The St. Crispin’s Day speech given by Henry V in Shakespeare’s historical play is well remembered. The French vastly outnumbered the English, and the King had one chance to persuade his men to do what none of them wanted — “to make us fight cheerfully.” And on the muddy fields of Agincourt the King roused and commanded his men for the fight:
But we in it shall be remember’d;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile.
The imagery of the band of brothers has been used for wartime propaganda. In popular culture it's most recognizable by Stephen Ambrose’s record of Easy Company of the 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment assigned to the 101st Airborne Division in World War II. Those who have battled in blood together share a close kinship and loyalty that transcends many relationships in life.
From one angle it’s also reflective of the relationships cultivated in the service of the gospel. The Apostle Paul speaks of the ministry as warfare and the destroying of strongholds (2 Corinthians 10:4). He reminded Timothy to be a “good soldier of Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 2:3). He commended Epaphroditus (Philippians 2:5) and Archippus (Philemon 2) as “fellow soldiers.” Aristarchus was Paul’s “fellow prisoner,” which more literally means a fellow-prisoner-of-war (Colossians 4:10). He also identified Prisca and Aquila as those who risked their necks for him (Romans 16:3) — and often made mention of many fellow workers, brothers, and kinsmen.
Pastors and elders can likely identify quickly with Paul’s love for his co-laborers. Writing to William Farell and Peter Viret, John Calvin said: “I think there has never been, in ordinary life, a circle of friends so sincerely bound to each other as we have been in our ministry.” Sharing the experiences and burdens of the pastorate, contending for the faith, and taking the kingdom of heaven by storm has a way of forging battle-like relationships, knitting Christians together in the bonds of love, courage, and loyalty. These friendships are needed in the ministry, and many pastors have been strengthened by such affectionate bonds. After all “a brother is born for adversity” (Proverbs 17:17).
But the band of brothers can have an insidious effect too. On March 16, 1968 it’s reported that 504 people — including elderly, women, children, and infants — were brutally murdered by United States troops in South Vietnam. This became known as the My Lai Massacre and remains the largest publicized massacre of civilians by US forces in the 20th century. Not every soldier in the company participated in the killings, but they also didn’t protest or file complaints with their superiors. Three US service members tried to stop the massacre and help the Vietnamese. These men were shunned, ignored, and denounced as traitors. In particular Hugh Thompson faced death threats and was vilified for his efforts.
Officers knew that the massacre would cause a lot of problems if the public learned of it, and so they engaged in a massive cover-up, fabricating events and even publicly praising the company for their valiant fight against the Viet Cong. It wasn’t until a single soldier — who had been ignored by congressmen, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the State Department, the Pentagon, and the President — broke rank and sat down with an investigative journalist that wide-spread public attention was given to the massacre and the cover-up. It doesn’t seem far-fetched to say that the same brotherhood that inspired valiant acts of bravery, self-sacrifice, and loyalty was subtly turned to promote silence and the heinous ends of self-preservation and protection. The brotherhood demanded unswerving allegiance. It’s the deception the Bible warns us of: “Bad company ruins good morals” (1 Corinthians 15:33).
It’s a cautionary tale. Tragically, the brotherhood forged in the trenches of gospel ministry can also devolve into a relational loyalty that compromises truth, righteousness, and the glory of Jesus Christ. While Paul cherished the relationships made through co-laboring, he also warned Timothy of their danger — namely, the danger of partiality: “Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses. As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear. In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of the elect angels I charge you to keep these rules without prejudging, doing nothing from partiality” (1 Timothy 5:19-21). The word partiality means “leaning toward,” and Paul is charging the young pastor to lean in no man’s direction — no matter the influence, gifting, or relational bond. Timothy was to avoid partiality.
The Apostle himself is an extraordinary example of impartiality even among friends. With a godly indifference Paul wasn’t smitten by those who seemed influential, saying they added nothing to him. He illustrated this in his relationship with Peter a pillar in the church. After Peter had extended “the right hand of fellowship” to Paul and Barnabas, he wandered into error. Barnabas got caught in Peter’s hypocrisy, but Paul didn’t hesitate in opposing him to his face “because he stood condemned” (Galatians 2:11). At another time Paul spoke affectionately about Demas as a “fellow worker,” but didn’t shy away from naming names when Demas abandoned himself to this present world (2 Timothy 4:10). Paul didn’t buckle in a “sharp disagreement” with his friend and companion Barnabas even parting ways for a time (Acts 15:39).
What enabled Paul to simultaneously value beyond measure the relationships found in ministry but hold them loosely enough to say what needed to be said and do what needed to be done? It was his profound awareness that he was nothing more than a servant of Jesus. He asked the Galatians: “For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man?” With integrity he could answer: “If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ” (Galatians 1:10). His friendships — the band of brothers — were secondary to the loyalty he owed his Master.
Impartiality is one of the most needed and maybe one of the most neglected aspects of faithful ministry. The closer our relational bonds are the more easily we can be tempted by line drawing, blind loyalty, party spirit, or clouded judgment. These things have no place among those who account themselves servants of Christ — and that includes within ministerial friendships. Personal relationships do not determine what is good and righteous, and standing by friends is not the measure of a man's ministry. The pastoral call can be no less demanding than the call of discipleship: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26).
Sacrificing friendship for the sake of Christ isn’t easy. But sometimes it's necessary. In March of 1887, Charles Spurgeon was drawn into an immense conflict known as the Down-Grade Controversy. He perceived that the Baptist Union was being threatened and it required him to set himself against some with whom he’d labored for decades. In the heat of the conflict Spurgeon wrote that he had “suffered the loss of friendship and reputation,” and went on to say “the pain it has cost me none can measure."
For some that’s too great a price to pay. But faithfulness in the ministry requires pastors to bear the cross of impartiality — to cherish the relationships necessary for the work but to lean in no man’s direction.