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Not Your Sister

a couple walking in a field
What does it mean to be siblings in Christ?

I know some of the finest men around.

If I had any doubts that it is possible for Christian men and women to interact wisely, despite all the pressures from within and without, I have only to look at them. They honor Jesus. And they honor me. Yet (like me) they’re still learning what this means.

In the past, I’ve mentioned that “I have watched single men treat single women as ‘safe’ because they think of her as a ‘sister'” — and they’ve made her heart hurt as a result.[1]Adapted from “Electronic Attention and Digital Pursuit,” published on The Dating Manifesto, March 30, 2012. Used with permission. Yet I’ve also suggested that they “encourage … younger women as sisters.”[2]1 Timothy 5:1-2

No wonder a male reader asked me: “Should I be treating single women as sisters or not?”

I’m really glad he asked!

You can safely assume that your biological sister does not desire your romantic attention, and thus is immune to being led on by you. You can make it plain by your actions that she will never be a marriage prospect, without hurting her feelings as a woman.

But your sister in Christ is not your (biological) sister. You cannot safely do these things to her.

So what does it mean to be siblings in Christ?

Since the word “brother” (or “brothers”) appears about 250 times in the New Testament in the context of spiritual family, I think most of us would agree that we should — in some way or another — treat fellow Christians like siblings. But while we may say “brother” to others within the church, it’s sometimes little more than a polite title, a meaningless “Christianese” term, or a brush-off for those we have platonic feelings for.

We keep using that word, but I do not think it means what we think it means.

Does it matter?

It does! Because Jesus’ concept of “brother” and “sister” is so much richer than we imagine.

It can apply to those who were born our siblings, those who feel like siblings and those who don’t, to spouses, significant others, or those we wish we were in relationship with. The literal Greek for the “believing wife” of I Corinthians 9:5 is a “wife” who is a “sister” — obviously in a spiritual sense only. John wrote that “whoever loves his brother” is kept from stumbling because he’s walking “in the light.”[3]1 John 2:10-11 It’s an incredibly practical perspective from which to keep all these relationships on a healthy, constructive track.

Are You My Brother?

To understand spiritual siblings, it’s helpful to start with the family, whether biological or adopted. For Westerners, the definition of a sibling generally doesn’t extend beyond the children of at least one of my parents. In the years I have lived in the Middle East, however, I’ve learned that here (both in biblical times and today), a “brother” can also be a member of one’s extended family, or even someone who shares the same ethnicity, religion or nation.[4]If you trace the use of “brother” in the NT, it is first used to refer to natural siblings and fellow countrymen (Acts 2:14, 22, 29) and eventually expands to include Gentile believers (Acts … Continue reading

In the Western world, the sibling relationship may not extend past shared childhood memories and infrequent holiday meals. In the Middle East, it could mean all sorts of things: supporting a nephew through college, helping a cousin find a job, or pursuing a brother who has wandered away from the faith. Since extended family is likely to share the same village, if not an inter-generational home, there’s always someone to turn to in a crisis. Such a deeply rooted, broadly reaching sense of responsibility can be difficult to understand from our individualized and self-reliant Western worldview. Yet throughout the Bible, God crafted a portrait of himself in the kinsman-redeemer who seeks out His needy relative, armed with the right to provide and advocate for her.

This attitude is much more easily caught than taught. While the biological siblings who inhabit the Bible struggle with the same rivalries and temptations that we do, reading their stories helps us understand what sibling relationships are meant to be. For example, Joseph freely forgives his brothers’ treachery, Laban prays for his sister’s future, Benjamin’s brothers leap to his defense, and Jehosheba raises her brother’s orphaned son. Job’s children dine together, Korah’s children sing together, and Zebedee’s children fish together. The first person Andrew wants to tell when he realizes he’s met the Messiah? His brother Peter.

This is the culture that was rocked when Jesus redefined his brothers as anyone who does God’s will.[5]Matthew 12:49-50 We are His brothers! Those who mess with us and those who bless us will answer to Him.[6]Matthew 25:40

It was a potent teaching, and it bore a lot of unpacking by the earliest church. Brother goes beyond blood and nation, they learned. It means brother-at-arms, “partner in the tribulation … the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus.”[7]Revelation 1:9

“If we have [Christ] in common, we have everything in common,” wrote one of my friends.

In this band of brothers forged through trial, we share things like accountability and advocacy; empathy, prayer, and practical support in times of trouble; the joy of learning and growing as a group; and modeling godly, unselfish manhood and womanhood to one another, helping form one another’s ideals and affirm each one’s unique reflection of God.

Is it crucial to understand who my brother is?

Yes, because loving him is a sign that we love God and are His children.[8]1John 3:10-15 It’s another way, along with marriage, in which we show His character to the world.[9]John 13:35 And it’s no light thing to Jesus: What we do to His brothers, we do to Him.[10]Matthew 25:31-40

That’s why, if a brother is sick, we visit. If he’s needy, we give. We show hospitality, even if he’s a stranger. We lift his faint heart and bear his burdens. If he’s in prison, we feel imprisoned, too. We don’t grumble against, show partiality against, pass judgment on, or create a stumbling block for him. Even when he hurts us, we don’t see him as an enemy. Yes, sometimes he gets off track, so if we see him sin, we pray for him. When needed, we’ll confront him. We’ll even lay down our lives for him.

The Bible is crammed with directions on the topic, but Jesus knew we’d need it modeled to fully understand.

How do I love my brother?

“Just as I have loved you,” He said — and within hours, He was on the cross.

Why Purity?

In the passage I quoted above, Paul says (in effect), “Timothy, don’t yell at folks. Treat them like family instead.”[11]1 Timothy 5:1-2 Here, to treat them like family is to encourage them. The Greek verb translated “encourage,” paracleo,[12]Strong’s # 3870 is related to Jesus’ description of the Holy Spirit: an advocate, someone who comes alongside to help. It means to call someone near, to invite, entreat, give advice, strengthen and console.

