The Potential of Gospel Friendship

“She likes me!”

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That squeal from my 3 year old daughter embodies the surprised delight of a new found friend. Do you remember your first friend? Chances are you do. But do you also remember the painful feeling of standing outside a clique of junior high friends who never seemed to notice your presence? Chances are you remember that, too.

Is friendship, then, simply a sweet or painful leftover from our childhood? Or does it have potential for our adult life, particularly for our adult life of faith in Christ?

I believe it does. In fact its potential extends beyond personal happiness to spiritual growth and the strengthening of community in our churches.

What does friendship look like at church?

The 3 “ships” of Church Life

“Do I have to be friends with everyone?”

Jesus’ command to “love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12) can be flattened out to mean we must love everyone to the same degree or in the same way. But this isn’t an accurate description of our relationships inside or outside of the church. Let’s look at 3 typical church relationships:

  • fellowship
  • discipleship
  • friendship

Fellowship is the most inclusive term. We are called into fellowship with each other based on our fellowship with the Father and his Son (1 John 1:3). We expect true fellowship (talking about Jesus, not just about football or the latest food trends) to be present every time we gather–whether in the lobby after church or in small groups during the week. Fellowship is everywhere and includes everyone.

Discipleship is a more limited relationship, as well as being more intentional. We chose (or are chosen) to be in a discipleship relationship for a specific goal and for a limited period of time. We don’t expect it to last forever or to include everyone.

Friendship in the church is a third category entirely. Friendship is necessarily more limited than fellowship, both because of the limits of my human capacity and because of the caution of Scriptural wisdom. “A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother” (Proverbs 18:24). But it is also less purpose driven than discipleship. Discipleship is more like a project, a training time between a mentor and a “mentee.” Friendship is primarily about the person, not the goal.

The point of friendship is the friend.

Enjoying Friends Is a Lofty Goal

These days we’re tempted to use friends, especially on the internet. We “friend” them to expand our influence. We accumulate “likes” as a badge of accomplishment. Our sense of identity grows or diminishes according to the responses we receive to our posts.

This may be alarming to realize, but it’s not surprising. It’s the air we breathe in our utilitarian, individualistic, post-modern American culture. As a culture we’re not particularly good at “just because” relationships. We’re not accustomed to simply enjoying people, without accomplishing something at the same time.

But if we think properly about our greatest Friend, Jesus, we suddenly see that enjoyment is the highest goal. The first, and often quoted, question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism reads:

Q. What is the chief end of man?

A. The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.

Because of our tendency to downplay the last 4 words, Pastor John Piper glued them to the preceding ones with his well-known paraphrase, “The chief end of man is to glorify God by enjoying him forever.” When Jesus extended the hand of friendship to his disciples (John 15:15), he extended it to us, too. With that new relationship he gave us a new way to glorify and enjoy God, as our first and best friend.

In the same way, properly enjoying our friends–reveling in the “image of God” qualities in their lives, wondering at the “redeemed by Christ” virtues in their lives, encouraging the “walking in the Spirit” growth in their lives–is simply glorious. We could rephrase the Piper version of the WSC to describe gospel friendship this way:

The chief end of gospel friendship is to glorify God by enjoying him together.

Because when we properly enjoy God together, we properly enjoy each other.

Untapped Potential

But what is the untapped potential of all of this God-glorifying enjoyment? Two things. The Dictionary of Biblical Images gives them to us. It describes friendship as:

  1. A meeting of minds–in other words, friends are on the same page
  2. A knitting of souls–in other words, friends “get” each other

“A meeting of minds” means that friends talk, a lot. They talk to get clarity, ask advice, share a confidence, even argue a point. You’re upset about something, so you call a friend. You’re sorting out your job options, so you call a friend.

This kind of frank conversation doesn’t just bless us, it benefits the church. When the gospel is our “same page,” it builds unity. The web of friendships, minds meeting in the gospel, has potential to strengthen the fabric of the church. It creates a culture of truth and trust.

“A knitting of souls” means that friends bond over what they love. And when they love Christ, that bond has potential to strengthen the church. We become kindred spirits in seeing the beauty of Christ. Though we can’t be friends with everyone, the network of gospel friendships across the church can create a culture of worship.

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What’s been your experience with friendship in the church?

Next week: The Problem of Gospel Friendship

 

 

 

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