Who is My Brother?
Sept. 22. 2019
Scriptures: Mt.18:15-22, Mt.23:8-12, I Thess.5:11-24
We have recently had very excellent messages on the subjects of “neighbors” and “enemies”, and it would be good to take seriously the challenging conclusion that our assignment with respect to BOTH, if we aim to follow Jesus’ instructions, is actively to love and serve them BOTH.
This similarity of responsibility renders quite irrelevant the difficult challenge of deciding which is which, despite the pressure of our surrounding society to categorize nations, groups, or individuals with one or the other of those labels. Please note that even when the New Testament refers to the destruction of those who choose to oppose Jesus and his Kingdom, that destruction is clearly an act of God – not an assignment delegated to any person, group, or civil authority.
There are two other classes of people, however, to which Scripture also refers: friends, and brothers.
Two Greek words are traditionally translated “friends”, the label chosen by our Quaker neighbors. One refers primarily to political partisans (like Pilate and Herod), casual companions (children at play), or complaining workers and their boss (in a parable). The other is an occasional synonym for “neighbors”, family members, or cordial companions. I think the most significant observation regarding either of these terms is their almost complete disappearance in the New Testament after Pentecost!
After that time, the faithful consistently referred to each other as “brother”, although Jesus himself had started it. All the synoptic gospels include the scene where he defines his “family” as “those who do the will of God.” (Mt.12:46-50, Mk.3:31-35, Lk.8:19-20) .The word does also still apply to physical family relationships, but from the time when Ananias addressed the newly-enlightened Saul as “Brother”, that was the term of choice among fellow-disciples.
Please remember that, as in many other languages, all nouns have gender, which simply governs the grammatical structure of the word. (In Greek, for example, “hand” is a feminine word, and “leg” is masculine, regardless of the gender of its possessor.) The masculine gender of the noun adelphos “brother” does NOT intend to express the preferential treatment of males, although a feminine form is used when referring specifically to a particular woman. The lexical point in the use of adelphos is an entirely different level of relationship among people committed to Jesus and his Kingdom. Modern “translations” changing the term to “friends” in an effort to sound “inclusive” actually do violence to the text. “Friends” is a much less challenging word.
This usage is not unique to the Christian community: it is also used of other religious or military associates, and Peter, Paul, and Stephen even used it (in an ethnic sense) to address their hostile Jewish persecutors. However, the vast majority of the New Testament uses refer to committed fellow-disciples.
So, in the words of our favorite teacher, if you did your “homework”, “What did you find?” Who is your brother?
(Members of the congregation suggested many of the descriptions represented here.)
Except for direct address, the word adelphos is more frequently used in the plural than in the singular. The instructions in the epistles are addressed to “the brothers at —“(or “the saints at —“, which is always plural – another word worthy of study). The frequent address to “saints and faithful brethren” does not describe two categories of people, but applies two labels to the same group! Faithfulness is a group effort, not the achievement of a lonely hermit on a mountaintop. Deliberate error or accidental wandering is to be called to attention and corrected by the group, not by some sort of “superiors.” Jesus’ own instructions in Matthew 18 are an excellent example. The oldest manuscripts do not include the phrase “against you”, and consequently the reference is to any error on the part of a brother. Since our language does not distinguish between singular and plural forms of “you”, we fail to recognize that the “you” in v.15 and 16 is singular, but v.17 and 18 are plural. Consequently, English speaking readers do not realize that the instructions for correction are aimed at the group –the whole local brotherhood — and not a clerical or legal authority! Notice also that verses 18-20 are NOT a license for judgment, but an assignment for discernment of “what has (already) been decided in heaven”!
Remember that ALL of the epistles – of Paul, Peter, James and John – (except for personal notes to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon)—were written NOT as evangelistic tracts or official assignments, but as instructions for the corporate life to which the recipients –“the brethren” — were already committed. This makes a HUGE difference in understanding those instructions. They are addressed to the entire body of folks within the fellowship!
