When I first became a Christian as an adult, I probably had a negative reaction to people calling each other “sister in Christ”. I grew up in the era of “girl power”, and “sister in Christ” sounded soppy and even cultish. I didn’t understand what it represented and to my ears it was alien and awkward. It was the kind of language that cardigan wearing Bible bashers used. After maturing as a Christian, I now understand its significance. In addition, the more I read and study on women and church through history, the more I realise that the significance of the concept of biblical sisterhood needs to be explored and elevated, because it says something profound about women, about women within the church and in relation to men, and about our eternity.

The more I read and study on women and church through history, the more I realise that the significance of the concept of biblical sisterhood needs to be explored and elevated

The term “sisterhood” has been used since the Middle Ages when it was only applied to the individual. It was the state of being a sister. So, I might describe my state of sisterhood in relation to my older brother. From the 1500s it was used to describe a society of sisters such as we might find in a religious order. As early as 1600 however, sisterhood was used to describe the concept of a group of women who have common characteristics or a common calling. This would seem to fit with an assessment by Germaine Greer that “non-biological sisters have never at any time in history … been bound together except in convents and the hospitals that grew out of the old religious institutions.”[1]

By the late 18th and into the 19th centuries, any sense of sisterhood seems noticeably lacking in Wollstonecraft’s and others’ observations. In fact, their observations show a societal group rendered weak and dependent by lack of education, liberty and occupation of the mind.[2]

Second-Wave Sisterhood

Greer was speaking from the post-2nd wave feminism perspective when, the sisterhood was used to describe women who supported and participated in the feminist movement. Greer disliked the term though. “The word sisterhood still suggests some kind of conventual cultus, tainted with self-flagellation and self-starvation in the throes of religious mania.” And a friend of hers in 1971 advised “You watch out for those sisters, honey. They’ll suck the marrow out of your bones.” This is because the feminist sisterhood demanded that everyone identify herself with everything in every feminist platform and manifesto and “Trying to create a consensus where none existed.” You were either in, or out and there was some brutal in-fighting that still goes on between various sections of the movement, and between generations.

In the 1990s, the rise of girl power was aimed at raising a generation of girls in independence, confidence and strength. In real terms (having spent my early twenties in this era), it seemed less about raising confident girls to be courageous women, and more about being powerful enough to not want a boyfriend, but then how to get a boyfriend, keep a boyfriend and drop him in favour of another boyfriend (because that’s exercising our “grrrl power”).

Today, the concept of the sisterhood is being rejected as intersectionality becomes a more profound means in the feminist movement of framing one’s identity. Intersectionality is the intersection of social elements that combine to underpin a person’s experience of disadvantage. This is a very personal system of identity and so the concept of a sisterhood in which women have a common calling is not seen as useful or relevant.

The Changing vs The Eternal

And yet as these eras of female identity ebb and flow, there has been a body of women who display unity in diversity and constancy through time. Biblical sisterhood is both familial and conceptual. Jesus told us that believers are family (Matthew 12:46-50) and in the rest of the New Testament, from the book of Acts all the way to Revelation, words are addressed to, and believers are described as, adelphoi (brethren—meaning male and female members to describe fellow believers). This picks up the Old Testament method of use of “brother” for fellow Israelites and recognizes our new life as the children of God (2 Cor. 6:18). In Colossians 1:2 is goes further to state adelphois Christō / brothers and sisters in Christ. The terminology applied to this new family was so pervasive that it’s thought that this was the basis of the Roman gossip mongering around incest in the early church.

Conceptually, the female disciples of Jesus appear as a group at key moments in the gospel narratives. Mary, Joanna, Susanna “and many others” are mentioned in Luke 8:3 near the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. There are women identified at the cross in John 19:25 and Joanna and Mary and others deliver the news of Jesus’ resurrection to the disciples in Luke 24:10.

These women are united in Christ. They follow him with the disciples. So, they are not separate from the men but they are distinguished from them. They have an important role to play—not just in supporting Jesus’ ministry as noted in Luke 8:3 but as witnesses. Richard Bauckham notes the nature of their significance along with others as key eyewitnesses providing material for the gospels[3] and, it is presumed, as material continued to be gathered in the first century of the early church in the lifetime of these eye witnesses. They had been there since close to the beginning (and some female biological family members since the very beginning) of Jesus’ ministry and so had a significant role to play in providing testimony to Jesus’ person and work.

The true concept of sisterhood is found in Scripture. It does not change as society changes. It is not reactionary. It works for the glory of God through the proclamation of the gospel.

This is profound for us. Any worldly concept of sisterhood is destined to be problematic because the “common characteristic” bringing the women together is not permanent, nor even agreed upon by all those claiming membership of the group. In addition, the object of worldly sisterhood is reactionary. It reacts to societal pressure and seeks its own gain. I am not saying that is a bad thing. There are many things claimed by a sisterhood of women that were right and proper—education, the vote, legal rights and so on. The point I am making is that those things make a political movement or a lobby group, but they don’t make a “sisterhood” as the groups have imagined, claimed or wanted them to be—that is, a group who are united in common purpose and are of one mind, working for each other’s good, and for the good of those sisters who are less able and more vulnerable.

The true concept of sisterhood is found in Scripture. This is where the object that binds us is permanent and eternal. It does not change as society changes. It is not reactionary. It works for the glory of God through the proclamation of the gospel. It does not lobby or seek a transitory power. It sows the seeds of the gospel through direct evangelism, support of the church, pastoral care, social justice and charitable support, teaching, mission and support of each other to keep the church strong. These are the elements we see in the New Testament and they still hold true today.

Sisterhood Across the Ages

One thing that Greer said made me sad for the world but elated for the church:

Even more questionable than the suggestion that sisterhood unites women across class and ethnic lines is the claim that sisterhood binds women of different generations.

It is true that under normal circumstances, sisterhood is a generational concept—you bind together with women who are of like age, experience and expectation. But the astounding beauty of God’s church is that this is exactly what God’s sisterhood does. Even from the earliest times the church cut across social and ethnic boundaries. The meeting time for the earliest Christians became before dawn on the Lord’s day to support Gentile Christians who were servants and slaves and who needed to return to their masters for the start of the workday.[4] Further, the Acts of Perpetua and Felicitas is the story of the martyrdom of a group of Christians in the early third century. Vibia Perpetua was nobly born. Felicitas was her slave. And yet they are bonded together in Christ and die together.

Being bonded across generational lines is exactly what we are exhorted to do. In this new family of Christ, older women are to be teachers of the younger (Titus 2:3-5). And since we are to be reverent in the way that we live, that entails treating each other in the love and mutual regard that come from living by the fruits of the Spirit as we abide in Christ.

Biblical sisterhood is not a women’s movement within the church. It is not a lobby group. Rather it is one good aspect of the church which emerges when God’s people fix their eyes on Jesus and live according to his word. It can never arise in the world because the world doesn’t know the one who makes us sisters and brothers; the one who unites us in all our weird and wonderful diversity as we seek his glory, not our own.

[1] Germaine Greer, The Whole Woman (1999)

[2] Mary Wollstonecraft, The Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) and Florence Nightingale, Cassandra (1852)

[3] Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eye Witnesses (2006)

[4] Justo L. Gonzalez, A Brief History of Sunday (2017)