One of the things at ACU I look forward to is the Carmichael-Walling lectures in New Testament and Early Christianity. This year Gail R. O'Day delivered lectures entitled Jesus as Friend. The 4:30 lecture I attended was on the topic Jesus as Friend in the Gospel of John.
In the lecture O'Day took as her main text this passage from John 15.12-15:
My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.
In the lecture O'Day made the argument that friendship is a key theological category in the gospel of John. More, the notion of friendship in John is not the sentimental or thin notions of friendship we moderns often have (think: Facebook "friends"). No, for John, and the ancients generally, friendship meant being willing to "lay down one's life."
I might share some of my notes from the lecture next week, but for this post I want to share the question I asked in the Q&A. Basically, I found O'Day's argument to be persuasive. If so, it's troubling that friendship gets scant attention in many churches. I don't think I've ever heard a sermon or adult bible class on the subject of being a good friend. Christians, in short, just don't think about friendship.
And yet, there in John Jesus puts friendship at the center of his vision for community. As friends we are to love each other.
By contrast, Christians talk a great deal about family. They talk a lot about the biological family (Mom, Dad and the kids) and the spiritual family (how we are all brothers and sisters in Christ).
And as I listened to Dr. O'Day I wondered about that. What difference might it make in our churches if we saw ourselves as friends rather than as family? That was the question I asked.
In her answer O'Day gestured in the direction where my thoughts were heading. Specifically, she noted that friendship is a volitional activity. We choose our friends where we don't choose our family. Also, friendship is more of an egalitarian concept in that it doesn't have the potential for hierarchy (parents over children). Finally, she mentioned that friendship implies certain "mutual obligations."
I guess people might quibble with that last answer. Family members also seem to have mutual obligations. But here's where my thoughts were heading in this direction.
It seems to me that the notion of family can create a kind of callousness in the church. As O'Day noted, we don't choose who our family will be. So we all have family members that we don't like very much. Some grumpy uncle or annoying cousin. So while we own these people symbolically we don't feel compelled to spend time with them if we don't have to. That is, I'll chit chat during family gatherings but when I'm on my own time I'm going to spend time with my friends, not with annoying family members.
Further, we also know that we often treat family members a lot worse than our friends. The family bond is strong. Consequently, we often abuse it. We do things to family that we'd never get away with with friends. On the one hand, this might seem to make family a wonderful example of Kingdom living, a bond so strong it can handle all that abuse. But is that really what we want? I think I've seen this dynamic in churches. The feeling seems to be, "Jesus picked you, I didn't. So, yes, I'll see you in heaven. We're family after all. So I guess nothing is a stake in my needing to treat you better. So get lost. See you at the Pearly Gates you jerk." I exaggerate of course. But I've seen this play out in church "families."
In short, it seems that friendship (rather than family) is the concept calling us to higher standards and better behavior.
So what I'm arguing, inspired by Dr. O'Day, is this: Friendship is a better model for the church than family. And there is some precedent for this. As O'Day noted, the Quakers called themselves The Society of Friends.
What might be the practical implications of this switch in imagination? Well, first, as noted, you choose to spend time with friends. You can ignore family members, you don't have to choose to be with them. But if everyone at church is my friend then, well, the expectation is that I'll choose to spend time with them. That is what you do if you're friends.
Further, as we noted, friendship calls you to a higher standard of behavior. You treat friends better than you do family members. True, that may be because a friendship is a more tenuous relationship. But I think that is missing the point. We treat friends as gifts. They are choosing to spend time with us, to share their lives with us. Consequently, we don't want to treat them poorly. We want to embrace that gift and rejoice in it. If this logic holds then what we see here is something like the self-emptying love of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (and O'Day makes this very Trinitarian observation about friendship). I'm not sure a similar dynamic can be found with family. True, there is a certain givenness about family, but that givenness doesn't necessarily imply a gift. It could be a curse.
So that's my argument. In church we should work on being better friends and spend less time being family.