On Being an Older Sister in the Lord

One role in life I didn’t anticipate or spend much time preparing myself for is that of older sister.

I’m the youngest in my family, so I naturally gravitate toward going with the flow, doing what people tell me to do, and listening to what those older than me have to say. It’s not that I don’t have (and express!) lots of opinions, I surely do. I’m just fairly used to those opinions carrying the weight that a youngest’s opinions carry––which is to say, significantly less than if I were an older sibling. I’m often scrappy and forceful with my words, sometimes when I don’t need to be, to make sure I get heard––another mark of being the youngest.

But none of us stay “youngest” forever––even if we’re the youngest in our family, we certainly are not the youngest in the family of God, which means we have to learn how to be older––an older sister, older brother, older family member. Paul writes to Timothy saying, “Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity” (1 Tim 5:1-2). Jesus says that anyone who does the will of the Father is his brother and sister and mother. And Paul commends various women as “our sister.” These familiar roles help us grasp our place in God’s family.

Being an older sister in the Lord means that you have more experience with the Lord and often greater knowledge of his Word than some of the spiritual siblings around you, and you have to use that experience and knowledge very carefully. Which is because being an older sister isn’t quite the same thing as being a spiritual mother––although Paul doesn’t mention older sister to Timothy, he simply says to treat older women as mothers. I still think he’d approve of the distinction. A spiritual mother has quite a bit more leeway to speak freely and with a measure of certitude. An older sister isn’t there yet, but she does have resources, knowledge, and wisdom to steward. She must be humble and teachable, yet must also be willing to share the truth with meekness and care.

One of the unforeseen blessings and challenges of my life has been the gift of being an older sister in the Lord to other women. I’ve had to learn to be quiet and ask good questions and help others come to the right answer on their own. I’ve also had to learn to speak and give my opinion with humility and appropriate fear, knowing that it will be taken seriously. Having younger sisters in the Lord is one of the sweetest, most joyful gifts I never saw coming.

But being an older sister in the Lord can be tricky and a bit harder when it comes to younger brothers. Recently, a woman came to me for advice, having been on the receiving end of some immaturity and carelessness from her younger brothers in the Lord. She loved these men and was confused that they would act the way they were acting. So, what is a woman to do in that situation? It’s quite straightforward––she should be a spiritual older sister to them, gently and graciously helping them see how to do better––but I find that we often complex-ify it because we are uncomfortable with the role of spiritual older sister to younger men. Often this leads to us forsaking our Christian duty to God’s family––we simply refuse to take on the role of spiritual older sister or mother when it comes to younger brothers–-seems too hard and too easy to get wrong.

It has dawned on me as I’m in classes learning alongside men much younger than me that, as time rolls along, the likelihood that I’ll have a pastor who is younger than I am increases with each passing year. Which means it’s also likely that I will be under the authority of a man or men who are spiritually younger than I am, less familiar with God’s word, and perhaps spiritually less mature. And, for those of us getting to the age where that is more likely to be a reality, I don’t think it should bother or concern us in the least, if we’re thinking rightly about the family of God. In the family of God, it is understood that everyone is growing up into the Lord. It is understood that there are young Timothy’s and older Lois’s and Priscilla’s and Titus’s and Apollos’s and Mary’s. There are younger men and older men, younger women and older women.

But, if we’ve determined that the men in leadership are in some sort of super-spiritual class of their own, and that they ought to have no need for older sisters or mothers or older brothers or fathers in the church to help them along and give wisdom and guidance as is fitting to their maturity and experience, then it will bother us to have younger brothers shepherd us, because we’ll be expecting something from them that they can’t be. We’ll be disgruntled that they aren’t farther along. We’ll be trying to force them to be older brothers when God has made us older sisters or mothers.

The thing is, being an older sister doesn’t mean you know better than everyone younger than you, although the temptation to think that is a particularly bad one for older sisters. Rather, a godly older sister can learn from those who are younger than her and she can fittingly encourage, exhort, and admonish those same younger siblings.

I’m asking God to make me the kind of older sister who can freely give away to others the good things God has given to me and to do so without strings or expectations attached. I want to be the kind of older sister who can offer helpful counsel when sought, yet never waver one second from submitting to the authority God has given to those placed over me. This is not an easy thing. We need God’s help to be good older sisters, but thankfully we have an eldest brother, Christ, who has paved the way for us in every respect. In Christ, we can walk by faith as older sisters, and trust that he will supply everything we need.