“It goes without saying” is a curious phrase. Whenever someone says, “it goes without saying,” it is usually followed by them saying something so self-apparent it need not be said. I will take that bait and say the thing that is so obvious it might not need to be said — except for the purposes of an intro and ending to this article.
It goes without saying that we are experiencing very stress-filled and difficult-to-navigate circumstances. Global pandemic, social injustice and recalibration, economic turmoil, and political folly abound. Every sector of society is affected by these realities. A saturation of content from every fathomable format seeks to vent frustration and provide guidance, analysis, and potential ways forward.
Articles, videos, and webinar training events for churches in America are filled with buzz words and clichés like “timely opportunity,” “strategic learning,” “seven new trends,” and “five practical steps to insert your cause here.” These types of articles and trainings are helpful in their own way, providing think-tank collaboration and sharing of best practices. They diagnose issues and ponder possible solutions. They are signposts toward what the local church might do to love God and love others in such times.
I feel these conversations should also include the more rudimentary questions: “What is the church?” “Who are we?” and “What is our goal?”
Before we can remedy our approaches to being a gathered body of people who confess the Lordship of the resurrected Jesus, it might help to include these identity questions to the many praxis questions.
To help us clarify our identity as Christ followers we need to understand how the first Christians viewed themselves. If you do a word study in the New Testament, the gathered body of Jesus followers are identified as:
Ecclessia — literally meaning an assembly, usually translated as church, appears 45 times.
Agioi — holy, appears 25 times.
Kletoi — called, appears 5 times.
Soma — Body of Christ, appears a mere 4 times.
It might surprise us to learn the most overwhelmingly-used term of identity in the New Testament for a gathered collection of Jesus followers is:
Adelphoi — brothers and sisters, occurs 127 times in Paul’s letters and 217 times total in the New Testament as a non-gendered term to encompass both men and women, and, as Paul makes clear, all ethnic and social identities as well.
The Christian community in the first century primarily thought of themselves in terms of sibling dynamics. In the first century Mediterranean world of the New Testament, this metaphorical use of siblingship was a brilliant adaptation. Of all possible relationships, brothers and sisters were to love each other more deeply than all others, including marriage, paternal, and various levels of friendship and acquaintances. Siblingship in their culture centered on love, unity, and support.
Jesus rocked the societal boat on this issue. Jesus welcomed all to his table, breaking down social dividing walls to the point that he identified the men and women, Jews and Gentiles, religious leaders, and disciples, as his brothers and sisters in Mark 3. In a culture built around separation, Jesus taught and modeled loving unity centered around the kingdom of God.
Siblings of the first century loved each other by supporting one another. In a culture without social programs to aid in times of crisis, the family bond between siblings served as that support system. The Apostle Paul refers to his church members as brothers and sisters, and encourages them to love one another all the more by supporting one another (such as in 1 Thessalonians 4.9-12). The oft quoted Acts 2.42-47 and 4.32-37 reveal the earliest followers held material goods in common and shared regular community meals, a remarkable feat by our standards, but an absolute social norm for first century siblings that extended into the life of the church.
Siblings loved each other by seeking unity. Family unity was an important attribute in their honor and shame culture. Families dealt with differences in house but presented a united public face. If one family member gained honor or suffered shame in the social world around them, the entire family benefited or suffered accordingly. You can see this in Paul’s writing, especially to the Corinthians who regularly violate social norms for families. He warns them their very public divisions is giving the church a bad reputation (shame) and he guides them toward living in unity (honor).
Unity is expanded to all ethnic groups in Colossians 3 and Galatians 3 when Paul teaches the social divisions that divide do not apply to family members. Being a Jew or Gentile, slave or free, Scythian and barbarian, or male or female are outside definitions that no longer divide inside a church family in pursuit of unity. He will write a letter to Philemon that puts this belief to the test by asking that a slave named Onesimus be welcomed back into Christian community as an equal.
Our rudimentary questions of identity remind us that we who would seek to follow Jesus are a family. This is who we are, brothers and sisters. Our goal is to love each other as Jesus has loved us. Everything else flows from this identity and goal.
Yes, we are in a timely opportunity with new trends emerging daily that will require strategic learning and practical steps. Let those signposts be rooted in the proper identity as brothers and sisters shaped by love for the purpose of unity. Because, it goes without saying, if we base our ambitions on anything else, we have missed what it means to be a follower of Jesus and have failed to see one another as brothers and sisters.