Perhaps the biggest barrier to our building friendships comes from our idolatry of marriage in the church. If you’re single you experience it as people in church trying to matchmake you with any eligible Christian of the opposite sex, and that makes you weary of friendships especially those with the opposite sex. All of us imbibe it in the relationship talks we’re given at youth groups and camps which are often well meaning but focus on marriage as the thing that will save you from your struggle with sexual sin and provide you with the intimacy and friendship you so long for. And that often means when people get married they so with unhealthy expectations. They also tend to pull away from previous friendships, almost as if a close relationship with anyone else will endanger their marriage. Pastorally I’ve dealt with many who have been badly wounded by just that unloving act and now feel fearful of building new friendships because what if they meet someone….
The churches idolatry of marriage is partly the result of our overreaction to the world’s idolatry of sex. Sexual love is viewed as the highest form of love in the world, it’s the ultimate hence the mantra that love is love and nothing should get in the way of that. It is the highest good, the ultimate expression of love, the goal to aim for. And so the church doubles down on the teaching that marriage between a man and a woman is the only right context for sexual love and intimacy, without challenging societies mantra on sexual love being the ultimate, the place you will find fulfilment. But in so doing I worry that we write cheques marriage can’t cash. The bible’s picture of love is so much broader and more beautiful and bountiful than that. It’s much more multifaceted and we lose something when we shrink love down to sexual love, we lose friendship and end up overburdening and overexpecting of marriage and naturally as a result we will find our churches full of people struggling with loneliness whether married or single and marriages creaking under the strain.
The Bible is full of stories of the joy of love that is not sexual. Sexual love is only one type of love we were made to enjoy. Marriage is the only context in which God says we’re to fulfil that love, yet marriage itself has limits, it points beyond itself to the eventual eternal joy of the union between Christ and the Church. And that means we must see marriage for what it is. A signpost, a precious covenant signpost that can bring much joy, yes. A good gift of God, yes. But also one that is given not to be an idol but to be part of a process of growing Christlikeness spurred on by those entering it. It is not the only form of love we were made to enjoy, that we need. Even in the garden the image of Adam and Eve isn’t it, it’s not complete. They aren’t sat snuggled up and loved up on a sofa with a Rom Com or Action flick blissfully content to find all they need in each others eyes, they have a job to do to create a community of worshippers, with a web of other relationships, other types of love, that is what they were made for.
The highest love is not sexual love and that means we may need to repent as churches, couples, pastors and individuals of making this an idol and the destruction that has wrought in this area of friendship. We ought to focus and teach much more on friendship. After all when was the last time we gave friendship preparation classes rather than just marriage preparation classes? When was the last time you taught friendship from a biblical text? Yet the Bible is full of descriptions of the joy of friendship and we need to not be afraid of them. We need to speak of them loudly and proudly, we need to reclaim some of them where they’ve been hijacked by other agendas and lovingly show how wrong that is and we need to speak often in praise of friendship and apply the principles so our congregations can flourish as they enjoy friendship as God intends it. Rather than imperil marriages I wonder if actually this might save many of them, relieving them of a burden they are not made to carry.
I am not denigrating marriage. It is a God given good, it points to something far greater. But we need to get the balance right. I am not denigrating family. But I am saying that as a church we need to be biblically balanced in our teaching. The Church is a new family, it’s not nuclear, we enter into an interconnected web of loving sisterly and brother friendships that is a blessing and provides the welcome and love so many in our society are desperately hungering after.
And in a society that is desperately lonely, that seems to put all its eggs in the basket of sexual love we can show them a better way. But only if we stop and study and teach what the bible has to say about friendship. We were not made for loneliness we were made for love, not romantic love but love from God, love by neighbours, love by a redeemed community that meets us again and again with the welcome of grace and the rest of the gospel. That truly sees us and loves us as Christ loved us. That truly sees us and loves us enough to rebuke and correct and train as well as bind wounds and pour the oil of the gospel onto our wounds. We need that love of friendship that is God’s gift to us.
Peter writes to the believers scattered across Asia Minor “Above all, love one another deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.” Do you see what he is saying? There is an urgency to this love, a necessity for it if we are to persevere in following Jesus especially in a hostile world. I get the sense that many are feeling a hunger for this love, a longing that somehow as the church we are falling short of. The answer isn’t to look for it elsewhere it is to examine ourselves, repent of our idolatry, and study God’s word for what it has to teach us about friendship. And then put it into practice.
What might that mean? It’s not the whole answer but interestingly the very next verse Peter talks about hospitality. How about opening up your home? Lower the drawbridge, lift the portcullis and fill in the moat. Your home is a God gifted arena in which others can by grace experience the blessing of friendship. Be patient, don’t rush to do everything at once, take time. Invest, give of yourself, do things together with others, avoid exclusivity always be looking to include not exclude, and pray that God would give you a heart to love and the grace to bear with others and that God would give others the patience and grace to bear with you. When it’s awkward keep going. When someone offends – why not rather be wronged? When sin rears its ugly destructive head confront it with truth and love and be ready to forgive with grace. Relationships are messy – I wonder sometimes if that’s why we find them hard they are not instant or easy or within our control or diarise-able, there isn’t an app for that – but there is joy in the mess of being truly seen and known and loved by grace in Christ.