The contemporary church puts a huge emphasis on natural marriage and family. But according to pastor, author and Talbot professor Joe Hellerman, the New Testament prioritizes the church family. Have we gotten our priorities wrong? In this podcast, Sean McDowell and Scott Rae talk to Professor Hellerman about the biblical view of family and what this practically means for the church today.
Joe Hellerman's book is titled When the Church Was a Family: Recapturing Jesus' Vision for Authentic Christian Community.
Scott Rae: Welcome to the podcast, “Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture.” I'm your host, Scott Rae, professor of Christian ethics, at Talbot School of Theology.
Sean McDowell: And I'm your cohost, Sean McDowell. I'm an author, speaker and professor of apologetics at Biola University. Thanks for joining us today.
Scott Rae: We're here with Dr. Joe Hellerman, professor of New Testament at Talbot School of Theology, and a specialist on first century history and the family, and how that relates to our idea of the church today.
Joe, you've had some really interesting things to say about the church as a family. You believe, and I've heard you say it, and you've written about it, that our churches, today, have oversold the centrality of marriage, family, parenting, and that that's not really an idea that was central to the early church.
Joe Hellerman: Yeah, and basically that came from a practical perspective, out of my role as a pastor of single adults, where it seemed that the message that was given singles, in the church, whether intentionally, or unintentionally, was you'll really become a full grown, mature Christian when you grow up and get married and have a family. And so singles didn't really feel like they had a place in the church. And that, combined with my research, and my doctoral program where I discovered that nobody had really given a whole lot of thought to what it meant, in antiquity, for the church to be a family. They kind of coalesced.
And I was reminded that in the Gospels, Jesus has some, well, he has a few nice things to say about our natural families. He tells us to honor our father and mother, and to stay married. But he has some pretty scandalous things to say about family, too. And those of you who are familiar with the New Testament might remember Jesus says, "If anybody does not hate his father and mother, he cannot be my disciple." And, for the life of me, kind of a pro-family church environment, where it's all about me and my wife and the kids, I really had not a lot of room for that, in my theology. And so that kind of led me on a pilgrimage where it made sense to me that what the New Testament does is it prioritizes the church family. It doesn't denigrate that natural family at all, but it really sees our natural families as being relationally embedded in our church family, and that's where they are to thrive.
And so my church family has people who are single, has people who are married, and we're all part of a family, in that sense. And so that's kind of where I'm coming from with this idea of prioritizing the church family.
Scott Rae: Okay, so let's spell this out in a little bit more detail. When you say that the church is a family, how was that understood in the first century by the earliest followers of Jesus?
Joe Hellerman: Okay, well a little differently than it's understood by us. And we have to start by asking, how is family understood? 'Cause these are family terms: we're brothers and sisters in Christ, God is our Father. So let me start, Scott, with a little exercise. Let me ask you what your father's name is, or was; I don't know if he's still alive, but —
Scott Rae: He's not, but Walter Rae.
Joe Hellerman: Walter, and what was his father's name?
Scott Rae: Walter.
Joe Hellerman: Okay, Scott, when was the last time, in a social setting, you introduced yourself by saying, "Hi, I'm Scott, son of Walter, son of Walter?”
Scott Rae: Never.
Joe Hellerman: You never have. And yet, when we open our Bibles, we see that on every single page. And the reason we don't notice this is we put a little Bible hat on and are not struck by the cultural difference between families, then and now.
Scott Rae: Now we think that's just a genealogy that doesn't really matter much. We read over it.
Joe Hellerman: Yeah, exactly, exactly. But the point is, how we define ourselves, with family, is we have kind of two places we come from. The family I came out of, who my parents were, and my siblings, and the family I marry into, which really becomes my family after, I quote, “grow up and get married.”
In antiquity, they defined themselves solely by the former. You were, and remained, who your daddy was.
Scott Rae: Regardless of whether you were married, or not.
