Quiz time: What word did Paul use most often to refer to followers of Jesus?
As you scroll through your options–believers, Christians, beloved, disciples–let me share a story that highlights how oblivious we can be to the words we read and use. A few years ago I was on the phone with a young man from our church and after I hung up one of my boys asked me, “Are Grandma and Grandpa his parents too?” I had no idea what he was talking about. “Why do you ask?” My son’s reply is also the answer to our question: “Because you called him brother.”
Paul uses some variation of the word “brother” 130 times in his writings. As many recent translations have acknowledged, this was meant as a familial term that often encompassed both men and women. Yet the frequency of its use often desensitizes us to its radical implications.
This week I was reminded of one of these implications while attending a roundtable discussion with local black pastors about the #BlackLivesMatter movement. It was the third such meeting in six weeks and one of the objectives was for non-black pastors to hear the experiences of our African-American fellow believers. At Wednesday’s meeting one of the ministers focused our attention on the family language of the New Testament. His basic point was that if you have a brother or a sister who is mistreated, undervalued, and discriminated against, as a family member it is also your concern to address.
Some might push back that this confuses gospel issues with social issues. Yet Paul did not shy away from the social ramifications of gospel-formed relationships. He commanded the Roman church to “Love one another with brotherly affection” (Romans 12:10). But this did not merely translate to warm fuzzies and trust falls. The “brother” relationship had practical implications for those who had no problem eating meat from the market that may have been sacrificed to a Roman god. Paul argued that “if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love” and that believers should “decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother” (Romans 14:13, 15). Addressing a similar situation in Corinth, the apostle castigated those who destroy “the brother for whom Christ died,” equating it with sinning “against Christ.” “Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble” (1 Corinthians 8:11–13).
The relationship of “brother” had teeth for Paul. It was not a theoretical notion or a heavenly ideal. Brotherhood was an actionable relationship.
This played out practically for situations ranging from disfellowshipping the unrepentant one “who bears the name of brother” (1 Corinthians 5:11) to not taking petty grievances among brothers to court (1 Corinthians 6:5–8) to a believer’s work ethic when his or her boss is a brother in Christ (1 Timothy 6:2). Perhaps the most radical of Paul’s applications was to his friend Philemon, whose disobedient runaway slave Onesimus was converted under Paul’s ministry. The apostle wrote that “though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you” (Philemon 1:8–9), namely, “that you might have him back forever, no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother…both in the flesh and in the Lord” (Philemon 1:15–16). Many believe that the seeds of the abolition of slavery were sown by Paul’s words to Philemon, specifically in this word “brother.”
It is no secret that I have a vested interest in the #BlackLivesMatter movement because I am a parent to three beautiful, vibrant black lives. But if you are a follower of Jesus, you also have family members who are black. You have millions of black brothers and sisters who also call Jesus their Lord and God their Father. If you have never done so, reach out to an African-American believer. Affirm your shared spiritual heritage and ask if he or she would be willing to help you understand their experience as one with a different ethnic heritage. You may be surprised by the actions that emerge from that relationship.
Brothers and sisters, let us get to know our brothers and sisters. And may this familial relationship again have teeth.