Brothers and Neighbors in Early Christianity (part 1)

As I argued previously, one of the implications of the historical-apocalyptic approach to the New Testament is that Jesus’ ethical commands are understood as historically contingent. I  tried to demonstrate, for instance, that Jesus’ teachings on violence were built upon his eschatological outlook. He believed God would soon flood Israel and the nations with a torrent of justice. Hope in this future significantly diminished the value of human retribution. Violent resistance came to represent a failure to believe fully in God’s looming judgement and vindication. Christian communities living on the edge of the present age thus had no need of defending themselves—they would soon be saved.

In addition to this apocalyptic narrative, we also discussed early Christian nonviolence from a social-political perspective. We found that it made good sense for the marginalized communities in Judea and the Roman Empire to avoid conflict even when it cost them greatly. The violent and revolutionary alternative would surely have brought about the annihilation of the Jesus-movement. In short, we found that Jesus wanted his churches to escape Israel’s fate (AD 70).

We should conclude then that Jesus’ teachings concerned not just what is intrinsically good, but also what was practical for communal survival under certain conditions. If this is true, what purpose might the New Testament’s central command have served, the command to love one’s brother and sister in the faith?

Before we answer, two points should be made that undergird the legitimacy of the question. Firstly, “brother” (ἀδελφός) does not refer to all people in the NT. Rather, a brother is demarcated as a person who has received the spirit of the Son, the spirit of adoption, and has been accepted into the family of God. We are told Jesus came that we might receive “the right to become children of God” (John 1:12, cf. Galatians 3:26, ). We also learn that the disciples are all brothers under the fatherhood of God (Matthew 23:8-9). Nowhere then does the term “brother” refer to any just human being.

Secondly, the instruction to love the brother and the community of faith does indeed  touch nearly every paraenetic passage in the New Testament (John 13:34-35, 1 John 4:20, 1 Thessalonians 4:9, Galatians 6:10, Romans 12:10-13, Hebrews 13:1, 1 Peter 2:17, James 2:15-17). Besides these passages, we might also recall that a major issue facing Paul’s ministry is the unity of his communities along ethnic and theological lines. Paul devotes considerable space in his letters toward admonishing Christians in regards to judging each other. He commands them to instead serve one another. Consider also the letters of John. They exist due to schism in the Johannine community. The powerfully sectarian language in these letters regarding loving the true brother, shunning the false-brother, and testing the prophets no doubt owes its force to this internal crisis. Even the Sermon on the Mount, renowned for its teachings on enemies and outsiders, is heavily concerned with treatment of the brother. The disciples are told to not be angry with their brother, to not judge their brother, and to consider their brother before offering a gift on the altar. Jesus teaches the disciples to forgive a repentant brother seven times seventy times and tells a parable that they might “forgive a brother or sister from the heart” (Matthew 18:35). For Jesus, Paul, and John, then, the integrity and oneness of the community amounted to a major concern. But why? Surely this is a timeless concern, but can more be said?

It should be apparent that Jesus, Paul, and John carried a constant anxiety that their persecuted multi-ethnic communities might dissolve under pressure from within and without. These pressures made it especially important to emphasize and repeat the command to love one another. This is seen poignantly in Galatians 5:15 where Paul warns his followers that if they do not exhibit care for the brothers, they will all be devoured. Just as the alternative to nonviolence was annihilation, the alternative to brotherly love was dissolution. A divided house would not be able to maintain its faith or holiness in the face of the coming tribulation. That house would be absorbed into the powers that be and perish with them under the condemnation of God. But a house built upon solid rock, built on both theological orthodoxy and brotherly love, would inherit the nations with Christ.

While it is clear to whom “brother or sister” refers in the new Testament, it is less clear as to whom “neighbor” refers. This will be the topic of our next post.

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