Joe Hellerman: Yes, and that's why everybody's introduced by who their father was, that's why on inscription after inscription, in the Greco-Roman world, it's Gaius, the son of so-and-so, it's the first identifier. Now this has profound payoff for our understanding of our identity in Christ, of course, with God as our Father. I don't think we even get that. But it has another profound implication, and that is this, that because blood and family membership was passed down the male line, my siblings — my sister, my brother — all share daddy's blood, and are therefore family.
But I married out of my daddy's family, and I marry somebody who's from another daddy; that person, my wife, interestingly enough, is not really my family, in this world. Cause marriages were arranged by contract, and we all know about arranged marriages, at least from a distance, anyway. And not primarily based out of kind of the relational ethos that we think of marriage as. And didn't mean they didn't have great marriages, and great relationships, but it was a byproduct, rather than the goal of marriage.
And so, at any given generation, the closest relationship, solidarity-wise, was the relationship between blood siblings, not between a husband and wife. And that's probably the most profound difference.
Scott Rae: Okay, so when the Bible talks about our brothers and sisters, in Christ —
Joe Hellerman: And that makes that metaphor very powerful, doesn't it?
Scott Rae: And that's all over the pages of the New Testament. So what would you say, what does that mean, that my fellow believers are my brothers and sisters in Christ?
Joe Hellerman: Well, it practically, it kind of hit the ground in a number of ways. One is the responsibility to share material resources. Survival, in the ancient world, something many of us, in our culture, are not as immediately sensitive to, for many people, was day-by-day survival, food, clothing, shelter. And interestingly enough, in a culture like antiquity, where religion was so tied into family, and city, and all, to become a Christian was to make huge sacrifices, that would cost one one's safety net, and their family, and their city, and their culture, and they needed a new family. And so the early church met many of these material needs for these folks who were becoming part of these nascent Christian communities.
There's also —
Scott Rae: So things that you might actually, today, consider doing for one of your siblings, was considered routine —
Joe Hellerman: In the ancient church —
Scott Rae: Among brothers and sisters in Christ, in the ancient church.
Joe Hellerman: Right, right, right. Yeah.
Sean McDowell: It's interesting that we see, even in our language, the remnants of this way of thinking about identity. Richardson, son of Richard. Donaldson, son of Donald. Jefferson, son of Jeff. And yet, we've lost that, culturally speaking. Now, is this why, I'm wondering if you could kind of unpack this for us, if our identity was rooted in kind of the biological ties, Jesus comes along, and his family wants to talk with him, they're waiting outside, the cultural assumption was he would go out and talk with them. But he says, "Oh, my mother and brother are those who follow the will of the Lord." Like, talk about how scandalous that was.
Joe Hellerman: Yeah, that was utterly scandalous. You might also recall Matthew 8, where a would-be disciple wants to bury his father. Jesus says, "Let the dead bury the dead, and come and follow me." And it's really interesting to watch the commentators, especially western commentators, and all the exegetical gymnastics, unconvincing I might say, try to explain away those passages. See, these are the kind of passages, Sean, that I think we need to keep on the table, and somehow put all together.
Jesus, there are a few pro-family sayings. We talked about “Honor your father and mother,” “Stay married.” There are quite a few anti-family sayings in passages like the ones you mentioned, and the one I mentioned earlier about, you know, "You gotta hate your father and mother to be my disciple." There's some hyperbole there, certainly, but let's not just dismiss that. And then there's a lot of these surrogate family passages, where Jesus is, indeed, beginning to establish a new family, and is publicly distancing himself from his own blood family.
Sean McDowell: So if I can ask, the apologist in me says, “Okay, wait a minute. Jesus says, ‘Bury your own dead.’ He says, ‘Honor your father and mother.’ But then, he turns around and says, ‘No, I don't even listen to my father and mother. I have a new family line.’” Do we just live in the tension? What does that look like theologically, and maybe apologetically, when someone asks us about these passages?
Joe Hellerman: I think the solution is to put the church family (I almost hesitate to use the word church, because we so often associate church with a building and place and programs) but to put the spiritual family — let's put it that way — as the most important commitment, and then see our natural families as subsets of that spiritual family. And there is certainly a place to honor our father and mother, and I think what Jesus is talking about is material care for one's aging parents, in the context, but that's another issue entirely. But I think there's certainly a place for all these, under the rubric of the family of God, as kind of our primary locus of relational loyalty.