Paul goes on to acknowledge some possible tension. To paraphrase: “The younger women aren’t your biological sisters, so watch out for temptation. Relate to them in all purity.” Note that he doesn’t say, “Don’t relate to them at all.” Rather, he advises us on how to relate to them properly: “in all purity.”

The Greek word[13]Strong’s #47, 53, 40 for “purity” means cleanliness, chastity, and a life without sin. Related words describe being prepared for worship (pure to the core) and a holy place or temple (something that’s different because it is set apart for God).

Elsewhere, Paul warns us against sexual sin because our bodies belong to the Lord and are, in fact, His temple,[14]1 Corinthians 6:15-20 but he also urges us “that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter.”[15]1 Thessalonians 4:3-6 The Greek suggests someone who covets what’s not theirs, taking advantage of a brother in order to get it.

Purity, then, is two-fold. First, it means maintaining a state of mind and heart in which I’m always ready to worship God. Impurity could take the form of lust, willfully deceiving myself, or doubting God’s kindness — any thought that keeps me from turning to Him. Second, purity means guarding, not violating the boundaries of others. Relating to the opposite sex “in all purity” is not indifference; it’s reverence. It’s vivid awareness of their value to God.

Solomon daydreamed of a protective tower for his little sister. Simeon and Levi took up the sword when their sister was abducted. My point is not the violence, but that it’s in a brother’s nature to shield his sister from harm. A sibling in Christ should feel the same way.

Think of the protective power with which Jesus lashed the moneychangers out of His house. He takes neither His temple, nor our brothers, nor our bodies lightly. He has a brother’s desire to stick up for us; we should follow His example in our love for others.

“Purity” that’s motivated solely by a desire to keep out of trouble cannot be relied upon, because a selfish heart will eventually lead us down a crooked path.[16]James 4:1-2 Purity comes, not by cultivating indifference, but by internalizing more of Christ’s love. And it is most relevant in the face of temptation: whether another’s or our own.

Why Family?

While God’s love guards our purity, He does not promise freedom from suffering. Even with hearts full of brotherly love, others have hurt me, and I have hurt them. With the potential for romance comes the potential for pain, and it hurts, no matter how kindly phrased, to learn that you are not chosen.

At this point you may be saying, “It’s too complicated!” The most practical solution, it seems, is to disconnect completely from those of the opposite sex.

But wait.

Once we understand that a sibling in the Lord won’t have the same feelings as a biological sibling, we’re set free! Free to focus on all the other great aspects of sibling relationships besides building a one-on-one bond.

This is easy for me to imagine, because I come from a large family. Siblings can form subgroups by birth order, life stage, and shared interests, but this is an ever-changing thing, not the permanent formation of exclusive relationships. Ideally, each keeps an eye out for all the other siblings, noticing who feels suffocated or excluded by too much or too little attention. Siblings enjoy their shared interests, yes, but they value, preserve and prioritize the larger family identity.

As siblings in Christ, we have a bond outside of romantic potential. We may not be “in a relationship,” but we are related to one another. We have a common spiritual heritage and destiny; we are teammates; we support one another in a non-possessive way, a way that focuses on strengthening the family as a whole.

If we want healthy sibling relationships in God’s family, we cannot afford to be naïve, because men and women are designed to connect. We do not know the specific temptations of those around us, nor do we even fully know our own selves. We may be tempted tomorrow by something that does not tempt us today.

I believe it’s interacting communally, rather than individually, that keeps our relationships on track. C.S Lewis describes lovers as relating face-to-face, while friends stand shoulder-to-shoulder, focused on a common interest. I think of siblings in Christ as planes flying in formation. It’s essential to maintain a safe distance! And that’s best accomplished neither by over-casualness nor over-correction, but by focusing on and following our Leader.

As a freelance writer, I figure there are few professions more likely to be peopled by loners, yet as writing has demanded more of me, I’ve grown more vividly aware of the importance of community. Even writers, independent and self-sufficient as in many ways we are, may choose to hone our skills and enrich our hearts and increase our reach by changing competition into cooperation.

This. This is what we chose when we became disciples. To live out Jesus’ character — because that’s whose life is playing out inside of us. To live as an integral part of His unified whole — because that is, in fact, what we are: indispensable parts of the body of Christ and the family of God.

So am I your sister, or not? The answer is another of the paradoxes which is simple to God, but which tends to blow my mind.

I am not your sister.

And yet —

thank God —

I am!

Copyright 2013 Elisabeth Adams. All rights reserved.


1 Adapted from “Electronic Attention and Digital Pursuit,” published on The Dating Manifesto, March 30, 2012. Used with permission.
2 1 Timothy 5:1-2
3 1 John 2:10-11
4 If you trace the use of “brother” in the NT, it is first used to refer to natural siblings and fellow countrymen (Acts 2:14, 22, 29) and eventually expands to include Gentile believers (Acts 15:23).
5 Matthew 12:49-50
6 Matthew 25:40
7 Revelation 1:9
8 1John 3:10-15
9 John 13:35
10 Matthew 25:31-40
11 1 Timothy 5:1-2
12 Strong’s # 3870
13 Strong’s #47, 53, 40
14 1 Corinthians 6:15-20
15 1 Thessalonians 4:3-6
16 James 4:1-2

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About the Author

Elisabeth Adams

Elisabeth Adams has lived in five states, one Canadian province, and the captivating city of Jerusalem, where she studied historical geography and Hebrew. As a freelance writer and editor, she loves hearing and telling new tales of God’s faithfulness. Most of all, she wants to keep a quiet heart.


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