Sefer Shpiel - "When the Church Was a Family" (Chapter Two) Yeshua's Spiritual Family Counseling

January 8, 2020

In Chapter Two of his book, When The Church Was a Family, Joseph Hellerman highlights the nature and benefits of familial spirituality as modelled in the New Testament. While western marriages are romance-based, those from a collectivist society are alliance based and for the purpose of producing desired offspring. And in Mediterranean antiquity, the marriage relationship took a back seat to sibling relationships, which in turn formed the basis for group understanding among Yeshua believers.

The chapter goes on to discuss the patrilineal nature of biblical families. Married women remained primarily related to their families of origin through siblings of the same father, while their children became the “property” of their husbands’ families. Their most valuable contribution to their husbands’ families were male offspring. The happiness of bride and groom was a consideration secondary to a marriage that enhanced the honor and the extended family. However, relationally, the most intimate and highly-charged relationship was between siblings.

In such a world, the greatest betrayal was to betray one’s same-father sibling, especially one’s brother and ultimately one’s oldest brother from the same father. Think of what this means for Yeshua-communities. All of us are siblings of the same Father through the same oldest brother (Yeshua). To betray each other is to ultimately disgrace our oldest brother and our Father. For people in Yeshua’s cultural time and place, this was not simply a metaphor. It was gut-level reality. The chapter includes examples from that time and place. 

He finishes chapter talking of principles that prevailed in NT world:

  1. In the NT world, group concerns took priority over individual concerns.
  2. A person’s most important group was his blood family.
  3. The closest family bond was not the bond of marriage but the bond between siblings.
    1. The central value that characterized ancient family relations was the obligation to demonstrate undying loyalty toward one’s blood brothers and sisters.
    1. The most treacherous act of human dishonesty was not disloyalty to one’s spouse. It was betrayal of one’s brother. (50).

What this means is, first of all, that the person perceives him or herself to be a member of a church and responsible to the church for his or her actions, identity, career, development and life in general. . . . The individual person is embedded in the church and is free to do what he or she feels right and necessary only if in accord with the church norms and only if the action is in the church’s best interests. The church has priority over the individual member (41, paraphrasing Bruce Malina, Christian Origins and Cultural Anthropology (Atlanta: John Knox, 1986:19).

All of this hits us hard, because it contradicts our native individualism. Still, consider whether this view of the First Century Mediterranean family illumines some of the teachings of Yeshua, of the Bible, of Paul, and the ways spiritual communities were ordered.

More to come!

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2 comments on “Sefer Shpiel - "When the Church Was a Family" (Chapter Two) Yeshua's Spiritual Family Counseling”

  1. Credibility alert! This description is too pat, too cold, too monolithic. It presumes no differentiation between Hellenistic, Roman, Egyptian, Babylonian, Phoenician, or Israelite cultural values and mores -- all of which were in play within a diverse Roman empire of the first century CE. It certainly dismisses the "romantic" elements of human relational passion as a motivation that we see in various biblical accounts. I begin to perceive a pretext in Hellerman's approach that is nothing less than universalistic uniformity and tyranny, which strikes me as reminiscent of the Hellenism which imposed itself upon Jewish civilization and impelled the Maccabbean uprising. Am I overreacting, Stuart? Or am I inferring accurately Hellerman's implications?

  2. Shades of Yogi Berra! I've got that feeling of déjà vu all over again! Sure enough, a search of this blog's archives finds that Hellerman's book was discussed in October of 2016. In fact, at that time the title of the book was a bit longer, as: "When the Church Was a Family: Recapturing Jesus’ Vision for Authentic Christianity (Nashville: B&H Publishing), 2009". Has the book been reprinted, I wonder, with a shorter version of that title as cited in this current round of discussions?

    As I review that prior discussion in light of the current one, I see reference to later chapters that underscore my sense of concern which I expressed in my prior posting above. I'm not sure if Hellerman's intent is to justify communism and socialism, but I perceive a strong hint of Nicolaitanism and the "shepherding" heresy that appeared some years ago in a number of fellowships. Neither of them is addressed or mitigated by plurality of leadership, particularly if those leaders operate under the delusion that they are "serving" their fellowships by means of their strong top-down directiveness.

    I'd like also to reiterate at least one portion of my response to the prior discussion, regarding the relative strength of consanguineal familial bonds:

    "I also found it somewhat inconsistent that Professor Hellerman noted, as the strongest bond within the family in the New Testament world, that among patrilineal consanguineal siblings, and yet he ignored the parallel of that relationship with that of the extended family of Jews under covenant to HaShem. Thus an expanded family of disciples to Rav Yeshua should be expected to evidence a distinction between Jews and non-Jews that demonstrates a stronger loyalty among Jews than between Jews and non-Jews in a conjoined ecclesial family. Indeed, it begs the question about whether, even today, intra-Jewish loyalty should be expected to overshadow general ecclesial bonds — and possibly also a question about whether it was in this area that even pre-Constantinian “Christianity” (if such a term is not to be considered too anachronistic to be applied to that era) began to go wrong."

    But perhaps this issue is best considered in the context of reviewing later chapters of Hellerman's book.

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