by Joseph Hellerman
Church was unquestionably no afterthought for the early Christians. A comparison of first-century values to the convictions and behaviors characteristic of modern evangelicalism proves quite revealing. Due to the individualistic tendencies of our culture, and the correspondingly loose connection in our thinking between soteriology and ecclesiology, it is not uncommon to encounter persons who claim to be followers of Jesus but who remain unconnected to a local faith community.
In contrast, we do not find an unchurched Christian in the New Testament. Nor do we find one in the ensuing generations of early church history. It is not hard to see why this is the case in light of what happens from God’s perspective when we come to Christ. Paul and the other New Testament writers made it quite clear that getting saved and becoming a member of the people of God are inseparable, simultaneous events: “For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor 12:13).
In the New Testament era a person was not saved for the sole purpose of enjoying a personal relationship with God. Indeed, the phrase “personal relationship with God” is found nowhere in the Bible. According to the New Testament, a person is saved to community. Salvation includes membership in God’s group. We are saved “into one body,” as the above passage from 1 Corinthians indicates. Or, when we get a new Father we also get a new set of brothers and sisters. In Scripture salvation is a community-creating event. As Cyprian of Carthage expressed it using yet another pair of family metaphors, “You cannot have God for your Father unless you have the church for your Mother.”
In the Gospels we often find Jesus challenging people to leave their families and follow Him. But following Jesus in the first century could never be reduced to a subjective, individual experience like a “personal relationship with God.” In the collectivist mind-set of antiquity, following an individual had a distinctly social dimension—it meant joining his group. For Jesus’ disciples this meant loosening the bonds of loyalty to one’s natural family in order to unite with God’s eternal family.
Paul and others in the early church accurately replicated Jesus’ teachings about God’s group when they shared the gospel in the eastern Roman Empire. To follow Jesus meant to join Jesus’ community. The thought that one could somehow acquire a “personal relationship with God” outside the faith family—and remain an “unchurched Christian”—was simply inconceivable to those whose lives had been de ned from birth by the groups to which they belonged. To become a Christian was to change groups, plain and simple.
Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from Joseph Hellerman’s When the Church Was a Family.
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