As with most of my little theories, this topic has been discussed between Jill and I for a while now. Most of our conversations end with her telling me, “Will you puh-leeze turn this into a blog?” So I’m doing this partly for her.
As with most theological issues, the way we understand God’s character and personality deeply affects our interpretation of other things. Consider these lyrics and quotes:
I am a friend of GodIsrael Houghton
He calls me friend
Jesus is a friend of mine!“Friendship with Jesus” by Joseph Ludgate (1898)
…intimate friendship with Jesus results in men becoming like Him.Harry Fosdick
Jesus is God but he humbled himself to walk with us. He is our friend, our brother.Pope Francis
The more I seek to know God through the years, the more these kind of lyrics and quotes make me uncomfortable. I fully acknowledge that I’m the odd one here, because they are very common and popular. I also realize I’ve already lost half my readers. To those that are left, let’s explore the issue more deeply.
First of all, being a friend of someone is different than being a friend to or for someone. English can be weird. “Bob is a good friend of mine” is not the same as “Bob has been a good friend to me”.
I don’t have a problem with the latter in reference to God, i.e. “God has shown Himself a friend to sinners,” but I do have a problem with the former. To call oneself a friend of anyone implies equality, and in regards to great or famous people we rarely talk like this unless certain conditions are met.
Moreover, when people do make claims of friendship with famous or important people, or those higher up in status, they are generally doing so to elevate themselves. I find myself often doing this even in the church, to my shame – “humble bragging” about who I talk to, hang out with, and who my mentor is. Somehow it always turns out these people I name-drop are more popular or influential than I am.
The more important or “high status” someone is, the more obvious it is that he who claims friendship with that person is dropping names. And conversely, the truly humble people I’ve met avoid these claims, focusing rather on praising or promoting their “betters”. A great picture of this is the classic master-servant relationship, seen in beloved characters like Batman/Alfred, Wooster/Jeeves, Frodo/Sam, Robinson/Friday, or Sherlock/Watson (notice that all these are male). Despite the obvious “friendship” borne out of years of working together, neither party would speak of the other as anything else besides “master” and “servant”.
And if one party was to break this “rule”, it would always be the master in the relationship who, in order to show favor to his loyal servant after years of service, condescended to call him “friend”.
The truly humble servant would of course be extremely flattered, not being able to fathom this “equality” with his master. Even in this moment of happiness the master/servant relationship is never lost – and even after the servant would never claim friendship. It is a badge of honor he treasures in secret, but would not proclaim in public.
Keep this pattern in mind, we’ll come back to it shortly.
Our culture has lost this relationship. We are so obsessed with “equality” that we cannot stand the idea of a servant in any sense. This ignores reality and (worse) attempts to create a false reality. We are not, can not, and should not all be equal.
Kung-fu movies (and the culture of martial arts) really show an understanding of the master/servant relationship. So does any good army. So do the Jedi. Hierarchy and discipline are primary; any mention of friendship is either non-existent or takes years to appear. For men, this kind of relationship can exist in perpetuity, and is even desirable, because each party knows his place.
The church must encourage these types of relationships, because men hear phrases like “intimate friendship with Jesus” and run the other direction.
On the other hand, this type of relationship is difficult for most women. Sam Gamgee was modeled after the “batmen” of WWI, the loyal “errand boys” of their commanding officers, but I know of no female counterparts (the family mentioned Ruth & Naomi, a great exception). I’m sure this can happen in a good marriage, and indeed the Bible indicates that it should:
For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord.1 Peter 3
When is the last time you heard a wife call her husband “lord”? The more feminist a culture gets, the more shocking and offensive this becomes, because “we’re equal now”. Women have a hard time even understanding why this is good, preferring instead to call their husbands “friends”. This is not a commentary on marriage per se, but the sentiment has certainly worked its way into our churches.
Now let’s turn to a few biblical arguments. The old testament features literally one man who is called “friend” by God Himself – Abraham. No one else. Think about that. One man gets this incredible honor.
Keep in mind that the OT is replete with allegory and imagery. God has no problem referring to himself as King, Lord, God, Father, even Husband. But never “friend”. He speaks face to face with Moses, but never bestows the title “my friend”.
In the new testament, even Jesus did not claim friendship with the Father:
Christ Jesus… did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a servantPhilippians 2
I can’t even imagine Jesus referring to the Father as “my friend”, because this would imply equality. Rather, Jesus took the attitude of a submissive servant to show us how it’s done.
This is why I see so much Jesus in characters like Sam Gamgee (the books of course, not the movies). Humble and loyal even to pain and death, all they seem to care about is pleasing their master.
Then there’s that time when Jesus is called a “friend of sinners”:
The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, “Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!”Matthew 11
Jesus is quoting an accusation from his detractors. He does not confirm or deny anything, which I love. He doesn’t need to defend himself. He does not confirm or deny being a “friend of sinners”, he just states the charges to make a point. Yet we tend to acquit Jesus of the charge of drunkard and overstate the “friend of sinners” part.
The idea of being an enemy of God is quite a bit more common:
For He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet.1 Corinthians 15
Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.James 4
When someone chooses to obey God, they cease being God’s enemy and become His servant, not friend.
Now I know you’re all thinking, “Well why did Jesus call his disciples friends then, huh?” Yes, I was about to open that can of worms:
You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.John 15
People like to hone in on this verse, and we love to think that it’s one of those that applies to everyone throughout history (including us, of course). I’m not so sure. This large section recounts the final meal Jesus shares with the Twelve (minus one) before he is arrested – the Last Supper. These guys had been taught, corrected, and trained by Jesus at this point for years. Up to this point, the relationships more closely resembled the Jedi/Padawan or Sensei/Disciple or Master/Apprentice than what we would think of as a “friendship”.
Earlier in the same dinner conversation, Jesus says this:
You call Me Teacher and Lord, and rightly so, because I am.John 13
Jesus was first their Lord, Teacher, and Master, and that was never lost. How do I know? Keeping in mind our pattern from earlier, none of the followers of Jesus ever make a pretense of calling themselves Jesus’ friend. It was simply not something to be claimed. It’s never mentioned again, although the disciples must have treasured the words.
What does Thomas say when Jesus shows himself to the disciples?
“My Lord and my God!” Thomas exclaimed.John 20
How do the other writers of the new testament letters sign their names?
Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ and brother of JamesJude 1
Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus ChristTitus 1
Simeon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ2 Peter 1
Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ JesusPhilippians 1
I agree that Jesus calling the disciples “friends” is an amazing graduation ceremony. They have “grown up” in a sense and have become “like their master” in many ways, knowing the business of the Kingdom. Even so, friendship is conditional – if they love Jesus, they will first obey him.
Obedience and respect always come first. This officer gets it, though he never met Jesus personally:
And Jesus went with them. When he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends, saying to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof. Therefore I did not presume to come to you. But say the word, and let my servant be healed. For I too am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me: and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes; and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” When Jesus heard these things, he marveled at himLuke 7
This guy’s attitude impressed Jesus, and that’s saying something. He not only deeply understood authority and hierarchy (and himself was master over 100+ men), he humbly acknowledges that Jesus is above him in it. The idea of this soldier singing “I am a friend of God” is ridiculous.
This turned out longer than I thought, sorry. I think claiming friendship with God is very dangerous, and that we should not “put ourselves forward” like that. Instead, we should focus on our position as servants.