Is it appropriate for me to refer to my Islamic friends as my ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’ or should I reserve this language for fellow Christians? Is it only right to exclude some people from ‘the family’? What does that New Testament have to say?
It’s been a few months now since I started my ‘Christians and Muslims can be friends’ campaign, and the results thus far have been … well … surprising.
Some of the surprises have been very pleasant. I’ve made new friends – most of them warm-hearted Muslims from Turkey and elsewhere, along with some enthusiastic Aussies who are keen to stand with me in battling prejudice against Muslims and Arabic people in general.
The nasty surprises have been the flames I’ve received (that’s NET-talk for vicious and caustic emails). I’ve been called every name under the sun and told repeatedly that I’m not a real Christian and don’t know my Bible. I’ve even received some threats!
The biggest surprise though has come from some well-meaning and mature Christian friends, who are largely supportive of the campaign, but think that I went too far in one of my addresses when I referred to the Islamic members of the gathering as ‘my Islamic brothers and sisters’.
The first time someone drew my attention to this I thought nothing of it. But when two and then three people – all of whom I respect – independently made exactly the same point I thought I’d better re-examine what I had said.
What was put to me was as follows: that while we all want to be friends with all sorts of people, regardless of race or creed, the terms ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ reflect a level of kinship that is not appropriate between persons of totally different faiths.
The paradigm appealed to was the Bible itself. In the New Testament the words ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ are used quite specifically to refer to other members of the Christian community. The terms are not used indiscriminately, and we likewise should be guarded in our use of them.
It was suggested to me that I substitute the term ‘friend’ or ‘neighbour’ when speaking of Islamic persons and reserve the more familiar terms for my fellow Christians.
These challenges have concerned me, and have forced me to re-examine the Biblical material. They also got me thinking about what lay behind these challenges. Why were some of my Christian brethren so determined to exclude Islamic people from the family, so to speak?
Now, before anybody accuses me of being a raving liberal, let me acknowledge up front that the Bible does indeed recognise a significant distinction between those who are inside the community of faith and those who are outside – between us and them.
This doesn’t sit well with the modern ethos, where all religions are considered to be variations on the same theme, and where differences are minimized and often trivialised for the sake of harmony, but this is not the mindset of the Scriptures.
Further, my critics were quite right in pointing out that the terms ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ are generally reserved for persons who are on the inside of the faith community. What they overlooked though, I think, was the way in which the Lord Jesus Himself continually blurred the border between those on the inside and those on the outside – between us and them.
Even a cursory reading of the New Testament will show us that most of Jesus’ contemporaries had a very straightforward understanding of who was part of the family of faith and who was not. Your brothers and sisters were your fellow Jews, and all non-Jews were outsiders.
Jesus’ clerical contemporaries (the Scribes and the Pharisees) had a still narrower understanding. They only included Jews who lived pious lives in accordance with the commandments of the Torah as members of the household of faith. Those Jews who collaborated with the Roman occupying forces and other notorious sinners joined the great unwashed as being excluded from membership of the faith community.
In both cases Jesus repeatedly and deliberately blurred the borders between saved and unsaved, between insiders and outsiders. He openly fraternized with the great unwashed within Israel, and he regularly moved beyond ethnic and religious boundaries – communicating with Romans, Greeks, and even a Samaritan woman!
It was for this reason that Jesus was so often despised by the authorities – because he refused to accept the clear lines of demarcation between us and them. And when challenged to recognise His own family, Jesus made a very telling response:
“Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (Matthew 12:48-50)
This is a significant quote, as here Jesus defines membership of the household of faith dynamically. It is obedience to God that makes someone part of the family – not their synagogue membership nor their ethnicity.
This is consistent with Jesus’ behaviour throughout the New Testament. He shows striking disregard for the traditional distinctions between insiders and outsiders, and the early church followed in His footsteps by joyfully abandoning any spiritual distinctions made on the basis of race and ethnicity.
Two of Jesus’ parables also come to mind:
One is the parable of the weeds in the field in Matthew 13, where Jesus compares the Kingdom of God to a field of wheat that is somewhat overgrown with weeds. The servants of the farmer ask him whether they might not go and rip out the weeds, but the farmer stops them, saying, “No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them”.
The problem is that the servants can’t tell the difference between good and bad. Membership of the right church is clearly not sufficient as a mark of authenticity. Only the master can tell the wheat from the chaff.
The other parable that comes to mind, ironically, is the parable of the Good Samaritan, found in Luke Chapter 10.
There we see one of the clergy testing Jesus concerning the commands of God. Jesus tells the questioner to love God and to love his neighbour but the man is not satisfied. He asks, “but who is my neighbour?”
Those who were listening that day knew the answer to the man’s question. Your neighbour is your fellow Jew – a fellow member of the people of God.
So Jesus tells a story about a good Samaritan – a man of a different race and faith altogether!
I said that there was something ironic about the appropriateness of this parable, and it is the fact that one of my critics had suggested to me substituting the word ‘neighbour’ for ‘brother’ when referring to my Islamic friends. The irony is that the two terms would have been used interchangeably in New Testament times. Both brother and neighbour were labels you applied to your fellow Jews only. Jesus though refused to play along, but instead redefined the word for us.
I’m sure that there’s plenty more that could be said on this subject. Let me make only one point here – that any attempt to make a tangible distinction between the wheat and the weeds, between those on the inside and those on the outside, between those who are our brothers and sisters under God and those who are not, is surely contrary to the Spirit of the New Testament.
Christ reserves for Himself the role of separating the nations into sheep and goats. It is not our role. So does this mean that all Islamic people are my brothers and sisters, in terms of the language of the New Testament? The answer is simple:
“Whoever does the will of our Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”
Rev. David B. Smith (the ‘Fighting Father’) – Parish Priest, Community Worker, Professional Boxer, father of four. Get a free preview copy of Dave’s book, Sex, the Ring & the Eucharist when you sign up for his free newsletter at www.fatherdave.org