Friendship and Mission at the Margins: A Habitat for Friendship
“Unfaithful creatures! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” (James 4:4)
The Letter of James has occupied a marginal and problematic position, particularly within the Protestant tradition. It was labeled by Martin Luther as “an epistle full of straw, because it contains nothing evangelical.” Luther’s concern that the gospel of Jesus Christ be at the heart of the church’s proclamation must be taken seriously. Yet the great value of the biblical witness is that the church’s understanding of this gospel is expanded and strengthened by the expression of multiple images, language, and perspectives. It is true that James offers a view of faith which differs from the Pauline emphasis on “justification by faith alone.” Rather than contrasting faith and works, the Letter of James focuses upon the way in which faith itself works within the Christian community. In other words, how does the church practice what it preaches? Thus it could be that James teaches a practical ethic of faith and love which may well be in accord with the Apostle Paul’s call for “faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6).
As the missional church considers how to bring the gospel of Jesus Christ into engagement with contemporary culture—how to be “in” but not “of” the world—the Letter of James’ call for conversion from “friendship with the world” to “friendship with God” can provide significant insights. Missional friendship calls for a community of people who have cultivated the ability to become not only “friends of God” but who also offer friendship to all those loved by God. Such a community embodies the redeeming love of God for all humanity, especially those living on the margins of society. Creating the space, opportunity and support for the practice of friendship represents an important, if often overlooked, aspect of missional communities.
Friendship with God.
The Letter of James uses the word “world” in a particular way. The church is not being encouraged to withdraw from or reject the world. As used here, world does not refer to God’s creation or to the arena of human endeavor as such. Rather it represents a reality or system of meaning that does not know and is hostile to God. Thus “world” and “God” are opposed as measures of identity, commitment, and allegiance. These two measures of reality derive from different sources and lead to different behavior. The worldly realm is shaped by “wisdom from below” characterized by selfish ambition and bitter envy which comes from the devil (3:15-16). God’s realm is shaped by “wisdom from above” which leads to peace, mercy, and goodness and comes from God’s Spirit who dwells in the midst of human life (3:17-18).
Since it is not possible to live in both realms, becoming friends with God involves decision and change, the cleansing of hands and the purifying of hearts (4:8). “For James, the choice is between a life of envy that logically tends toward the elimination of the other in murder (4:2) and a life based on gift (4:6) and mercy (2:13) expressed in service to the other.”1 Those who are “double-minded” (4:8), who seek to live by both measures at once, betray friendship with God and are trapped by a friendship with the world characterized by “disorder and wickedness of every kind” (3:16).
The illustration of “our ancestor Abraham” (3:21-26), reveals that friendship with God indicates a single-minded commitment to a faith expressed by and completed through good works. As doers of the word and not merely hearers, God’s friends live not in arrogance but in humility, knowing that life comes from God “who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly” (1:5). Befriended by a “compassionate and merciful Lord” (5:11), living as the “first fruits of God’s creatures” (1:18), the community of the friends of God begins a lifelong process of being shaped by “gentleness born of wisdom” (3:13).
Friendship with God does not flow naturally from ordinary life but is to be cultivated intentionally through human friendships within the church. Participation in a “befriending community” brings not only personal transformation, but also offers the world a powerful vision of life as intended by God. “We join the community of the friends of God through baptism, and we nurture and sustain this life through the prayer and practices of the church. Living a life of friendship with God in the community of the baptized is inescapably transformative. It not only gives us a new identity but also makes the church a community of unmistakable character….At the very least it suggests that people should be able to look to the church and see embodied there genuine joy, peace, mercy, kindness, generosity, hospitality, and a people who are not afraid to be truthful with one another. What a gift the church could be if people really could see these qualities alive in it today.”2
Depending upon what attracts and binds persons together, there are different kinds of friendship. Christian friendship has a distinctive character.
- Shared Story: Christians are able to befriend one another because of what God has done in Jesus Christ. “We are (or can be) friends to one another because Christ chose us, making us his friends by laying his life down for us and revealing to us God’s intentions.”3
- Embodied Love: Because their friendship is grounded in God’s generous and undeserved love, friends are able to “attend to one another, allowing mutual disclosure, providing emotional and physical support, as well as fostering creative activity.”4
- Committed Reciprocity: By being reliable and constant, friends develop a sense of mutuality and reciprocity in what they give and receive from one another. Friends delight in one another’s company as they challenge, encourage, and support one another.
