In order to possess a working theology of friendship we need to cultivate thought patterns which are consistently biblical. Surely, the basis for such a theology is found in the threefold implications of our creation in the image of God.
A broader or natural understanding of the imago Dei teaches us, first, that as human creatures we mirror the communal existence of our triune Creator. Given that he is no lonely or isolated monad, but has eternally enjoyed within himself a perfect and mutually reciprocated fellowship between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, it follows that as his imagebearers we also possess a capacity and an appreciation for community that is intrinsic to our existence, whether or not we are in relationship to God.
Second, a theology of friendship must inevitably and regrettably take into account the lasting damage to human inter-relations on account of the Fall. Truly, we were mis-shapen in iniquity (Ps. 51:5) with the result that complete compatibility between friends is mythical. We can at best know what actress Demi Moore called an imperfectly perfect relationship (before her relationship to Ashton Kutcher proved to be imperfectly imperfect). Original and actual sin mars our capacity for community and in some cases (or on some occasions) even our desire for community. That is why the biblical proverb warns us of the person who isolates: He seeks his own thing and rages against all wise judgment (Prov. 18:1 KJV). However, vestiges of the imago Dei remain, which explains why, for all our relationship pains, community remains feasible and generally desirable. Nobody realizes this more than the Christian, whose gradual restoration into God’s image implies a qualitative and quantitative improvement in relationships, both vertical and horizontal.
Third, a theology of friendship must provide answers to the difficulties endemic in friendships between Christians and non-Christians. Two factors remind us that while such friendships are spiritually problematic (e.g., Ps. 1:1) there is no doubt that they are valid and, where wholesome, to be carefully nurtured. On the one hand, community is as basic to our existence as rationality or creativity (which are also natural elements of the image of God in which we were created). To limit friendships to those within the church would be tantamount to saying that friendship is a benefit of our salvation and not, fundamentally and chronologically, of our creation. On the other hand, while it is true that Christ’s closest friends were numbered among the inner ring of his disciples, we nevertheless find in him the supreme example of one who was in a very genuine sense the friend of sinners, although truly and ultimately set apart from them (Matt. 11:19 and Heb.7:26).
Allowing that these factors to validate friendship between Christians and non-Christians, we nevertheless seek a via media between asceticism (where contact with non-Christians is avoided) and worldliness (where Christian principles of living are compromised for the sake of friendship). The need for such a via media is made more acute with the onset of the postmodern age in which western societies have fragmented into various tribal groupings (whether Christian, secular, gay, new age, politically correct, or pro animal rights, etc.). They allow for unity, it seems, on the basis of little other than the denial of absolute truth and moral absolutes. In such an age, the temptation to hide within the safety of one’s own tribal grouping (most relevantly, the Christian ghetto) is very luring, but so is the temptation to shrug off the fear of God for the unaccountable and individualistic amorality of relativism.
Such a via media can be forged by remembering at least four unalterable principles.
First, in all our social interaction we are to seek the glory of God. The chief purpose of befriending peers is not to win their souls, but to give honour to God. While God is certainly glorified in their conversion to Christ, the conversion is not an immediate end in itself. We ought not, then, to treat our friends as targets, or, to change the metaphor, as pew fodder. Such an approach to friendship is conditional upon a positive response to the gospel. Rather, we glorify God when we remember that in providence he has appointed the bounds of our habitation and the times in which we live (Acts 17:26), and has placed us in the orbit of those individuals with whom we mingle. We are therefore to love our neighbours whatever. As we do so, we will want to share the gospel with them, but will prayerfully wait for the Lord to open up the appropriate door of conversation. We are not to thrust the gospel upon our friends thoughtlessly. Societal rejection of the gospel is littered with the testimonies of those whose Christian friends treated them as projects rather than as people.
