A Theology of Friendship

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"No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you." (John 15.15)

J. I. Packer in his book Knowing God (1973) said, that "adoption is...the highest privilege the gospel offers: higher even than justification." He cautiously adds, that "this may cause raising of eyebrows, for justification is the gift of God on which since Luther evangelicals have laid in the greatest stress, and we are accustomed to say, almost without thinking, that free justification is God’s supreme blessing to us sinners."

Because of our evangelistic focus, our point of contact is our acceptance as sinners by the Holy God of the universe. So we have our Evangelical emphasis on justification, more than redemption as Packer points out. But while it is a tremendous blessing to be accepted by the Judge, it is a greater blessing to be taken by the Judge to be His child.

Justification is costly because in the process of declaring us not guilty, the Judge declares the sentence of death and metes out the punishment on himself. It is one thing to be declared free from our sins and the Judge sending us back out into the street but it is another thing when the Judge calls us in to be his adopted child. Such is a tremendous blessing and I concur with J. I. Packer that adoption is greater than justification. But I would like to do one better. I would like to point out an even greater blessing—friendship.

In John 15, Jesus declares that we are “no longer servants but friends.” After 20 years in seminary, I have yet to see this formally studied. The only times I hear of friendship with Jesus is in kid’s Sunday school, but as a formal study?

The relationship between sinner and the Judge is covered by "justification." The relationship between those held captive by the god of this world and the Christos Victor is called "redemption" (okay—"liberation" for some). The relationship between those who were far away and he who is our peace (Ephesians 2.13-14) is called "reconciliation." Between Father and child is “adoption.” Even the relationship between Lord and servant is covered by operant words like discipleship or servanthood, but what about “friendship?”

In attempting to define this, we have to make sense of what it is we call “friendship” or what is it that makes another person a friend. Except for a couple of proverbs describing or qualifying friendship, Scripture does not really define it so we basically have human experience as our guide (Two important instances in the Old Testament is Proverbs 17:17 where friends are preferable to siblings and Ecclesiastes 4:9-12, where in the sea of “everything is meaningless,” friendship is viewed as “better”).


The first characteristic of friendship is that there is no “serious” or “real” reason for it, only the trivial ones like fascination for certain hobbies. Gordon T. Smith (2001) defines a hobby as “any regular activity having no intrinsic worth in itself other than its affirmation of beauty and order” (Smith would also add a section on friendship as an essential in spirituality, but on the human level. He writes: “True spirituality includes time with friends, an intimate association with our peers—time that is fun, enjoyable, and rewarding because of the sheer joy of human company” [italics mine]). Other human relationships are governed by some “serious” reason: nurture and dependency for parents and children; economic realities for employers and employees; academics for students and teachers; even husband and wives have responsibilities; and so on. And if we move into theology as earlier mentioned, we see that justification, redemption, reconciliation and adoption have basis or "reasons" for the relationship they define. However, there is no earthshaking reason why you become friends with someone. You just happen to enjoy each other’s company and you like each other.

Secondly, there is this growing awareness—even in the secular context—that friendship is far more enduring than other relationships. A love song whose lyrics goes "...you are my man, my lover, my friend..." seems to identify that friendship is an altogether different, even important, dynamic in relationships; the TV series "Friends" also underlines this.

Simply put, what happens to the parent and child when the dependency is no longer there? What happens to teacher and student when the class is over? What happens to the employer and employee after 5:00 p.m.? And what happens to husbands and wives when the passion is no longer there? In the relationships just enumerated, when the "reasons" are no longer there, they degenerate into something stale, mechanical, legalistic and—perhaps—may even end. When the dependency no longer exists nurture is taken for granted—even resented. Unless the husband and wife learn to become friends (as they should have been in the first place), the relationship can end when the passion and romance are no longer there. That is the premise with the TV series “Friends;” they transcended their passing relationships for something more lasting—friendship. And that applies to working relationships, including those who are in the Christian ministry.

The third characteristic is that friendship assumes equality. There is no superior or inferior in a friendship. Whatever "inequality" that may be perceived, it is treated as differences or complementary traits which a partner may contribute into the relationship. Fundamental to this equality is grace. There is a sense of unconditional acceptance of the other partner.

Fourthly, friendship is empowering. Because in reality, people are not the same and are not equal. So where inequalities exist—grace and empowerment come in, friends can experiment and discover who or what they can be in the context of a gracious relationship.

It makes sense when two people presumably equals become friends. It is also understandable if we would want to become friends with someone apparently superior. It takes greater grace for someone superior to even want to have someone “lesser” than himself as his friend. Is that too hard?

Paul said that we should have the "mind of Christ...we should consider others as better than ourselves." (Philippians 2:3) It is a consequence when we come to an awareness of who we are in the Kingdom of God and see that ultimately we are "poor in spirit." (Matthew 5:3) Are we going to apply those to describe friendship with Jesus?

Adoption is a greater blessing than justification but friendship is even greater. Adoption for all its wonder and beauty ultimately assumes—as justification, redemption, and reconciliation—a hierarchy or a vertical relationship. A judge is superior to the sinner. A redeemer has to be more powerful than the redeemed. The one forgiving has to be morally greater the one being forgiven. A father is older, wiser, and stronger than a child.

In declaring us as His friends, Jesus throws out that hierarchy. No longer do we operate on job descriptions. Because we have been drawn to his heart, we now know the master’s business.” Commandments are no longer marching orders but are the burdens of our Friend. To those we respond—not under supervisory obligation; but under the obligation of love. It is "love that compels us." (2 Corinthians 5:14)

We were introduced to Jesus as Savior and Lord through our point of contact—grace. We were accepted for who we were and while we were still sinners, the ultimate transaction in our behalf was fulfilled. What should then be our response?

Many come into the faith when they are born again. They are like little children before the heavenly Father. But what happens when they “mature” and are no longer dependent on milk? Fr. Ruben J. Villote once commented that the Filipino preoccupation with the Sto. Niño is a positive affirmation of relating to God as child, but unless they are confronted as a mature adult by the Man from Galilee, real transformation will not take place. We are a whole nation that needs to grow up.

Many come in the faith and are discipled and conditioned to think they are God’s servants. Now that is only true in the sense that there is work to be done in the Kingdom of God, but Jesus himself declared that it is no longer the foundational relationship in which we operate because we are now his friends.

Are you a friend of Jesus or are you operating on a job description? Knowing Jesus as a friend has a lot to say in our personal relationship with him—how we spend time and talk to him. Also, knowing him as a friend has a lot to say in our relationships with others. As long as we operate on the paradigm of a servant, we relate to others in the same way. Is this a reason why there is no formal study or the theology of friendship? Is there a conspiracy in the human heart which seeks to maintain the way things are where someone is dominant or seeks to lord it over another (Mark 10:42)?

What this poses to us is not ministry but intimacy. We have responded as servants and obeyed Scripture as if it was an operating manual, but the call is not to more work but to a deeper relationship. Our starting point should be the heart of God, not the need of the broken world or the orders given by and to other people (even in Scripture). After all, isn’t that what we have been preached all along? "Not religion, but a relationship?"

Reflect for one moment at who we are and what we are doing—can we "just" be friends with Jesus?

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