Brothers and Sisters

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

I’ve been thinking for the last few weeks how evangelicals have lost the mentality of family that Paul exhorts here, at least in our public conversations around gender and our actions between genders. For a while, really more than a decade from my perspective, gender conversations among evangelicals have been primarily focused on husbands and wives (or some version of that focus)–encouraging healthy marriages, discouraging relationships outside of marriage, discipling men to be good husbands, discipling women to be good wives, and so forth. I think many of these conversations have been valuable to the church. What does marriage that is in Christ between image-bearers of God look like? Believers must be discipled on this!

But note that Scripture talks of husbands and wives singularly, “the husband of one wife.” The global application of the marriage relationship is only between Jesus and His Church, never between men and women in general. No analogy from the marital relationship transfers to average male/female relationships. In contrast, Scripture speaks of fathers, daughters, mothers, sons, brothers and sisters as categories applied generally outside of biological family.

The average Christian woman knows and interacts with hundreds of men in her lifetime, maybe more, but in most cases only ONE of those men will ever be her husband. Many in conservative evangelicalism respond to that fact by encouraging and discipling women in ways that support only that one relationship with that one man. Instead, women (and men) need to be discipled to image out Christ in the myriad of other cross gendered relationships they have.

Mark 3:35 “For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.”

In my experience, men and women in the conservative church are mostly encouraged to not have any of those relationships at all beyond a superficial level. The fear that an inappropriate relationship between the sexes will develop justifies for many the avoidance of any male/female relationship outside of marriage. I’m afraid that in an effort to avoid inappropriate relationships between men and women, we have forgotten to foster appropriate ones.  As one friend said, we focus so on the word “purity” in I Timothy 5 that we forget that the context is a familial relationship in which such purity is the norm.

We should seek to be consistent with the example of Scripture, particularly in the ways the book of Acts and writings of Paul speak of relationships in the New Testament Church between genders. Consider both Paul’s outright instructions to Timothy and his own example of how he related to women in the Church. Paul had a relationship with Phoebe. He knew Eudodia and Syntyche well. They worked together, and he spoke of them as sisters. He exhorted Timothy to think of the women around him as family as well. Paul shows us that the default mode between genders in the Church is familial—moms and sons, dads and daughters, brothers and sisters.

Romans 16:1 I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae,

Capitulation to Culture 

While sex outside of marriage has always been a fairly common sin, we live today in a sex-crazed culture. On steroids. And Christians, particularly conservative ones, have allowed an increasingly sexually obsessed culture to infiltrate the church. Even when it infiltrates in its negative sense (when we prohibit sex outside of marriage and teach against looking at another woman with lust), it still infiltrates. We try to protect our families from sinful sexual relationships. But we have still kept a sexual axis as the primary issue between genders and just tried to move the church in the opposite direction. We don’t need more fences. We don’t need a stronger negative push against sinful sexual relationships.  We need to foster a different mindset altogether. The church needs to plow a counter culture. It needs a new axis on gender, orthogonal to the sexual one, that equips us to live affirmatively in male/female relationships in the Body of Christ.

Our culture in Christ should be that of FAMILY.

Watching the Duggar family struggle through their scandals the last few months helped solidify this in my mind. No family had better fences against a sex-crazed culture. But the fences didn’t work. Instead, sexual attraction entered the very family relationships that should have been the most immune to them. When young men are taught to guard themselves from all women, that the primary sin issue to be wary of with the opposite sex is sex itself, don’t be surprised when that teaching infiltrates relationships between brothers and sisters. Josh Duggar should have learned a different kind of relationship with his sisters, a healthy one in which sexual temptation was anathema. Then from practicing healthy family relationships with the opposite sex, he would have a foundation for treating other women as sisters. Instead, the opposite happened. Hyper focus on sexual temptation resulted in temptation entering a relationship in which it should have never been named.

Rather than pushing back on the sexual axis, how can the church plow a counter culture on gender? How do we frame the conversations between men and women on a different axis altogether from our sex-crazed secular culture? I don’t fully know, and I’m willing to admit that. I do know that I have practiced this mentality without knowing I was doing so. In particular, I have known my fair share of handsome pastors and elders with engaging personalities.  I highlight the role of pastor and elder because that’s been a personality type with which my heart naturally resonated.  In my twenties and thirties, I felt some temptation at times to lust. Women don’t tend toward physical lust nearly as much as emotional and spiritual lust. When those feelings started to crowd my mind in relationship with someone, I disciplined myself. “That’s inappropriate,” I would tell myself. “He’s my brother!” There is only ever to be ONE relationship with the opposite sex in which we have anything other than that mentality. Lust should feel dissonant in any other relationship.  But we need to be discipled in that mentality.

