October 29, 2020

Church as “Strong Family”?

By Chaplain Mike

May’s Christianity Today includes a thought-provoking article by Joseph H. Hellerman, entitled, “A Family Affair: What would happen if we put we before me?” Hellerman is professor of NT at Talbot School of Theology. He is the author of When the Church Was a Family: Recapturing Jesus’ Vision for Authentic Christian Community.

Let me start by saying that I get Hellerman’s argument. He writes that the early church functioned according to the ethos of a family, a specific kind of family, what social scientists refer to as a “strong group.”

Jesus’ early followers were convinced that the group comes first—that I as an individual will become all God wants me to be only when I begin to view my goals, desires, and relational needs as secondary to what God is doing through his people, the local church. The group, not the individual, took priority in a believer’s life in the early church.

What muddies the waters for me is Hellerman’s point that this family model was by no means unique to Christians, but actually the way the broader social landscape functioned in ancient Greco-Roman culture.

So, is the “strong-family” model a Biblical imperative for the way the church should function? Or is it yet one more example of how God’s people live out their faith in whatever culture they find themselves?

To explain the difference in ancient and modern family systems, Hellerman appeals to the film Titanic, and its love story between Jack and Rose. Contemporary audiences cheered for the romance between the two individuals. Those in the ancient world would have been appalled that Rose abandoned her family’s wishes for an individualistic pursuit of love.

“Strong family” values vs. individual autonomy. Stories about this struggle have filled literature and art for millennia. In America, they are often set in the context of the immigrant experience or the small town, and our tradition has been to cheer for the individual to “break free” of the stifling atmosphere and expectations of the family and culture of origin.

Perhaps because of our immigrant experiences, our pioneer history with its constant movement westward to new territory, our myth of the “self-made man,” we Americans pride ourselves in being the people who broke the mold, who escaped the chains of extended family, the community “messin’ in my business,” and lives bound by tradition that kept us from fulfillment and achievement. If I can only find some way “over the rainbow,” the dreams that I’ve learned to dream will really come true.

As an illustration of how the strong family ethos worked in the early church, Joseph Hellerman tells the story of a man named Marcus, who lived in third-century Carthage. He was an actor who converted to Christ. Because of its teaching about the moral life in Christ, the church demanded that Marcus quit his profession. So he did, putting Marcus in a precarious financial position. He decided to open an acting school, but the church disapproved. The issue came to a head, and a clear choice was put before the converted actor. Abandon the acting school, or you will no longer be in fellowship with the church.

Hellerman quotes what bishop Cyprian said about the situation:

It is not in keeping with the reverence due to the majesty of God and with the observance of the gospel teachings for the honor and respect of the church to be polluted by contamination at once so degraded and so scandalous.

With typical “strong family” logic, Cyprian put the welfare and reputation of the group ahead of the wishes of the individual.

However, that is not the whole story. Cyprian also recognized the responsibility of the family to take care of a brother who was in a dilemma. He instructed the church to provide for Marcus, and said that if they were unable to provide him an adequate income, Marcus could come to his larger congregation and be supported. Cyprian knew that following Jesus meant real loss for some people, and he was perfectly willing for the church to be a full economic safety-net for those who became deprived of a living. That’s what families do. That’s the other side of “strong-family” practice.

What about us?
This is all interesting, of course. But Hellerman asks the million-dollar question when he writes:

Can we recapture in our churches the biblical vision for authentic Christian community as reflected in the strong-group, surrogate family model that characterized the early church?

He gives a qualified “yes” answer. However, as he tries to flesh this out, the challenges appear overwhelming. First, he says we can move toward this by recapturing a church that is more relational than institutional. Well OK, but then the real problem emerges. Listen to his second point:

Most of us do not belong to church communities where decisions are handed down through the channels of formal church leadership. Rather, the benefits of a strong-group, familial church will accrue informally, in the course of daily life, as we work through conflict, share victories, and endure heartaches together in those relationships that inevitably develop and bear fruit among Christians who determine to stick it out together. (emphasis mine)

Furthermore, he goes on to say that commitment to a church that functions like a “strong-family” must be based on the individual commitment of each member to the group. Unlike Marcus in the early church, we have so many other options that the “strong-family” ethos cannot be enforced. But if this is the case, it is no longer “strong-family!” Will our individual commitments have the kind of strength to stand up to the daily onslaught of our individualistic culture? I have strong doubts.

