Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Perhaps one of the most challenging tasks of faithful theologians in our time is to determine cultural critiques of the first century are valid, supporting improved exegious, and which are invalid, adding nothing to our knowledge of scripture. Knowledge about things like Jesus’ social position and relationship to friends and family is helpful because scripture is laconic, providing a bare minimum of detail, when we frequently want to know more—who is the real Jesus?
Joseph Hellerman’s book, The Ancient Church as Family, begins with an intriguing question: what explains “the marked growth of the early Christian movement?” (1) The answer to this question that he offers is that the early church was a surrogate family which:
“…may be defined as a social group whose members related to one another neither by birth nor by marriage, but who nevertheless (a) employ kinship terminology to describe group relationships and (b) expect family-like behavior to characterize interactions among group members.” (2)
This is an intriguing hypothesis because we observe sibling terminology being used by Peter even on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 1:16)—before the church had been organized—and it is used throughout the writings of Paul (e.g. 1 Cor 1:10). We also note that referring to God as father (e.g. Matthew 6:9 and John 17:1) is also consistent with the idea that we are all brothers and sisters in the faith. Furthermore, the early church shared resources, acting like a family in taking care of one another (Acts 2:44-45).
The Christian church was not the only group out there in the first century—why was it so much more successful? Hellerman sees first century groups as having these common characteristics—they were voluntary (5), had a religious orientation (7), and shared common meals (8). Only some groups were also trans-local (9), socially inclusive (10), structurally egalitarian (11), and focused on study (13). The early church stood out in opposing the dominant culture (14), having an exclusive allegiance (20), and emphasizing family (21). Of these characteristics, the functioning of the church as a surrogate family was culturally the most distinctive.
If the early church functioned as a family, then what sort of family are we talking about?
Hellerman argues that the dominate template for family in the first century was the “patrilineal kinship group” (PKG), which differs in significant ways from the traditional American family. While the American family is viewed in individualist, relational terms, the PKG viewed marriage as:
“a legal and social contract between two families for (1) the promotion of the status of each [family], (2) the production of legitimate offspring, and (3) appropriate preservation and transferal of property to the next generation.” (31)
A key distinctive for the PKG is that siblings, not spouses, are where one seeks emotional support (36). Hellerman writes:
“frequently brother-sister relationships [have] an almost romantic quality. Even into later life, the men with whom women feel most comfortable and upon whom they can most depend are their brothers. Brothers remain their sisters’ primary source of companionship, advice, and defense.” (37)
Treachery within the PKG is deepest therefore when, like with Cain and Able, it interferes with expected sibling intimacy, not marital intimacy (39). Sibling solidarity is therefore minimally to involve protection of family honor (over even things like honesty) and sharing of resources (41). And, of course, the kingpin in the PKG is the role of the patriarchal father (30). Therefore, if the church is a family, then we are all brothers and sisters in the faith under one father—God.
Hellerman spends a great deal of time and effort convincingly validating his hypothesis from biblical (especially Paul) and early church sources, including Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Cyprian. For example, he notes in Paul’s letters 118 occurrences of sibling terminology, 40 occurrences of father terminology, and 14 instances of inheritance terminology (92), which is used primarily to reinforce social order in the churches (92-93). What is interesting is that, contrary to the expected linguistic strategy of appealing to PKG to reinforce the hierarchical structure of Roman society (97), Paul employs “homonoia rhetoric” to reinforce an egalitarian structure typical of his churches (113). Hellerman writes:
“Paul draws upon sibling terminology in order to (1) elicit expression of generalized reciprocity, (2) provide assurance of honest administration of the funds, and (3) challenge his readers to respond in a manner worthy of the sibling bond that they share with other Christians who have already demonstrated their generosity.” (113)
This is an important finding, in part, because the prevailing interest among many writers today is to allege that the PKG model is used rhetorically to promote hierarchy at the expense of socially disadvantaged groups. Hellerman disagrees writing:
“those who had the most to gain from the image of the church as a family were the poor, the hungry, the enslaved, the imprisoned, the orphans, and the widows. For brother-sister terminology in antiquity had nothing to with hierarchy, power, and privilege, but everything to do with equality, solidarity, and generalized reciprocity.” (221)
Hellerman is a professor of New Testament and the history of Christianity at Biola University, La Mirada, California and Pastor at Oceanside Christian Fellowship, El Segundo, California. He writes in 7 chapters:
- Christianity in Its Social Environment.
- Mediterranean Family Systems: Structure and Relationships.
- Origins of the Surrogate Kin Group Idea
- The Communities of Paul of Tarsus
- Second-Century Christian Writers
- North African Christianity
- Summary and Evaluation.
These chapters are preceded by a preface and followed abbreviations, notes, bibliography and an index.
Johseph Hellerman’s book, The Ancient Church as Family, provides important background on the use of family terminology in the New Testament and the early Christian church, serving as an important apologetic in meeting postmodern challenges to the role of the church in society. While seminary students and pastors are the obvious audience for this book, a wide range of others will have an interest. The book is both accessible and engaging—I doubt that I will ever read the Bible in quite the same way.
 “But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven.” (Matt 23:8-9)