Navigating Friendship in the Local Church

Friendship is one of the great gifts of God, one of the deepest longings of the soul, but it can also be a difficult thing to navigate in the local church. Many of us have some kind of embedded picture of what friendship ought to be. Whether it is shaped by past friendships, movies, or even our friends, we tend to bring this picture of friendship into the church. Being a veteran of the U.S. Army, I had the great privilege of living life with other guys for years on end. These were not friends I chose, but many of them became some of the best friends I would ever have.

I brought my own picture and experiences of friendship into the church and have a few close friends. Yet, to be honest, I often feel alone. I can be in a room with a bunch of blood-bought sinners—all of whom love Jesus—and still feel absolutely alone. Part of this may be due to my introverted leanings and insecurities, but most of it comes from my own expectations and what I think friendship should be. The question we have to ask is, “How do we navigate friendship in the local church?”

Lofty versus Realistic Ideas of Friendship

I have brought lofty ideas of friendship into the church, oftentimes in a way that is unfair to others, causing me to neglect the body of Christ for not meeting my unreal expectations. This is sinful and keeps at arm’s length those whom Christ has made to be my family. In Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s exceptionally helpful book Life Togetherhe warns of these kinds of expectations:

On innumerable occasions a whole Christian community has been shattered because it has lived on the basis of a wishful image. Certainly serious Christians who are put in a community for the first time will often bring with them a very definite image of what Christian communal life should be, and they will be anxious to realize it. But God’s grace quickly frustrates all such dreams. A great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves, is bound to overwhelm us as surely as God desires to lead us to an understanding of genuine Christian community.[1]

One of the great ways God shows his grace to us in our expectations and desires for friendship is to expose where we may be simply dreaming. Yet, as I have been a pastor of the same church for six years now, I can earnestly say that I have seen these grand illusions either draw people nearer to Christ and his people or create a root of bitterness as some demand the dream while forsaking the reality. Bonhoeffer continues by helping us see the seriousness of this.

God hates this wishful dreaming because it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. Those who dream of this idealized community demand that it be fulfilled by God, by others, and by themselves. They enter the Christian community with their demands, set up their own law, and judge one another and even God accordingly….When their idealized image is shattered, they see the community breaking into pieces. So they first become accusers of other Christians in the community, then accusers of God, and finally the desperate accusers of themselves.[2]

Bonhoeffer’s assessment is a call for us to lay down our lofty expectations and wake up from our grandiose dreams. But does this mean we should completely let the desires for friendship die? Is this a call to become pessimists in regard to friendship in the local church? No, I think it’s a call to set sail with those Christ has sovereignly placed in our local congregations as we walk shoulder to shoulder (Phil. 1:27) on the way to our eternal home.

True Friendship Involves Disappointment

Before we begin walking with those in our local church, we must first remember that there is a Person who relates with us when our dreams die and the reality of what we do have is not all that we desire. 

The Lord Jesus Christ entered into friendship with twelve other men. There could not be a greater difference between him and the twelve disciples. Yes, he was fully human like them, and he was also fully God. Where they lacked faith and perfect obedience, Jesus never lacked faith and always obeyed his Father. Where they were born in sin and ungodly, Jesus was holy and sinless. Did this cause him to demand them to be something they were not and isolate himself because no one understood him? No! On the night of his betrayal and false arrest, Jesus asked his friends to pray for him. Yet, his closest friends slept rather than prayed (Matt. 26:36-46). Imagine the loneliness and heartbreak as you realize your dearest friends are choosing their own comfort over your greatest needs.

How did Jesus respond? After criticizing them for their weakness and then exhorting them to watch and pray, he went to the cross and gave his life for them. For all the times the twelve had failed at being friends, Jesus suffered a horrible death alone in their place. He died for their sin and misplaced dreams. This is true for all of us who have let our subjective dreaming hold more weight that the objective community God has placed us in as well.

True Christian Friendship Is Bound in Blood, Not Dreams

On that same night of his betrayal and arrest, Jesus had his last meal with his disciples. He looked around the table, knowing they would deny him, sleep rather than pray, and leave him hanging alone on the cross. Rather than shaming the disciples, Jesus said to them,

“Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13)

Jesus is making clear that friendship is real, but true Christian friendship is bound in blood, not dreams. Bonhoeffer picks this up when he writes,

Because God already has laid the foundation of our community, because God has united us in one body with other Christians in Jesus Christ long before we entered into common life with them, we enter into that life with other Christians, not as those who make demands, but as those who thankfully receive. Therefore, will not the very moment of great disillusionment with my brother or sister be incomparably wholesome for me because it so thoroughly teaches me that both of us can never live by our own words and deeds, but only by that one Word and deed that really binds us together, the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ? The bright day of Christian community dawns wherever the early morning mists of dreamy visions are lifting.[3]

The good news of the gospel is the compass that navigates Christian friendship. It frees us from looking to others for what only Christ can give. Yet, it also motivates the love necessary to love others with the love we have first received (1 John 4:19). A day is coming when we will no longer feel alone or demand a certain type of friendship but will be in the presence of our True Friend, while also walking in the glorious reality of a home with no envy, no pride, and no sin—just pure Christian community.

Wes Van Fleet is a pastor at Kaleo Church in El Cajon, California, and the author of the recently released book Father of Lights: Daily Meditations on Scripture for New Dads.

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[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (Minneapolis, MN: First Fortress Press, 2005), 35.
[2] Ibid., 36.
[3] Ibid., 36-37.

Recommended Book:

Father of Lights: Daily Meditations on Scripture for New Dads by Wes Van Fleet

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