Furthermore, Hellerman recognizes the dangers of falling into cult-like behavior, which skeptical Americans would certainly fear, and with good reason. We’ve had enough “toxic religion” thrust upon us over the years from dictatorial leaders and abusive religious systems.

Evidently, “strong-family” now would bear little resemblance to “strong-family” then or over the years.

So, while I appreciate Hellerman’s effort, I have a lot more thinking to do before I’m ready to say he’s on to something here.

  • Is the kind of “strong-family” ethos Hellerman writes about part of Biblical Christianity, or just part of the culture in which the early Christians lived out their faith?
  • Since our culture is so different, are we required to recreate this kind of “strong-family” culture in our churches in order to follow Jesus faithfully?
  • Is this even possible in our individualistic culture?
  • Doesn’t a “strong family” culture actually require the strong family itself—complete with the authority of the elders, strong role designations for those in the family, the regular reinforcement of expectations, and the willingness to submit to the discipline of the group. Wouldn’t this only work in a hierarchical system with established traditions and rules of order?
  • This discussion brings up questions regarding church discipline, church organization, and church care for its members. If we can’t or shouldn’t recreate a “strong family” ethos in the church today, how do we practice these elements of church life in our own culture in a way that is Biblically faithful? That’s a huge set of questions, and must await future posts.


  1. I know this doesn’t relate directly to the topic at hand, but what was wrong with being an actor in the 3rd century?

    • I would imagine that actors in the third century were not so different from actors today, if not worse. The profession has always been associated with sex, drugs, and low moral standards and the church did not want one of their members to be associated with that.

      • Acting back in the day was less about “telling the truth” or “expressing emotion” and more about wearing artificial phalluses, simulated sex scenes, farce and ribaldry generally.

        So we can imagine that the church would look at a converted actor somewhat like we would a former prostitute – when that actor went ahead and gave up acting to open up an acting SCHOOL instead…

    • Two main reasons: the bad reputation attaching to the theatre by this stage and the trend for putting on mocking skits of Christian ceremonies by the pagan authorities. Basically, you had the Greek theatre and the Roman theatre. The Greeks, as well as having the great tragedies, also had more, er, low-brow entertainment such as satyr plays. The Romans bypassed the highbrow stuff altogether and went for comedies/farces which were way more popular and populist. To quote this introductory site:

      “Mime: overtook after 2nd century A.D. Fabula raciniata.

      Usually short
      Sometimes elaborate casts and spectacle
      Serious or comic (satiric)
      No masks
      Had women
      Violence and sex depicted literally (Heliogabalus, ruled 218-222 A.D., ordered realistic sex)
      Scoffed at Christianity
      Needless to say, the Church did not look kindly at Mime. ”

      The story of St. Genesius, the patron saint of actors, gives an example of such skits on Christianity; according to the tradition, he was the lead in a play mocking baptism who underwent a genuine conversion while performing and was executed:


      “Saint Genesius of Rome (died c. 286 or c. 303) was an actor hired for a play that made fun of Christian baptism. During a performance in Rome before the emperor Diocletian, Genesius had a change of heart and converted. Genesius proclaimed seeing visions of angels and announced his new found allegiance to Jesus. He was killed for his actions.

      At the start of the play Genesius lay down on the stage as if sick. Two other actors asked what ailed him. Genesius said he felt a great weight that he wanted removed. Hence, two other actors, dressed as a priest and exorcist, were called in. They asked what the protagonist wanted. He replied, “A baptism.” Thereupon, he said, he saw a vision of angels bearing a book with all his sins inscribed. The actor portraying the priest asked him: “My child, why did you send for me?”

      At this point, Genesius claimed to actually see angels and asked to be baptized himself onstage. Enraged, Diocletian had him turned over to Plautia, prefect of the praetorium, who tortured him in an effort to force him to sacrifice to the pagan gods. When Genesius persisted in his faith, he was beheaded.

      He is known as the patron saint of actors, comedians, clowns, dancers, theatrical performers, musicians, attorneys, barristers, lawyers, printers and stenographers, prostitutes, and is invoked against epilepsy.”

  2. I have had Dr. Hellerman for 2 classes at Talbot and read the book. I highly recommend it for anyone to read.

    A simple point related to the first question at the end: “Is the kind of “strong-family” ethos Hellerman writes about part of Biblical Christianity, or just part of the culture in which the early Christians lived out their faith?”

    I think the point Dr. Hellerman is trying to make (and makes very well – see also his longer more academic monograph on the topic, ““The Ancient Church As Family” Fortress Press 2001”, which this reviewed book is a distilled and “lay person” version of) is that by looking at the nature of family systems in ancient times we can discover exactly what the implications were for the biblical author’s statements about what it meant to become a church family in which we call each other brother and sister.