Second, we take time and opportunity to enjoy God and the world he has furnished for us. There is nothing worse than telling the good news with a face full of worry lines or sourness! Our enjoyment is rooted in God who, through creation, has made clear his invisible attributes through creation (Rom. 1:20). We don’t then set out to prove to our friends that God exists. After all, the Scriptures never do (Gen. 1:1; Jn 1:1)! Rather we presuppose God’s existence by lip and by life. Since our friends have the knowledge of God, irrespective of the tribal grouping to which they belong, we live in the freedom of Christ knowing that the hidden knowledge of God (semen religionis) our unconverted friends possess will gradually come to the forefront of their minds. They cannot hold it back consistently, nor always forever, try as they might (Rom. 1:18-19). Our joy in God ought, then, to be subtly felt by our friends. However adamant they may be about their worldview, (which may in fact tell them that they are but cosmic orphans), we know that having been created in the image of God they are in need of friendship. The evidence for this is seen in the fact that even the fragmenting of society into tribal groupings cannot erase community. Indeed, the plethora of communal ghettos in a given society, bound together by a shared ideological outlook of the rejection of the Christian worldview, is an evidence of the ineradicable nature of the communal aspect of man’s creation in the image of God.
Such a need of friendship forms a point of contact between the Christian and the non-Christian. This need can, at least at a personal level, result in the foregoing or friendly handling of an otherwise anticipated culture war (the conflict of antithetical worldviews). Such antitheses may be better addressed at a later date in the friendship when comradeship has already been established through the investigation of common interests like sport, culture, family life, or whatever.
Third, we are to trust God. Trust in God is needed for the strength to say “No” at any given danger of compromise. This strength is needed, because we cannot trust ourselves at those points of temptation that are unique to us individually. Every Christian needs then a get-out option from a friendship with an unbeliever, even if it is never taken (2 Cor. 6: 14–18). No friendship, however dear, should displace the Lordship that belongs to Christ alone in the totality of our living. The option to forsake a friendship ought to be taken, however, only in emergencies, and with the requisite decorum of Christian grace and truth (Jn. 1:14), for the honor of Christ is muddied by fair-weather friendship.
Furthermore, we are to trust God when, having said “No,” the friendship does come to an abrupt end. We need to submit to the fact that even when we have done everything not to be offensive, the gospel itself is an offense. Thus, the loss of budding friendships will be no strange experience to the Christian. However, a healthy understanding of, and belief in, God’s sovereignty in creation (the retaining of a universal need for community), providence (the granting of daily opportunities for friendship and witness), and redemption (the knowledge that God has a people to be saved) ought to instil us with a quiet confidence in fruitful co-existence with our non-Christian friends. That is the least we can hope for in a sympathetic non-Christian friend. The most we can hope for is the glorification of God in our friend’s conversion and subsequent discipleship.
To lead our non-Christian friends to Christ, as opportunity allows, we need to focus on the essentials of the gospel; namely that, 1. It is we, not God, who are in the dock; 2. We owe God an answer for the way things are, for we have sinned and fallen far short of his glory; 3. In the person of Christ, the God-man, God pays the price of our sin (for only he can), yet man suffers for it (for only man must pay for it). Our gospel is based, then, not on side issues, but on three unalterable facts: 1. God never changes; 2. Neither do we, irrespective of our gender, nationality, tribal ghetto; 3. The opportunity for relationship with God never changes, if our friends would but come to him through Christ in repentance and faith.
The value of adopting this mediating approach is twofold. On the one hand, it gives due recognition to human value as determined by God’s creation of man in his own image and for the purpose of community. Thus, to desert a friendship with a non-Christian simply because he or she has not come to the Lord in a given period (typically of our own determination) is a denial of this value. On the other hand, by recognizing the universal and constitutional need of community, the mediating approach enables us to discover a way of promoting friendship even from out of an initial context of animosity and suspicion. After all, we are filled with the very Christ who first turned us from his enemies into his friends. As his ambassadors, we have the enabling to accomplish something in horizontal community of what our Lord accomplished definitively from heaven. It will not take our blood, but it takes a God-given wisdom and patience.
Dr. Tim J.R. Trumper, Senior Minister, Seventh Reformed Church (www.7thref.org); www.fromhisfullness.com