Recently, I had the amazing joy of welcoming into the world my newest niece and nephew. It’s a privilege beyond measure to be called an uncle.
However, by all natural accounts, this is an impossible reality because I only have one legal sibling, and she has never had a child. How can this be?
The Hundredfold Family
As a Christian struggling with same-sex attraction, the topic of family has long been a bit of a sore spot for me. Because of my sexual inclinations, my living in accordance with the clear teachings of Scripture means remaining celibate. So I may never have a lifelong companion, a child, a grandchild. In short, I may never have a family of my own.
Until a few years ago, this reality had long seemed an almost unbearable load to bear. Then one day, as I was throwing myself a personal pity party, I came across these verses in Mark’s gospel:
Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.” (Mark 10:29–30)
I realized that the hundredfold-now-in-this-time aspect of this promise had been fulfilled in my life through a phenomenon sociologists are now calling “voluntary kin.” According to a recent New York Times article, voluntary kin are simply people who choose to be related.
Anthropologists have traditionally used the term “fictive kin” to separate such relationships from “true” kinship based on blood or law, but many researchers have recently pushed back against that distinction, arguing that self-constructed families are no less real or meaningful than conventional ones.
My heart rejoices to see such relationships gaining formal recognition because my own experience has affirmed the reality. I have been greatly blessed with voluntary kin that make a life of celibacy easier. They make it easier because these types of relationships enable me as a celibate Christian to give and receive sacrificial love in tangible and intimate ways.
So when I help plan my voluntary sister’s engagement party or hold my nieces and nephews for the first time, I am participating in familial love. When I attend my voluntary little brother’s basketball awards ceremony or go on a camping trip with my second family, I am participating in familial love. And all of a sudden, a life of celibacy is not simply defined by what is lacking, but rather by the opportunity to love and be loved, serve and be served, invest and receive investment, in the God-designed community of the family.
True Kinship in Christ
Voluntary kin is a biblical concept as well. Or better yet, in Christ we might call it “non-fictive kinship.” One of the beautiful things about these types of relationships is that they tangibly reflect the spiritual kinship of all Christians. The bonds that believers share in Christ run deeper than blood.
When Paul calls Timothy his “true child in the faith” (1 Timothy 1:2), it isn’t simply a ceremonial label. The title “brothers and sisters in Christ” (Colossians 1:2) is not an abstract comparison to a different concrete reality. The Church of Christ is the family of God (1 John 3:2), and our earthly relationships should reflect this spiritual truth.
Yet sadly, as I look at the church at large from my limited vantage, I find that my experience may be the exception, rather than the norm. What might happen if the family of God as a whole began to dream more aggressively of creative and life-giving ways to live out our spiritual kinship?
For starters, married couples and families might consider investing in a single person or two, inviting them regularly into homes and family life, and blessing them with familial love. And single folks might ponder reaching out to a family or married couple, thinking of ways to build a deep relationship through sacrificial service. In these ways and many more yet unnamed, we reflect our unity as spiritual kin, and glorify the one who binds us together (Ephesians 4:15–16).
We are the church. We are brothers and sisters in Jesus’s blood. We are true family.