October/November 2013 - Vol. 70

Love of the Brethren 

Exploring a neglected motive for cooperation among Christians of different traditions

by Steve Clark

Christians of different traditions face many common foes around the world. In many nations we must deal with governments that persecute believers for not accommodating themselves to the official ideology or religion. Here in the United States we can find many common problems to work on together in the political arena. Shared challenges such as these are spurs to interdenominational cooperation.

Along with these common concerns, other developments have been moving Christians of different traditions toward greater cooperation. One is a growing recognition of the action of the Holy Spirit among Christians not of one’s own church. Another is the increasing recognition of members of other Christian communions as “brethren” – brothers and sisters in Christ.

But while Christians of a variety of traditions have begun to speak freely of one another as brothers and sisters, the terminology does not have much impact on actual relationships. It is worth looking more carefully at what it means to be “brethren” in the biblical sense, because the term turns out to be much more than a mere platitude.

An often neglected biblical source for understanding the relationship of Christians as “brethren” is 1 John. As is well known, the first letter of John is concerned with distinguishing between “those who have gone out from us” – a group that many would identify as a gnostic or proto-gnostic sect – and true Christians. John identifies several marks of true Christians: belief in what we would now call the doctrine of the incarnation, a moral Christian life, the experience of the Spirit. A further mark essential to being a Christian, he writes, is love of the brethren (1 John 3:14-23; 4:11-2, 19-21; 5:1).

By “the brethren” or “brothers and sisters” John means fellow Christians. In this, his usage is like that of the rest of New Testament, where, except when the term is used to mean natural brothers and sisters or fellow elders, it refers to those bound to one another in covenant – either the old covenant or the new.

The New Testament, scholars tell us, never speaks of the brotherhood of the human race. It does express an idea of the solidarity of the human race, for instance, in the solidarity of all human beings in Adam. But in the New Testament the term “brethren” means “fellow Christians”; and love of the brethren,” as the phrase in 1 John is often rendered, means “love of our fellow Christians.”

First John 3:14-18 summarizes its teaching on love of the brethren in this way:

“We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love remains in death. . . . By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But if any one has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his ear against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or speech, but in deed and in truth.”
In attempting to locate the marks by which to distinguish true Christians from false ones, John is interested in criteria that relate directly to the core of Christianity – our relationship to Christ himself and to his work of redemption. John chooses love of fellow Christians since to love fellow Christians because they are Christians is to recognize the importance of belonging to Christ. As the gospel sayings put it, the relationship we have with Christ is more important than our relationship with our mother and natural brothers and sisters and it establishes a new set of primary relationships among those who follow him (Matthew 10:37; 12:48-50; Mark 10:29-30). Love of the brethren is thus an external, behavioral indication of a genuinely Christian spiritual state.

The first letter of John teaches that laying down our lives for our brothers and sisters in Christ involves at least the sharing of goods when they are in need. We have, in short, concrete duties toward them, duties which touch our pocketbooks. Further study of the scriptural teaching on love of the brethren would indicate that we have additional obligations towards them, such as defending them when enemies attack them. Fulfilling these obligations is essential to being a Christian.

Revolution of recognition
Such a statement leads naturally to the question, “Who, then, is my brother or sister in Christ?”

At present, no single answer can be offered that would satisfy every Christian tradition and church. However, it is important to observe that in the present century there has been a massive change in the way Christian people think about this question. Today Christians of very diverse theological convictions and church loyalties are willing to recognize one another as Christians.

Many of us might want to add some qualification to the terms “brother and sister,” such as “separated brother and sister.” Most of us would not recognize all the churches that other Christians belong to as fully acceptable as churches – or perhaps even as churches at all. Some, for example, while recognizing Catholic brothers and sisters in Christ, are of the opinion that the Roman Catholic Church is an apostate church; and the Roman Catholic Church has not officially come to the point of recognizing Protestant bodies as anything more than “ecclesial communities.”

Nevertheless, a revolution of tremendous significance has occurred. A large number of Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox now recognize one another as Christians – Christians who have embraced some serious theological errors and belong to faulty churches, no doubt, but Christians nonetheless. We would not necessarily extend that recognition to all the members of each other’s churches, nor would we agree on where to draw the line; but we do take the perspective that a large number of members of all the other churches are, in fact, Christians.

We are, then, in the position of having to acknowledge the gospel duty to help and support not only the members of our own church but also whomever we can currently recognize to be true Christians. For many of us, that is surely a substantial number of Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox.

Second Chronicles 28 provides a scriptural illustration of the obligations covenant brothers and sisters have toward one another even when there is division between them. This makes it especially relevant for us to ponder today.

The passage records a war between Ahaz of Judah and Pekah of Israel. Israel resoundingly defeats Judah and leads the captured southerners into slavery. As the northerners are bringing the captives back, the prophet Obed goes out to meet them with this message:

“Behold, because the Lord, the God of your fathers, was angry with Judah, he gave them into your hand, but you have slain them in a rage which has reached up to heaven. And now you intend to subjugate the people of Judah and Jerusalem, male and female, as your slaves. Have you not sins of your own against the Lord your God? Now hear me, and send back the captives from your brethren whom you have taken, for the fierce wrath of the Lord is upon you” (2 Chronicles 28:9-11).
Israel and Judah were in a state of schism and had no united government. Neither was in a fully acceptable spiritual position from the other’s point of view – or from God’s. Divided as they were God did not rebuke them for fighting one another. He seemed to regard a certain amount of fighting between them as acceptable, and even as a punishment of Judah’s sins.

