… friendship is a relationship of mutuality and intimacy rooted in shared interests, loves, or goals and characterized by genuine interest in the other person as a particular other.
–James Calvin Davis
Last Saturday night we had the privilege of once again sharing our vision of the critical importance of spiritual friendship with a new group of friends, The Antioch Hub. I have shared some variation of this message many times, and Bernice has heard it many times too! But this message is at the core of our mission so we do not get tired of sharing it. It helped that the Lord had already been speaking to them before our visit. Their leader had been invited to join a friendship triad and had been given a copy of our book 3-2-1. He had read the book and had been convicted of its basic message.
It may surprise some of you to know that there are those who are not convinced that friendship (philia) is a part of Christian spirituality. Such folks understand that agape love — sacrificial, personal, unconditional love — is the definition of Christian love, and expounded in parables like the Good Samaritan. Friendship, which by definition has the dimension of mutuality, is incompatible with agape love. How can it be agape if you receive as well as give? Citing Meilaender, James Calvin Davis summarises this dilemma.
… friendship requires us to gravitate toward particular relationships at the expense of others, friendship stands in tension with the universal, nonpreferential expectations of Christian love. (James Calvin Davis, Forbearance [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2017], 115.)
However, Davis points out, and indeed I have referred to the same passage for some time now, that in John 15, Jesus calls His disciples friends (v. 14). He then goes on to define friendship in agape terms — to lay down one’s life for one’s friend (v. 13). And then He calls His disciples to love one another in the same way (v. 12). For Jesus then, there is no conflict between philia, friendship love, and agape, unconditional sacrificial love as defined by the cross.
Perhaps we can say then that the Good Samaritan story teaches us that agape love is the Christian’s default and we are to extend this love to all whom the Lord brings our way, but John 15 teaches us that we are to bring agape love into our relationships as well, especially our relationship with our friends. The fact that friendship is mutual does not disqualify it as a context where we extend agape love. It just means that our friend extends the same love to us. Quoting Davis:
Unlike the Good Samaritan story, however, here (John 15) Jesus characterises the extension of loving self-sacrifice not as an act of “non preferential benevolence,” or universal love of stranger and enemy, but as an extension of deep friendship. Because they (the disciples) have responded to his call to redirect their lives to him, Jesus names his disciples as friends, and having called them friends and shared intimately with them, Jesus asks them to do the same with one another. (Davis, Forbearance, 119.)
Indeed it must also be remembered that this kind of mutual sacrificial love for one another is what characterises the communities that truly belong to Him.
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34–35 NIV)
As we enter our 11th year of ministry, we are even more convinced of the importance of our ministry to promote spiritual friendship, especially in the churches. We have been especially encouraged that recently a few churches have approached us for help to make spiritual friendship a part of the DNA of their church and not just a ministry in the church.
We continue to be concerned that many of the churches we know, especially those in large urban centres, are often deeply committed to some combination of good teaching (getting our doctrines right), activism (serving God by reaching out in evangelism and mercy ministries), and/or experiencing God in dramatic personal encounters. Relationships are assumed but receive little real attention. The mutual love between brothers and sisters in the churches is often superficial, if it happens at all.
Yet mutual love is a central characteristic of the triune God and must be a central characteristic of the churches that are called by His name. Indeed, Jesus tells us that mutual agape friendship is the “quintessential character trait of Christian community” (Davis, Forbearance, 118). How Christian is your church?