A few days ago, Joe (J.R. in his comments here) from “More than Cake” referred to a book called The Ancient Church as Family by Joseph H. Hellerman. As I’ve mentioned before, “family” is one of my favorite metaphors for the church in Scripture. In fact, I’ve suggested that “family” is more than a metaphor for the church.
In Hellerman’s book, he concludes that familial and kinship language is used by Christians authors (both in Scripture and in post-apostolic writings) for two reasons: 1) rhetoric and 2) praxis.
In relation to familial terminology used by early Christians as rhetoric, Hellerman says:
The appropriation of family language as a rhetorical device used to engender desired behaviors is a common strategy among Christian authors… Controlling models, such as the family metaphor, offer “organizing power and integrating vision” to religious communities… [T]hose who had the most to gain from the image of the church as a family were the poor, the hungry, the enslaved, the imprisoned, the orphans, and the widows. For brother-sister terminology in antiquity had nothing to do with hierarchy, power, and privilege, but everything to do with equality, solidarity, and generalized reciprocity. (216-221)
In relation to familial terminology used by early Christians as praxis, he states:
Examples abound of sibling solidarity enjoined by Christian writers and practiced in early Christian communities. Paul constantly uses brother-sister language to challenge his communities to treat one another like Mediterranean siblings… The extensive amount of evidence from Christian writings, along with the confirming voice of pagan detractors such as Lucian and Julian, encourages the student of Christian social formation to take seriously the early Christians’ claim that the family metaphor found tangible expression in the day-to-day activities of their local communities throughout the Roman Empire. (221-225)
I agree with Hellerman that familial language is used by the authors of Scripture both to encourage ethical behavior among Christians and to demonstrate how the early believers treated one another.
I would go a step beyond this, however. (And, to be honest, I haven’t read this book closely enough to know whether or not Hellerman would agree with what I am about to say.) The reason that the early Christian authors used familial terminology as rhetoric and praxis is because they considered one another family. “Brother” and “Sister” were not merely titles to the early Christians – they were an expression of ontology – being. The early Christians called one another “brother” and “sister” because they recognized that they WERE brothers and sisters – related through their common relationship with God in a bond that was stronger and longer-lasting than even a blood relationship.
Why did the early Christians use familial terminology? Because they were family.