Sibling Rivalry: From Childhood to the Church
“Stop it! Don’t touch me!”
“She started it.”
“No, I didn—”
“Yes! You! Did!”
In our Christian subculture, the words “brother” and “sister” tend to conjure up feelings of kinship, intimacy, and loyalty. This made sense to me once. But then I became a parent.
My children—aged 12, 10, and 7—are not unlike most siblings. They have their “We Are the World” moments: those times that melt a parent’s heart and reassure us that there is hope for the future of humanity. Unfortunately, these moments are interrupted by equally frequent moments of rage, selfishness, and aggression. At times, it feels like the majority of my parenting is devoted to brokering peace between warring parties.
Psychology offers us myriad explanations for sibling behavior—everything from birth order to the need to differentiate oneself from the other members of the family. Sometimes this can create a dynamic that an older granny in my church calls “pick and pluck”: that kind of bickering and agitation that seems to exist for the sheer sake of existing. As frustrating as it can be, though, the task of parenting through sibling conflict has changed how I read the New Testament. It’s also changed what I expect as normal from the church.
Brothers and Sisters
Despite the fact that our everyday experiences teach us otherwise, we’re often tempted to sentimentalize family relationships, including the relationships between brothers and sisters. Television series like Parenthood and this year’s breakout hit This Is Us tap into our longing, not only for parental acceptance, but also for that unique bond that forms horizontally between siblings. So pervasive is this sentimental vision that we often carry it into our reading of the Scripture. When the New Testament likens the church to a family, we conjure up a warm image of family members birthed by the Spirit, becoming heirs with Christ and children of God. Here, in this family, all are welcome to the table. In this family, we are no longer orphans. In this family, we are home.
What we may forget at times is that in this family, we still fight like brothers and sisters.
Anyone who has spent any amount of time invested in a local church knows the reality of conflict. Sometimes it is minor, like resentment over who is getting more attention from the elder members of the community, or incompatible visions of how to move the church forward. It’s no surprise, then, that the very Epistles that greet us as “brothers and sisters” quickly move to address our division, selfish ambition, and infighting. So whether it’s an older brother leveraging power or a sister failing to be generous, relationships in the church can become little more than a grown-up version of pick and pluck.
But sometimes the conflicts between siblings aren’t minor. Consider, for example, the aftermath of the presidential election, in which some of us have experienced a sense of alienation from our spiritual brothers and sisters. In fact, for some, it’s more than alienation; it’s a feeling of abandonment and betrayal, of deep wounds made deeper because they were inflicted by family.
As startling as it is to strip away the veil of sentimentality from the Epistles, the rest of the Scripture offers up an even darker picture of sibling relationships. From its earliest chapters, brother and sister dynamics have been marred by sin, with love turning to hatred. In fact, the very first sibling relationship ended in murder. But it doesn’t stop there; then there are the stories of Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, and worse still, Amnon and Tamar. The biblical witness on siblings is anything but sentimental.
We Are Family
In the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, where I live, folks have a strong sense of kinship. We joke that you can’t gossip in our small church because everybody is somebody’s cousin and what you say will eventually get back to them. Colloquially, this kinship is often referred to as “blood.” Once, when a parishioner was sharing an incident that happened in her family, she expressed her grief by saying, “How could my own blood do that to me? My own blood!”
When the New Testament calls us “brothers and sisters,” it’s not calling us to relationships based in emotional loyalty. Sentimentality will only carry us so far. When it calls us “brothers and sisters,” it’s to remind us of the commitment that comes from being blood. It’s to remind us that precisely because we are family, we must work toward reconciliation with one another. We do not work toward repentance and forgiveness to become family. We work toward it because we are family.
To be blood is to be part of something bigger than any of us. Blood cannot be revoked. To lose it is to lose your very life.
Perhaps this is why the New Testament also calls Jesus our brother (see Heb. 2:11). In Genesis, we watch as an older brother kills his younger brother. But when Jesus comes, an older brother sacrifices himself to save his younger brothers and sisters. He spills his blood to save his “blood.”
And so it is only through Christ—not sentimentality—that our severed relationships can be restored. It is only through Christ that those who have harmed can find the humility to repent and find mercy. It is only through Christ that those who have been harmed can find the ability to forgive and find healing.
Today as I parent, I accept the fact that my children will never stop fighting. They will never be the children with smiles plastered on their freckled faces, calling each other “dear brother” and “dear sister.” They are far too human for that. But what I do expect is they will learn how to repent and how to forgive when they do harm each other. I expect them to commit to that process. I expect them to learn this today, so that when they grow up, they will know how to do it in the church of God.
Most of us will outlive our parents, and most of our children will outlive us, but brothers and sisters are our unique companions on this earthly pilgrimage. Still, the unity that comes from Christian brotherhood is not a sentimental one. It is one that requires more humility, more repentance, and more grace than we believe ourselves capable of. In many ways, we are not capable of it. But we commit ourselves to the struggle. We commit ourselves to the fight. We commit ourselves to each other, because this is what blood does.
Hannah Anderson lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. She is the author of Made for More and the newly released Humble Roots: How Humility Grounds and Nourishes Your Soul (Moody). You can find more of her writing at sometimesalight.com, hear her on the weekly podcast Persuasion, or follow her on Twitter @sometimesalight.