When The Church Was A Family—Even From Town To Town!

By Joe Hellerman May. 19, 2014 9:00 a.m. Biblical Exposition, Church Life, Culture, Missions, New Testament, Theology

We are in the book of Acts in our Sunday sermon series at Oceanside Christian Fellowship, and I was recently assigned Acts 21:1-16. What seemed at first to be a rather dry travelogue turned out (as usual!) to be a rich portion of God’s word.

Among the unique aspects of early Christianity, when compared to other religious options in the ancient world, are the relationships the early Christians shared across geographical boundaries. The church was a family—not only locally but also from town to town.

We see this in living color on Paul’s return voyage from his third journey. Paul and a rag-tag group of buddies (Paul, Luke, and the seven guys listed in Acts 20:4) show up at Tyre, Ptolemais, Caesarea Maritima, and Jersualem, where (in each case) they immediately find lodging with fellow-Christians who are apparently relative strangers. Some comments are in order about the hospitality of the Christians in Tyre and Caesarea, in particular.

Imagine the scenario at Tyre (Acts 21:3-6). Nine guys appear on your doorstep after a week of sleeping on the deck of a Roman merchant ship. You think nothing about welcoming them into your home (for a whole week!) even though you have no significant relational history with any of them.

Now check out what happens at Caesarea (verses 8-14). Put yourself in Philip’s place. You are a father with four unmarried virgin daughters (verse 9). Nine guys who have been traveling together now for a couple weeks show up at your front door, expecting you to give them a place to stay. Yeah, right. They’re gonna stay in my house with my unmarried daughters? I don’t think so. “There’s a Best Western just down the street, boys. Come back by tomorrow morning and I’ll make you breakfast.” Instead, Philip invites them right in, where they stay “for many days” (verse 10).

Perhaps you are tempted to dismiss these profound expressions of early Christian social solidarity, by saying, “That was then. This is now. We live in a different world and cannot expect the church-as-a-family to function in a trans-local way like it did in antiquity.”

Well, I happen to think we can. Check out these excerpts from a note I received from a Talbot student a couple years ago, after she had read When the Church Was a Family:

I belong to a small Anabaptist denomination that really lives the "strong group" family culture in church, not only within a congregation, but nationally and internationally. When I was 16, I took a trip with my school to Germany, and for one day left my school group and was picked up by a family I had never met, stayed a day and a night with them, and attended church with them, simply on a recommendation from someone in the States who gave their names as a contact for the church in that area that is part of our denomination. We immediately trusted each other simply because we were "extended family."

Did you get that? A teenager traveling clear across the globe leaves her school group to stay with a family of total strangers. And it gets even better:

When I moved half-way across the country for my first job, I simply called the local elder where I was moving, and he and his family offered me a place to stay and help in finding an apartment, tips about the community, and free dinner nearly once a week for years. My coworkers simply marveled that a "complete stranger" would take me in and provide in this manner--I never had to use the corporate-sponsored "relocation services" to get connected in the community.

What a remarkable story! And what a wonderful testimony this young woman and her host family were to her co-workers on that new job!

The church is a family—even from town to town.


  • Ted May. 19, 2014 at 9:19 PM

    I’ve been listening to Professor Hillerman’s lectures based upon the book that he gave in the EFCA North Central District (you can google it).

    The analysis of fatherhood in the ancient world is just not accurate. It is just a reading back into history of some very flawed modern understandings after the rise of modern biology and family in terms of biologism, which he then goes on to oppose based on biblical principles. Problem is, the Bible doesn't always break new ground and often endorses the opinion of the wise, of which there are never enought. For example, Jesus said we should be like children in some respects. Yet this was likely a commonplace since Aristotle spoke eloquently of the tendency towards cynicism in adults, and the lack thereof in children, quite eloquently. We need to stop thinking of the Bible as breaking new ground in every area.

    Likewise, it’s amazing to hear him baldly state that in the ancient world that “bloodlines determine family membership”. Because anyone who is anyone knows, what bloodlines are isn’t a stable concept in terms of anything that can be truly marked to biology. He espouses biologism, and then turns around and opposes it in practice. Talk about cognitive dissonance. Controversy and confusion are generated at the same time. Is Hellerman's view that of the ancient world? Hardly.

    Here are snippets of Bernard Jussen in the book "Spiritual Kinship as Social Practice" between pages 132-33.

    "The concept of the spiritual father can best be understood by looking at the first context that comes to mind when we hear the term father. In Roman society, the family father (pater familias) was a social role whose parameters were laid down by Roman Law (ius) and no less by custom, although the latter is far less tangible.
    As the term was used by Roman jurists, the pater (familias) was not the biological father but the head of household (dominus), and familia was a purely legal concept encompassing all those persons who were subject to the authority of the pater. To put it another way, the familia of the Roman jurists was formed by the idea of authority, and the pater was the bearer of that authority."

    "When … our authors and guarantors around 500 (and earlier as well) used the term father (pater) … they could expect to tap into two different concepts: on the one hand, "father" as a legal concept, primarily representing and legitimizing the authority of the lord (dominus), and, on the other hand, "father" as a term of moral valuation, representing and invoking an all-encompassing caretaker."

