Summary: A Christian’s spiritual brothers and sisters are supposed to be the most important relationships in their life. But to understand what that means practically, you have to understand what the sibling relationship was like in the culture in which the Church was born.
In the last post, we learned that while humans were designed to operate in the context of family, American culture has abandoned this mindset. Until family (physical and spiritual) is once again first priority, we’ll have tremendous difficulty understanding and practicing the Christian life.
Since the family is the #1 metaphor used by biblical authors to explain what Church community is like, we need to know what it meant in the New Testament world for the Church to be a family.
In the Mediterranean culture of the New Testament, relational priorities were totally different than they are in America today. Understanding the difference is the only way we’ll understand what the New Testament authors meant. It’s also the only way we’ll be able to recapture God’s design for the Church.
The bond between siblings
What’s the most important human relationship in your life? If you’re married, you most likely immediately thought of your spouse. If you’re an American, this would put you in the majority. But what you might not realize is this way of thinking is not common in many parts of the world in the present day, or in most parts of the world in the past.
Now this is not to say that marriage isn’t important in other cultures, because it is. But, it isn’t the most important like it is in cultures like ours. For most cultures throughout history, the bond between siblings stands at the top. Inside of the blood family is where the emotional and physical needs are met. While the institution of marriage plays many important roles, it’s secondary to the family.
Understanding what “brother” and “sister” meant
This kind of culture is the context in which the New Testament authors call Christians “brothers” and “sisters” in Christ. When you see the apostle Paul say in one of his letters something like “I urge you, brothers…,” it probably doesn’t mean quite the same thing to you as it did to them.
Once you understand what “brother” and “sister” meant to them practically, you can better understand how brothers and sisters in Christ were meant to behave toward one another. Until we do, we won’t really understand what it means practically to be the family of God, and we won’t really experience authentic church life.
God’s family isn’t a metaphor
They taught that once a person was born into Christ, they shared His blood. They shared Christ’s spiritual DNA. This wasn’t just a metaphor. When you were “born again,” you were born into a new family with other beings that share the same spiritual Father. This made you siblings, and siblings had a special relationship that stood above the rest.
How special? Let’s take a look at what Joseph Hellerman says in When the Church Was a Family…
The blood bond between siblings – not between husband and wife – is the most intimate, nurturing and ultimately satisfying relationship for persons in collectivist cultures…correspondingly, the most treacherous act of human disloyalty in an ancient family was not disloyalty to one’s spouse. It was the betrayal of one’s brother.
Your spiritual family is most important
As you might imagine, this had a big-time effect on what it meant to be brothers and sisters in Christ in first-century Rome. This mindset that was instilled in people from the time they were born was transferred to their new family when they became Christians.
Their new spiritual family was now the most important group they belonged to, even more so than their physical family. No, this doesn’t mean they necessarily abandoned their physical family. The physical family simply relinquished the top priority spot to the spiritual family. Of course, the best-case scenario was that whole families would convert to Christ at the same time.
But as you can imagine, this wasn’t always the case. Regardless, their primary allegiance had shifted to their new spiritual family…
Then Peter spoke up, “We have left everything to follow you!” “Truly I tell you,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. (Mark 10:28-30)
Now it’s your turn. How does this change way you think about the members of your church? How might this change your behavior toward them?
The rest of the posts in the Collectivist Community series are here.