Early on in Mark Vernon’s insightful book The Meaning of Friendship, there’s this throwaway observation: “In TV soaps, the characters always have their friends to return to when their sexual adventures fail; lovers come and go, but friends remain.” Reading that sentence, I think not only of old favorites like Seinfeld and Friends but of more recent sitcoms like How I Met Your Mother or Happy Endings: the string of the characters’ romantic attachments is forgettable; what keeps you watching these shows is the constancy of the (mostly twentysomething) friendships among the protagonists. Romance is fleeting; friendship is permanent.
But I often hear the opposite point of view when I speak with young Christians. What’s constant, they feel, is marriage. Because friendship is transitory and unfortified by vows of commitment, it’s far less reliable than the publicly honored marital bond. Your spouse will move with you when you take that new job across the country, but good luck staying in touch with your friends. Vernon himself, who is not a Christian, notes his own experience in this regard, when he was still single:
The limits [of friendship] were most obvious when compared to the relationships I witnessed between lovers or within families. It seemed to me that notwithstanding the occasional exception, friendship simply cannot bear the demands and intimacies, great and small, that are the very stuff of these other relationships of love and blood.
From the standpoint of classic Christian accounts of friendship, however, it seems to me that both these perspectives—the sitcom one and the instinctive feeling many young Christians have of being lonely without marriage—are missing something crucial.
On the one hand, unlike the twentysomething characters in Friends, Christians seeking to cultivate friendship—and here I am thinking primarily of celibates—ought to see friendship as something that binds them to those who are married or engaged, not something that disengages them from their fellow Christians. Young unmarried Christians can learn to view their support and encouragement of their married friends as part of their vocation, part of the gift they can offer in their churches.
On the other hand, unlike the young celibate Christians (myself included) who fear that friendship won’t be reliable and sustaining in the long run as their peers pair off and get married, Christian friends ought to view friendship as something they receive from married couples and families even as they seek to return it. For all my disagreement with Eugene Rogers on the moral significance of sexual difference for Christian marriage, I appreciate his emphasis on the need for married couples to have a third, a witness and strengthener of their married life. Just as the God the Father and Son are drawn into their love for one another by the Spirit, so also, Rogers argues, Christian marriages are beguiled outward, into service and mission, by the friendships they embrace, and are embraced within, in the church. (Of course, the plausibility of Rogers’ perspective depends in large measure on whether Christian couples will actually give it hands and feet and look for ways to make their marriages hospitable.)
So, “no” to the sitcom view: friendship isn’t the main attraction, while the gift and calling of married love (itself a far cry from the “romantic” love these TV shows exhibit) is relegated to being a sideline affair. But also “no” to the fear of loneliness among many young Christians today: remaining unmarried need not mean the diminishment of loving bonds among friends, and it need not entail being excluded from the familial life of our churches. Or at least it ought not.