When the Church Was a Family: PART TWO [of FOUR]
Early Christian communities, moreover, represented a specific kind of strong-group entity. Historians have struggled for generations to situate early Christianity in its social world. Were the local Jesus communities in antiquity socially analogous to Jewish synagogues? To Greco-Roman voluntary associations? To Hellenistic philosophical schools, perhaps? In each case, parallels do obtain. As it turns out, though, a more satisfactory explanation lies much closer to home, so to speak.
The social model which best accounts for the relational expectations reflected in our New Testament epistles—and for the social solidarity of the church in the Roman world in the centuries to follow—is the Mediterranean family. Most of us are familiar with the surrogate kinship language (“brother,” “sister,” “Father,” “child,” “inheritance”) that permeates the New Testament. “Family” remained the dominant metaphor for Christian social organization in the writings of the Church Fathers, as well.
We will need to combine (a) the strong-group orientation of the church during the New Testament era with (b) the early Christian conception of the local church as a surrogate kingship group, in order to grasp the idea that a local Jesus community in the ancient world functioned ideally as a strong-group, surrogate family. Since strong-group family life is so foreign to our own social world, it will prove helpful to illustrate a key difference between ancient and modern family systems by recourse to a popular film of a decade or so ago.
Many of us saw the 1998 blockbuster movie, Titanic. You may recall the heroine’s dilemma. Rose was a high-society girl engaged to be married to an arrogant, distasteful fellow for whom she felt no affection. In a memorable scene Rose’s mother reminds her daughter that the arranged marriage is in the best interest of her family. It seems that Rose’s father had died after squandering away his fortune, so for Rose’s mother and her family the impending marriage represents the only hope of maintaining their wealth and preserving their social status. Rose has been set up with a man she detests in order to guarantee an honorable future for the group, her extended family.
But then one evening Rose meets a street kid named Jack on the deck of the ship, and the encounter ignites the flame of a romantic fling that serves as the main story-line for the rest of the movie. Rose is caught in a quandary. She loves Jack. But she is engaged to a highly unappealing man whom she is obligated to marry for the sake of her family. Whom will Rose choose?
Jack, of course. If Rose had chosen otherwise, the film simply would not have worked for the tens of millions of American viewers who followed the tragic tale. We are quite unmoved by the potential social dilemma confronting Rose’s extended family. Our sympathies lie, rather, with the heroine’s own personal satisfaction. As I watched Titanic, I could almost hear the thoughts running through the heads of the viewers in the theater: Forget your family’s fortune, Rose! Ignore your mother’s wishes! Dump the rich jerk! Follow your heart! Go after Jack!
What I want us to see here is that Titanic’s love-story would not be well received in cultures like those of the New Testament world. If Titanic were shown in first-century Palestine with Aramaic subtitles, the audience would be utterly appalled to discover that Rose would even consider sacrificing the good of her extended family for her own relational satisfaction. They would find Rose’s fling with Jack both risky and foolish. First-century Jews and Christians alike would expect Rose to marry the rich fellow, if such an arrangement could somehow preserve the honor and social-status of Rose’s extended family.
Among persons in the world of the New Testament, the group came first—especially if that group was one’s family. Abandon my natural family in pursuit of personal relational satisfaction? Abandon my church family in pursuit of a church experience that might better address my felt needs? Such behaviors were not even on the radar screen of persons in the early Christian church. [To be continued]