Perhaps the first step to establishing this better axis for male/female relationships in the Body of Christ is simply awareness. In fact, I think meditating on this axis and teaching on this axis may be the primary thing the Church needs to do to reclaim it in the Body of Christ. I already see growth among mature believers on this topic and have several arenas in which I see healthy male/female brother/sister relationships in the Body of Christ. I enjoy talking with my brothers and sisters in Christ. I am willing even to disagree with them. But I also love them and seek their benefit in our conversations.  I hope to contribute to health in their marriages, joy with their children, or hope for their future relationships if they aren’t married now.

Because that’s how the family of God works.

11 Responses to Brothers and Sisters

  1. a20df40c-fa47-11e3-ad8b-27addc4bb4e3 October 2, 2015 at 1:53 pm #

    I was with you up until you said, “Women don't tend toward physical lust nearly as much as emotional and spiritual lust.” This is yet another social construct, not a biological one. However, I have been meditating on this same vain of healthy Christian relationships. Human beings are designed for community, and the current Christian culture has legalistically segregated all members of the opposite sex who are not one's spouse. What was intended to protect (as with most “fence laws”) has fractured the original intent of community and opened the door even wider to sin by sexualizing every relationship, rather than creating the trust and security of the family it was meant to be.

  2. Anonymous October 2, 2015 at 3:44 pm #

    Picking up on one piece of your post….I spent much of my adult life as a single woman. I had great girlfriends, but sometimes longed for male companionship; however, I encountered those fences in my Christian world of which you write. So, I loved it when my friends invited me for dinner as I was able to enjoy their husband's company around the dinner table. Pia

  3. Anonymous October 2, 2015 at 6:15 pm #

    Thank you for this. It's funny, I was raised with many of these “fence laws,” and as a young single woman, I was almost terrified of relationships, friendships or otherwise, with men. Now that I'm married, I feel empowered by having a strong, intimate relationship with a man. One of the side affects of this is that, despite having a fulfilling marriage relationships, I often struggle with desire for interesting and attractive male friends, and regret not having the opportunity to date and build those relationships when I was single — a regret that is detrimental to my marriage. Oh the irony!

    Your advice to be aware, to look at my family and say “he's my brother,” is so incredibly helpful in this struggle.

  4. Diane October 2, 2015 at 9:07 pm #

    You mentioned the word discipline several times and I think that this is a good word. We have to discipline our minds to reject lustful thoughts so that we can experience greater freedom in our relationships and enjoy our fellowship with each other. Extremes of lustful flirtatiousness and rigid coldness are not healthy. When Christ reigns in our hearts and minds, we can bring our emotions into line and have the joy of right relationships – male and female – family.

  5. Laura Haines October 2, 2015 at 10:51 pm #

    Ah! I appreciate your thoughts a lot!
    I've been thinking a lot about how the hyper-sexualised nature of our culture affects the way we talk about relationships between genders in the church, you have put your finger on yet another area.
    I think it's so important to have a right understanding of being brothers and sisters in Christ, for the general health of the church, but also particularly when we think about how we are caring for anyone struggling with loneliness in our midst!

  6. Laura Haines October 2, 2015 at 10:53 pm #

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. Caleb B October 3, 2015 at 12:25 am #

    I love that you know and used the word “orthogonal”!

    But seriously, thanks for this really good post. I completely agree that we need to develop the idea of non-sexual male/female relationships.

  8. Michele Morin October 3, 2015 at 1:33 am #

    So glad that you mentioned Paul's professional/ministry relationships with various women. Obviously it IS possible for these to work, and I think you are on track by saying we need to train ourselves to function biblically/appropriately in these roles.

  9. Anna Vroon October 4, 2015 at 9:22 am #

    Just a thought as I read this, perhaps one way to help women have healthy relationships with men who are not their husbands, is to disciple them in their relationship with Christ. When we are better able to relate to Jesus, the perfect man, our brother, then we have a frame of reference when relating to others in the family of God. I think many women shy away from thinking of, and relating to Jesus as a man, and yet this is how he would have us know him. Perfect God and perfect man, satisfying all our desires and longings, and teaching us how to love and relate to others.

  10. Anonymous October 6, 2015 at 12:03 am #

    I appreciate your thoughts on this subject and agree with your main point. I think one solution to strengthening brother and sister relationships is in the context of hospitality. As a man I do not think it is wise for me to develop a relationship with a sister without my wife present, nor would I want my wife to do the same. However, we regularly are able to enjoy these same relationships in our house without sexual temptation because it is in the context of a family reunion rather than a date.

  11. Betty Minawaley October 23, 2015 at 12:14 am #

    Thank you Wendy. This stuff is powerful. It would definitely make a great difference in churches in the lives of christians who have pure holy motives.