If you’ve been in the church even for just a little while, it’s only a matter of time before you hear Christians refer to each other as “brothers and sisters in Christ.” In our 21st century individualism church context, this sibling language is really just a metaphor for Christian friendship—spiritual friendship, at that—that points to the spiritual realities of being a part of God’s kingdom. It’s a very common expression.
But the funny thing about this phrase is we really don’t think twice about what this language actually implies. Again, we treat it as a metaphor rather than a vivid description of how we actually relate to one another
In today’s Western church world, we more commonly refer to Christ-followers as “Christians.” However, the word “Christian”—the term we use to primarily identify one another—shows up only 2 times in the New Testament. Twice. That’s it.
This is because the New Testament Church primarily referred to each other as brothers and sisters. The Greek word for brothers and sisters, adelphos, appears 316 times in the New Testament outside of the Gospels. I’ve made a list of 17 of those 316 Scripture references below. Notice how out of all these passages, the writer of these letters to the different churches and believers did not address them as, “my dear Christians,” but “my dear brothers and sisters.” Look at these:
- Romans 1:13: I want you to know, dear brothers and sisters, that I planned many times to visit you, but I was prevented until now. I want to work among you and see spiritual fruit, just as I have seen among other Gentiles.
- 1 Corinthians 1:10: I appeal to you, dear brothers and sisters, by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, to live in harmony with each other. Let there be no divisions in the church. Rather, be of one mind, united in thought and purpose
- 2 Corinthians 1:8: We think you ought to know, dear brothers and sisters, about the trouble we went through in the province of Asia. We were crushed and overwhelmed beyond our ability to endure, and we thought we would never live through it
- Galatians 1:11: Dear brothers and sisters, I want you to understand that the gospel message I preach is not based on mere human reasoning
- Ephesians 6:23: Peace be with you, dear brothers and sisters, and may God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ give you love with faithfulness.
- Philippians 1:12: And I want you to know, my dear brothers and sisters, that everything that has happened to me here has helped to spread the Good News.
- Colossians 1:2: We are writing to God’s holy people in the city of Colosse, who are faithful brothers and sisters in Christ. May God our Father give you grace and peace.
- 1 Thessalonians 1:4: We know, dear brothers and sisters, that God loves you and has chosen you to be his own people
- 2 Thessalonians 1:3: Dear brothers and sisters, we can’t help but thank God for you, because your faith is flourishing and your love for one another is growing.
- 1 Timothy 4:6: If you explain these things to the brothers and sisters, Timothy, you will be a worthy servant of Christ Jesus, one who is nourished by the message of faith and the good teaching you have followed.
- 2 Timothy 4:21: Do your best to get here before winter. Eubulus sends you greetings, and so do Pudens, Linus, Claudia, and all the brothers and sisters
- Philemon 1:7: Your love has given me much joy and comfort, my brother, for your kindness has often refreshed the hearts of God’s people
- Hebrews 3:1: And so, dear brothers and sisters who belong to God and are partners with those called to heaven, think carefully about this Jesus whom we declare to be God’s messenger and High Priest
- James 1:2: Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy.
- 2 Peter 1:10: So, dear brothers and sisters, work hard to prove that you really are among those God has called and chosen. Do these things, and you will never fall away.
- 1 John 3:10 So now we can tell who are children of God and who are children of the devil. Anyone who does not live righteously and does not love other believers (brothers) does not belong to God.
- Revelation 1:9: I, John, am your brother and your partner in suffering and in God’s Kingdom and in the patient endurance to which Jesus calls us. I was exiled to the island of Patmos for preaching the word of God and for my testimony about Jesus
Why was the early church adamant on using this sibling language? This is because Christ-followers in the early church lived in what is known as a collectivist culture. We, as Americans, live in an Individualist culture, which means life is ultimately about us as individuals. Pursuing our own rights, building up our lives, getting the things we individually want. But in a collectivist culture, life was all about your support to the family. The family was the closest group you would’ve belonged to, and every decision you made was not what was best for you, but what was best for the family. Marriage, even, in their context, was more about building alliances between two existing families than romantic love between two individuals.
Get this: in the early church collectivist culture, the closest relationship you could have had with anyone wasn’t a husband or wife, but a brother or sister.
Joseph H. Hellerman writes extensively on this in his book, When The Church Was a Family, when he says,
“The blood bond between siblings—not between husband and wife—is the most intimate, nurturing, and ultimately satisfying relationship for persons in collectivist cultures…. We may simply note that one’s family demanded the highest commitment of undivided loyalty, relational solidarity, and personal sacrifice of any social entity in Jesus’ strong-group Mediterranean world.”
And that is why “brothers and sisters” is the central metaphor to describe followers of Christ. The unity between Christ followers is so deep, so intimate, that the only way they could accurately articulate that bond was through their collectivist understanding of brothers and sisters. First century Christians got along with each other through undivided loyalty, relational solidarity, and personal sacrifice to a degree that just flies in the face of our individualist culture. It is literally impossible for us to know what commitment to other people to that level looks like because of our worldviews.
Today, we identify our fellow believers by our religious stance: “Christian.” But the early church identified fellow believers by the nature of their relationship: “Brothers and sisters.” I think this is why “brothers and sisters” is more of a metaphor that acts as a head-nod to Scripture references, rather than the reality of how we commit to one another.
I’m not sure what commitment to your family looks like, but I think we all can agree that in an ideal world, the nuclear family is the closest group we could belong to. Could you imagine if that level of familial commitment applied to our local church families? The collectivist nature of early church relationships could become the nature of our modern day Church friendships. In this way, our spiritual friendships become the application of our heavenly siblinghood.