  • Ted May. 19, 2014 at 9:41 PM

    Another snippet from Jussen from the same pages:

    "The father, like the family (or "house") more generally may have been the most familiar of people and may have presented himself, not least "thanks to age and duration, ubiquity and variability" as a model for that which was less familiar–God and the gods or communal orders beyond the family, rulers, priests, spiritual leaders, and teachers. In these and many other areas of life the father, like the family or the "house," was the standard example (or model) with which one created the proper relationships between things. … This applied to Christians as well, who from the beginning used the term father and its semantic field, as well as familial ideas more generally, as a way of conceiving of the ecclesia. The image of God, as it was sketched by early Christian authors, may serve as a familiar example. … Christians adopted the practice of referring to spiritual teachers as fathers. Saint Paul made the first and most emphatic claim to the title."

    And I'm only getting warmed up. Fatherhood is a spiritual vocation, whether one is a Christian or not. It always was understood that way by the wise. Reading biological understandings back into history is a grossly distorting error. Professor Hellerman is reading back into history an account of fatherhood that wasn't there, and then opposing this straw man by biblical principles instead of showing how the Bible actually endorsed and affirmed an ancient and non-biological account of fatherhood that was understood by the wise. Then as now, the view of the wise and the view of the masses isn't necessarily the same. So you had Christ giving some sharp retorts to the crowd about who his "real" family was, but it wasn't something that the wise or the better philosophers hadn't already discussed ad nauseam. It wasn't even opposed to the Roman conception.

    Claude Karnoouth points out that the word "family" came to replace "house" in the eighteenth century. Or David Warren Sabean, in "Property, production, and family in Neckarhausen, 1700-1870" from pages 92-4:

    "The terms "Haus" and "domus" were originally confined to the spatial area covered by buildings. Before philosophers and theologians reconceptualized relationships, these terms never encompassed the domestic group as a unit, although various compound words were developed to designate roles of family members as marriage partners, parents, or brothers. The word familia itself included the household slaves or dependent serfs on an estate but, significantly, not the manorial head, his spouse, children, or relatives. For the late Middle Ages, it is easier still to demonstrate the existence of terms which designated wider kin who functioned together–parents, parentela, Sippe, Magschaft, Freund, Freundschaft–than it is to find ones to cover the smaller living community."

  • Ted May. 19, 2014 at 9:51 PM

    The bottom line is that biological conceptions of fatherhood are very modern conceptions. Biological fathers aren't "real" fathers, and biology does not confer legitimacy. In the old days "natural children" was a term for the offspring of a concubine, since naturalness alone could not convey illegitimacy. Modern biological conceptions of fatherhood have turned on its head the view of fatherhood as a spiritual vocation. This was never the opinion of the wise.

  • Ted May. 19, 2014 at 10:04 PM

    Oops. I transposed a word. I meant to say that in the old days "natural children" was a term used for the offspring of a concubine, since naturalness alone could not convey legitimacy, and its use would only convey illegitimacy.

  • Ted May. 19, 2014 at 11:23 PM

    I also don't understand why no mention is made of the custom of hospitality. It isn't just a Christian intra-group thing, and never was. It is by definition a love of strangers. A head of household would be required to defend the strangers in his home at the expense of his life if necessary. If he didn't he'd be deserving of no respect and in fact only shame from where he lived.

  • Gary Manning May. 21, 2014 at 12:12 PM

    Hi Ted,
    Usually it's customary to respond to the actual blog post, not something else from the author that's somewhat related.

    If you read some of Joe's work, you can see that he is quite familiar with the research that you discuss; but as you might imagine, he did not discuss all of this in lectures that encourage pastors to foster familial relationships in the church. His lectures are an attempt to make his research understandable to modern people; you may be misunderstanding that as an imposition of modern ideas into ancient history.

  • Ted May. 21, 2014 at 7:56 PM

    You're right Gary. I came back to say that other reviews contradict what I thought I heard in his lecture so that puzzled me. In doing so I realize I was unfair. I did mistakenly think his was a view of biologism. It is a common mistake, but apparently not by Professor Hellerman. My apologies. The books aren't available in a library near me now so that's why I landed on the lectures. In any case I think it is fair to call Professor Hellerman's approach primitivist romantic. I think any romantic approach to anything should get a thorough scrutiny.

    It has been noticed since Pitt-Rivers made so much of a "Mediterranean culture" that NT studies tend to take an uncritical attitude to the idea that generalizations about it across vast distances of time and place. I think that assumption is doubtful but if memory serves nothing interesting to me even depended on that, and certainly his work has stood the test of time and is still quite profitable historical research. But if you're advocating particular normative prescriptions on that generalization it isn't clear the same could be said.

    If the thesis is only to "foster familial relationships in the church" where there is a need for it then that would be fine, and the church tends to be hostile to that I happen to know. Many of there relationships outside of the biological and legal tend to happen quietly because the church does tend to be suspicious of them. Figuring out that puzzle what what led me to this scholarship in the first place because I'm conducting one myself and no churches or Christians have honestly been any help. Most are positively hostile when not skeptical. And when they're not suspicious of them they have romantic conceptions on surrogate relationships would be like, and when they aren't they reject them since they don't meet their idealized picture of them. As if pain, conflict, jealousy, and resentment couldn't happen in surrogate relationships as they do in the other ones. How could they not if they're real?

    I just don't see what the romantic ideals of a less "individualistic" time has to do with it. In my experience it has nothing to do with it. I think romantic ideals are the conspiracy theories of Christianity. We should be skeptical. That's my undoubtedly harsh appraisal of such things.

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