- Shared Vision: Christian friends give one another the freedom to be creative and the courage to be imaginative as they faithfully proclaim and enact God’s story of love, healing, and redemption in and for the world.
Christian friendship indicates not only loving and caring relationships, but the active participation in Jesus’ own mission of love and reconciliation: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20:21). Not a sentimental notion but a missional directive, becoming friends with God involves the discerning and doing of God’s will in the company of friends who are on the same journey.
A Habitat or Ecology for Friendship.
In many ways the church reflects the fragmentation and depersonalization of the wider culture. It is becoming more common for church members not to know one another outside the life of the congregation. And because the perceived demands of job and family lead many to ration their time and commitment, fewer people are participating in activities or groupings outside the one-hour worship service. Thus rather than Sunday morning representing a communal celebration of God’s friends, it becomes a company of strangers. No longer can it be assumed that church members know one another’s names, much less than that they will be supportive of and accountable to one another. Given the realities of modern life, the church as a befriending community of a befriending God “must do more than add worlds to an already overbooked society; it must design new structures that help people simplify their lives and develop more meaning, depth, purpose, and community.”5
Exploring the conditions for the cultivation of authentic Christian community, one author calls attention to the importance of sharing not only a common purpose, but also reconnecting to a common place. Reflecting upon the isolation and loneliness that seems to be built into where and how people live, his proposal calls for the church to rediscover and intentionally to develop neighborhoods. Rather than the individual home (whether urban high rise or sprawling suburban ranch) providing the functional boundary of place, the goal is to initiate Christian community within a pedestrian-scaled neighborhood.
- Spontaneity: While some gatherings may be planned with rich tradition and elaborate ritual, spontaneous interactions are important. Consider the once popular Seinfeld and Friends, with a small group of friends who go in and out of each other’s lives and apartments spontaneously more times in a half hour than most “real” Americans experience in a year.
- Availability: True friendships grow out of meaningful experiences of life together with friends who are ready, willing, and eager to lend an ear or a hand—or even to offer the simple gift of their presence.
- Frequency: Friendship requires the spending of time together. The current hectic lifestyle of most modern people (adults, children, and teenagers) pulls them apart from daily interaction, creating loneliness and isolation.
- Common Meals: A significant part of the early church experience was eating together (Acts 2:26). With multiple demands and activities, not only congregations, but families rarely eat together.
- Geography: Jesus extended to the disciples the invitation “Come follow me,” not “Come, make the commute each day.” While the sharing of information may be possible over the internet, the care and attention of Christian friendships calls for shared space.
Stressing the importance of Christian friendships, the church can provide the motivation, encouragement, and support for creative experiments of time use, lifestyle, and relationships.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- Read the Letter of James. As you read jot down words or phrases that characterize communities who embody the love command: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
- Using James’ distinction, what do you think characterizes the worldly realm? God’s realm?
- What is required to become ‘friends of God”?
- What in the life and ministry of your congregation expresses the distinctive character of Christian friendship?
- In what ways could your congregation more fully create a habitat for Christian friendship?
- How does Christian friendship cultivate congregations in the art of “befriending all humanity”?
1 Luke Timothy Johnson, The Letter of James AB 37A (Doubleday, 1995), p. 82.
2 Paul J. Wadell, Becoming Friends: Worship, Justice and the Practice of Christian Friendship (Brazos Press, 2002), pp. 10-11.
3 Rodney Clapp, A Peculiar People: The Church as Culture in A Post-Christian Society (Intervarsity, 1996), p. 208.
4 David Shields, “Friendship: Context and Content of Christian Religious Education,” Religious Education, Winter, 1996.
Christine D. Pohl, the 2014 Convocation presenter, has both the theological and practical credentials to stimulate and guide the discussion during the Convocation. She is Associate Provost and Professor of Church and Society/Christian Ethics at Asbury Theological Seminary. Before attending seminary and earning her Ph.D. at Emory University, Christine worked in various ministries for eleven years. She owned a Christian bookstore and worked in advocacy and refugee resettlement.
As the recipient of various grants, she has organized research projects that have led to the writing of several books, including Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition (Eerdmans, 1999) and Living into Community: Cultivating Practices that Sustain Us (Eerdmans, 2011). In collaboration with Chris Heuertz, international director of Word Made Flesh, Pohl wrote Friendship at the Margins: Discovering Mutuality in Service and Mission (InterVarsity, 2010).
The Rev. Inagrace Dietterich, Ph.D. is the Director of Theological Research at the Center for Parish Development.