And I will also add that I think that's where our natural families flourish the best. We have kind of a consumer culture, where we go around and see the church as basically one more institution, one more kind of commodity to service the natural family, and I think, because of that, we are missing out on what God has for our natural families, as far as the breadth of relationships, and the health of raising our kids in a broader community. Those of us who happen to be married.
Scott Rae: So you're a co-pastor. Oceanside Christian Fellowship, in El Segundo. How does this idea of the church as a family shape what you do as a pastor? How does that make a difference, tangibly?
Joe Hellerman: That's a great question. First, from a philosophical perspective, it puts healthy relationships, rather than institutional efficiency and slick programming, at the center of church life. And I'll just give an illustration of that. It doesn't always make for the slickest and most efficient way to run a church.
We have a worship leader who is in the process of retiring and being retired. One of the issues is just relevance, and connecting with increasingly younger and younger generations of folks. And so, in a typical institutional setting, we would terminate a person like that and use their salary to hire a younger leader, or whatever it might be; another one who could relate better to the culture. But that's not our DNA. We're determined, because this person happens to be our sister in the Lord who is a member of our church family, first, and a worship leader, second, we are determined to keep her on payroll as long as necessary.
And what that's meant for us, is we can't afford a worship leader. We have to kind of patch together different worship teams from Sunday to Sunday to get by because we want to honor this sister in the Lord for her contribution to our church over the years, and for who she is as a person.
Another way this cashes out, as a pastor, is I don't do ministry alone. We have no senior pastor in our church, and we don't see the hierarchical model of a lead pastor, and paid staff, and the kind of stuff that has seemed to be so successful in American institutional Christianity, as a New Testament paradigm.
We share the leadership of the church, but, more important than that, we meet every Wednesday morning, as pastor-elders, the eight of us, and we pray for each other and our families, and just share life together, do no church business, so that we can model this relational ethos to the rest of the church. So we can't hardly tell them to become brothers and sisters with any prophetic credibility unless we are brothers and sisters with persons in our congregation as well.
And then the last thing I would say is it encourages me to stay deeply connected, relationally, with a handful of brothers in the church. I can't know everybody closely, in a church of 600–700 people, but I spend sometimes days at a time on deep sea fishing boats, with a handful of guys from the church who know me in ways I'm not sure I even want to be known, at times, but it's real, and it's what we're about, and because of the quality of relationships I have with some people in the church, the other people in the church see that, and are encouraged to develop those relationships themselves. Well that's a few of the ways it kind of cashes out, as a minister.
Scott Rae: Thanks, that's really helpful. Joe, we've both had students who come from other parts of the world, where the church is persecuted. And I'm thinking of one guy, in particular, who I know we've both had as a student, who came from India. When he came to faith, his parents, everybody in the village where he grew up, were devoutly Hindu. When he came to faith, he was disowned by his blood family. He actually told me, when he was a student here, that he's afraid to go back home to see his parents, for fear of his safety. And we've had other students who have come to Christ out of Muslim faith. How does this idea of the church as a family help some of these folks who may have lost their blood family by virtue of coming to faith?
Joe Hellerman: This is very much like the church in the ancient world. The person you describe, the reason that loyalty decision was so profound, and continues to be so profound, is ’cause he comes from a culture where religion is embedded in kinship; it's embedded in politics. Religion is everything. And we see that, I think, we're more and more familiar with that, I think, now, in the West, with our encounter with Islam, and radical Islam as well.
And so, to come out of a culture where religion is so part of everything in life means, to become a Christian, you leave everything in life. And of course your family is your main everything, in any culture, so these folks have to have a new family. And you don't give a person a new family by sitting them side-by-side with others, in an auditorium that seats 3,000 people, watching a talking head on a screen, and listening to a fancy bit of worship for 45 minutes, and then sending them home.
You create family by face-to-face interaction, by living life together, by providing a real place for real people to grow in community together, and support one another during the good times and the bad.
