When the Church Was a Family: Part FOUR
Can we recapture in our churches today Jesus’ vision for authentic Christian community, as reflected in the strong-group, surrogate family model that characterized the early church? I believe we can, with a healthy dose of careful reflection and culturally sensitive contextualization.
First of all, what I am advocating here is a markedly relational approach to Christian community, not the institutional model that most of us associate with the word “church.” I suspect, in fact, that our natural aversion as Westerners toward the idea of a strong-group church finds its origins in the institutional nature of our own church experiences. For the early Christians, belonging to a local church was a commitment to a group of people—not a commitment to a highly programmed institution driven by Western ideologies of corporate management and success measured solely by numerical growth. First and foremost, then, we must return to the concept and practice of “church” as a relational entity.
As inspiring as it is, moreover, the North African scenario related in the previous installment will likely prove exceptional in one important sense. Most of what you and I will experience by remaining in community with our brothers and sisters in a strong-group, family setting will not involve decisions handed down through the channels of formal church leadership, as was the case for Cyprian, Eucratius, and Marcus. Rather, the benefits will accrue informally, in the course of daily life, as we work through conflict, share victories, and endure heartaches together in those relationships that inevitably develop and bear fruit among Christians who determine to stick it out in community together. And this elicits a second observation.
Commitment to such a group must remain a decision that is made by each individual member, not one imposed from above. And it will be a decision that will need to be renewed in our minds on an almost daily basis. Our friend Marcus had little choice in the matter. He would either assent to the church’s demands to shut down his acting school or lose his place in the community. We have other options. We can simply leave one church to attend another congregation across town.
We must choose, instead, to stay. For people who stay grow. And people who stay help others to grow, as well. But we had better prepare ourselves at the outset to make the choice to stay, again and again, in the face of cultural pressures—pressures often reinforced by the raging whirlpool of our own emotions—that are screaming for us to do otherwise.
Finally, all ultimately depends upon the willingness of church leaders to teach and, especially, to model a strong-group, surrogate family approach to Christian community. It is hardly accidental that every local congregation in the New Testament (the Jerusalem church is a debatable exception) is led by a plurality of pastors-elders-overseers (the words are interchangeable), not a single or senior pastor figure.
This is an important observation for readers who fear that a strong-group church might turn into an abusive cult. God has woven safeguards against such abuse deeply into the fabric of biblical community—safeguards related to the number of church leaders and the nature of church leadership, respectively. For from what we can tell, each New Testament congregation was governed by a plurality of elders who were to exercise their authority as servants of their brothers and sisters in Christ.
The result? No single individual would exercise cult-like authority over the church as a whole, and surrogate family values would be modeled for the rest of the congregation among a community of pastor-elders at the top level of church leadership. Such modeling will prove indispensable to the realization of family values and behaviors in our churches today, as I have discovered in my own congregation, where the surrogate family orientation of a team of pastors has profoundly influenced the relational ethos of our church as a whole.
Conversely, the American evangelical model of the CEO pastor who functions as a spiritual father to his congregation and as a business executive with his staff— but who relates to no one in the church as a peer brother in Christ—will only serve to undermine any attempts to recapture Jesus’ vision for authentic Christian community. For a leader who has no true “brothers” in the congregation will be unable authentically and credibly to challenge others to live together in community as surrogate siblings.
A return to the church as God intended will begin therefore, as is often the case, with a transformation of values and behaviors among those who lead God’s people.