Radical Individualism and the Church as Family

Mental health professionals are now recognizing a truth taught throughout the Scriptures—emotional healing and spiritual growth occur primarily in the context of interpersonal relationships. People who run away from uncomfortable or downright painful relationships almost invariably repeat the cycle of dysfunction with the next person or the next generation (or the next church) down the line. Those, on the other hand, who stay and courageously engage with others are the ones who grow in their self-understanding and in their abilities to relate to God and to their fellow human beings. Community is, in a word, redemptive. None of this is terribly novel. We all know it to be the case. Why, then, do we constantly sabotage our most intimate relationships, seek help from others only after the damage is irreversible, and continue to try to find our way through life as isolated individuals, convinced somehow that God will be with us to lead us and bless us wherever we go? Why are we increasingly unable to stay in relationship, stay in community, and grow in those interpersonal contexts which God has specifically provided for our eternal well-being?

Some might attribute the relational crises characterizing our churches solely to individual sin and selfishness. Sin and selfishness, however, have been around since Adam. Why the radical increase in relational breakdown in our society and in our churches today? Something bigger is in the works, and it has to do with the unique orientation of modern Western culture, especially contemporary American society. Ours is a culture which insists to its own destruction that the dreams, goals, and personal fulfillment of the individual deserve a higher priority than the well-being of any group (natural family or church body) or relationship (friendship or marriage) in an individual’s life.

The incessant failures of marriage after marriage, along with the repeated unwillingness of persons to stay in the local church in order to grow through relational conflict, are only superficially due to individual sin and selfishness. Our culture has powerfully socialized us to believe that our individual happiness and fulfillment must take precedence over our relationships with others in our families and in our churches. And it is precisely the influence that this radically individualist worldview exerts upon American evangelical Christians which best explains our struggle to keep relationships together in the body of Christ. The tune of radical individualism has been playing in our ears at full volume for decades. We are dancing to the music with gusto. And it is costing us dearly.

If you are in a position of church leadership, you likely share my frustration with the foolish and destructive choices our people make as they interact with others in the body of Christ. We teach and preach the truth, our people learn the truth, but so many of us, leaders and followers alike, make utterly selfish and wrongheaded choices in the most important area of our lives—our relationships with significant others.

I count myself fortunate to serve as a co-pastor in a vibrant Christian church, where we consistently emphasize the inviolable maxim that genuine spiritual growth occurs primarily in the context of community. We have in place an extensive support and accountability network to help our people grow in their abilities to relate to others in a healthy way at home and in the church. Our fellowship is average in size. Some two hundred adults, along with their children, attend on a given Sunday. But not a month goes by in which I am not summoned to intervene in some kind of interpersonal crisis at Oceanside Christian Fellowship. Sadly, much of the pastoral intervention we do has little lasting effect upon the health of the relationships involved. In spite of the counsel and support we offer, people typically insist on going it alone along their own individualistic, highly destructive pathways.

Radical Individualism and a Church in Crisis

American evangelicals have increasingly moved away from maintaining long-term commitments to their local churches. We have chosen, instead, to focus upon experiencing God at the individual level. We have become convinced, as George Barna recently observed, "that spiritual enlightenment comes from diligence in a discovery process, rather than commitment to a faith group and perspective" (The Second Coming of the Church).

As our theologians will wisely remind us, we cannot compromise biblical truth in one area without affecting other doctrines, as well. The various truths of the Bible are profoundly and perfectly intertwined. We should not be surprised, then, to discover that our attempts to exchange the New Testament’s community-centered approach to the Christian life for our culture’s individualistic view of spiritual formation have, in turn, subtly skewed our conception of God. God has now been recast in the role of a divine therapist who aids the individual Christian in his or her personal quest for spiritual enlightenment and self-discovery. And Jesus, in the final analysis, has become little more than a “personal savior.” So, if I am a product of my culture, I take my personal savior from church to church and from marriage to marriage, desperately hoping that I can somehow improve the quality of my life by escaping the immediate pain which often clouds the redemptive relationships that God has placed me in.

