the weblog of Alan Knox

Titles revisited…

Posted by on Aug 25, 2007 in office, scripture | 11 comments

I’ve previously discussed the use of titles between believers in a couple of posts (see “Dr. Anabaptist” and “Do titles matter?“). I thought it might be interesting to see what “titles” are used in Scripture. Specifically, I looked at vocative nouns… that is, nouns of direct address.

As an introduction, in the sentence, “My brother bought me a car”, the word “brother” is a noun being used as the subject of the sentence. But, in the sentence, “Brother, buy me a car”, the word “brother” is still a noun, but here it is used as a vocative. The person speaking is directly addressing someone by the designator “brother”. The subject of the second sentence is the implied “you” of the imperative verb “buy”.

So, I am looking at Scriptural uses of vocative nouns as they are used to address believers and others. What “titles” or “designators” did the biblical authors use to address their readers and other people?

Many times, a person is addressed by their name in the vocative case. For example, Theophilus, Ananias, Saul/Paul, Cornelius, Peter, Felix, King Agrippa, and Festus are all addressed by name in the book of Acts.

Sometimes, an author would address his readers by referring to their location: people of Jerusalem, Corinthians, Galatians, and Philippians. In each case, the person speaking or writing is addressing people from that location, and, in most instances, believers living in that location. (Thus, Aquila and Priscilla would be included in an address to “Ephesians” while they were living in Ephesus, but an address to “Romans” would include Aquila and Priscilla after they moved back to Rome.)

In another type of vocative address, the author would refer to his readers by designating them according to character traits. Thus, James referred to some of his readers as “Adulteresses”. Similarly, John referred to his readers based on either their age or their spiritual maturity: “Children”, “Young People”, “Older People”. Another favorite character trait used in an address is “beloved”. In fact, it is used 30 times in the New Testament. This makes it one of the most used “titles”.

But, what about the title “brother” (or “sister”). How often was this “title” used in the New Testament? Well, of the 640 nouns in the vocative case in the New Testament, 112 of those refer to others as “brothers” or “sisters”.

For the record, “brother” (or “sister”) is not the vocative noun with the most occurrences in the New Testament. That would be the noun “Lord”, which is used 124 times, primarily to refer to Jesus Christ.

It seems that, at least for the biblical authors, they preferred to think of and refer to other believers as “brothers” or “sisters”. I don’t think this is an accident. Instead, I believe that the idea of being adopted into the family of God was very important to the early believers. They recognized that when they were indwelled by the Holy Spirit, all of their relationships had changed. They took these words of Jesus very seriously:

While he was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him. But he replied to the man who told him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (Matthew 12:46-50 ESV)

As we follow Christ and as the Spirit transforms us, we stop treating one another like the world treats people (based on rank, popularity, wealth, power, education, abilities, etc.). Instead, we begin to treat one another like the family that we are. We are members of a new family – not a temporary, earthly family of flesh and blood, but an eternal family birthed by the Spirit.

Thus, “brother” and “sister” are not niceties to use to address other believers, but a reminder of our intimate relationship with one another in God by Jesus Christ and through the Spirit. We should not be embarrassed if someone calls us “brother” or “sister”. We should not be embarrassed to call other people “brother or “sister”. Why? Because it is less a “title” and more a reminder of who we are together because of God’s grace and power.


11 Comments

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  1. 8-25-2007

    This post gave me chills (the good kind–as in, “Wow, that is amazingly awesome!”). Great study, Alan, and I appreciate you taking the time to do this.

    I guessed at what the most-used “believer to believer” term would be, but it was still amazing to me to see the incredible margin in usage between brother/sister and the others.

    Out of curiosity, how often did you find “holy ones” to be used? That’s one of the ones I like so much in the NT.

  2. 8-25-2007

    Steve,

    Believers are often called “holy ones” in the New Testament, but they are rarely addressed by that term. In fact, that adjective is only used in the vocative (direct address) twice in the NT: 1) it is used to refer to God in John 17:11 – “Holy Father” and 2) it is used to refer to believers in Hebrews 3:1 – “holy brothers”. I think it’s interesting that the vocative “brothers” is also used in Hebrews 3:1.

    -Alan

  3. 8-26-2007

    Oh, duh. I forgot you were narrowing the search to vocative when I asked my question! :) My bad.

  4. 8-26-2007

    Alan,

    Thanks for your work on this post.

    As this relates to your post on paid pastors, I wonder if we tend to use more formal titles (usually “pastor”) for those who are paid? As if getting paid somehow places the person in a position of more authority, and therefore, deserving of some kind of honorary title.

    Yet another reason to have unpaid leadership is that it will probably be easier for the people of the body to refer to the pastor/elders as simply “brother.”

    Eric

  5. 8-26-2007

    Eric,

    I have been part of churches in which the paid pastor was referred to as “Brother So-and-so”. However, “Brother So-and-so” was not treated as a “brother” when people didn’t agree with him. I think this post and the use of “brother” in Scripture is not as much about how we refer to other believer but much more about how we treat other believers – including pastors/elders. Using the word “brother” to refer to one another would be a great step forward, but actually treating one another like family is what I think Scripture is showing us.

    After saying all that, I do think that the clergy/laity divide (whether the “clergy” are paid or not) does affect how we treat one another. So, I definitely agree with you there.

    -Alan

  6. 8-26-2007

    Interestingly enough, there are some churches I know that use the “brother/sister” titles for each other. Many of them lean toward the health/wealth/shiny suit/shiny car gospel (explicitly).

    But it’s true that the implications of viewing our co-congregants as brothers and sisters are huge.

    I’m actually posting something on this tomorrow on my blog (yes, I’m actually posting something of my own!).

    Great post, Alan. Thanks for the in-depth study.

  7. 8-26-2007

    David,

    You are absolutely right! We can call each other “brother” or “sister” without understanding the implications. I’ve heard the title “brother” or “sister” used with sarcasm or bitterness as well.

    I’m looking forward to you post!

    -Alan

  8. 8-27-2007

    Hermano-hermana (brother, sister) is used nearly always when addressing another believer in Ecuadorian evangelical circles. It has a way of bringing everyone to the same level in Christ. We are, as you point out, family. In fact it is considered rude to address a fellow believer without prefacing their name with “hermano” or “hermana”.

  9. 8-27-2007

    Guy,

    When we were in Nicaragua, I loved being called Hermano Alan. Thank you for your comment.

    -Alan

  10. 6-7-2012

    Alan,

    Great post! The group I meet with uses brother/sister as opposed to men/women. A friend commented that men/women is only biological, while brother/sister is relational and familial.

    I have noticed that some will tend to make brother/sister into a more formal title than is needed, as in always using the title with the person’s name, which becomes a little excessive when it is used like “I was with brother Ted, brother Larry, brother Sam, and brother Harry”.

    So I like the use of brother/sister a lot, but try to refrain from making it too formal.

  11. 6-7-2012

    Mark,

    I agree. “Brother” and “sister” can be used as a title that loses its familial meaning.

    -Alan