Scott Rae: Sean, I told you he wasn't gonna sugarcoat it.
Sean McDowell: No, he is speaking it exactly. And speaking of that, my question is, as you model your church this way, as you teach your classes — you did a presentation at the Evangelical Theological Society, so you've made some public statements about this — what's the kind of pushback you'll get from the Christian community? Whether there be people that are skeptical, or people that just go, "Oh, this is a breath of fresh air?" What are the common pushbacks you get when you talk about the family in this way?
Joe Hellerman: I get ... this is kind of ironic; I get very, very positive feedback from just about everybody who is not deeply invested, institutionally, in the church.
Sean McDowell: Wow.
Joe Hellerman: But here's the thing is —
Scott Rae: That's pretty revealing.
Joe Hellerman: Well, yeah, but here's the deal, is the positive feedback is one thing, but actually living it out is another. I've been at this for 20 years now, and it's kind of the DNA of our church, but it's not. We have a church of 600. I'd be surprised if 70 or 80 people in our church really get this. Because it's so hard to fly in the face of individualism, consumerism and the church down the street that is gonna provide the slicker programming and the more engaging communicator.
Sean McDowell: So how does this relate to students, in terms of keeping the faith? Because I've done a ton of research on Gen Z, millennials, teach full-time at Talbot, but also still teach high school part-time, and speak to thousands of students, and a question people ask is "Why are kids leaving the faith?" Some will say for worldview reasons, some will say for moral reasons, and I think there's a lot of factors, but it would seem to me that this could be a component related to why a lot of kids either leave the church or the faith. Tell me your thoughts on that.
Joe Hellerman: Sean, I would frankly love to have a chat with you about this sometime, because you've given so much thought to this, and heard so many people on this. I think the component is this, and I think some studies have demonstrated that … Back up a minute, I started doing youth ministry in the late ’70s — and did youth ministry, college ministry, singles ministry, and that was about the time the church was really discovering what we call lifestage ministries. When youth ministry, a red-hot youth group, was just an amazing thing. College group. And so, at that point, all it took was a great youth group on Wednesday and Sunday to compete with the socialization that went on the high school campuses, and we could keep our kids' feet to the fire with good youth groups, retreats, and on and on.
But now the secular socialization is 24/7, with social media, and all this other kind of stuff, and a red-hot youth group is not gonna keep our kids, though they might keep them for a few years, but then they go away to college. And so studies have shown that it is when our young collegians have intergenerational relationships with people who are older and younger in their churches. Typically, I forget what the stats are — maybe you'd remember — five to seven relationships with other older adults who are not their parents, and what happens is that is what somehow is the glue that keeps our high school graduates connected to the local church. So that makes this church is a family stuff, that it should be an intergenerational thing as well, not just simply siblings who are like us.
Sean McDowell: The research does show that the relationship with the parents, in particular, the biological father, is very, very important. But with that, at least five plus other relationships of people within the church — teacher, coach, uncle, a pastor — hugely affects whether that kids hold on to their faith or not. So this is a vital approach you're talking about in terms of family.
Scott Rae: Well and I don't know if your kids, either of you guys, are anything like mine, but when my kids hit about 14, 15, before they got to high school, they announced to me that they said, "Dad, you're done." And it came as quite a shock to me. They were done listening to me about spiritual things, because they all said, "We've got to own this and figure this out for ourselves." And so, as important as my role was when they were growing up in those early years, I saw that that window just snapped shut in a hurry. And I think that underscores how important it is that they have other meaningful relationships within the family of God to nurture their faith.
Joe Hellerman: Yeah, one of the awkward moments in my own pilgrimage is I was studying all this stuff academically, in my head, about the importance of the church family, as opposed to my natural family, all this kind of stuff, and it just so happened, at the time, my wife was making a best friend at our church; her name is Margy Emmons, and she's about my age, my wife's age. She's a single lady. And our kids were young at the time. I think my oldest was 13, my youngest was probably nine, and Margy starts showing up around our house all the time. She'd be over for dinner once a week, and she's hanging out, and I began to feel a little bit uncomfortable with this quote-unquote “outsider” around our family all the time.
