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.