RPM, Volume 17, Number 36, August 30 to September 5, 2015

Theological Affinity and Friendship

By Denise Humphrey

Have you ever watched a group of women greet one another at a church service, and felt uncomfortable? Sometimes this greeting is accompanied by squeals and giggles, and almost certainly includes hugs so tight, so personal, that others look away. In the past, I would've said this type of response might occur in young women, but over recent years, I've noticed that this is not the case. As a woman myself, I certainly experience my share of emotions, and I have great love for my sisters in Christ. Somehow, though, these displays leave me feeling uncomfortable and with the sense that I am expected to behave in kind. At Bible Studies and prayer groups in which I have participated, I have noticed a greater and greater propensity toward excessive emotional expression. To some, a successful Bible study time is one in which the participants are "vulnerable," share their deepest "struggles," and are so "broken" they cry.

The amount and intensity of emotional expression also seems to me to affect the level of closeness Christian women feel toward one another. I have been told by women, referring to Rom. 12:15, that their closest friends are those who will rejoice with them when they are rejoicing, and weep with them when they are weeping. This is certainly a biblical concept, but causes me to ask some questions. If what you are feeling reveals sin in your life, am I allowed to bring Scripture to bear on it? If I don't feel the emotion as strongly as you do, do I still need to work up jubilation or tears for you to know that I am supportive of you? Would you still consider me a close friend if I share my thoughts, or wisdom I have gained, rather than my feelings on the subject at hand? As Christian women, we have the responsibility to look at the whole counsel of Scripture and bring both our thoughts and our feelings into conformity with God's Word out of reverence for Christ. May I, as I desire to be a true friend to my sisters in Christ, suggest that the dearest friends can be found among those with whom we don't always share like emotions, but with those whom we share like thinking, those with whom we have a theological affinity.

Theologically-based friendships are most often those that take place in the context of the local church, especially within a specific denominational setting. These are friendships forged because those involved have committed to become part of the same local body, or denomination at large. They will not agree perfectly at every point, necessarily, but they have a foundation of same belief about God, as expressed by a confession, creed, or detailed statement of belief. Theological friendships have several distinguishing characteristics.

First, a theological friendship is based on likeness of thought, or worldview, not simply on affinity for one another. It is wonderful when we share friendship with those to whom we are naturally drawn, based on personality. These friendships can be quite beneficial. Those friends are often quick to understand where we are coming from and, at first, are easy relationships to maintain. If we don't have a similar theology, however, we will eventually find the friendship becomes more difficult. This was the case for me because, the aforementioned Bible studies took place in a non-denominational setting, where, though we shared Christ and the basic tenets of belief, we disagreed about theological issues which shape how we approach every circumstance of life. When we come from the same theological perspective, we are able to work together and help move the process of sanctification along. You and I both believe that God is Sovereign over our circumstances, for example, so that when you lovingly remind me that God has brought about a particular trial, perhaps an illness or a move, into my life for my good and His glory, I can, by God's grace, quickly affirm what you have said is true. My faith is then strengthened as I am reminded of these doctrines, and I am helped to trust in God during this difficult circumstance. Proverbs 27:17 says that "iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another," while Proverbs 27:6 reminds us that "faithful are the wounds of a friend" (English Standard Version). Being a good friend does not mean we will always affirm what our friends are feeling, but rather that we may gently wound them as we bring correction to their thinking and point out error. This is a mark of a true friend.

Second, a theological friendship does not require overly-emotional expression. In fact, we ought to be cautious about this type of emotionalism. The often quoted verse from Galatians 5 reminds us that "the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control." Thus, there is to be self-control in the way we express ourselves to one another. I Timothy 2:9 puts it plainly when it says, "…women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control." Friends who share similar beliefs will know where each stands on the most important issues of life. There is a certain amount of security there because they know each one is trusting in God to meet her needs, and there is no need for over-attachment or over-expression.

Similarly, a theological view of friendship causes a woman to welcome others, because she is not concerned with who is "best" or "closest," but is focused on what she knows to be true of God, who is the best and dearest and truest friend. Women who remember the kindness that God has shown them, in their salvation and in daily mercies, are welcoming and warm to all, regardless of natural affinity. "Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality" (Romans 12:9-13). This is the type of Christian friendship we should display.

Does this mean our friendships are forged only by duty and obligation? To the contrary, a friendship with a firm foundation of like-mindedness often creates a warm fondness for those with whom the friendship is shared. As we take seriously the admonitions like those in Romans 12, and live them out, we will find that we genuinely do love one another with a brotherly love that God gives us. This is the type of love that Paul expressed in his letters to the Philippians, the Colossians, the Ephesians, the Thessalonians, and others (See Phil. 1:3-5, Col. 1:3-5, Eph. 1:15-16, 1 Thess. 1:2-3). To be sure, Paul was not a local member in these churches, but these verses do reveal that his gratitude for them was established on what he knew to be true about their belief in Christ and their partnership together in the gospel. In other words, their emotional bond was formed out of their like-mindedness.

Finally, a theological friendship is a lasting friendship because it is not as prone to the jealousies of the self-centered, sinful heart. Feelings come and go. I may really enjoy your company one day, and not the next. If our relationship is based on these feelings, it will not be long before the friendship will dissipate. When there is dissension in our theologically-based relationship, we will remember what we deserve as sinners, what Christ has done for us in salvation and sanctification, and, as we humbly remind one another about these truths, by God's grace we will be reconciled to one another.

Where is the best place for this type of friendship to happen? I believe it is in a reformed church, where the focus is first on God, not on relational-based or seeker-sensitive programming. Reformed churches do not cater to the whim of man, but instead lift up God as the object of our worship. Here you will find creeds and confessions and other statements of belief, uniting the members around what is true of God. Here, by God's grace, you will find those who do not desire to promote themselves, but instead desire to honor and lift up God. Here, thinking people can find other like-minded people and friendship can flourish, not for the glory of those involved, but for the glory of God. The Scriptures remind us that those around us will know we are Jesus' disciples by our love for one another (John 13:35). As we are able to love one another from a foundation of like-mindedness, we can get onto the business of loving those outside the church.

Some will say that this theological foundation is unimportant. Can't we share friendship with those Christians with whom we have significant differences? We should, indeed, share friendship with those who think differently from us. We might forge friendships with those of a different theological belief system for the sake of challenging our own thinking, or to persuade them of what we believe to be true, or simply because we enjoy one another's company. We, most certainly, will form friendship with the desire to see those who do not know Christ be converted by God unto salvation. The closest and most enduring friends, however, will be those with whom we hear the word of God rightly preached, who sing the old and new hymns with us, who recite our catechisms, and with whom we serve the body of Christ and those in our community.

Modern Evangelicalism seems, in some cases, to be overrun with emotive expression. Much discussion has been given to the modern music scene, with its tendency toward the emotional, but there are other areas that have been affected by this movement as well. The thinking mind has been replaced, in many cases by the feeling heart. Emotions are an important part of the Christian life, but godly emotions should flow from godly thinking. In the end, as we approach friendship with a firm theological foundation, we will end up with sisters who are dear and true, even if they only greet one another with a gentle hug and a warm smile.

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