The Church Desperately Needs to Reclaim Friendship

In an opinion piece for the Boston Globe, Carrie English, a bridesmaid at her best friend’s wedding, laments the current state of friendship in our culture.

She writes, “In the vows they wrote, the bride and groom gushed about how lucky they were to have found someone who loved them unconditionally – someone who made anyplace home – someone who was their best friend. And I stood there under the flower-covered gazebo thinking: ‘Why not me?…She loves me unconditionally. The house we shared always felt like home. And I thought we were best friends.’”

After further describing her frustration and grief, English concludes, “Being platonically dumped wouldn’t be so bad if people would acknowledge you have the right to be platonically heartbroken. But it’s just not part of our vocabulary. However much our society might pay lip service to friendship, the fact remains that the only love it considers important – important enough to merit a huge public celebration – is romantic love.”

It’s hard not to see where English is coming from. Compared to the deep friendships we see in early 20th century literature with Tolkien and Lewis, classical literature with Aristotle, Cicero, and Homer, or even Biblical literature with Jesus and Lazarus, modern friendships are rare, shallow and disposable. Christians have moved from the example of vowed friendship shown by the Saints Sergius and Bacchus where they would die for one another, to our social-media age “friendships” that end with a disinterested push of a button. Journalist Johann Hari puts it nicely when he argued, “We’ve traded floorspace for friends, we’ve traded stuff for connections, and the result is we are one of the loneliest societies there has ever been.” (source)

So what has changed?

In her book, Marriage, A History, historian Stephanie Coontz writes about the recent historical change in marriage sharing that it was only just recently people began to marry for love. Additionally, framing his critique within the last sixty years, political philosopher Ryan T. Anderson argues that Americans went from understanding marriage as oriented to the rearing of children to “an adult relationship of their choice.”(source) With the advent of the sexual revolution and the introduction of no-fault divorce, the romantic relationship has morphed into something entirely new. Not only is your spouse supposed to be your spouse, but suddenly, he or she is now also to be your family and your best friend, too.

This is perhaps perfectly illustrated with Justice Kennedy’s statement on the recent same-sex marriage ruling when he says, “no union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice and family.” [4]

Because of this narrow view of love, we live in a world where unmarried people fear being alone should they not marry, and married people struggle to be their spouse’s everything. We struggle to have deep same-sex friendships because if no relationship will ever be as deep as the romantic one, why bother?

This also acutely affects homosexuals within our churches today. The call to vocational celibacy (which was at one point a norm for the Early Christians) for those with same-sex attraction, seems cruel and unjust in our current cultural environment. In the words of Wesley Hill, a gay celibate Anglican, gay people in the church feel as though they have two options, “(1) be ostracized (or worse) in church and effectively live without meaningful same-sex closeness of any kind or (2) be in a romantic relationship with a partner of the same sex.” (source)

What sort of anti-gospel environment have we created where we believe that the deepest love experienced must be sexual, and we have people in our church who fear being alone should they not find romantic love?

Yet it wasn’t always this way.

In the Old Testament, David describes his love for his friend Jonathan as “deep, deeper than the love of women” (2 Sam. 1:26). In the Gospel of John, Christ boldly proclaims to his disciples, “greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13, emphasis mine), and later in the church, St. Aelred of Rievaulx, says this about friendship: “though challenged, though injured, though tossed into the flames, though nailed to a cross, a friend loves always.” (Spiritual Friendship)

The Christian tradition has always identified friendship as a high expression of love. When Christ exhorts his followers to love one another or even to love their enemies, he’s not simply speaking of tolerance or a superficial love. He’s speaking of love as perfect as the Father’s love (Matt 5:48). We also look forward to a time when at our resurrection, we will neither “marry nor be given in marriage” but we will be “like the angels in heaven” (Matt 22:30). We look forward to this time when we will love all people fully and completely.

The Church then has an incredible opportunity to speak truth into a culture that denigrates friendship for the sake of romantic relationships. We can hold both up as legitimate forms of love. By deepening our relationships with our friends, we can bear witness to Christ’s love and demonstrate that we can indeed love other people deeply, intimately and chastely — that our love is not dependent on sex.

Indeed, because it took us years to get to this point, it will take us years to challenge the status quo in our pews. We, in the Church, must continue to challenge ourselves by thinking about new ways of creating a culture of deep intimacy and friendship. It will not be easy to change deeply held beliefs, but as we pursue holiness in this area, we look to Christ who said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God” (Mark 10:27).

Explore more seeds: We published a book like none other called, God is Friendship: A Theology of Spirituality, Community, and Society by Brian Edgar; we’ve linked to several resources on gay marriage on our page here; Deb Hirsch offers a Seven Minute Seminary on sexuality and spirituality; view all of our articles on sexuality here.

Image attribution: Rinky Dink Images/ Thinkstock

3 COMMENTS

  1. Excellent point. I just spent 3 days with my two long time “boodie busums”. When I married, my husband understood they were “part of the package” he was getting. While I was with them we watched a significant part of the Lord of the Rings trilogy; once again I was struck by the theme that although it was Frodo’s job to dispose of the ring, he could not have done it without the help of a host of others, especially loyal Samwise. It is a theme that recurs in Harry Potter. It is a theme I have experienced in my own life. Part of Wesley’s understanding of church was about being closely associated with people you could trust. Unfortunately, in this time of striving for “relevancy”, that is no longer viewed as important.

  2. agrees with the opinion of the author, human attitude is very valuable. There are many ways to have a relationship with the people you meet on the street, on the Internet, for example on this website
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