    I think it is unquestionably “Biblical Christianity”. When I call someone “brother”, I think of it through my cultural lens of what brotherhood means. When Jesus calls someone brother, he’s looking through the cultural lens of that time in terms of what brotherhood means. If I want to understand what it should mean to call someone “brother” today, then I need to understand what Jesus meant when he called someone ‘brother” 2000 years ago.

  3. Jordan Peacock says

    These are the sorts of questions that need asking. Thank you.

  4. The ancient “strong family” principle is alive and well in Asia. Most people there grow up with strong family attachments to their tribe or clan. When they become Christian their allegiance is transferred from their clan to their church fellowship. But they already know how to subsume their personal interests to those of the group. At the best, there is wonderful brotherhood. At worst, the church simply becomes a new “Us” around which the same old bigotry against “them” can form. My experience was in Kyrgyzstan, where many of the first wave of church leaders were Soviet-trained. They tried to run their church the way Stalin ran the USSR.

    As far as American and western churches are concerned, I don’t suppose it is possible to realize the virtue of the strong family in a consumer society. Plenty of people in American churches feel a strong affinity for the other members of their congregation. They probably feel that they’ve got a “strong family” thing going. But I don’t think they do. Wherever attendance is voluntary, congregations form around preferences. And those preferences will be based on similarities. Every member of the congregation, more or less, validates every other member’s income, lifestyle, degree of spiritual fervency, etc. Hence, the person who joins one of these congregations is really affirming and not sacrificing himself or herself.

    I think we are called to something more than a strong family. It is all too easy to find a “Sweet, sweet spirit in this place,” and many Christians never go beyond that. I think we are called to a universal magnanimity that wishes good to all people everywhere and works to do as much good as possible with no special prejudice for those closest at hand.

  5. Allen Krell says

    Great points. The number one question in my personal life is “Am I terrible at making strong relationships, or do I expect too much in a Western Culture?” I don’t have the answer either.

  6. Louis Winthrop says

    Some modern groups still have this, or something close. Some Orthodox churches, probably all of the non-Monophysites, some Mormons (and probably all of the polygamist Mormons), the Unification Church, the Family of God, misc. discipling groups… Apologies if none of these precisely matches your preferred theology or church governance. Also, some of them may be reluctant to admit outsiders.

  7. As heirs of the Reformation (the priesthood of believers) and the Enlightenment (reason over tradition and faith), among other things, I just don’t see how 21st century America could ever resemble the “strong family” milieu in which the early church grew.

    For that matter, late medieval culture (just prior to the Reformation) subordinated the individual to the group in ways we have trouble understanding, to say nothing of tolerating. These movements were like solvents weakening the group’s control over individuals and most of us would say that was a good thing overall.

    And while I admire many aspects of the commitment evident in the example of the
    actor and Cyprian, I also am skeptical of reproducing it today. My main reason is the cost involved, specifically the “dying to self” necessary to support someone as Cyprian requested or the willingness to abandon one’s profession to follow Christ, both rare.

    If you want to study a slightly more modern example of this kind of “strong family” model and the cost involved, read about the non-conformists we call the Pilgrims. It’s sobering to read; not impossible to duplicate perhaps, but very costly.

    From the Pilgrims’ example, btw, I found one of the keys to commitment to one another that I didn’t really understand previously. Jesus said, “Follow me,” and out of that flows responsibility to each other. There have been times in ministry when I felt like no one was listening to me, no one understood, no one really cared about the kingdom of God. It was out of devotion to the Lord (“Follow me”) that I got past these things and was able to yield to his command to care for the people of God who, after all, are often like sheep without a shepherd.

  8. Most of the churches I have been around in the last couple years are like this. I’ve been helped more than I’ve given, to be honest.

  9. Actually, I have to qualify my last statement. I am at a church now that is populated by artists. There is a tendency towards individualism. Exhibit A: Guy cheerfully tap dancing in church on Good Friday.

    • Oh, man. Not exactly getting the idea of holy silence and contemplation, eh?

      See? This is why liturgical dance is the work of Satan! 😉

  10. Mike,

    This is a very complex issue and I think entails more variables than what was written in the article.

    “’Strong family’ values vs. individual autonomy.” I think this is acutally a false dichotomy. A good community will recognize both the strength of community *and* the strength of the individual without going to the extreme of downplaying either of the two.