But God was angry that the Israelites slaughtered their defeated brothers and led them back captive to enslave them. As the next verses make clear, they also neglected to provide for their needs – food, clothing, shelter, and medical care. Even in a situation in which brothers and sisters were in open conflict, the Lord was angered by his people not treating brethren as brethren.

Kinds of mutual help
What sorts of brotherly love might be practical and appropriate among Christians today? One area would be cooperation in missionary and evangelistic work. I have been impressed with much of the missionary study and writing emerging from evangelical institutions such as the Fuller School of World Mission and the U.S. Center for World Mission. It is notable how often their writings draw lessons from Catholic missionary workers – but how rarely Catholics are even aware of these Protestant institutions. In my own community, the Sword of the Spirit, which is composed of Christians with different church loyalties, we have discovered that we can be more effective in evangelism if we work together.

Christians can also help one another learn how to be more effective in spiritual renewal. For instance, the Catholic charismatic renewal is a movement in the Roman Catholic Church that has clearly gained some of its effectiveness from lessons it learned from Pentecostals and other evangelicals. Indeed, participants in the Catholic charismatic renewal were initially criticized for bringing Protestant revivalism into the Catholic Church. (The attacks normally centered more on questions of culture and technique than on doctrinal matters.) However, when one traces the history of revivalism to its roots in the 17th and 18th centuries, one finds that the Protestant renewal movements learned for earlier Catholic revivalists, especially the Franciscan friars.

Another area for making our brotherly love practical is the sharing of pastoral wisdom. We confront the same challenges, for example, regarding family life and child rearing, because we live in the same secular society. Normally, the same basic approaches work or do not work when employed by Protestants, Catholics, or Orthodox.

Cooperative ecumenism
Ecumenism has too often meant something which happens only between the officials of church bodies and which is carried out only by officially appointed theologians dialoguing with one another. There is, however, another kind of ecumenism, sometimes known as cooperative ecumenism, that proceeds on a different basis.

Cooperative ecumenism proceeds on the pre-supposition that Christians of various traditions do not have full agreement or unity, and we do not expect it for some time to come. In the meantime, however, we acknowledge the requirement that we should love one another as brothers and sisters, looking forward to the time when the Lord will make greater unity possible. Our rule is that we will try to do whatever builds up. Sometimes the rule indicates not cooperating in certain ways, though we might personally be inclined to do so, because of the need to take into account others in our churches who do not see things our way and to avoid worsening relations between the churches. Nonetheless, the spirit behind cooperative ecumenism urges us to lay down our lives for all those whom we recognize as true brothers and sisters in Christ, and with them to advance the cause of Christ.

Dialogue ecumenism and cooperative ecumenism proceed on different bases. Dialogue ecumenism proceeds with the conviction that we need to discuss our differences and try to seek agreement. Cooperative ecumenism proceeds with the resolution that in the meantime we will cooperate where we can in matters of common concern, even though we have disagreements.

Cooperative ecumenism does not mean we do not talk about our differences. Often one of the most helpful things we can do is to educate one another in our differences so that we do not presuppose something about each other that we should not. It certainly does not mean that we regard the differences as unimportant. But the purpose of coming together in cooperative ecumenism is not to work out the differences but to love one another as brothers and sisters and work together as best we can.

How to go about it
Effective cooperative ecumenism proceeds on certain principles:

1. We need to accept the fact that there are issues that divide the churches and to abide by the limits that our churches have set. Most of us cannot solve fundamental interchurch problems and should probably not try to. Nor should we act as though they did not exist. We therefore have to accept that each of us will believe the doctrines of his or her respective church and be faithful to its essentia1 practices and current discipline.

2. In our sharing together we will emphasize the central core of Christian teaching and practice which we share in common. We will do this partly because these truths in themselves call for such emphasis, and also because we can thereby serve the convergence of the entire Christian people.

3. In discussing our differences, we should:

  • aim at having the peace in our relationships which will enable us to discuss differences in a loving manner
  • avoid discussing those things we cannot yet discuss peacefully, gradually widening the circle of the things we can discuss as we experience the peace and trust to do so
  • not be embarrassed by our own beliefs, nor be apologetic about them 
  • regard the things other Christians hold that we disagree with as mistakes a good Christian could make rather than as wrongdoing or a denial of Christianity 
  • not discuss our beliefs in a polemical way, but state them in the way that would be most acceptable to others – ask whether the discussion is building up love and unity in the body of Christ or tearing it down.
4. We should learn about points of doctrinal and theological dispute so that:
  • we can avoid expressing ourselves in ways unacceptable to others because of doctrinal commitments where we are in circumstances such as leading in common prayer, proposing a common course of action, or stating an opinion that we think the group as a whole should hold
  • we can educate one another in our differences when that is helpful.
5.  When we can, we will talk together, help one another, and serve one another, so that we prevent our theological and cultural differences from poisoning our brotherly love, and so that our personal unity can provide the basis for a more complete unity among the whole Christian people.

