The Paroikos Bible Blog exists as a resource to those interested in Biblical studies and Koine Greek. It is hoped that this blog will simultaneously provide food-for-thought to the reader while pointing him or her in the direction of valuable resources, both in print and on the internet, that will further help his or her studies in the Word.

Jan 17, 2011

The Church as Community, the Church as Family: Some thoughts stemming from reading John H. Elliott’s A Home for the Homeless

It has been roughly 21 years since John H. Elliott first published his influential treatment of 1 Peter entitled A Home for the Homeless: A Social-Scientific Criticism of I Peter, its Situation and Strategy. Elliott’s social-scientific approach to 1 Peter basically argued that “the addressees of 1 Peter were paroikoi by virtue of their social condition, not by virtue of their ‘heavenly home.’ The alternative to this marginal social condition of which 1 Peter speaks is not an ephemeral ‘heaven is our home’ form of consolation but the new home and social family to which the Christians belong here and now; namely, the oikos tou theou” (Elliott, 130; all citations from Elliott taken from the 2005 publication of Home for the Homeless).
Elliott’s approach to 1 Peter has, of course, resulted in many critics, most notably Moses Chin, “A Heavenly Home for the Homeless” (Chin’s discussion of the terminology in the LXX is excellent, though I believe his emphasis on Philo is significantly less relevant since Philo’s lexical usage can hardly be the norm for Koine Greek, even for Jewish authors). Furthermore, I am not totally convinced of Elliott’s thesis, and, together with Chin, would see considerable more overlap between the paroikoi and parepidemoi of 1 Pet 2:11 (see Chin, 110).
Nevertheless, in my opinion there is much practical good that can be drawn from Elliott’s work, regardless of how accurate his thesis is and despite the over-emphasis on a comparative religion approach later in his book. Elliott’s focus on the church’s social identity in 1 Peter is integral to a proper understanding of the church. On p. 118, Elliott states, “In 1 Peter various aspects of this issue [“the nature of their distinctive communal identity”] are given particular attention: (1) the distinctiveness of the Christians; (2) their communal structure and common commitments; and (3) the status of these strangers in respect to society on the one hand and God on the other. All three aspects of the issue of identity are related” (emphasis is Elliott’s). Elsewhere he states that 1 Peter “speaks of the recipients as members of a clearly defined, divinely prescribed community: the elect and holy people of God brought into being by the activity of God the Father, the Holy Spirit and Jesus Christ. To the public they were known as the ‘Christians.’ Separated from the rest of society through a voluntary termination of, and conversion from, past family, social and religious ties, theirs was a familial-like community or brotherhood defined by a unique faith in Jesus as the Christ, as the agent of the salvation for which they hope” (p. 75).

Naturally Elliott’s statements are tied closely to his belief that the audience of 1 Peter consisted of those who were socially displaced before conversion, a thesis of which I am not totally convinced, although I agree with Karen Jobes when she states, “The nature and extant of the ‘foreigner’ metaphor in 1 Peter are better explained if it was triggered by a real event or experience instead of just being pulled out of thin air” (Jobes, 39). Nevertheless, as a missionary kid from Japan who has never truly had a settled home in the United States, I can appreciate his emphasis on the social identity of a body of believers as well his apt title for the book, A Home for the Homeless. The local church has, to a very real extent, become my home while in America; indeed, ecclesiological identity has, to some degree, eclipsed both national and family identity.

Here, then, is how I believe the modern Christian can benefit from some of Elliott’s insights on 1 Peter (insights which, I believe, appropriately reflect the inspired author’s intent). Too often the focus in Christians circles has been “the world is not my home, for heaven is my home.” Should not, instead, the focus be, “This world is not my home, for the church is my home”? Consider the grand terms of social identity used in 1 Peter 2:9—“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own” (NET; and yes, we’ll get to the second half of that verse in just a minute), terminology that applies to the here and now rather than the future. Granted, Paul says in Philippians 3:20 that “our citizenship is in heaven” (NET), but as Paul indicates in the very next line, he still has in mind both our current state (we are still currently awaiting a Savior) and the future (we will be transformed). Thus the point remains that we currently possess a citizenship, and our fellow citizens are in our local church. It is with them, fellow believers in Christ, that we form this “holy nation” while on earth. Thus the local church becomes the primary social construct for every believer and should naturally take precedence over all other forms of relationship. It is not insignificant that Christ Himself said that his true brothers and sisters consisted of those who do the will of the Father rather than blood kinship (Matthew 12:46-50).

Practically, then, the church should be more than a “club” and certainly more than merely a place of worship as we so often treat it. The church is a place where we mingle with our fellow citizens in Christ, fellowshipping, edifying, encouraging, and even rebuking. The local church should represent a family gathering (a good one!) more than anything else.

Naturally, we cannot stop there. The whole purpose of being “a holy nation” is so that we might “may proclaim the virtues of the one who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (NET). This alone should be enough to keep us from the “fortress” mentality of many churches that fail to adequately reach out to those around them. The point of 1 Peter is not “us against the world” but rather “us, a community in Christ, and let’s try to get some more to join us.” The church is indeed, to hijack Elliott’s title, a “home for the homeless,” and one can only join when one realizes how truly “homeless” they are without Christ.

One more point: a proper view of one’s local church as community or family puts church discipline in its proper perspective. I believe I can truly state that currently one of the greatest punishments I can think of for any unrepentant sin I might fall into would be the state of being isolated from my family, being treated as a true outsider (cf. 1 Cor. 5:11-13).

There are, of course, legitimate reasons for leaving one’s local church (a new job in a different state being one of many), but the act of leaving one’s church should essentially feel as if one were leaving their family.

In conclusion: although no church should exist completely isolated from the world, secure in its fortress, and though I believe all churches should be active in assisting those in need (both locally and oversees) and proclaiming the Gospel wherever there is an opportunity, there is a very real sense in which, to use the words of Stanely Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, “it is the nature of the church, at any time and in any situation, to be a colony . . . in the middle of an alien culture” (p. 12) Any time the church has become too associated with the secular state, any time the church has become indistinguishable from a larger national culture, any time the church has become “too mainstream,” in those instances the church has suffered an identity crisis. The church on earth, both local and universal, remains a nation, a family, and a society distinct from any secular creation. As Elliott points out, without denying the eschatological focus of 1 Peter, “This home and the communal experience of salvation which it signifies . . . are already in the community which is ‘in Christ’ (3:16; 5:10, 14) . . . the achievement of [the Christian’s eschatological] future reward (5:4) is everywhere linked to, and dependent upon, the believers’ maintenance of the bonds of their brotherhood here and now” (p. 130)

Works cited: 
Chin, Moses. “A Heavenly Home for the Homeless: Aliens and Strangers in 1 Peter." Tyndale Bulletin 42 (May 1991): 96-112.        
 Elliott, John H. A Home for the Homeless: A Social-Scientific Criticism of I Peter, its Situation and Strategy. Eugene, Oreg.: Wipf&Stock, 1990.
          Hauerwas, Stanely and William H. Willimon. Resident Aliens: A Provocative Christian Assessment of Culture and Ministry for People Who Know that Something is Wrong. Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon, 1989.
           Jobes, Karen H. 1 Peter. The Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2005.
         New English Translation. Online@http://net.bible.org/bible.php


  1. I know this is an old post, Paul, but I have only recently become acquainted with your blog. Anyway, I really appreciate your thoughts here, as they coincide with several streams of thought that I have followed for some time. I would be interested in sitting down with you to discuss a few of them with you.

    1. Thanks, Paul, I appreciate the thought. Looking forward to getting together with you sometime this Fall.