Christians: Siblings, Not Friends?

Last week I caught up with some friends in England, my former next-door neighbors and parents of my godson. My friends have just had their second child and were remarking on how their fellow church members have been bringing meals and helping with household chores and in general offering support. “We couldn’t have survived these last few weeks without that,” they told me.

None of this struck me as surprising or remarkable until my friends recounted a conversation they had with their neighbors. Also new parents themselves, those neighbors expressed their astonishment at the network of support my friends enjoyed. “How do you know so many people?” they asked, incredulous. “How do you have so many friends? I wish we had half as much help as you’re receiving. We have friends we go to the pub with, but we don’t have any friends who brought us meals after our baby was born.”

An exchange like this gives me pause as I continue to work on developing a Christian theology of friendship, with special attention to the questions and concerns of celibate people. My current work centers on the rehabilitation of a robust view of Christian friendship along the lines of what Aelred of Rievaulx wrote about. But a story like the one my friends recounted confronts me with the question of whether the relationships they enjoy—in which meals are prepared, help is given and received—are best described as “friendships” at all. From my friends’ neighbors’ perspective, my friends’ church network seems more familial than friendly. It seems more like a circle of siblings than a network of acquaintances.

In the New Testament, familial language far outweighs the language of friendship when it comes to describing Christian community. Believers are one another’s “brothers and sisters in Christ,” not (primarily) one another’s “friends.” It’s true, as Stephen Fowl and others have shown, that some of the Greco-Roman language of friendship is reappropriated in the New Testament as descriptive for the church. But by relocating that language into a context of spiritual kinship, the New Testament reconfigures it. “Friendship” is elevated to something more than simply the sort of relationship that leads to a night at the pub; it becomes, instead, a way of speaking about the bonds between Christian siblings.

It may be, then, that part of our task in rediscovering and reinvigorating Christian friendship in our various late modern contexts now is learning to reject certain forms of anemic “friendship” altogether. We Christians don’t care much about “friendship” if it only means having acquaintances with whom to have drinks. But we do care enormously about cultivating the sorts of relationships that my friends in England enjoy—and we care about making sure their neighbors know they’re welcome to come enjoy those same relationships for themselves.

In her memoir Girls Meets God, Lauren Winner writes about her move back to the U.S. to start graduate school:

The day before I left Cambridge for good, I saw Paul and Gillian, two of the most annoying of the annoying Christians, on Clare bridge, and I hugged them. I said I would miss them. I thought I was lying, to be polite. But I wasn’t. I have missed them. I do. No one else I ever meet will have pledged to support me in my life of Christ, which is exactly what Paul and Gillian pledged at my baptism. My friends at Columbia, the friends I meet for drinks at trendy bars in the Village, the friends with whom I chat about post-structuralism and Derrida—those people didn’t witness my baptism. They didn’t cheer at my confirmation, they didn’t pray with me every Sunday for two years, they didn’t hand me Kleenex when I burst into inexplicable tears in the middle of the Lord’s Prayer. They aren’t my brothers and sisters in Christ. They are merely my friends.

Precisely.

6 thoughts on “Christians: Siblings, Not Friends?

  1. I think it’s helpful to point out the importance of familial language in the New Testament, but it seems to me a matter of both/and (both friendship and kinship are important metaphors for understanding Christian love), not either/or (either friendship or kinship). Your post seems more nuanced on this point, but the title may, I think, mislead.

    I would also mention that just as we need to resist inadequate understanding of friendship, we also need to resist an inadequate understanding of familial relationships. In the New Testament context, “family” did not refer just to the nuclear family. Even Greek words like ἀδελφὸς, which we usually translate “brother” actually had a rather broader meaning, and could refer to other male relatives.

    For example, the Septuagint gives Genesis 14:16 as: καὶ ἀπέστρεψεν πᾶσαν τὴν ἵππον Σοδομων καὶ Λωτ τὸν ἀδελφὸν αὐτοῦ ἀπέστρεψεν καὶ τὰ ὑπάρχοντα αὐτοῦ καὶ τὰς γυναῖκας καὶ τὸν λαόν. The NIV translates this “He [Abraham] recovered all the goods and brought back his relative [ἀδελφὸν] Lot and his possessions, together with the women and the other people.” Lot, of course, was actually Abraham’s nephew, but here we see ἀδελφὸς used in the context of extended, rather than nuclear, family.

    Over-emphasis on the nuclear family in contemporary Christianity undermines our ability to understand the kinship language of the New Testament. Attention to the way that ἀδελφὸς is used in both the Septuagint and the New Testament will enable us to better grasp the actual meaning of New Testament kinship language.

    • Ron,

      I think you offer some good points here, but even though the NT does use this language and admittedly it is broader than the focus on the family meaning often ascribed to it, I still think that we may run into problems incorporating that same language into modern contexts.

      Our langage on this issue runs into issues with cultural engagement. As our society becomes more post-Christian, the transference of meaning continues to decline. At the same time, if we are going to continue to use this language it is going to be counter-cultural. That may not be bad, since the early church was often accused of incest due to their own calling each other brothers and sisters. At the same time, it is going to turn a lot of people off and may cloud the message.

      In short, I think you are correct that kinship language is narrowly defined in many Christian subcultures and is therefore difficult. At the same time, I also think that simply because the NT uses kinship terminology more broadly than contemporary Christianity this fact doesn’t necessarily mean we should adopt that same language given some of the difficulties that may come with it.

      I am just thinking through this, and would love to hear your thoughts as well.

  2. On the surface, I agree that there are certain types of friendships that surpass the cliche drink-at-a-bar-sort-of-friend. However, I don’t know if it is necessarily right to call them siblings either.

    First, siblings sometimes can be the furthest thing from a friend. I have amazing friends. Individuals who I have lived tear-stained moments with but who endure, comfort, and mourn as well. At the same time, I know people whose siblings wouldn’t come close to these intimate relationships.

    Second, I think we are quick to call someone a friend, and the term has lost much of its significance. That doesn’t mean I am on some rally to restore the term “friend” while simultaneously bucking the lexical trend. Nevertheless, the term lacks significance in a facebook friend generation.

    Our first president commented on friendship, and his words have been a constant reminder to me of whom I allow to enter the intimate world of friendship in my own life. He stated, “Be courteous to all, but intimate with few, and let those few be well tried before you give them your confidence. True friendship is a plant of slow growth, and must undergo and withstand the shocks of adversity before it is entitled to the appellation.”

    So, yes I agree that there is a form of friendship that is qualitatively distinct from the all to unfortunately common experience of most. However, I don’t think we can rename it entirely. Every title, be it father, mother, sibling, and friend has new creation examples, and each of those titles also have experiences of fallen expectations and experiences. Thus, I don’t think sibling or a different title is the answer.

    What do we call this degree of intimacy that is so palpable but our langage fails to describe? I am not sure.

    Just some thoughts on this issue that I thought I would share. Hope your research is going well.

  3. Pingback: “Christians: Siblings, Not ‘Friends’?”: Wesley Hill

  4. Pingback: Christians: Siblings, Not ‘Friends’? » First Thoughts | A First Things Blog

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