So, if we’re going to have friends in the church family, what are some biblical principles?
1. Decide to have friends
Here’s the old wisdom from Ecclesiastes:
Two are better than one,
because they have a good return for their labour:
If either of them falls down,
one can help the other up.
But pity anyone who falls
and has no one to help them up.
Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm.
But how can one keep warm alone?
Though one may be overpowered,
two can defend themselves.
A cord of three strands is not quickly broken (4:9-12)
So having friends makes working together more productive, makes problems more soluble, difficulties more endurable, and enemies less powerful. And a tight band of friends is a solid, lifelong, life-enhancing group.
You know that old adage, ‘He who travels the fastest, travels alone?’ It’s Kipling, and it’s true up to a point. If speed is of the essence, buckle down and move. But, if the point is not to travel fast but to travel far, and that journey will involve problems, difficulties and enemies (i.e., it’s called life), travel with friends.
And that’s true about the good things too: they’re better enjoyed together: Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things (Phil 4:8). And since that advice has a gospel reference point, then obviously Christian friendships should be the best, most enjoyable, and most life-enhancing there can be.
2. Choose them for life
One, loyal, friend is a gift: One who has unreliable friends soon comes to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother (Prov. 18:24). Ultimately, that’s true about the Lord Jesus, of course, but proximately it’s about the best and oldest of your friends.
3. Choose them with care
This is true for any Christian, but especially true for a Christian leader: our friendships can so easily lead us astray, that we need people around us who will keep us on the right path. Look at the dangers of group-think-
My son, if sinners entice you,
do not consent.
If they say, “Come with us, let us lie in wait for blood;
let us ambush the innocent without reason;
like Sheol let us swallow them alive,
and whole, like those who go down to the pit;
we shall find all precious goods,
we shall fill our houses with plunder;
throw in your lot among us;
we will all have one purse”—
my son, do not walk in the way with them;
hold back your foot from their paths,
for their feet run to evil,
and they make haste to shed blood. (Prov. 1:10-16)
I don’t think it’s a coincidence here that sin happens in company, where discipleship decisions are made alone. Is that an absolute rule? Obviously not – otherwise there would be no value in church! But the point here is that we have to take responsibility for pulling back from some relationships.
So instead, think first.
The righteous choose their friends carefully,
but the way of the wicked leads them astray. (Prov. 12:26)
Do not make friends with a hot-tempered person,
do not associate with one easily angered (Prov. 22:24)
The point here is self knowledge. Someone who is easily angered, will make me angry too. Someone who likes to get drunk will want to get me drunk. Knowing my temptations will help me identify those who will encourage me in sin.
And maybe there’s a red light blinking on the dashboard for you: are you looking for friends with whom you don’t have to be quite so much of a Christian? With whom you can gossip, tell the dirty joke you can’t share from the pulpit, swear, without them raising an eyebrow? Then you’re looking for the wrong kind of friends. You need friends who will encourage you in godliness.
The wisdom call
It looks like there needs to be some kind of boundary. Christian leaders, like any human beings, are made to be relational, and in a church – and especially in a responsible position – we are to model restored relationships. Paul has some criteria for Christian leaders which are quite strikingly relationship oriented: Since an overseer manages God’s household, he must be blameless—not overbearing, not quick-tempered, not given to drunkenness, not violent, not pursuing dishonest gain. Rather, he must be hospitable (Titus 1:7-8).
And, to make the obvious point again, Christian leadership in the New Testament is almost always plural in its expression.
But there have to be limits. John wrote one of his briefest letters to a church that had opened its doors too wide: Anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God; whoever continues in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not take them into your house or welcome them. Anyone who welcomes them shares in their wicked work (2 John 9-11). We are not to be gullible.
Try this out: make a distinction between friendliness and friendship: the first is for the many, the latter for the few; you can do the first with a large crowd and be hospitable; you can do the second with a small group of friends when you get to be less guarded and on view.
I’m not saying that you need to be false when you are being friendly: you are being generous, warm and talkative. But there will be issues that you don’t want to air with a large group; sins you want to beheld accountable for that you don’t want spread around town; time when you’re off-duty as the go-to-person.
And even then, as in any friendships, there will be other, negotiated boundaries. Any decent friend will know you have been told things in confidence you can’t share. They won’t press you, but they can pray with you and support you in the burden confidentiality.
But, by and large, my observation is that pastors don’t need lessons in putting up barriers. They need to learn to demolish a few that they’ve put up to protect themselves unnecessarily.
It is not good to be alone
- Who are the people in your church who you’d be glad to count as friends?
- Do you think the friendliness/friendship distinction is valid?
- What boundaries do you need to erect, and which do you need to demolish?