Who do we refer to as brother? In the flesh this is generally clear because of the physical relationships which define that definition. However, what about in the spiritual realm? In this respect I am speaking here about someone who is a brother in the Lord.
Paul delightfully commends to Philemon the converted slave, Onesimus, with these words: no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord (Phile 1:16). Paul describes Onesimus as a “brother in the Lord.” He has clear evidence that through his conversion Onesimus has now come to join him in the family of God. They now share the same Father and the same Lord; they are brothers. It is a beautiful term with all that it signifies in respect of the grace of God working to create this unique spiritual relationship.
What I am concerned about is the way we use this term. Some of us are unwilling to use it at all and some of us are inclined to use it too easily. As we have already seen it is a biblically appropriate term to use and so we should use it, but who should be called a brother?
In order to use the term there has to be evidence that the person you are referring to is in Christ. Doctrinally and morally there has to be sufficient evidence to justify categorising the person as a brother in the Lord. The term “brother” obviously hints at a relationship derived from a shared parental connection. So we ask, using an alternative term, does this person show that they have been born again from above?
We are not talking here of someone who sees every doctrine the same as us and is walking in sinless perfection, but we are talking about convincing evidence that demonstrates that this person is a Christian. 1 John is the book we go to to assess any claim, whether it be by ourselves personally or others, as to being born again of the Lord. There we see that a true Christian, does not continue in sin, loves other Christians, does not love the world and has the right views of Jesus.
There are two dangers I want to flag up in conclusion as regards using the term “brother” to loosely:
- When we use the term of someone who is plainly not giving credible evidence that they are a true believer, then our judgment can be questioned by others. Others are less likely to rely upon our words when we are patently so casual in how we use the “brother” term.
- When we designates someone who is not a believer as a brother in the Lord, then we are not doing them any favours. Rather, we can be encouraging them into a false assurance regarding their salvation.
N.B. I have referred to “brother” in this piece. However, the same issues apply with the use of the term “sister”.