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.