Transforming Members into Siblings
Wally Taylor teaches New Testament at (the truly outstanding) Trinity Lutheran Seminary, in the fair city of Columbus, Ohio.
Although his tremendous skill as scholar and professor is known far and wide, that he seems to have managed to teach me something is the kicker proof.
Truth is, though, he still teaches me.
Mid-January, he and I co-presented at a clergy conference in Ohio. Among other Bible passages he had us consider, Dr. Taylor had the participants take a look-see at Paul’s letter to the Romans, 12:1-2:
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.
It’s not like there aren’t a variety of directions to go with this text, but it’s what he did with the “brothers and sisters” part that caught my attention–and still has it.
Strictly speaking, were the Greek text to be translated literally, it would read “brothers,” not “brothers and sisters,” because the Greek word is adelphoi (think Philadelphia, as in philos/loving, and adelphos/brother: City of Brotherly Love).
But, says Dr. Taylor (who hardly has a reputation of giving translators freebies to go all wild and crazy on us), the intent of adelphoi was, in fact, inclusive. Perhaps the best translation, at least in this instance, he says, is “siblings.”
Now, this notion of siblings as it played out in the ancient Middle East is getting some new attention. Turns out that the relationship between brothers and sisters (in any constellation) was not just one-among-many, but was a fundamental facet of the family, and of society.
Dr. Taylor’s research, as well as his time spent in the Middle East, leads him to agree that Paul’s use of the term “sibling” is no fluke.
Instead, it seems as if Paul is drawing upon the high priority that the ancient world placed on the sibling relationship.
In our context, we can barely comprehend what a Big Deal siblings were, even if you like your sibling.
So to flesh out the idea, Dr. Taylor handed out eight defining marks of the ancient notion of siblinghood, based also on the work of Reidar Aasgaard. Below is an adaptation of this list:
- The sibling relationship was central in family dynamics, and was usually the longest-lasting relationship a person ever had.
- Adult siblings provided economic, social, and inter-personal security for each other.
- Siblings were to express love toward their siblings in every way.
- Sibling relationships were to be close, trusting, and open.
- Siblings were to be tolerant and forgiving of each other.
- Siblings were not to judge each other, and certainly not in public.
- Siblings were to help the family keep and present a unified front.
- Siblings were to defend the honor of their family.
So there are all sorts of reasons why this research is interesting.
But Dr. Taylor finds it interesting, and other NT scholars find it interesting, and I find it interesting, and I hope that you find it interesting, because the hunch is that when Paul used the term adelphoi, he was intentionally framing the very blueprint of how Christians interact with other Christians.
We are to be siblings.
Not just pew-sharers.
Re-read the list above.
Re-read the list above and think about communities of faith, about the people who attend your same congregation, even the ones you don’t like.
In fact, bring this list with you when you go to church next. Think about these eight points as you look around.
See, Dr. Taylor’s teaching got me thinking (again, even after all these years), especially in light of the new movements going on in the Church, about this question: what would happen if we abandoned the word “member?”
Just pitched it. Chucked it forever away.
Members are for clubs, for organizations, for banks, and invariably there is some fee associated with it.
You don’t have to pay (all obvious jokes aside) to be a sibling.
You don’t even get to choose your sibling.
You just are one, like it or not.
And then, like it or not, you are in relationship with them, and, to some degree, responsible for them, and they for you. Forever.
Let me tell you about why Dr. Taylor’s teachings hit home.
While preparing for my mother’s funeral, Dad and I met with the funeral director, of course. Both of us were aware that funerals cost a lot of money, as we both (he with far more experience than I) have served as parish pastors.
But, honestly, we were taken aback at all of the embedded costs.
One in particular caught our attention: “Staff and services at the funeral worship…$500.00”
We looked at each other, we looked back at the line item, we quickly searched our available mental files for some guess at what $500.00 could get us by way of staff and services at Mom’s funeral, we looked back at each other, and…went to visit with the funeral director.
We asked him, who was indeed nothing if not helpful, what, exactly “Staff and Services” meant.
Turns out that for $500.00, the funeral home staff would usher people into the church, push Mom in on the Church Cart (in all of our combined years of parish ministry, we had no clue that the rolling gurney that holds the coffin is called, of all things, a Church Cart. We wanted to look under it and see if we could find a Church Key), usher Mom out, and usher people out.
And for the trouble of those services, the staff would receive a William McKinley.
We talked this over with our pastor, and said, essentially:
“Look. This isn’t even about us.
It’s about a lot of things, though, other than us.
It’s about how many families don’t have time or wherewithal or capacity, given their grief, to look through these line items to see what they’re paying for.
It’s about that in addition to everything else they don’t have at the moment, they might not have money.
It’s about realizing that although funeral homes deserve to turn a buck, funerals are also opportunities for congregations to minister.
And, well, ok, it’s also about us. $500.00 to push her in and back?! Really?”
And she agreed, and instead of paying strangers to welcome and to guide my mama in and out, Brother Kent and Brother Jamie did it.
Because Kent and Jamie, they are our brothers.
They didn’t want to be paid to serve us in our grief any more than my blood sister wanted me to pay her for her troubles in arriving here from Anchorage, and for staying with Dad, and for thinking to buy him a new omelette pan as I hadn’t noticed, and for sorting through my mother’s stuff.
Because she’s my sister.
See, I am wondering, how would congregational life, how would the life of a Christian community change, if we were no longer members, but siblings?
What would happen if we were to steep ourselves in the powerful significance of those eight points above?
What would happen if, in our Christian communities, we actually enacted and embodied those eight points above: holding the relationship with our siblings to be central; providing security in all forms for our siblings; taking every opportunity to express love to our siblings; creating trusting, vulnerable relationships with our siblings; be tolerant and forgiving of our siblings when they mess up; not judge our siblings, privately or publicly; strive for unity with our siblings; and defend the integrity of our siblings?
This sort of relationship is no membership model.
Nobody is going to want to pony up anything to be a member of this kind of club.
And, let’s be honest: We all have siblings, blood or otherwise, we would pay to not have, at any given moment.
But then we aren’t thinking like Ancient Middle Easterners.
We aren’t thinking like the ancient hearers of Paul’s letters were.
We clearly aren’t paying attention to the Greek and why it matters.
Which, Brother Taylor, you caught me doing again.
So I’m grateful that you pay attention to your Greek and why it matters, so that you could offer me the gift of Point Five.
I’m particularly fond of that one.
For further reading:
Reidar Aasgaard. “’Brotherly Advice’: Christian Siblingship and New Testament Paraenesis.” In Early Christian Paraenesis in Context, ed. James Starr and Troels Engberg-Pedersen. Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft und die Kunde der älteren Kirche. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2004. Pp. 237-65.
____. ‘My Beloved Brothers and Sisters!’ Christian Siblingship in Paul. Early Christianity in Context; Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement Series 265. London: T & T Clark, 2004.
Wally Taylor, “Reciprocity, siblings, and Paul: Why act ethically?” Lutheran Theological Journal [Adelaide, South Australia] 39.2-3 (August and December 2005), 181-95