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What would a theology of friendship be like?

I have been surprised by how difficult it is to frame a good theological definition for "friend." At stake are the following:

1. Is it possible that friendship can actually hinder fellowship in the Spirit? My sense is yes; at least it can exist independent of it. I know of (and perhaps participate in) several "friendships" between Christian individuals in which nothing of spiritual substance is discussed. The relationship is purely fueled by common interests of an everyday variety: favorite pastimes, same home town, same graduating class.

2. Is friendship only possible between equals? My sense is no; it can be between a superior and a subordinate. But in cases like this, often the friendship seems to take place "unofficially," aside from the "official" hierarchical relationship. What exactly is a friendship between a father and a son like? Between a general and a private? Between a teacher and a student?

3. Then there are relationships called friendships that may actually be something else. Like enabling. Two people are "friends" but in fact they have an enabler-enabled dysfunctional thing going on. Not good.

4. In a good marriage, can husband and wife also be "best friends?" Does this actually take away from meaningful friendships the man and the woman can have separately? Does man and wife also being "best friends" place undue burdens upon the marital union?

5. Among Christians, can fellowship take place and friendship not be in place? My sense is yes. In fact this may be the expected mode of conduct in God's church. I need to maintain fellowship. I do not need to maintain friendship (whatever that is). But like the other items above, I'm thinking this one through.

6. And then there is "friendship evangelism." Within Evangelical circles, universally hailed as a good thing. But I want to understand this more.

The Bible does not use the word "friend" much, an interesting point in itself.

But when it does use it, it is quite striking. Moses and Abraham are mentioned as friends of God. An exclusive club, to say no more.

In the New Testament, Jesus calls his disciples friends because he has shared with them everything He has heard from the Father. I believe this is the only time Jesus uses the word "friend."

So, putting these together, we get something like the idea that friendship with God involves a relationship in which God reveals himself and his ways to people privileged to receive this information. Apparently this involves very few people in the Old Testament. In the New, depending on how you read Jesus' words, friendship can describe his relationship to the first apostles, or to all of us.

But none of this says anything about friendship between individuals.

There is the friendship between Jonathan and David. But frankly, I don't quite get the dynamics of this one. It says their souls were "knit together." Not clear what this means.

It seems friendship involves sharing things in common. But this gets very complicated very quickly. What things in common? And to what extent? And when is this sharing abused?

My son Josh says that friendship is essentially a reflection of the communal aspect of God. I'm thinking through this one as well.


Isaiah 41.8 But you, O Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, you descendants of Abraham my friend ...

Exodus 33.11 The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friend.

John 15.14-15 You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master's business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.

1 Samuel 18.1 Now when he had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul.


Anonymous July 13, 2009 at 6:03 AM  

One of the things I love about the Word of God is that there are ideas you can't simply pin down easily, if at all. The more I am thinking about "friendship" the more I think this may be one of those things that you can not simply define in words. A little bit like love.

In the Bible we learn about the vast subject of friendship mostly through examples as you have pointed out a few. I would add Paul and Timothy (no. 2 in your list) and Paul and the church in Philippi (no. 2, 5, & 6) as reflected in his letter to them. When I read Philippians I see a closeness, a friendship, that is not as evident in his other letters.

To narrow it down some in very simple terms (even though contend it can't be) I think friendship centers around some form of sharing: experience, emotions, faith, goals, politics, interests, etc... This kind of fits with what Josh pointed out. The communal aspect. The Trinity.

All that said, Jesus lays out the gold standard for both friendship and love:

"Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends." (John 15:13, ESV)

... and He lived it.

David Wang July 13, 2009 at 6:55 AM  

Thanks Brad. I missed verse 13 of John 15 when I was writing the post --- that a man lay down his life for his friends. So Jesus says they are his friends in verse 14 if they do what he commands. But previous to that demand, he tells them that he will lay down his life for them. Wow.

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