They were never intended to be imposed as laws or rules for society at large. People committed to be citizens of the Kingdom of Jesus are intended to operate differently from their surrounding culture!
Many, if not most, “Christian” groups go off the track toward one extreme or the other: either, on the one hand,
1. Making political, legal and/or behavioral demands of people who are NOT committed to Kingdom-style brotherhood, or on the other, 2. Being hesitant, unwilling, or afraid to hold each other accountable to the New Testament.
We need to realize that the culture in which we live bears much greater similarity to the oppressive and licentious first-century Roman Empire than we like to admit — and 2000 years later, faithfulness to the standard described in the New Testament still requires greater departure from “accepted norms” than most folks are willing to recognize.
This is obvious in I Corinthians 5 and 6 – a subject much too large for inclusion here, except to note that all the instructions are plural –to the committed brotherhood, not to any individual, and that the subject of intimate behavior is not infrequent in the epistles. The point here is
1. Paul expresses shock that behavior that “even the pagans” would not approve, is being condoned, and strongly urges correction.
2. He later (II Cor.2) commends the group for the success of their adoption of his suggested discipline
3. and urges that the repentant individual be restored and welcomed back into the fellowship.
It is assumed that within a faithful community, different standards apply.
The world hasn’t changed much, has it? And Jesus’ people are still called to support each other in a different way of life.
From the very early years, this has been a challenge. As the message of Jesus’ Kingdom spread and folks of Gentile background and culture responded to it, a need was perceived to indoctrinate them into all the technicalities of the Jewish Law. (A possible parallel to the present-day requirement of a “statement of doctrine”?) The “conference” assembled at Jerusalem included, according to Acts 15, (v.4) “the church, and the apostles, and elders.” A heated discussion ensued, and the (plural) apostles and elders made suggestions to the larger group. The result was a response in a letter which detailed that “having come to one mind,” the apostles, elders, and the whole church had agreed that only those things associated with the Gentiles’ former idolatry needed to be addressed: “blood, strangled things, and perversion,” adding, “if you keep yourselves from these things, you will do well.” (v.29).
Notice that this was not a decree from a hierarchy. It was a conclusion reached “after the multitude had stopped arguing and listened” (v.12), and affirmed, “It seemed right to the apostles and elders and the whole church.”(v.22)
And (v.31) the letter was received “with great joy!”
The instructions to the congregation at Thessalonica are all likewise addressed in the plural.
It would be interesting (and a healthy exercise) to examine more closely each of the situations in the New Testament where differences had to be settled – and there were many! Recognized leaders indeed facilitated some (not all) of them, but they themselves were also subject to correction. See the encounter between Peter and Paul in Galatians 2.
It is true that Peter initiated the idea in Ac.1 to replace Judas with Matthias – but then we never hear of him again.
When people were needed to care for the indigent, (Acts 6), the apostles passed the responsibility for choosing them back to the folks who had perceived the need.
When Agabus, who had a reputation for responsible prophecy, spoke of an impending famine, (Ac.11) “some of the disciples” instigated a relief effort. ( Perhaps we should undertake a similar study of “disciples”.)
After Stephen’s martyrdom, (Ac.8), “those who were scattered went around preaching the Word.”
When Apollos (Ac.18) was preaching in Ephesus, Priscilla and Aquila took on the task of correcting some of his errors, after which “the brethren” commended him for further work.
So “Who is my brother?” Anyone and everyone who is serious about faithfulness to the Lord Jesus.
“Brother” is the highest – and ONLY – title legitimately applied to any follower of Jesus, according to his own instructions in Mt.23:8.
As members of Jesus’ own family, defined in all three synoptic gospels (Mt.12:46-50, Mk.3:31-35, Lk.8:19-20) no longer as only one’s physical family, but including all those who choose to obey, we belong to each other in unique and wonderful ways! Brothers do not always agree: but there is a bond, nevertheless — and also often a family resemblance!
Our job is to serve each other, encourage each other, correct each other, challenge each other to greater faithfulness, and support each other in those efforts.
May we do so in faithfulness!