Is a Non-Christian my Brother or Sister?

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 what it means.

As to how any distinction I make says anything about their hope of salvation, I have already written about elsewhere.

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20 thoughts on “Is a Non-Christian my Brother or Sister?

  1. Truth need not be pleasant to be truth. Then again, there’s a season for everything and a time to every season under heaven – so without knowing the context I’m not sure if this was the right thing to say at the time or not. And I’m not the judge here anyway. So we’re left facing blunt truth and acting as tho we don’t know what to do with it.

  2. Lance: I am sure this raises issues of Christians in politics. A governor is elected to serve everyone, so I wonder if this belief will influence his governing.

    John: Thank you. You gave an excellent reflection as well!

  3. See, Will. I told you I was really a heretic and you wouldn’t believe me. :)

    Absolutely, I believe a person who is not a Christian can do the will of the Father. That’s my point.

    I was sick and you visited me, hungry and you fed me. Oh, that was you, first person of the Trinity? I didn’t realize!

    But not all who cry ‘Lord, Lord’ or ‘I have accepted Jesus as my personal Lord and savior’ will enter the kingdom of God. I suspect because they won’t recognize it as God’s kingdom.

    Yes the truth need not be pleasant. And I think that the pleasant option is that God’s kingdom will not contain those I don’t like.

  4. Lance: But, does the beliefs of Christians make them good for politics? How about a committed pacifist. Could he/she be president? Perhaps that’s a far-fetched example because like a pacifist would never win. But, that may also be the point.

    Pam: If you’re a heretic, you’re one I can get along with (but, sorry, I doubt you are)!

    I don’t think we are all that far apart, but I think we have different commitments going into the question (it would be ridiculous to say we’re saying the same thing, but I don’t think the differences keep us from talking about it!).

    The example you mention is eschatological where it all happens after the fact (at least from our perspective). I think that Jesus is talking about doing the will of the Father means a commitment now to follow Jesus, and perhaps that commitment comes over time of having done it or from the beginning. How that measures up here and then, I don’t want to speculate.

    But, I do think that when the NT writers use brothers and sisters, they have a more narrow meaning. But, I don’t think they do it in a way like the Governor did to put this big separation wall between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Like you, I am something of a universalist and don’t want to see it as predetermining the sheep and the goats. Much like election: I don’t believe it is a distinction between the saved and unsaved, but an election for a purpose.

    Pam, whenever you and I disagree, I always rethink through what I think! I hope the above paragraph makes some sense.

  5. Will, there’s a reason why the head of state has the power of the sword. Ro 13:3-4. I would not vote for a president who would not use the sword, if needed. As the government is of the people, it stands to reason that citizens have a responsibility to be armed. Something of a paradox for a gospel of peace, don’t you think.

  6. I think this is part of my point. Can a Christian be involved in politics if it would mean going against the basic commitment to pacifism (obviously, I am talking about those who are pacifist)? I am sure there are other issues, but I’m tired at the moment!

    • Is following Jesus a commitment to pacifism? Being non-violent and being pacifist are two very different things in my book. Jesus was non-violent, but he was not a pacifist. He scourged the moneychangers, having a zeal for his house. He told Peter to buy a sword. He said he came not to bring peace, but a sword. These are recorded in the gospels and we have to deal with them just like we have to deal with love your enemy.

      • There are plenty of people who believe that a Christian commitment means a commitment to pacifism. They simply read Jesus differently than you, and I doubt simply stating this verse would be an answer for them. If you are interested, I suggest: John Howard Yoder (Ethics, Notre Dame), Stanley Hauweras (Ethics, Duke), Richard Hays (NT, Duke), or Ben Witherington (NT, Asbury). All handle the verse you mention and don’t see it incompatible with pacifism.

    • Thanks, Will. I am well aware that many don’t see things as I do. I’m okay with that. I didn’t mean to sound like I was talking for anyone apart from myself. As for your scholar references, I’m sure they have plenty of fine ways of rationalizing – just you and I do. I suppose I can’t help the urge to play the devil’s advocate now and then, so to speak. LOL.

      As for me, I don’t see a conflict between faith in Christ and involvement in politics. A look at our nation’s founding will show that without the involvement and leadership of bold men of God we would have remained under the oppression of a tyrant and liberty would have remained a wishful thought. Jesus came to set the captives free – and that means conquering the jailor.

      I’m not saying let’s go throw a war and see who shows up. I’m saying we have real enemies and we are in a war whether we like it not. Spiritual warfare is real. So are the threats we face from foreign enemies and civil criminals. Scripture advocates capital punishment. The human race and all of creation was sentenced to death because Adam ate something he wasn’t supposed to. The Governor stated the obvious – there’s family and there’s not. Better to join the family if possible, but we’re not going to pretend we’re siblings when we are not.

