I’ve been thinking a lot this week about friendship and, more precisely, the undervalued benefit of friendship and community. Our society, culture, and certainly the Christian church have long supported, encouraged and highlighted the value of family and the idea that the family is a critical, essential element of our collective lives.
All of this focus on family and family values stifles any consideration of other forms of relationship, especially friendship. This is a problem.
Protestants especially, who view only scripture as authoritative rather than both scripture and tradition, are on shaky ground when it comes to placing family at the foundation of all human relationships, and as a indispensable element in the expression of faith and love.
The New Testament is not, it turns out, especially family friendly.
Jesus never married or had children. Same for Paul.
The stories of the Gospels emphasize the value of friendship, over the value of family. The gathering of disciples forms a web of community through friendship. In the Gospel of John, the significance of friendship is captured in Jesus’ bold proclamation: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13)
And, in other parts of the Gospels, Jesus offers other striking statements regarding the value of friendship versus the value of family: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26)
And, in Paul’s writings, he too makes startling claims regarding the problems of family, especially as spouses get in the way of service to Christ: “To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am. But if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion. . . . I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried woman and the virgin are anxious about the affairs of the Lord, so that they may be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please her husband.” (1 Corinthians 7:8-9, 32-34)
Why then, do so many churches, even Protestant churches, insist on maintaining and emphasizing family as the foundational component of experiencing the fullness of life and faith? Why does the Church continue to equate church with “family,” instead of speaking of the Church as a community, a gathering of friends?
We, in the Mainline, would do well to move the conversation and emphasis from family to friends and community.
It is not only family that offers love, support and encouragement along life’s journey. In fact, for many people, the family is precisely where they have experienced abuse, ridicule and emotional and/or physical harm.
We, in the Church (and especially Protestant churches) ought to be more conscientious in how we speak and act, highlighting the value and benefit of friendship, as promoted in our holy scriptures. Jesus gathered in the midst of his friends. And, those of us who continue to gather as followers of Christ, ought to consider our own role as friends, of Jesus and of each other.
Friendship is not simply a nice thing, a mostly inconsequential feature in our lives. Friendship is, instead, a critical aspect of our life in the Church, a part of the underpinning of our experience of faith and love. More “focus on friendship,” instead of “focus on the family,” would provide new opportunities for lively and meaningful exploration of what it means to live the life of faith.