In Defense of Brotherly love: Brothers and Neighbors in Early Christianity part 2

Last time we saw that the cohesion and unity of the faith community was of primary importance in earliest Christianity. A “brotherly love” shared among believers ensured not only the survival of the marginalized apocalyptic communities, it protected the integrity and allure of Christian witness among the nations. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).

The primacy of this domestic concern in the New Testament is, however, sometimes resisted in favor of a more inclusive and egalitarian approach. According to this reading, early Christians did not feel a special responsibility toward other Christians. They treated all people the same regardless of spiritual status. They were obligated to carry the burdens of outsiders to the same degree that they were obligated to do so for their brothers and sisters. This vision, sometimes called the “brotherhood of man,” is more the product of our time and place, than it is of Jesus’. But perhaps that is an argument for another time. Here I want to give a brief defense of brotherly love among the early Christians. Why did these Christians put such emphasis on loving the fellow believer?

To begin, I offer one final example for those who would downplay or deny the central importance of brotherly love and unity in the New Testament. I look to the exhortation of John’s second epistle. The writer, known to us as John the Elder, gives only two commands to his recipients: “love one another” (1:5, cf. 1 John 4:20) and “do not receive into the house or welcome anyone who comes to you and does not bring this teaching” (1:10, cf. 1 John 3:15). The Elder here warns against those who teach that Jesus the Messiah did not come in the flesh (1:7). There are two commands then: love those who accept right doctrine, shun those who diverge from it. Interestingly, there are also only two commands given by Jesus in the Gospel of John: believe in the Son and love one another. So as Raymond Brown observes, “the Johannine tradition places no emphasis on love of outsiders; John’s ideal is a love of God’s children who have come into existence through faith in Jesus.” Thus the constant command to love the brother in 1 John. But while the Johannine literature is perhaps the most one-sided in this regard, we have seen that a unique concern for the brothers, a concern for unity and forgiveness and sacrifice among believers, permeates the whole of the New Testament. A corollary of this intense introversion was, of course, as exemplified in 2 John, a suspicion of those on the outside.

Such behavior, I argue, is fitting and necessary among persecuted apocalyptic communities living at the end of the age. Consider their situation under Pagan imperial hegemony. Believers leave behind their old unbelieving families and are joined to a new family. They lose one identity and attain another. The initiate of the marginalized sect must now endure the temptation to return to his previous, comfortable existence. By faith he must live hated by all; as one tortured, mocked, flogged, imprisoned, stoned, sawed in two, killed by the sword, going about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented, wandering in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground (Hebrews 11:36-38). This painful and unsustainable existence is palliated and sustained by brotherly love.

Before the believer lies salvation, reached only through resistance of a corrupt world now in the violent throes of death. Behind him lies the world he once new, behind him is a life of social advancement and acceptance. But by the love of Christ, expressed through the love of believers, he forgets what lies behind and strains toward what lies ahead.




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