      Anyway, regarding the mix of faith and politics, what’s the alternative? Thrust control to the atheists or pagans or Muslims or whatever other group run the country? Too much of that going on already if you ask me. Since you raised the question of whether a Christian should get involved in politics, I would ask why any Christian should not?

      • Yes, but Jesus set us free by self-sacrifice. Not by violent overthrow. And, of course, the world in which the gospel was spread those in political leadership were not Christians. Paul wrote Romans in that world. I don’t think he bothered with who was running it, or at least didn’t call on Christians to try to gain public office. It’s an interesting topic. Others have posted on it as well.

      • Thank you, Will. Jesus did indeed self-sacrifice. It might be considered non-violent, but it was not pacifist. I would like to debate the matter of Paul’s concern with Caesar. The whole point of being in bondage for all those years was to plead his case before ever increasing ranks of Roman officials until finally to Caesar himself. He certainly wasn’t interested in attaining political office himself tho, so if that’s what you meant then I agree. But he was also dealing with a pagan empire that made no pretense of service to the One True God. America has a Christian foundation with liberty and rule of law based on Christian principles. I think its apples and oranges.

  7. I think that Jesus is talking about doing the will of the Father means a commitment now to follow Jesus, and perhaps that commitment comes over time of having done it or from the beginning.

    The question is what constitutes “following Jesus”?

    Most of the church says that it’s something like “professing Jesus as Lord”. But I’m getting increasingly discontent with what we have “traditionally” meant by that in my lifetime: i.e. a verbal profession with no actual back-up actions, no changing of our actions or our lifestyle.

    As the parable of the sheep and goats seems to suggest, I suspect that some who don’t profess (“recognize”) Jesus actually follow him with their actions and others who profess Jesus don’t follow.

  8. I understand what you mean, Pam. The ‘traditional’ view I grew up with evangelicalism (that of making a ‘personal commitment’, ‘inviting Jesus into your heart’, etc.) has been in the back of my mind as I have written this. I don’t want to reduce it to a formula, certainly one that would mean that one ‘believes’ in Jesus and then one can carry on acting the way one wants. That’s why I have resisted nailing it down in such a way. I accept that for many (and maybe [likely?] for the governor) doing as you say is what makes them a brother/sister of Jesus without a thought to how it changes behaviour.

    Still, ‘following Jesus’ entails a picking up the cross, which for me at least, signifies some sort of connection to the story of Jesus (a connection that many non-Christians, however much they live well, may not want to have). We, however much we fail at it, are called to be those called out and live as witnesses to what will be in the future. That is where I would say we call each other brother and sister, and that’s how I read the NT designations of ‘brothers and sisters’. To say it could be used of everyone would make it lose that meaning.

    Of course, where I would likely disagree with the governor, and why I say I land much closer to you, is that I don’t think this is a labelling of the ‘saved’ and ‘unsaved’. If you were having this discussion on the blog of a ‘typical’ evangelical conservative’ (I sometimes wear the badge of ‘evangelical conservative’, but I don’t think I would be typical), you would be having to fight that battle at the same time.

  9. Pam and Will, I think now you’re getting down to it. What is the difference between being a Christian and being a Christ Follower? What is faith, really? What is the difference between the sheep and the goat? What really divides the ten virgins into two groups? Why would the farmer who found the pearl sell his field to buy what is supposed to be free? Why is the one servant who buried the talent treated so badly? These are questions we should all be asking ourselves.

  10. Great post. It reminds me of a quote from an African Christian. I don’t remember it exactly, but it was something like: “You American Christians think of church as a field with a fence. We think of it as a field with no fence.” Demarcation doesn’t bring anyone closer to God.

    Beyond that, God created us. Whether or not we have a good relationship with our dad, He’s still our dad.

  11. Thanks for your comment, midwesterndiva! I don’t want to make the idea that I’m creating fences, and I really don’t like calling attention to demarcations. I don’t think it’s helpful. But, knowing which God we’re talking about can help to make one closer to God. I feel like I’m trying to walk a fine balance between there is something peculiar (perhaps unique might be better) about belonging to the community of God in Jesus, but not exclusively so that it a fence (if I’ve built one!) can easily be jumped over!

  12. @Lance, good questions. And I’m not convinced that I can actually answer them definitively. The parable of the sheep and the goats does suggest to me that there is a possibility – in colloquial, everyday language – that some non-Christians are followers of Christ. I’d personally vote for Gandhi as one possibility although that, of course, is ultimately up to God. I’d also probably personally bet that he-must-not-be-named who goes around protesting at funerals around the US might not be a follower of Christ. Again, of course, ultimately up to God.

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