There is something special when it comes to the bond between siblings. Reflecting on the great relationship I have with my two brothers, that unique bond is clear to me. Whatever our different beliefs, values and interests, there is loyalty between us that stands the test of time. There’s an underlying, unspoken, sense of goodwill toward one another. At least, I think there is (I haven’t consulted my brothers!).
Of course, many are not so blessed to have those great family relationships. Indeed, ever since Cain’s jealousy was aroused against Abel, there have been feuding brothers. Just think of the British media’s intrigue in covering the Gallagher brothers, the main men in Oasis (incidentally, the best music group of the 90s!). It seems to me that there is an acute sense of pain when family relationships go wrong. Broken families cause a visceral reaction. They are just not meant to be.
Maybe this is why we can often use the unique relationship between siblings as the benchmark for other significant bonds. After all, isn’t blood thicker than water? Aren’t soldiers at war a band of brothers? Just think of the song, “He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother”, covered by The Housemartins (incidentally, the most underrated band of the 80s...). That song speaks of a profound relationship one can enjoy with a friend. When that relationship exists, almost reflexively, people grasp for the words of brother or sister to describe it.
With that in mind, how should we react to the description of Christians in Scripture as brothers and sisters? Well, these three broad truths will help us to begin to understand the amazing implications of having sacred siblings.
1. God is our Father
Biological siblings share biological parents. In the same way, as spiritual siblings, Christians share a common Father. The beauty of this fact manifests in so many ways. But before we get to that, the exclusiveness of the claim may stick in the throats of many.
It seems to me that one mark of liberalism is applying wonderful biblical truths universally. When that’s done, biblical revelation is robbed of its beauty and meaning. John Stott, for example, often spoke out against how the liberal theology of his day applied God’s fatherhood to the whole of humanity. Stott rightly pointed out that God’s fatherhood isn’t universal. We can draw this implication from the words of Jesus, “…you belong to your Father, the devil…” (John 8:44).
Without universal fatherhood, there is no brotherhood of man (something John Lennon struggled to imagine (the last music reference, I promise). Of course, we can have loving, meaningful friendships with those who don’t know Jesus (I’m so grateful for those friends), but to be a spiritual brother or sister, one must share a spiritual Father. In Christ, the eternal Father becomes our Father, and Jesus, the eternal Son, becomes our brother (Hebrews 2:11). Through Christ, if one calls God Father, one must recognise the brotherhood he shares with others who do the same.
There is an objective “setting aside” of those who share God as their Father. Christians are a holy nation, a royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:9), a household of faith (Galatians 6:10), the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27).
By looking at the relationship we have with our heavenly Father, we can correctly perceive the kinship we share with other believers who experience that relationship too.
2. Adoption is by Grace
Having recognised the limit of God’s Fatherhood, it is worth drawing our attention to how one becomes a member of His household. Clearly, no child earns the right to be adopted. The parents’ love comes first. The same is true spiritually. Because of Christ, we are adopted by grace, through faith (Ephesians 2:8). Jesus became man so that in dying and rising with Christ (Romans 6:3–5) man could partake in God’s nature (2 Peter 1:4) and join His family.
The implications of this gracious calling are profound. Only God defines who is in his household. Only through Jesus — the way the truth and the life (John 14:6) — can we experience adoption. Only by God’s residing Spirit can we cry ‘Abba! Father!’ (Romans 8:15). How, then, can anyone bar entry into God’s family? The boundaries of who our brothers or sisters in Christ are cannot be drawn on ethic, class, gender, social, denominational or educational lines (Galatians 3:28).
Sadly, maybe under the surface, such differences can easily divide Christians. I’ve never heard a parent admit they have favourites, but too easily we can rank our spiritual brothers and sisters. In contrast, to call each other brothers and sisters affirms our common worth. To mix our metaphors, although there are different gifts, each member belongs to the same body (1 Corinthians 12:20). The weaker members must be given greater honour (1 Corinthians 12:24).
3. Christians are family
In the same way that Israelite families had obligations towards one another — think of levirate marriage (Deuteronomy 25:5–6) or the relative who acts as a financial redeemer (Leviticus 25:25) - we must reckon with our obligations to our spiritual family too.
These responsibilities are to manifest in good works, “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:10). They manifest materially, “But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” (1 John 3:10).
As Christians, our bond of unity is also underpinned by purity. Spiritual kinship informs our ethics, “Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity”. (1 Timothy 5:1–2).
Notice how all-inclusive the verses above are. The commands apply to every Christian because they are all kin. We can see that this is one area where a Christian concept of being brothers and sisters is different from the broader cultural one, where sibling language is only deployed for unique, intimate relationships.
That said, the household of God will provide a foundation for those in it to enjoy a special bond. The unity that all Christians share can blossom into a beautiful intimacy between certain brothers and sisters, a spiritual friendship if you will. Concentric circles of intimacy are natural. Let us remember, however, that these relationships are precious precisely because, at root, my Christian friend is, and will always be, my brother or sister. They are family, and this family is my primary community.
I wonder if that is how you view the Church? It’s worth observing that people find solace in many different communities. Affiliations can arise through nationalism or political ideology. People speak of the ‘LGBT community’ to describe a movement where they feel a sense of belonging. Although we should recognise where the Church has failed to live up to its calling, Christians can affirm that no other grouping or affiliation can come close to the bond that Christians share.
At my previous church, I always appreciated trips to the pub with the other church members after the service. It was here where we got to know one another. We were an eclectic bunch. A friend made the point that no other institution or movement would bring people together in the way the Church does. Only God could do such a thing.
Whatever our differences, whichever members of God’s household you get on with best, as Christians we are a spiritual family. We share the same Father. We share the same adopted status. These truths alone should stir us to live out our familial obligations towards one another.
In light of all this, let’s ask God our Father to help us grow in love towards all our sacred siblings.
This article was originally published in the Summer 2020 edition of the TFT magazine, Ascend. Click the button below to download your copy.
Download the Summer 2020 edition of Ascend
A conversation with the author...
Articles in Ascend often need to be ruthlessly edited down to fit within the required word count. To give space to discuss certain articles in greater depth, the TFT staff team will be recording occasional podcasts under the banner “Ascend Higher”, covering the issues raised in a more conversational style. To hear it for yourself, you can use the audio player below