Joseph Hellerman's When the Church Was a Family is foundational for anyone seeking to understand or implement household spirituality. His analysis of biblical and historical materials viewed in the light of against the strong group family are thought-provoking, and his call to implement strong-group ecclesiology is provocative, especially because he presents this not as one choice among others, but rather as the biblical way to do things. He is impassioned, and that is good. But he also comes across as dogmatic. And for me, this is where some problems arise, including one that looms large in my Jewish eyes, threatening to obscure my view of an otherwise thoughtful treatment. That problem is his broad and repeated dismissal of Jewish thought, practice, and covenantal identity, and his monocultural naiveté, and supersessionist ecclesiological assumptions, all of which skew the way he sees the biblical text.
Sadly, his reflexive dismissal of Jewish thought is widespread in Christian theologizing, and for Hellerman, it pops up periodically, like a whale surfacing to blow off carbon dioxide and to take in oxygen. Like so many other Christian “whales,” Hellerman assumes his distorted views of the Jewish people, their leaders, and tradition is axiomatic to what the Bible has to say. In the process, he is unaware that he is only recycling a series of old, discredited, and insulting viewpoints. This is what I term soft-core theological anti-Judaism.
For example, he says this:
The Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day thought they had God all figured out. They did not need anyone to tell them what God was like. They already knew God, so they assumed, wanted clear-cut social boundaries to place between Jews and Gentiles, between “good” and “bad” Jews (tax collectors and sinners), between men and women, between rich and poor, between educated and uneducated and so forth.
Putting––and keeping––people in their places gave the Jewish leadership of Jesus’ day the kind of security they needed to make sense of their world by preserving social and ethnic distinctions and to safeguard their positions of power and privilege (60).
Don’t miss how he portrays the Judaism and Jewish religious leaders of Jesus' day. He has nothing positive to say about them. Frankly, this comes across as nasty, although Hellerman is unaware of that because this is all he knows. To all of this, Jesus’ verdict might be, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they say.” The religious leaders of Israel are here set up as a foil. In order for Jesus to be right, the religious leaders of Israel have to be wrong. In order for him to be loving, accepting, and caring, they must be seen as indifferent, judgmental, and smug. And it’s perfectly acceptable to lay it on thick.
Hellerman assumes that his dismissal of the Jewish leaders and their religion has the very best pedigree. And so he writes, “(Jesus) adamantly rejected the Pharisees’ purity laws” (209). This he offers not as an interpretation with lots of hermeneutical baggage, but as a certitude. More soft-core theological anti-Judaism previously mentioned.
Such soft-core, non-violent supersessionism forms the elevator music of his ecclesiology when Hellerman speaks of “the new covenant family of God” (176), where I detect discontinuity with the Jewish people as the enduring people of God. This discontinuity and replacement people of God is again evident in his exegesis of Ephesians two. He writes,
The phrase ‘one new man’ is of course a collective expression referring to the church. Again, salvation is a community creating event. . . . Yet, Paul’s summary here says nothing about the individual relationships with God that resulted when all these Jews and Gentiles got saved (131).
His ecclesiology then is of a new people of God comprised of Jew and Gentile saved by faith in Jesus Christ. Somehow the Jews as a continuing chosen people are lost in the shadows. Like much of Christendom, Hellerman does not appear to know precisely what to do with the Jewish people.
And now, some concerns, not from my perspective as a Jew, but as a missiologist.
In his Conclusion, his argument for robust boundaries shows him to have a bounded set perspective, insisting on a well-defined behavioral and doctrinal boundary line between those who are in God’s group and those who are out. That he holds such a view is not surprising because he is a baby boomer. But in his commendable zeal for his commitments, he misses how here and in other ways it is his own cultural imprinting which strengthens his certitude about what Scripture is saying, and about the right way to see and do things.
For those of us working in the Jewish world, particularly in working with millennials, the monocultural tenor of Hellerman’s book calls for caution, especially in view of the soft-core theological anti-Judiasm and supersessionism previously noted.
Such caution applies to other cultural contexts as well. I came away asking if it wouldn’t be both naïve and counterproductive to apply his prescriptions with equal force and fervor to all age groups and cultures. From a missiological viewpoint, it seems to escape his notice that there are some cultures where his approach would be evangelistically sterile due to his insistence on the strong-group model, with its well-defined rejection of one’s family or origin for the new family of the people of God.
In addition, current missiological reflection, especially by my mentor and friend R. Daniel Shaw, has demonstrated what happens when culture groups accept a gospel which imposes upon them another culture pattern as God’s will for them. While the missionary may exact compliance, within a generation or so what we have is nominalism because when people wear the missionary’s suggested culture as their garment, their inner being remains both unaddressed and unconvinced. The life of faith becomes play-acting.
If he is right that Scripture demands that all of us embrace the kind of strong-group culture he commends as the core of our ecclesiology, then we have some struggling to do. But if he is overly dogmatic and monocultural on these issues, then this calls for caution, rethinking, and a missional flexibility lacking in this treatment.
For a video commentary linked to this blog, see https://youtu.be/Ifu2jQYb5v4