Reflection: Romans 12: 9 – 21
What we believe do not necessarily translate into long-term changes in our thoughts, feelings or behavior, which leads us to Paul’s repetitive instructions in his epistles, urging believers to regularly practice Christian disciplines within their community. “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love” (v.10) is one of these, behind the more explicitly practical counsel in this passage. From the inception of the early church, believers are considered part of the church family – being brothers and sisters in Christ, but unlike most ordinary families, which are characteristically marked by a lack of discrimination and space, the church struggles to reflect this milieu. Hence, Paul saw the necessity of elaborating what it means to be a church-family with its emotional identification and exhausting involvement.
Philadelphia is the word used for brotherly love or love among friends, but it is here qualified by philostorgoi, which means to be devoted or be kindly caring; it further conveys a cherishing relationship that demonstrates a deep natural affection or bond that exists between a mother and her infant and vice versa. Hence, storgoi is undiscriminating in that it possesses a strong sense of attachment among individuals who, if they did not find themselves in the same family or community, would have absolutely nothing to do with each other; like being siblings, colleagues or church members. That connectedness is a practiced attitude that grows out of a commitment to that person, making them appreciate him for who he is, despite differences in personality, temperament, race, and class, including difficult individuals with a variety of failings and imperfections. Consequently, philadelphia-philostorgoi implies that we have given up selecting who we like to include within our circle as we journey together with our Lord; as simply as we do not choose our siblings, neither do we have a choice with brothers/sisters in Christ.
How much individual space do we have in a family setup would vary with children, teenagers and adults, with the younger ones having less freedom. The practice of philostorgoi would infer a level of accountability in matters that normal family members expect from each other, which is quite shocking. But it made sense for Paul, as Scripture mentions the early church pooling their finances, and worshipping from house-to-house sharing everything, and certainly holding each other accountable for the truth (Acts 2:44-45; 4:32-37). I do not think there was a total disregard of privacy, but the church was never modeled after extant standards during the early apostolic days. If the instructions in the passage (vv.9-21) were to be taken seriously, and read in the philadelphia-philostorgoi context, it would certainly mean a costly commitment to each other in Christ among church members, making it emotionally fragile as in any model household where transparency is a norm. But isn’t that what sanctification is all about as God’s Holy Spirit does His wondrous work in our rather imperfect church community. It does not take a prolonged reading of the epistles to conclude how dysfunctional the early churches were, but what stood out to outsiders was the bright testimony of how they tangibly loved one another (Tertullian’s Apologeticum 39:7). Our predisposition and ecclesiology would perhaps not naturally gravitate us to another commune framework, but the practice of devotedness to one another in brotherly love is positively worth recovering!