The early Christians in Acts and in the first centuries of Christianity had a markedly different perspective on how "church" works than do we modern-day, individualistic readers. Jesus' early followers were convinced that the group came first—that I as an individual will become
all God wants me to be only when I begin to view my goals, desires, and relational needs as secondary to what God is doing through his people, the local church. The group, not the individual, took priority in a believer's life.
Consider, for example, the teachings of Cyprian (bishop of Carthage, circa 250) about the Lord's Prayer (Matthew 6:9–13; Luke 11:2–4): "We do not say: 'My Father, who art in heaven,' nor 'Give me this day my bread,' nor does each one ask that only his debt be forgiven him and that he be led not into temptation and that he be delivered from evil from himself alone. Our prayer is public and common, and when we pray, we pray not for one but for the whole people, because we, the whole people, are one."
Early Christian communities, moreover, represented a specific kind of group: they functioned as a family. Kinship language (brother, sister, Father, child, inheritance) permeates the New Testament. Family is the dominant metaphor for the church in the writings of the church
fathers. Spiritual formation occurs primarily in the context of community. If we're really serious about spiritual formation, then we must become really serious about creating church communities that act like real families.
Joseph H. Hellerman is a professor of New Testament language and literature at Talbot School of Theology and is copastor at Oceanside Christian Fellowship in El Segundo, California. His books include The Ancient Church as Family, Jesus and the People of God, and
When the Church Was a Family.
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