Who are your good friends? Are they the people you sometimes don’t see for months or even years but you can always pick up right where you left off? Or are they the people that know about your daily life and you don’t have to do “catch ups”? Are they the people who know they can always ask you for help if they need anything? Or are they the people that respect your personal time and space and know you well enough to realise when they are being invasive?
Ask this question a group of people and you are guaranteed to get an incredibly varied set of answers. In our current age of personal freedom and choice, people’s definitions, thoughts and expectations of good friendships can differ vastly, and here is where lots of problems in friendships come from, one person’s dream friend can be other person’s nightmare. Friendships are the least formally defined relationships we find ourselves in, there is no commitment, no goal, no contract, no promises we could really hold our friend accountable to.
What about Christian friendships though? Is there a different definition for those? The truth is we sort of think the Bible doesn’t teach anything about friendships and therefore, even if we want to improve on being a friend, our starting point is to import any of the definitions that suit us personally to the relationships we have with people in church. But is this really ok?
The Bible might not have a specific passage that provides teaching on friendship but it has a lot of material on church. The Bible doesn’t really think we need to know about friends because it says we are family. As in: your nearest and dearest, the people you share life with, the people you love and cherish. And far from being a nice metaphor - what corporation does not refer to its staff as family these days? - the Bible actually says that this family, for reasons we will see, is to be more valued and more special than any type of family the world could make.
To understand why relationships in church are to be this close, we quickly have to look at the whole story of the Bible to see how the church came to be.
In Genesis chapter 2 we read about how man was made to be a social being, a being that needs others. “It is not good that man should be alone.” (Gen 2:18). God made Eve for Adam so that she could help him with the task that God has given them both.
The last sentence before everything in the world goes wrong is this one: “And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.” (Gen 2:25, emphasis mine) and then a few verses later, straight after they’ve eaten the fruit of knowing good and evil, here is the first thing that happens: “...they knew that they were were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.” (Gen 3:7)
It seems a bit strange that these are the two points that mark the first massive difference of life pre- and post-fall. Why is it so important that people before the fall were naked and they couldn’t be naked anymore after it? The idea of nakedness here is about how there was nothing to hide, everything was open, clear and shared. But at the very moment people sinned, this perfect connection between them was broken and they had to put clothes on. The clothes are the visible aspect of the fact that humanity now hides from each other - to cover their own sin, and to protect themselves from being vulnerable to another person’s sin.
The story of a complete breakdown of human unity, cooperation and understanding doesn’t stop here but culminates with the story about the Tower of Babel. It turns out that in the mix of fighting and competition and malice between people, as told in the rest of Genesis, the only project people can set aside their differences and competitiveness for is a project to unite together against God and prove to him they don’t need him. God punishes them by mixing up their languages, forcing people to disperse.
All the things that we now think off as the things that separate us from other humans come out of this moment. Language barriers, cultural barriers, personality differences, all of them started here.
We now live in an utterly cursed world, where we are cut off from God and separated from each other. Where all our relationships are fractured and frustrated.
But remember, God made people to be social beings who need other people deeply, who need to be understood, loved, cared for, who deeply need to belong. And because of God’s judgement, this is impossible.
The story of the Bible is a story about God saving us from ourselves and from his judgement and bringing us back to himself and to the way we are meant to live. He wants to fulfil the desires that he made us with.
If the story at the very beginning of the Bible is about how our deep problem of separation from each other has everything to do with our problem of separation from God then getting our relationship with God fixed MUST also have implications for our relationships with other people. And this is where church comes in. As scattering of people has always been part of God’s judgement so bringing them back in together is always part of the salvation he brought.
Ephesians 2 might be the clearest place where these two axes come together in one picture, but you would see the same if you read Isaiah or really any of the NT letters.
Paul starts with talking to people who started off being divided both from God and from being part of his people, the Gentiles, or non-Jews, who were ‘separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.’ Paul tells them:
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace. (Eph 2:13-15)
This passage deals more closely with the problem of Jesus’ sacrifice bringing down the biggest divide there was in the OT between the chosen people of Israel and everyone else. By implication though, if becoming part of Jesus’ one new man isn’t a case of being born to the right nation anymore, none of the other differences created by the Tower of Babel curse matter either. Jesus has ‘reconciled us both to God in one body through the cross…[and]...
came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God. (Eph. 2:17-19)
The cross has brought peace between God and people and between people and people. In exactly the same way first sin broke both of those relationships and created separation, the cross fixed both and created peace and unity through Jesus’s sacrifice. This is what the church is. A group of people brought into unity of living as one body under Jesus’ headship.
In Ephesians Paul goes on to ‘urge’ the Ephesian church ‘to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.’
Paul says that the Ephesians should act in a manner that reflects what has happened to them - that they, all undeserving sinners, having been given all spiritual blessings, and, whatever culture or status or religion they were from, they have now been made part of God’s chosen family. They are all waiting for their home that’s being prepared for them where all of the divisions between people will be no more.
The Ephesians, and all Christians, know who they really are - as the gospel exposes us all them as sinners, we no longer have to cover up our own sin in order to appear better than we are. However not hiding our sin can make us feel really vulnerable because others can still either use it to shame and hurt us or to show themselves as better people than us. And people are going do these things. We’re not safe from shame, hurt and scorn even from people in church.
But Christians know people are only saved and seen as acceptable in God’s eyes through Jesus’ sacrifice and can therefore live in loving and close relationships, and they can be humble towards each other, admitting when they hurt each other, repenting of sins, and likewise forgiving each other when others hurt them.
Paul tells Christians that through this existing and real reconciliation between God and between people, we can love each other now as this special redeemed family, in a way that is unique from all other types of relationships in human history. We still sin and we still hurt each other, we will still have tendencies towards misunderstanding and hiding but we sin in knowledge of our real and present forgiveness from God, and in hope of being saved from these sinful, broken bodies at the resurrection, from all of the pain and hurt of this present evil age.
This is the definition the Bible provides for friendships within the church. They are not to be defined by us, the boundaries are not to be set by what feels comfortable to us, whatever type of friendship suits us best. We can’t continue to put on the clothes or the layers that cover up who we are, to set up divisions in which we hide our sin and hide ourselves from one another. There actually are no boundaries as the cross brought them all down. If Jesus made us all into one man then it stops being about what works for you. You get to love others as you love yourself. Nothing less.