Christ above all
We must also seek to prevent our cultural differences from poisoning our brotherly love.

The cultural obstacle to our cooperation is a human one. A helpful treatment of this problem was provided by Christopher Dawson, the British historian, in a prophetic book he wrote during World War II called The Judgment of the Nations. The book was written to state the program of a movement that developed during the war called the Sword of the Spirit.

One of the concerns of the Sword of the Spirit was to bring together Catholics and Protestants in Britain in a common response to the crisis of the hour, which the leaders saw as a crisis for Christian society. Ecumenical cooperation of that sort was not common then. Advocating what he called a “return to Christian unity,” Dawson gave a helpful analysis of some of the main roots of disunity:

“The fundamental problem of Christian disunity is the prob1em of schism. In practice this problem is so closely associated with that of heresy, that is, differences of religious belief, that they are apt to be confused with one another. But it is nevertheless important to distinguish them carefully and to consider the nature of schism in itself, for I believe that it is in the question of schism rather than that of heresy that the key to the problem of the disunity of Christendom is to be found. For heresy as a rule is not the cause of schism but an excuse for it, or rather a rationalization of it. Behind every heresy lies some kind of social conflict, and it is only by the resolution of this conflict that unity can be restored.”
Dawson based his view on an analysis of the history of divisions among Christians.
“But, whatever view we may take of the causes of any particular schism and the social significance of particular religious movements, there can, I think, be no question that in the history of Christendom from the patristic period down to modern times, heresy and schism have derived their main impulse from sociological causes, so that a statesman who found a way to satisfy the national aspirations of the Czechs in the fifteenth century or those of the Egyptians in the fifth would have done more to reduce the centrifugal force of the Hussite or the Monophysite movements than a theologian who made the most  brilliant and convincing defense of communion in one kind or of the doctrine of the two natures of Christ. Whereas it is very doubtful if the converse is true, for even, if the Egyptians had accepted the doctrine of Chalcedon, they would have found some other ground of division so long as the sociological motive for division remained unaltered.”
Dawson draws this conclusion:
“It is, above all, necessary to free the religious issue of all the extraneous motives that take their rise in unconscious social conflicts, for if we can do this, we shall deprive the spirit of schism of its dynamic force. If we can understand the reason for our instinctive antipathy to other religious bodies, we shall find that the purely religious and theological obstacles to reunion become less formidable and more easy to remove. But so long as the unconscious element of social conflict remains unresolved, religion is at the mercy of the blind forces of hatred and suspicion.”
Dawson attributes somewhat more weight to the sociological factors than I would, but, nonetheless, he puts his finger on a key factor in Christian disunity. When two groups of people, be they nations or smaller groups, come into conflict and desire to separate from one another, they become open to theological disagreements. They desire to believe differently.

Hence, when we are dealing with ecumenical problems, we are dealing with intercommunity and intercultural suspicion and hostility as well as theological issues. And insofar as there is a spiritual problem at the base of the human relations problem, it can well be described as schism. The cause of schism is putting something human above Christ as the point of unity and division in our personal relations, so that we join with and separate from others over something other than faithfulness to Christ.

The solution to this source of Christian disunity is our common commitment to Christ. The solution lies in putting above everything else our commitment to Christ and his cause in the world. It lies, practically speaking, in ecumenical cooperation – in working together to strengthen one another’s faith, defend Christianity, and bring the world to Christ.

The solution to schism lies, in short, in the opposite approach to the kind of ecumenism which many of us have learned to dislike. That ecumenism tries to unite Christians in an accommodation to the world and secular goals; it puts aside an explicit focus on Christ in order to shelve the theological differences that come from different teachings about Christ and his work. True ecumenism, however, is a matter of restoring Christ to the center, as Lord, both in our theological dialogues and discussion of reunion, and in our working together where and as we can.

Witnesses together
The world is putting a question to Christians regarding the seriousness of our faith in Christ. In many countries today faithfulness to Christ involves loss of wealth, position, and life. Historians tell us that our age has more martyrs than any other. And for the most part Christians are given a choice of compromising—avoiding personal loss or death without giving up everything involved in Christianity. They are told, for instance, that if they are simply willing to work for the good of the collective, the nation, and put aside their other worldly preoccupations and divisive concerns, they do not have to experience any penalties. In these circumstances, Orthodox, Protestants, and Catholics frequently find themselves undergoing persecution at the hands of the same persecutors.

Facing death brings one a peculiar clarity about what is of supreme importance in life. Cannot all of us who pray for the grace to be able to die for our Lord Jesus Christ, if that were to come our way, recognize one another as brothers and sisters in him? Can we not work together for him until such time as the world may put the final question to us too, and we are called to witness to him with our lives?

[This article originally appeared in Pastoral Renewal Magazine, no. 9, 1987. Used with permission.]
Steve Clark is former president of the Sword of the Spirit. This article was originally published in New Covenant Magazine.

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