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What’s in a Name?

Most Christadelphians know about the origin of the name of our denomination: indeed, the name “Christadelphian” has quite a history, as well as great significance. It was coined to provide the small company of believers in USA during the Civil War with a name.
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The origin

Most Christadelphians know about the origin of the name of our denomination: indeed, the name “Christadelphian” has quite a history, as well as great significance. It was coined to provide the small company of believers in USA during the Civil War with a name. This was required, so as a religious body they could apply for exemption from military service in the North. Dr. Thomas gives the account of this origin in a letter which was printed in The Ambassador for 1865. He says:

“The crisis had come, and something had to be done to save brethren in deed and in truth from being seized upon by the Devil and Satan; and hurled into the Bottomless Abyss, now engulfing with the voraciousness of Death and Hades, the sinners of this ungodly nation. I did not know a better denomination that would be given to such a class of believers than “Brethren in Christ.” This declares that true status; and, as officials prefer words to phrases, the same fact is expressed in another form by the word Christadelphians, or cristou adelfoi Christ’s Brethren.”

Not quite so well know is his explanation of the name in his Petition for conscientious objection to the US congress, also in 1865. He says:

“During the past eighteen hundred years, they have been distinguishable from the heterogeneous “names and denominations” of the kingdom of the clergy, by various titles imposed upon them by their enemies. These names they repudiate; and, in accordance with apostolic teaching, that all the real children of God are the Brethren of Jesus (a relationship in which their brethren in all ages have glorified), your petitioners choose to be known as CHRISTADELPHIANS, or BRETHREN OF CHRIST”

If you ask most Christadelphians what their name means, they will reply “Brethren in Christ”. And if you look on the Internet, this is largely the explanation used: for example, Wikipedia, that universal compendium of knowledge, so explains the term. But is this accurate? It is without question that when the problem of finding a name for them arose, John Thomas said that “Brethren in Christ” defined the status of the believers. But the word he chose and by which we as a community are known was derived from Christou adelphoi which he correctly translated as Chrisfs Brethren. There are at least a dozen references in his writings where he refers to the name, and he uniformly gives Brethren of Christ as the explanation for the term “Christadelphian”. In Col 1:2 we read “to the saints and faithful brethren in Christ which are at Colosse:” There the phrase “faithful brethren” is adelphois en Christos which means “Brethren in Christ”, and we cannot think he was not aware of it, yet he did not use it. We do not think there is any doubt John Thomas thought of Brethren of Christ as the meaning of the name he had chosen.

Which to use?

Some have argued strongly that to use the term “Brethren of Christ” to explain our relationship to our Lord and Master is presumptuous and inappropriate. It has been pointed out that when the term is used, it is as given by Jesus, and not used by his disciples. For example:

“Then said Jesus unto them, Be not afraid: go tell my brethren that they go into Galilee, and there shall they see me” (Matt 28:10).
“For both he that sanctifieth and they who are sanctified are all of one: for which cause he is not ashamed to call them brethren,” (Heb 2:11).
“For whosoever shall do the will of God, the same is my brother, and my sister, and mother” (Mark 3:35).

So the question is, despite the use of “Brethren of Christ” to denote the name of our community, is it appropriate to use the term to describe ourselves? It is no light matter to be called a brother of the Lord, but if the Lord is not ashamed to call the sanctified his brethren, should we not humbly recognize the fact? John does not hesitate to say, “Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). So are we not truly “sons of God”, because those who receive the Lord are given power, right, or privilege to become sons of God? In the passage from Hebrews above, the inspired writer connects the fact that Christ uses the word brethren with the other fact that both he and his brethren are all of one Father, and he adds that he shared the same nature as the other children. There is, however, a tremendous difference in the basis of the sonship of Jesus and of ours, for which cause we hesitate to speak of the Lord as “elder brother”.

