You Don’t Need to Call Me Brother … Brother
When I was a new convert, one of the cultural practices I found most peculiar was the addressing of everyone as “Brother X” and “Sister X.” While at first it felt awkward to address people in this way, I quickly came to enjoy it. My fellow believers were my new family in Christ, and calling them brother and sister reminded me of this truth. Over the years, however, my enthusiasm for this convention has waned. Now, I prefer to simply call people by their first name. The reasons for my shift were both Biblical and practical.
First, I came to realize that these titles – meant to express something beautiful – were often used in ugly ways. For many, “brother” has come to be viewed as an honorary title, particularly for those in authority. I have known men in positions of leadership who have berated fellow-believers for not addressing them as “Brother X.” Rather than expressing the equality of all, “brother” has come to be used to express the superiority of some.
Second, I observed that people tend to address others as “Brother X” or “Sister X” only when they do not have a close relationship with them. Two close friends in the church almost never address each other in this fashion. They are on a first-name basis. Addressing people as “Brother X,” then, implicitly distinguishes between those we are in a close relationship and those we are not. Addressing someone as “Brother X” not only reveals a less intimate relationship with that person, but also tends to keep the relationship on a more formal level, similar to always referring to someone as “Mr. X.”
Practical reasons aside, the best reason for adopting or abandoning a practice is Scriptural teaching or precedent. Did the early Christians refer to each other in this fashion? Does the Bible instruct us to address each other in this fashion? The answer to the first question is a qualified yes, and the answer to the latter question is a resounding no.
While the NT commonly uses familial language such as “brother” to describe fellow-believers in the body of Christ in a generic sense, it only addresses or refers to a specific Christian using this preface on on two occasions. In Acts 9:17 Ananias called Paul “Brother Saul,” and in Acts 21:20 James called Paul “brother.”1 Compare these two occurrences with the multitude of others in which people were simply called by their first name. From the Biblical data, it seems that calling someone “brother” or “Brother X” was the exception, not the norm.
I am not opposed to calling people “brother” or “Brother X.” It comes in handy when you can’t remember someone’s name! What I think we need to avoid is viewing and using “brother” as an honorary title, or using it as a synonym for the formal “mister.” There are times in which it is appropriate to call someone “Brother X,” or just plain “brother,” but let’s not forget that the name of our birth certificates does not begin with “brother” or “sister.”
1. There are also 15 references wherein specific individuals are named, adding “our brother” or “a brother” (Rom 16:23; 1 Cor 1:1; 16:12; 2 Cor 1:1; 2:13; Eph 6:21; Phil 2:25; Col 1:1; 4:7, 9; 1 Thes 3:2; Phm 1; Heb 13:23; 1 Pet 5:12; 2 Pet 3:15; ), however, in each instance “brother” is used as a description, not as a title.)
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