Friends over Family

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.

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10 thoughts on “Friends over Family”

  1. Again, a fascinating catalyst to thought and reflection...

    I have been a Christian since 1988 after having come out of an, ahem, radically different lifestyle/worldview. Within that previous life, however, I had some amazing experiences of community and loyalty that I have rarely, if ever, seen in the Church since.

    I think this notion of friends instead of family is absolutely compelling and I warm to it immediately.

    Very rarely indeed would I even consider being friends in a social setting with the folk at our Church - they are, as you observe, family I tolerate for the greater good of 'Christian Community'.

    True friendship is, of course, very rare indeed - ironically, especially among those who talk a great deal about it...

    Oh for a Church that was living out this model - I'd be there in a shot... Me? I am caught between the Devil and the C of E, having to compromise and put up with issues that are at huge variance to what I am seeking in a Christian community. Am I being too idealistic? Or is it possible to experience loyalty, friendship and community in a Christian setting similar to that I had known in my rather dark and dangerous past?

  2. Wasn't she wonderful?

    I think you missed the second lecture. She brought this point back up and did temper it by noting the significance of the three times "monogenes" appears in John and especially the language of birth in Jesus' discourse with Nicodemus in John 3.

    While "friend" is the guiding metaphor of John, O'Day would argue, family is also an important metaphor centering around the motif of birth.

  3. Brilliant. Loved this post. Re friends and family, I'm also wondering about how we look at Jesus' apparent disregard for family ties in favor of conscious, willed ties -- telling someone who wanted to wait before following him that he should leave the dead to bury the dead; saying that he has come with a sword and the father and the son shall be divided against one another, and the mother and the daughter divided against one another; and his dismissal of his mother and siblings in favor of those who fulfill God's word (going on memory here, hopefully I remembered the gist)

    -- Anna

  4. I'm assuming you are not referring to the husband/wife relationship, which in the Western world is a choice. But, maybe treating our spouse as a "friend" with mutual submission is a good model to think about?

  5. Agreed. I don't think we should jettison family as metaphor. It's all over Scripture. Mainly I'm pushing back less on John than on how church has been reduced almost solely to the family metaphor. I think recovering friendship as a model for Kingdom life would recover some things that have been lost.

    She was wonderful and I hated to miss the 7:30 talk. My son had his final football game. We'll have to catch up on what she talked about.

  6. What I took from your post was the idea of seeking to be a true friend, with any who want to be in a relationship with me. That's going to play out differently from person to person. In the past few years I've been trying to be "friends" with family members and a better friend to my friends. It works out better with Christ followers, but sometimes surprisingly well with non-Christians, too.

  7. I am afraid to say Greg that I have to agree with your post word-for-word... :(
    I am glad that you're still able to believe that change might still be "in the wind" - oh please, let it be so...

  8. Hmm, more thought-provoking stuff...
    I agree in regard to your idea about choosing your friends and I am challenged by this in my own life. It's all too easy to hang out just with folks who agree with you, have a similar background and outlook, i.e. they're you in another form.
    You've positively provoked me to re-address this trait and to make sure I primarily make friends for THEIR benefit (not to say I won't get something out of it, but just not to have this as my foremost goal...)

    Phew, this is sacrificial stuff isn't it?

  9. It just occurred to me: the rise of the Right Wing becoming so single minded and narrow in its ideology, and so militant in its communication, coincides with Christians participating in politics that began with the Moral Majority....

    I'm not saying this as a troll; I wonder if I stumbled on an insight while reading the commentary just now....

  10. Great thoughts on increasing the language of friendship!

    I think it's worth noting that two implications about Chrstians-as-family (though perhaps common) are misguided:  the annoying-relative motif and the mistreatment motif.

    As far as relatives go, the Biblical example rarely uses relationships beyond brother-sister, father-mother-son-daughter, husband-wife.  That is, the only relationships used are those relationships closest to us.  Ideally, your family members are your best friends.  In that sense, we are not a family reunion with the wierd uncle, but a family that sits at the table to eat often.  (Making this distinction, I suspect, would be helpful for the Church.)

    We certainly do mistreat those closest to us, undeservedly so, but I like to look at this on the flipside.  We bear each other's burdens; even the raw burdens.  We are more honest with family than we are with friends, and we're able to look past each other's faults.  It's a deep support that goes beyond deservedness.

    Beyond those quibbles, though, I love the idea of re-integrating the friendship metaphor!  The family metaphor cannot be the only metaphor for the Church.  This is particularly true when someone has come from a torn, wrecked family; "family" becomes a bad word.

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