1-2 All Christians Are Equal
We are all parts of the same body, branches on the same vine, bricks in the same building; we are all strangers and pilgrims, lacking any rights of a citizen (1 Pet. 1:17 Gk.). We are all members of the same priesthood (1 Pet. 2:5), with equal responsibility to offer up acceptable sacrifice. Don’t miss the power of this to New Testament Jewish ears: the special responsibilities of the priests were now applied to every believer. Paul speaks of his preaching work as offering up the Gentiles, as if he is a priest (Rom. 15:16)- and in the same figure, Peter is encouraged to preach to Gentiles by killing and eating animals in a peace offering (Acts 11:7). The command that they who preach the Gospel should live of the Gospel is referring back to how the priests had no material inheritance but lived off the sacrifices (Num. 18:11). And for us, the honour and wonder of preaching Christ should mean that we keep a loose hold on the material things of this life. And as we are all priests, we are all preachers.
John records how the Lord called us friends (Jn. 15:5), and it is John who uses this title in addressing his brethren (3 Jn. 14). He reflected how the Lord saw him as his friend. And John realised that this was how he should see his brethren; and so must we. John saw himself as their partner rather than the one above them (Rev. 1:9); repeatedly he describes himself and all believers as fellow-slaves (Rev. 1:1; 2:20; 6:11; 7:4; 19:2,5; 22:3,6- quite some emphasis). All Christians are disciples, ‘learners’ (Acts 11:26); the twelve men who followed the Lamb of God around Galilee, with all their misunderstandings and lack of faith, were and are symbols of us all. The focus was upon Him, not each other. We are all learners of Christ, taught by He Himself (Eph. 4:20,21). And we are to make all men into disciples (Mt. 28:19 RV); to make them learners of Jesus too. Paul can say that he has not yet become complete (Phil. 3:10-14) and yet he seeks to present each of his converts “complete in Christ” (Col. 1:29). He recognized that he too hadn’t got to where he was seeking to take his converts.
Our preaching and teaching of each other should have this aim: not to simply get more members for our group, to prove others wrong to the point they capitulate and join us. No. Our aim must be to make men and women sit at the Lord’s feet and learn of Him themselves. Discipleship is to be what we are all our lives. Consider the contrast: ‘disciples’ in the schools of other rabbis expected to one day graduate and become teachers themselves, with disciples at their feet. But no, the Lord saw all of us, including those who have learnt of Him the longest and deepest, to always be disciples. For this reason we shouldn’t call our teaching brethren ‘rabbi’, in the sense of a teacher in his own right. Nathanael was sitting under a fig tree when the Lord called him- and this was apparently the classic place where trainee rabbis sat and studied. If this is indeed the case, then the Lord’s calling of him to be a disciple / follower was saying: ‘Don’t seek to be a rabbi. Be a disciple / follower of me, as a way of life, always’.
We are all brothers and sisters, each of us adopted into the Divine family, each of us freed slaves, rejoicing in that pure grace. Most times the NT speaks of ‘brothers’, it is in the context of tensions between people (see Mt. 5:21-24, 43-48; 7:1-5; 18:15-35). We can’t separate ourselves from our brethren any more than we can from our natural families. Once a brother, we are always a brother. No matter what disappointments and disagreements we may have, we are baptized into not only the Lord Jesus personally, but also into a never ending relationship with each other. We cannot walk away from it. It doesn’t only exist in the flurry of congratulations we received when we were baptized. Being a Christian cannot be just another town along life’s road. I wonder whether we realise this as we ought. The Lord implied that those who did God’s will were closer to Him than His physical mother or sister or brother (Mt. 12:48-50). It has been observed that “in a kinship-oriented society like Israel, it must have been startling for people to hear of a bond that was even deeper than that of the natural family”. And so it is in many parts of the world today. Responsibility to our natural families can easily take precedence over those to our spiritual family. This should not be so. It shouldn’t be that we allow attendance at family functions to stop our regular attendance at the gatherings of our spiritual brethren. And just because we are all brothers, actually something more than physical brothers and sisters, we are not to call any of us ‘Master’, because if we do, it will distract us from our personal looking to Jesus as Lord and Master (Mt. 23:8). This is why anything that even suggests a personality cult built around leading brethren, no matter how wonderful they are or were, really must be avoided. For it takes us away from the one and only Lord and Master.
It is why Paul never speaks of an ecclesial ‘elder’ but of elders in the plural. The same can be said of “bishops (overseers), see Phil.1:1; Acts 20:28. Our groups may have secretaries or teachers, but this individual must never be seen as the elder. There is only one author [Gk. ‘pioneer’] of our faith: the Lord Himself, who worked in our lives to bring us to Himself. This is stressed in Acts 3:15; 5:31; Heb. 2:10; 12:2. This raises the question as to whether we should refer to some brethren as ‘pioneers’ of the truth in an area. Elders don’t have power- the power ought to reside with the brethren and sisters. Even in the era of Holy Spirit gifts, this was the case. Thus the ecclesia is the body that has power to disfellowship, not individual elders (Mt. 18:17). In Acts 15 the representatives of the ecclesias reported to the whole church at Jerusalem, not just the elders. There seems to have been a series of meetings: initially, the group from Antioch who raised the problems being discussed met with the elders (Acts 15:4), who met together in a second meeting to consider it all, involving “the whole assembly…the whole church” (:6,12,22). Then there was perhaps a third meeting where “the whole assembly” was also present. And this is why “the apostles and elders with the whole church” (Acts 15:22) agreed a solution. It wasn’t a top down decision imposed upon the congregation. They all participated. This parallel between elders and the assembly is even found in the Old Testament- e.g. “Let them exalt him also in the assembly of the people, And praise him in the assembly of the elders” (Ps. 107:32). The “assembly of the people” and that of the elders is paralleled.
Whatever leaders or organisers we have, we are to call nobody our ‘father’ in a spiritual sense (Mt. 23:8). The wonder of our relationship with the Father ought to mean that we never do this. Above all, we are all brethren in Christ. John refers to himself as the brother of the congregation (Rev. 1:9), and the leading apostles were addressed as ‘brother’ just as much as anyone else in the ecclesia (Acts 21:20; 2 Pet. 3:15). There may be leaders among brothers (Acts 15:22), but we are still essentially brethren. The intimate inter-connectedness of the family must ever remain; which explains why Paul is called ‘Paul’ and not a longer form of address. Likewise I’d suggest that the practice of calling each other by our first names, with the prefix ‘brother’ or ‘sister’, is healthy; and, indeed, a privilege. Reference to a brother as ‘Dr.’ or ‘Mr.’ seems to me to be quite at variance with the family nature of our relationship.