A quick survey of the usage of the terms in 7he Tidings over the last sixty years shows a preference for “Brethren in Christ” over “Brethren of Christ” by about 2:1, but there is no doubt both terms are in common use. It is by grace we can be called a brother of Christ, but it is a fact that we are firstly brethren in Christ. We are brothers and sisters in the Truth, first and most important because we are baptized into Christ. We become related spiritually, through Christ and his action in reconciling us with God through his sacrifice.

In addition, we are baptized, not into the Christadelphian community specifically, but into a body of believers who share the same beliefs, the same first principles. It is possible, although rare, for a person to be baptized (by whoever, as most of our constitutions say), with the same set of beliefs and not discover the Christadelphian community until later or even perhaps never!

Who is a brother?

It is clear, therefore, that who is my brother is defined by the validity of their baptism. Your natural brother remains your brother throughout your life, even though you might become estranged from them. So someone who has been validly baptized so remains a brother, unless by abandoning the Truth, or by through some outrageous act that is clearly a sin against the Holy Spirit, as discussed below.

When a brother or sister from another fellowship seeks to join us, we normally conduct an interview to check the validity of their baptism and their grasp of the Truth, but we do not normally re-baptize them. We accept the baptism as valid of all who accept what we consider as basic Bible doctrines, and as such we recognize them as our brethren. We do not have the right to say that somebody is no longer a brother of Christ because they disagree with us, neither can we imply that only the baptisms performed by our community are valid. The validity of your baptism depends on the state of your knowledge and attitude, not on the person who baptizes you. As we have pointed out, we are “Brethren in Christ”, not brethren because we happen to go to a Christadelphian ecclesia on a Sunday. After all, we are baptized into none other than the Lord Jesus Christ (let not the wonder of that escape us), not some church or organization. We must not think of those who might leave our Amended community for others as renouncing their status as Brethren in Christ, and we should continue to recognize them as Brethren. If we neglect this duty, it mean that it is our decision to admit them to our community that makes them a brother in Christ, rather than their faith and baptism into the Lord their Savior. The whole question of how we should fellowship them is quite a different discussion.

The limits

“But now I have written unto you not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one no not to eat. For what have I to do to judge them also that are without? do not ye judge them that are within? But them that are without God judgeth. Therefore put away from among yourselves that wicked person”

Clearly, there are limits, as Paul shows. But we must be very careful to assume that one who is in what we might consider doctrinal error, is no spiritual brother of ours. As we read “And if any man obey not our word by this epistle, note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed. Yet count him not as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother” (2Thess 3:14). So even those we do not readily keep company with are still our Brethren in Christ.

The custom of Robert Roberts and the rest of the community has always been to regard those who might disagree with us on some point of doctrine to be brothers in error, not as those who totally disagree with us. (We can see this in reference, for example, to Robert Ashcroft and JJ Andrew, both of whom promulgated doctrines that were refuted by Robert Roberts.) Of course, we do not so regard as brethren those of most of the religious communities around us, even though a fair number have been baptized as adults. And we must remember that Christ, through God, will judge all in the Kingdom: I expect there will be many surprises at that event. So not only do we have no right or ability to gather up the tares from among the wheat, but it is the clear teaching of the Bible that if condemn our brother, we too will be condemned.

So are we Brethren in Christ, or Brethren of Christ? The clear answer is both: we address each other as brother (or sister), because we are Brethren in Christ. But we are all Brethren of Christ, though the grace of God in giving us His son, our Lord Jesus, through whom we can hope to become true sons of God.


Peter Hemingray

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Kenneth Wubbels
1 year ago

In the article you mention that Dr. Thomas provided an explanation for his choice of the name Christadelphian in an 1865 publication of The Ambassador. Likewise you mention that he “petitioned Congress” for objector status for the group, explaining his choice of name. Is the original document (petition) still in existence?
It is my understanding that there is no tangible evidence of any Civil War era religious group adopting a name expressly for the purpose of allowing members to claim objector status. One example would be the Brethren in Christ (Dunkers) of Lancaster County. They likewise claim to have adopted a name change for this purpose, but no historical evidence exists of such a request in response to the 1862 Draft Law. Their historians would be very interested in discovering such a petition, even if for another religious group

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