Sometimes I think that articulating and practicing a better theology of friendship would solve most of the problems in the world.
This is not simply a sentimental, romantic or naive thought, as the practice of true friendship, rather than being a tame practice, can instead be fundamentally subversive.
This subversive element undergirds a theology of friendship. The practice of true friendship isn't tame, it's subversive. Click To Tweet
God and Abraham: BFFs
Think about the fact that God calls Abraham his friend (2 Chronicles 20:7, Isaiah 41:8, James 2:23). Abraham would have had the same view of God (or the gods) as his contemporaries. In ancient times the belief was that in order to pacify, bribe or attain favor from a god, human beings needed to surrender or sacrifice things that were precious to them. As this was the definition of the relationship between a human being and a god, you can imagine that this relationship would have been marked by domination, fear, guilt and a constant sense of confusion around who the gods were, what they wanted and what they were doing.
We could then say that by God calling Abraham a friend, God was subverting, reinterpreting and redefining what a relationship between human beings and God looks like. God tells Abraham his secrets, God talks with Abraham, God reveals his plans to Abraham.
Ultimately, we see God replacing Abraham’s old paradigm for relationship based on fear, domination and guilt with a new paradigm based on trust, friendship and to some degree mutuality, through the story of Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son Issac. We could see this story as God correcting Abraham’s theology letting him know that the true God does not depend on human sacrifices which aim to earn his favor or appease him.
This was a radical thought and still is. This friendship paradigm is one that is then gifted to Israel, God’s chosen people, and then to the Church through Jesus Christ. Abraham didn't pacify God. God tells Abraham secrets, talks with him, reveals His plans. Click To Tweet
Christ’s Double Revolution
Brian Edgar, in his book God is Friendship: A Theology of Spirituality, Community and Society, writes about the “double revolution” in Christ’s thinking about relationship with God and others. This first revolution is that Jesus reinterprets lordship from a servanthood framework (Matthew 20:25-28). The second stems from John 15:15, when Jesus says, “I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.”
In this double revolution, not only is lordship or greatness to be reinterpreted in the light of servanthood, but servanthood is to be interpreted within the context of friendship.
Jesus subverts again the normative view of relating to God. Duty, obedience and service are now framed in terms of friendship, which implies values such as trust, mutuality, intimacy and participation in the lives of one another.
I think this friendship we have with God through Jesus Christ is a subversive model for how we as Christians can relate to others and also for our mission in the world. Jesus reinterpreted lordship, greatness and servanthood within the context of friendship. Click To Tweet
Friendship vs. Impersonal Relationships
Friendship subverts the impersonal way that our society functions. These days we talk more about “building networks”, “developing relationships” or “making connections”. We are busy, distracted and have limited space in our lives for the time it takes to make a friend and so we become focused, project oriented and solution oriented. We want to make sure that we get some kind of benefit or advantage from the people who we are connecting with.
To counter this contemporary inclination, friendship instead calls us to “personalize” and “humanize” one another. At a time when we can allow fear to drive us towards demonizing, marginalizing, homogenizing, colonizing, trivializing and generalizing others who are different to us, friendship can function to disarm fear and create trust.
The word friend is a disarming word that fosters childlike vulnerability. However, vulnerability is something we fear, it’s something that we find childish. I sometimes wonder if we hide behind using less personal words today such as “connecting” or “networking” in order to mask our vulnerability which has the potential to reveal who we truly are.
However, as we stand before the other, openly displaying our true self, this has the power to overthrow violence, hostility and war. We see our humanity and then a trust, mutuality and participation in each others lives has the potential to form. Identity markers and hard boundaries which separate people relax, and sometimes disintegrate. Friendship is therefore a peace making activity. Friendship humanizes us. This is deeply subversive and needed in the fearful, divisive, depersonalizing and dehumanizing times we live in today. Friendship humanizes us. Click To Tweet
How Depersonalization Affects Mission
I think this depersonalization has also affected the church and its mission. I’m thinking of our practice of “friendship evangelism” here. This is the practice of making friends with those who are not Christ followers in order to bring them into a relationship with Jesus. On the surface you might think there is nothing wrong with that. However, the friendship is a fraud because there is an agenda there. True friendship has no agenda other than to value the person regardless of differences.
Elaine Heath, in her book Missional Monastic Mainline, critiques this impersonal method of evangelism which treats people as projects, saying:
Genuine friendships are relationships without an agenda. Friendship evangelism is never really about friendship when it has a church growth agenda. We have to give that up. It just isn’t the way of Jesus. What we do find in the Gospels is a Jesus who offers friendship to all sorts of people, some of whom decide to follow him.
As you can tell from Heath’s quote, this critique of friendship evangelism does not mean that we give up on sharing our faith with others. It simply means that we love people, become friends with people and trust God’s Spirit to work in that relationship through our deeds and words to welcome that person into the story of the reign of God. Friendship will always include the presence of Jesus himself in that relationship working to reveal himself to people. People know when we are treating them like projects. People know when there is an agenda in a friendship, and it’s detrimental to our witness as God’s people on his mission in the world. Friendship evangelism is never really about friendship when it has a church growth agenda Click To Tweet
Our privilege of being friends with God is a model for our engagement with the world and it is our witness so that others might practice friendship. Practicing friendship has often been relegated to the sphere of children, women and the sentimental. However, it is something we can all try as a subversive practice that can change our world. As we make friends, we trust that our friend Jesus, who is a friend of sinners, is with us, helping us, in our participation with him on his mission to mend all things broken and decaying in our world.