”
and instead means “abandon ones allegiance.” See also James Dunn, Jesus Remembered (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,
2003) 548-556. Dunn notes that the singular focus of Jesus’ call to discipleship and “leaving all” had no parallel
among other discipleship groups during the 2nd temple period, nor in the rabbinic literature. Jesus’ call was an
uncompromising commitment to a new eschatological family to be sure. But, Dunn goes on to warn against seeing
an unwarranted antithesis between the faith family and ones blood family, particularly in light of the many positive
statements regarding the family of origin in the Jesus sayings, 594-599.

Hellerman, When the Church, 78.

family, Paul expects them to prioritize the surrogate brotherhood.17

The Church in Greco-Roman Society
Finally, Hellerman examines the literature of the post-apostolic church to see if the social
values of Jesus and Paul were upheld or lost. Several early texts indicate that the church
maintained a surrogate family structure until the fourth century.
Hellerman recounts the story of a young believer who made his living in the theatre. The
literature of the early church pastors reveals that this young actor faced a harrowing dilemma.
The Greco-Roman theater was associated with the worst kind of pagan immorality.18 The church
instructed the young man that participation in that immoral enterprise was incompatible with his
life as a believer. The strong-group, collectivist mindset was still in effect well into the second
century. Believers did not make choices in isolation from the surrogate family.
The final example Hellerman offers is the literal transformation of the Roman Empire.
Because the people of God viewed themselves as the family of the Father, responsible to provide
for the poor and indigent of society, and devoted to one another in an atmosphere of
“uncompromising loyalty,” this surrogate family spread quickly across the Mediterranean.19
It is hard to argue with Hellerman. I found very few places where I could even find
points of disagreement. This is not to say that I wasn’t disturbed by the material in a few ways.
If the thesis in this book is correct, and I know of no rival hypothesis that would challenge it,
then I must admit that twenty-first century church life looks almost nothing like the strong-
family culture of the ancient world. When the Church shows me that the radical individualism
that is genetic to American society is inherently at odds with the practice of New Testament
As I reflect on these principles for ministry today, I cannot help but wonder just how
much of these ancient world values can be effectively transposed to American culture. I consider
our church to be doing an admirable job of getting people “connected” as we often say. We
work very hard at promoting small groups and launching what we call “social-space”
Hellerman, When the Church, 93.

Hellerman, When the Church, 97-98.

Hellerman, When the Church, 116-119. Hellerman offers many great quotations from the pagan opponents
of Christianity and Christian pastors, showing that the church was an unstoppable surrogate family

environments in order to transition people into accountable relationships. We also offer free
marital and spiritual formation mentoring, a benevolence ministry to outsiders, and a single
moms ministry to name a few.
However, I got the impression (indirect as it was) that no matter how much we work at
promoting the social values of “belonging,” “affective and material solidarity,” and “strong-
group loyalty” at Eastpoint, we will always be scratching the surface of community as it was
experienced in the first and second century church. On that note…
As the Pastor of Discipleship and Small Groups, I am totally committed to the value of
discipleship training in relational environments in our church. But if I were somehow
transported back to Paul and Jesus’ social world, I’m not sure that I could adjust. What I read in
When the Church was a Family is just too cultic for me. Not because I’m not committed to
family life (and not because they were weird). It’s because I was born and raised in the cult of
American individualism. Independence is the deep bias of my American soul. Recapturing the
collectivist, strong-group family values of first century Christianity seems like an uphill battle
from the outset. The deck may be irreversibly stacked against us.
The surrogate family experience of first-century believers seems like an artifact of a past
world. A world I do not live in, and a world that is truly alien to my weak-group, individualistic
culture. All this means that we must customize our approach and leverage our cultural
distinctives to advance the Kingdom. We cannot magically recreate the patrilineal structure of
the first century world.20 Any such effort would be a superficial parody that merely mimics the
pillars of a strong-group culture. Instead, we should focus on transferable principles that engage
church members in genuine, family oriented community (as much as possible).
Sometimes this will involve a fair amount of restructuring how we do church. But,
sometimes it may also include embedding these values in an existing social framework. The
danger here is that we adopt one of two extremes: (1) failing to challenge our isolated world with
New Testament values of community and (2) unintentionally potentiating greater isolation of
believers as they withdraw into the perceived “purity” of the house church structure.
But, Hellerman effectively draws attention to the critical practices and principles of the
surrogate family that are non-negotiable. The practices of belonging, affective and material
solidarity, and strong-group loyalty should still characterize twenty-first century church life.
I do concede that this is not what Hellerman advocates, especially in light of all that he states in the
opening chapters regarding this.

Finally, Hellerman asserted that the abandonment of the father’s trade to join a new
surrogate family would likely have been the “ultimate in betrayal for a descent group society.”21
Because it was the son’s responsibility to uphold the honor of the parilineal line, then
abandoning the family trade to join a traveling Jewish cleric would have been anathema in that
world. The point is well taken.22 However, we must ask whether this generalization would have
applied in Jesus’ case. Others have noted that there was no shortage of rabbis or messiah’s to
follow in that world.23 Because of this unusually high messianic expectancy, and perhaps due to
the qualitatively superior nature of Jesus’ miracles, joining his messianic movement/family
would have been viewed as a privilege, possibly softening the blow of Jesus’ radical demands on
would-be talmidhim. Likewise, if the disciples understood Jesus to be the Davidic Messiah, then
they would have perceived him to be an up-and-coming “King.” The social priority of the
patrilineal family could have been superceded by the socio-political realities of messianic fervor
in rural Galilee.
If Jesus were just another wandering charismatic sage, then the expectation to abandon
the kinship group to join his surrogate family would have been shocking indeed. But if we take
the testimony of the Gospel authors at face value, then surely Jesus represented a genuine
singularity in the Second Temple era. His demands of discipleship are in some ways like, and in
many ways unlike his rabbinic competitors. But the distinctive demand to abandon ones family
may have been easier to take for young men who believed that Jesus was a King of an inevitable
Kingdom; an everlasting Kingdom ushered in by an anointed one who would restore their ethnic
fortunes and take up Israel’s national cause.
Works Cited

Dunn, James D.G. Jesus Remembered: Christianity in the Making, Vol. 1. Grand Rapids:

Hellerman, When the Church, 68.

Dunn, Jesus Remembered, 548-599.Again, James Dunn seeks to harmonize the positive and negative
language of Jesus by showing that the negative sayings were rhetorical flourishes intended to jar the casual disciple,
acquainting him with the realities of life in Jesus’ “academy.” A discipleship characterized by lacking a place to rest
and none of the cushy “perks” associated with being an honored master, e.g. being greeted in the markets as “rabbi”
and the honor of the best seats in the synagogue etc.

Michael Wilkins, Following the Master: A Biblical Theology of Discipleship (Grand Rapids: Zondervan,
1992), 90-91. Dr. Wilkins points out that the term mathetes (disciple) is the more dominant term, occurring some
229 times overall. There seems to be good evidence that the master-disciple relationship was possibly a rival social
construct to that of the family in the ancient world.

Eerdmans, 2003.

Hellerman, Joseph. When the Church was a Family: Recapturing Jesus’ Vision for Authentic
Community. Nashville: B. & H. Publishing Group, 2009.

Wilkins, Michael. Following the Master: A Biblical Theology of Discipleship. Grand Rapids:
Zondervan, 1992.