Book Review

The problem with our American individualism

Joseph Hellerman’s book 'When the Church Was a Family'

May 24, 2019

Americans still pride themselves on their independence. But what if our individualism has distorted what Christ meant for the church?

Joseph H. Hellerman, a professor of New Testament and a pastor of a local church, believes American individualism has infected our understanding of what a church is supposed to be and how a church is supposed to function. Hellerman’s book, When the Church Was a Family, takes a hard look at how the early church was radically different from most Americans’ experience with church. Writing to pastors and church leaders, Hellerman desires to offer a biblical and historical model that our current churches might become healthier and more familial.

Familial cultures

Hellerman begins by critiquing the American ideal of individualism and examining other cultures who value the group over the individual. In doing so, he lays a foundation for readers to understand the world in which Jesus lived as well as the context in which his disciples established the early church. In the ancient world, the group took priority over the individual. Family, specifically patrilineal relationships, “demanded the highest commitment of undivided loyalty, relational solidarity, and personal sacrifice of any social entity in Jesus’ strong-group Mediterranean world. And major life decisions were made in the context of the family” (31).

Even though this might make the independent American bristle, Hellerman argues that our “freedoms, as intoxicating and exhilarating as they often are, have pushed us over the edge emotionally. We are reaping the consequences of decisions that were never meant to be made—and lives that were never meant to be lived—in isolation” (29). Our independence affects our own health but also America’s churches’ health as well.

Saved into a family

When a new believer converted to Christianity in the first or second centuries, he was welcomed into a new family—the family of God—and this family took precedence over his natural family and his own independence. An American Christian might claim allegiance to God, family, church, and others, in that order of priority, but in the New Testament church loyalty to this new family was so strong that there was not a difference between a commitment to God and a commitment to God’s family. An unchurched Christian would not have existed in the New Testament world.

The early church had big demands on new converts in all areas of life. They were expected to forsake their biological family, share their resources, give up ungodly lifestyles, and make decisions in their lives for the good of the church. When we compare this to our churches’ current demands on people—come as you are; give what you want; and feel comfortable while you’re here—it seems counterintuitive that the early church was the one that was thriving. But Hellerman points out it wasn’t just the doctrine of the early church that attracted people, it was also the way the church lived. Their community, which so closely represented a family, drew people to the early church.

Our independent mindframe has even affected our understanding of salvation. Hellerman critiques use of the term “personal savior.” He argues thats this term is absent from the Bible and is wholly unhelpful in understanding how our salvation places us in a new family. “The saving work of Christ,” he writes, “therefore has a corporate, as well as an individual, dimension” (96). We are saved into community, into a new family. We must understand that salvation reconciles us horizontally and vertically. If I think back to every church youth event I’ve ever been to, Hellerman’s problem with using the expression personal savior makes sense. I know of a lot of commitments to a personal savior that cost so little and didn’t last much longer than a week beyond the end of the event.

Hellerman ends his argument by showing how Jesus gave the church a model for leadership. With God alone as the father of the church family, a plurality of servant-leaders provides accountability for the pastors providing a safeguard protect the family from abuse, from leaders using their platform for fame, and from false teaching. But it also is a model for the church to see relational health and maturity.

Potential problems

There are a few parts of When the Church Was a Family that may be problematic to readers. In a book focused on the church, Hellerman doesn’t spend any time on covenant membership. He stresses the importance of commitment and sticking around even when relationships get messy, but in our transient and consumeristic culture, a covenant membership reminds members that they are a family.

Additionally, Hellerman’s conclusion that “relational environments in our churches must take precedence over our larger weekly gatherings” downplays the importance of the corporate weekly gathering where the church experiences the preaching of the Word, psalms and spiritual songs, prayer, and other means of grace. Hellerman also shares an anecdote about a man who was part of his church’s worship team for a year before he came to salvation. These problems don’t negate the benefits of the book though. Our churches do need to look more like the New Testament church and Hellerman has provided a helpful framework for church leaders.

Jesus asked his followers to forsake their strong biological familial relationships for a new family—the family of believers—led by their father, God. For a church to be a family, a church body should share resources and emotions, stick around even when relationships are hard, and make decisions in the context of how it affects the church family, not just the individual. The cost is high. Our churches would do well to consider where our practices and relationships are elevating the individual rather than drawing our members closer together for the glory of God and the sanctification of each other. When the Church Was a Family is quite the challenging read, not because of its syntax or semantics, but because the message is just that convicting.

Jessica Burke

Jessica Burke is married to her high school sweetheart, and they have four children. The Burkes lived in Skopje, Macedonia, as missionaries for three years before moving to North Carolina where Jessica’s husband is a chaplain at a local jail and a pastor. A former public school teacher, Jessica home educates her … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24