Called to be brothers and sisters

My maternal grandfather belonged to ‘The Brethren’. The Brethren trace their origins to Dublin, where several groups of Christians met informally to celebrate the Lord’s Supper together in 1827-1828. In some ways the Brethren could be likened to a ‘renewal’ movement within the wider church of God. Sadly, however, they consciously turned their backs upon the established churches with their paid ministers, and at one stage seem to have regarded themselves as the only true church. The first meeting of this new movement in England was held in December 1831 in Plymouth. By 1845 the assembly in Plymouth had over one thousand people ‘in fellowship’, with the result that thee Brethren became known as the ‘Plymouth Brethren’.  In 1848 the Plymouth Brethren split into two groups – the Open and the Closed (or the Exclusive Brethren). Within these two main streams there were further sub-divisions. My maternal grandfather, for instance, belonged to the Kelly Brethren, which were Exclusive, but certainly not as exclusive as the Raven Brethren, who under the later leadership of Jim Taylor became notorious for the way in which they would have nothing to do with family members who were not part of their group. Thankfully, my grandfather was always happy to associate with other Evangelical Christians – including my father, who was a Baptist minister!

All this comes to mind when considering the term ‘brothers’ which is found 271 times in the New Testament. In the early church it was undoubtedly the most popular term for Christians and is found in all the books of the New Testament with the exception of the letters to Timothy and Titus. It is important to stress that in those days the Greek term for brothers (adelphoi) was an inclusive term referring to brothers and sisters. Today, however, that is no longer so, For that reason most, if not all, contemporary English Bibles translate the Greek word ‘adelphos’ as ‘brother and sister’.

For most people today the term ‘brothers and sisters’ sounds very old-fashioned. Yet in many countries it is still the favoured term for a Christian. For instance, traditionally among German Baptists every sermon begins with the following words: “Dear brothers and sisters, and friends of the church”. Yet although in Britain we do not use such language, nonetheless there is no doubt that Christians need to treat one another as brothers and sisters. We are family – that is the glory of the church. What’s more, we are members of a world-wide family. It is an amazing experience to turn up at a church in a foreign country and suddenly find yourself surrounded by brothers and sisters.

Well, enough of generalities. In this blog I want to look at five ways in which the Apostle Paul believed “brothers and sisters” should act toward one another.

First, family love is paramount. Brothers and sisters should love one another. So in 1 Thess 4.9 Paul wrote: “Now concerning love of the brothers (philadelphia) you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another”. Love is fundamental to life in the family of God. So Paul wrote to the church at Rome: “Love one another with mutual affection” (12.10). Literally Paul said, ‘love one another with the kind of brotherly and sisterly love that you would find within a family’. For Paul used here two terms associated with friendship love (philia) and family love (storge). So the GNB translates: “Love one another warmly as Christian brothers and sisters”

Secondly brothers and sisters honour one another. In Rom 12.10 this appears to be a key consequence of loving one another. For goes on to say: “Outdo one another in showing honour”.  Or as Peterson put it: “Practise playing second fiddle”.

Thirdly brothers and sisters need to open their homes to one another. This too is an extension of loving one another. For almost within the same breath of saying “love one another with mutual affection’ Paul wrote: “extend hospitality to strangers”. Almost certainly the ‘strangers’ in question were ‘brothers and sisters’ new to the local fellowship. We find the same idea in the Letter to the Hebrews, the injunction to “Let mutual love continue” (literally: ‘let philadephia flourish’), is followed by the command: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it”. (Hebs 13.1). In the New Testament hospitality is not a gift for just some to exercise, but a duty for all to fulfil. Notice too that love for brothers and sisters is opportunistic: it constantly looks for opportunities to welcome new brothers and sisters into one’s home. We are to look for any excuse to welcome fellow Christians into our home. Indeed, according to Peterson, we should “be inventive in hospitality”.

Fourthly brothers and sisters have a duty of care to one another even when there are differences of theological opinion. In Rome, for instance, the church was divided on a number of practical issues relating to food, drink and sabbath observance (Rom 14.13-21). For Paul these issues were not a problem, for none of them were central to the Christian faith. For Paul there was a great issue at stake: “If your brother or sister is being injured by what eat, you are no longer walking in love” (14.15). Remember, wrote Paul, with whom you are dealing – you are dealing with people “for whom Christ died” (14.15). The right of Christians to exercise their freedom in Christ must be subservient to the needs of our brothers and sisters. As Paul Achtemeier commented: “That there is a limitation placed on my freedom, my rights, by my active concern, my responsibility for your good (i.e. my love for you) is a point most church congregations… need to hear”.

Fifthly, brothers and sisters need to deal with any differences that may arise within the family. What is true of a human family, is true too of the Christian family. It has been said that wherever two of three are gathered in Jesus’ name, disagreements are bound to arise. If so, then those differences need to be sorted out. Unfortunately, sometimes Christians go public with their differences and may even take one another to court. This, for instance happened at Corinth (see 1 Cor 6.1-11). Paul was appalled: “If any of you have a dispute ‘against another, do you dare to take it to court before the unrighteous, instead of taking it before the saints?” (6.1). It would be better for Christians to allow themselves to be defrauded rather bring differences out in such a public way (6.7).

One comment

  1. This reminds me very much of that lovely hymn “Brother,sister let me serve you” (Richard Gillard), but you have added to that way of thinking very helpfully…

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