A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Is a Non-Christian My Brother or Sister?

Will Grady has weighed in on the recent controversial comments by Robert Bentley, the Governor of Alabama, concerning whether or not Christians should view non-Christians has their brothers and sisters. Will does a great job of sorting through the issue:
People are weighing on the new Governor of Alabama’s words at his inauguration. I first read about it on John Meunier’s blog, and he linked to this article. Also, United Methodist Bishop of North Alabama has weighed in and, in a way he likes, will no doubt bring controversy to him in his conference. The governor himself said this:
Now I will have to say that, if we don’t have the same daddy, we’re not brothers and sisters. So anybody here today who has not accepted Jesus Christ as their savior, I’m telling you, you’re not my brother and you’re not my sister, and I want to be your brother.
First, I don’t like making statements that set out a line of demarcation between us and them. PamBG comments on John’s post that all are her brothers and sisters, whether they are Muslim doing good or the hateful folk like Westboro Baptist Church. There’s a part of me that wants to agree with her, especially after I gave a talk to a Muslim school in Blackburn a couple of years ago. I found kindred spirits who had the same worries I did about faith: the government clampdown on Christian symbols (no, they do NOT want their removal) and the increasing secularisation of their young people who no longer want to come to prayers and learn about their faith. In them I could identify with them as co-sojourners in a life that was absolutely strange to many outside church or mosque.

 Yet, I do think there is some sort of difference. As God’s creation, we may all be brothers and sisters in a ‘family of humanity’. But, does that make us ‘brothers and sisters in Christ’? Jesus himself gives an answer when told about his mother and brothers waiting for him outside. He responds that those who do the will of his Father are his brothers and sisters. While there are many times when I wonder if I come up to this standard, it still seems to indicate a difference. The question seems to be whether or not someone who does not follow Jesus can fit in the category of ‘doing the will of my Father’. It’s hard to deny that when Jesus and Paul and the other New Testament writers speak of ‘brothers and sisters’, they have something more specific in mind than ‘all humanity’.
The decision on who is my brother or sister does not really rest with me, anyway. It is Jesus who ultimately draws people to himself. Then, as a Wesleyan Christian, I believe the person has the choice whether or not to be a brother or sister of Christ, and thereby me. That’s why I don’t care for standing up and making grand statements like the governor’s. I don’t always know who’s who. I agree with him in some sense that there is a distinction, but I probably differ slightly on how that distinction comes about (there’s a cynical side that believes me and other Methodists wouldn’t fit his definition).
One final thought: Willimon talks about the ‘Our Father’ and sees in that some sort of universal meaning to it that I’ve never been able to read in it. It reminds me of a prayer for peace we had at Duke. The organisers of the small group invited an Imam to give a prayer. He came and stayed until we got to the Lord’s Prayer, at which point he quietly left. No fuss, no protestations. It simply seemed as if this was a moment for him our differences (signified by the Lord’s Prayer) became too wide for him, so he felt the need to excuse himself.  I found that part to be very touching. There was a sense that we could go only so far, but not all the way. We have much in common, but perhaps we can’t call each other brother and sister without it losing something of it’s mean.
It seems to me that if we are to be faithful to the New Testament vision that through the work of Christ, God intends to reconcile and renew humanity into one family, then what it means to be "in Christ" is essential to a Christian perspective on what it means to be brothers and sisters "in Christ." The writers of the New Testament have a Christological and ecclesiological center in its understanding of family that we ignore to the great detriment of our faith.

That does not mean I am siding with the governor's ill-advised and sloppily worded speech, which also lacked nuance. I simply want to affirm and commend Will's eloquent and theologically astute words in his post.


Vayhi said...

The only problem with using the idea that those who follow Jesus' will as qualification of "family" is that we're all fallible. In other words, I may be incredibly compassionate to the stranger who walks in the door of my church because Jesus taught me to do that, but then turn around and be nasty to the woman who co teaches Sunday School with me simply because she rubs me the wrong way.

No one but God is perfectly consistent. How might this impact the conversation?

PamBG said...

I'm not sure this is about being superficially nice or polite to people.

I think Christ's work was/is ontological and his salvific work is not erased by my thoughts, beliefs, submission, acceptance, whatever. Therefore, in my mind all people are ontologically brothers and sisters.

In Methodist terms, does siblinghood start at prevenient grace or at saving grace? Some are saying it's the saving grace that's important. I don't see why, particularly.

Maybe you can explain to me why it's so important to say that this sort of person is not my brother or sister?

We seem so bent on defining our beliefs by defining who is "out of the club". This drives me crazy. Why not just define our beliefs and let God have the ultimate decision on who is outside of the family? Are people afraid that if we don't know who is outside the family then we can't stand firm on what we believe?

If it were up to me, I'd much rather have the person who did God's will as a brother or sister than the person who didn't do God's will but professed the Lordship of Jesus. So, as my husband says, maybe it's a good job I'm not God. :D

Allan R. Bevere said...

Pam, I don't think it is important to see this or that person as not my brother or sister. I'm not sure why the governor of Alabama even went there. It could be said that since the NT writers reserve such family terminology for their fellow believers, by implication they are excluding unbelievers. While that is probably true, they do not go out of their way to explicitly say that. So I don't see the need nor do I think it helpful to say what Bentley said.

The NT writers consistently use the term "brother" (and, of course, by default, "sister") for their fellow Christians. It's an in-house way of referring to each other. Of course, there is something theologically significant at work here as well. As far as "theological siblinghood," the NT puts the point of beginning at saving grace.

For me it's not an issue of who is in and who is out. I am quite content to leave those matters to God. Rather I see this kind of family language as a claim of what God is planning to do for the world in Christ and through his new humanity the church. Ultimately brother/sister language in the New Testament is about reconciliation. That is why "in Christ there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female."

As far as the doing/believing distinction, I dislike the overemphasis of one over the other. The liberal tendency is to put the weight on doing as opposed to believing, while the conservative emphasis is on believing over doing. I think we need to hold the significance of both together. I think we misunderstand both when we put undue weight on one over the other.

Allan R. Bevere said...

Lara, I do not understand your point. Could you clarify?