And then God slapped me upside of the head and said, "Well, Joe, isn't this what you're studying at UCLA, about the church as a family?" And I thought to myself, "Yeah, it sure is, Jesus." And so, over the years, Margy, basically, has become part of our family. She goes on vacation with us, and she's around all the time. Joanne just spent time with her yesterday. And so now my daughters are 29 and 33 years old, and over lunch about six or eight months ago, my youngest, who was only about nine when Margy came into our family, said, "You know, I'm about one-third daddy, one-third mommy and one-third Margy." And mother and dad could not be happier.
Scott Rae: Wow, that's quite a statement.
Joe Hellerman: Our youngest, Rachel, has run into a major life crisis, at this point in her life, and I won't go into detail, except to say that Margie had been through exactly that crisis in her twenties, and is pouring her life into Rachel in remarkable ways that could have never happened apart from that relationship being a foundation being laid over the years.
Scott Rae: That's powerful stuff. Let me ask, I think we got time for a couple other questions. I'm interested to know how this idea of the church as a family, as you've described it, particularly impacts single adults, and then maybe out of a little sub-group of that, are those that have same-sex attraction.
Joe Hellerman: Yes, I'm happy to speak to that. Yeah the single adult thing I alluded to a little bit before. Again, I was a single adult pastor for five or six years, and probably would not hire a pastor of single adults in a church again, for the very reason that it isolates singles off as a special group that maybe really aren't family, in the sense that parents with kids, and on and on, so I think it's gonna be absolutely crucial that we develop relational environments in our church, whether those are ministry teams, or small group environments, whatever they might be, where singles and married folk can find common ground, and singles can really find family in the church.
And that'll be crucial for all of our singles because we know singles are getting married, even those who are getting married are getting married later and later in life. So there's this crucial time period where our single adults are going to need relationships that they won't have in the home, perhaps. But then we have those who have same-sex attraction, and many of whom will need to commit to celibacy to be faithful to Scriptures for life, to be faithful followers of Jesus. And so we really have no prophetic credibility to challenge the morality of people who want to come to Christ with those kind of issues, unless we have a family for them to be a part of. So it's gonna be a crucial, crucial aspect of the church as we move forward in our culture today.
Sean McDowell: Joe, that is really powerful. I've written a book on same-sex marriage, and I even teach a class at Biola on the Bible and homosexuality, and the narrative is kind of that LGBT community says, "We love you, accept you just as you are. Be a part of our family." You're saying the Christian narrative, right now, is kind of, "Oh, come in, and you have to be single, and it might be miserable, and you'll be a second-class citizen;” that's kind of the narrative we give. What should the narrative be?
Joe Hellerman: The narrative, again, should be the church is our family. And we all just happen to occupy different life stages along the way. Some of us are married with kids. Some of us are those kids. Some of us are single with opposite sex attraction, some of us are single with same-sex attraction, but we are brothers and sisters in Christ, and we're on this planet for a mission that God has called us to as a community, and it is that mission and those relationships that should define who we are as human beings on this planet until Jesus comes.
Scott Rae: Joe, thanks so much for being with us. This is just, I think, a revolutionary concept that could be incredibly meaningful if it's practiced. I think you've underscored how difficult it is to actually put this into practice, but it's encouraging to see this work in the life of your church, in the life of your own family.
For our listeners, if you to want to read a little bit more about this concept, Joe's book, When the Church Was a Family, Joe Hellerman, When the Church Was a Family. I'd encourage you to look that up on Amazon, and get that resource.
Sean McDowell: Joe, thanks for joining us.
Joe Hellerman: You bet. It was a pleasure, guys.
Sean McDowell: This has been an episode of the podcast “Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture.” To learn more about us and today's guest, Dr. Joe Hellerman, and to find more episodes, go to www.biola.edu/thinkbiblically. That's biola.edu/thinkbiblically. If you enjoyed today's conversation, give us a rating on your podcast app and share it with a friend. Thanks for listening, and remember, think biblically, about everything.