All of this, of course, blatantly betrays the central New Testament image of the church as a surrogate family of brothers and sisters. A person does not grow up by running from family to family. This is self-evident in our natural families, and we know it to be true of our church families, as well. Yet we offer few prophetic challenges to the subjective, individualistic distortion of biblical Christianity which holds much of the evangelical church in America in its grip. On the contrary, the orientation of many of our ministries actually encourages our people to view their walk with Christ in decidedly individualistic terms.

The one event preeminently identified with the word “church” in most congregations—the one by which the success of a local church is typically measured (the Sunday service)—finds our people seated side-by-side, facing forward, with little or no interpersonal interaction with persons to the right or to the left.  A fellow sitting next to me in Sunday church might have lost his job—or his spouse—that very week. Tragically, however, I would never know it.

We have discovered, moreover, that a most successful approach in evangelizing a whole generation of persons (baby boomers) who attend these large-group meetings is to communicate the gospel in such a way as to assure the seeker that the primary purpose for God’s power and presence in her life is to help her to achieve her relational and vocational goals, to relieve her stress, to give her joy and peace—all at the personal level. The result is that both the context (the Sunday setting) and the content (“God wants to meet my needs”) of church as we know it in American today often serve only to reinforce the individualistic orientation of the dominant culture.

Many small groups also foster the cult of individualism, since they tend to develop around felt needs. You attend to receive help with a particular problem or life stage. It is very easy for an attitude to develop that thinks in terms of "the group for me" rather than "me for the group." This is particularly so if the group is, or is perceived as, therapeutic in nature. When the group no longer meets your needs or expectations, you leave (The Church Comes Home).

My intention here is not to disparage small groups. I believe that the home-group movement offers a promising potential corrective to our individualistic worldview and, in turn, a promising potential encouragement to lasting, healthy relationships in the body of Christ. Small groups can provide the context in which to experience community as God intends it. But this small-group environment must be constructed on the bedrock of solid biblical ecclesiology.  The church today must once again become a family in the New Testament sense of the word.

When the Church was a Family

No image for the church occurs more often in the New Testament than the metaphor of family.  References abound to believers as siblings (“brothers” and “sisters”) and to God as the “Father” of his people. And no image offers as much promise as “family” for recapturing the relational integrity of first-century Christianity for our churches today. Kinship in Mediterranean antiquity was understood differently, however, than we conceive of family today, and it is important for us to be aware of these differences in order to properly appreciate what the New Testament writers had in mind when they pictured the church as a surrogate family. In the balance of the article I will touch upon what I consider to be the two most significant differences between family then and now, drawing application where appropriate to the New Testament idea of the church as a surrogate family of brothers and sisters in Christ.

Sibling Solidarity:  I Am My Brother’s Keeper

Perhaps the most counterintuitive (to us) aspect of Mediterranean kinship has to do with the family relationship that ancient people valued the most.  In our social world, a person’s spouse ideally functions as (a) her central locus of relational loyalty and (b) her main source of emotional and material support.  Correspondingly, most Americans expect their closest relational bond to be the bond of marriage, and we build our families around that marriage relationship.  What is so familiar to us, however, was not true of ancient society, where family was built not around marriage but was, instead, based on blood.

In the New Testament world, a person viewed as family those persons with whom he shared a common patriline—a bloodline traced from generation to generation solely through the male line.  Due to the patrilineal nature of the Mediterranean family, only a father could pass family membership down to the next generation.  A mother could not. A male therefore regarded as immediate family (a) his father (from whom he had received his blood), (b) his brothers and sisters (with whom he shared  his blood), and (c) offspring of both genders (to whom he passed on his blood).

The Bible also bears witness to this enduring cultural value. Jesus, for example, places the act of leaving one’s siblings at the forefront of the relational sacrifices made by some of his followers:

Peter said to him, “We have left everything to follow you!”  “I tell you the truth,” Jesus replied, “no-one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields--and with them, persecutions) and in the age to come, eternal life” (Mark 10:28-30).

The same priority is reflected somewhat differently in a passage from Matthew. In Matthew 10:21, Jesus lists the inevitable relational chaos that will result from his call to radical discipleship.  Since the most important relationship in Jesus' world is the bond between blood brothers, it only follows that discord between siblings constitutes the worst family tragedy imaginable.  This is precisely what we find at the beginning of Jesus’ list:  “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death.”  It might help to recall, at this point, the numerous Old Testament narratives that describe various incidents of brother betrayal (Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, and so on).  Such stories captured the imagination of their readers precisely because ancient persons felt so strongly about the need for harmony among siblings.

From Theory to Practice:  Brotherly Love in Action

Sibling solidarity, as the ancients understood it (and as the early Christians envisioned it and often practiced it in their churches), included a whole complex of associated expectations and responsibilities. Siblings shared material resources with one another, and a person’s brothers and sisters provided the first line of defense against the ever-present threat of economic hardship (Acts 2:43-47; 1 John 3:17). To fail to share in times of need was to betray a brother after the analogy of Cain (1 John 3:10-17). Brothers and sisters also challenged one another to take responsibility for actions which were inappropriate among persons who viewed themselves as family (Matthew 18:15-20). Siblings were, nevertheless, ever-willing to restore a repentant brother to normal family relations (Matthew 18:21-35).

The world of the New Testament was a social environment, moreover, in which a male generally sought revenge for every interpersonal affront or injustice, in order to defend his public honor—except in dealings with siblings, where honor was always extended but never defended (Romans 12:10).  It was a shameful thing, therefore, for a brother to seek compensation for some real or perceived fraternal offense through litigation in the public courts.  As Paul admonished the family of God at Corinth, “The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated?  Instead, you yourselves cheat and do wrong, and you do this to your brothers” (6:7-8).

Finally, siblings in antiquity enjoyed a strong sense of emotional bonding.  In the New Testament, we see this most clearly in the connections that Paul experienced with his brothers and sisters in the family of God.  Paul claims, for example, to have the Philippians in his “heart.”  He longs for them all “with the affection of Christ Jesus” (1:7-8).  Later in the letter he exhorts, “Therefore, my beloved brethren whom I long to see, my joy and crown, so stand firm in the Lord, my beloved” (4:1).

At another point in his ministry, Paul sent to Timothy to Thessalonica to inquire about the well-being of the church he had recently established.  Later, when he received Timothy’s good report, Paul was so overjoyed that he could hardly contain himself in his reply to this young congregation.  The emotional bonding Paul experienced with his siblings in the faith is patently clear:

[Timothy] has told us that you always have pleasant memories of us and that you long to see us, just as we also long to see you.  Therefore, brothers, in all our distress and persecution we were encouraged about you because of your faith.  For now we really live, since you are standing firm in the Lord. - 1 Thess. 3:6-8

All of the above corresponds, interestingly enough, to modern genetic research.  Social scientists have identified a direct correlation between altruistic behavior among relatives, on the one hand, and the number of genes shared by these persons, on the other.  Siblings share more of the genetic code than any persons of the same generation (50%), and they typically exhibit a closer relational bond, where altruistic behavior is concerned, than any other family relation.  It is no wonder, then, that Jesus, who created us to function in precisely this way, chose the sibling bond—“you are all brothers” (Matt. 23:8)—to define the quality of relationships he envisioned for his community of followers.  The New Testament metaphor of “brothers and sisters in Christ” would have strongly resonated with persons in the ancient world.

The family metaphor, moreover, offers great hope for restoring relational integrity and evangelistic power to our churches today.  The early Christians intentionally organized their local congregations around the relational values outlined above, and these churches reproduced themselves and swept through the pagan empire of Rome like a holy fire.  Even pagan detractors identified fraternal love as something especially Christian:  “See,” Tertullian quotes the unbeliever as exclaiming, “how they love one another!” (Apology 39.8).  We in the evangelical church today have much to learn from the New Testament family metaphor, as we seek to recapture the New Testament ideal of the church as a surrogate family in order to bring genuine hope for healthy relationships to a broken and dysfunctional world.


Joe Hellerman (Ph.D.) lives in Hermosa Beach, California, with Joann, his wife of 31 years. He teaches New Testament Greek at Talbot Seminary and serves as a team pastor at Oceanside Christian Fellowship in El Segundo. He is the author of two books: When the Church was a Family and Embracing Shared Ministry.


Read more free articles on community: The Un-American Church by Brent Thomas and Do Friends and Ministry Mix by Jake Chambers.

Also, read Gospel Amnesia by Luma Simms.