The ministry of friendship

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Volume:
29
Lingua:
english
Rivista:
Pacifica: Australasian Theological Studies
DOI:
10.1177/1030570X17707353
Date:
June, 2016
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Article

The ministry of friendship1
Brian Edgar
Asbury Theological Seminary, Kentucky, USA

Pacifica
2016, Vol. 29(2) 127–140
! The Author(s) 2017
Reprints and permissions:
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DOI: 10.1177/1030570X17707353
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Abstract
It is important for the church to take seriously the words of Jesus, ‘I no longer call you
servants, but friends’ (John 15:15) and locate servanthood – and ministry as a whole –
within the context of divine friendship rather than within the context of modern
conceptions of leadership. When servant-leadership is the dominant model of ministry
it tends towards practices based on obligation rather than grace and creates practical
difficulties for practitioners. Ministry can be defined in terms of the formation of friendship with God and others with benefits for community life, pastoral care and leadership.
Keywords
friendship, leadership, ministry, pastor, servanthood

Servant imagery is such a dominant motif in Christian discipleship that it is now
practically impossible to conceive of being a follower of Jesus without employing
this imagery. Consequently, it seems to run counter to the whole notion of the
Christian life to suggest that servanthood may be misconstrued in the way in which
it is presented. But if servanthood is to remain as a vitally important part of the
Christian life it is necessary to take seriously the words of Jesus to the disciples, ‘I
no longer call you servants, but friends’ (John 15:15) and locate servanthood – and
ministry as a whole – within the context of divine friendship rather than, as is often
done, within the context of modern conceptions of leadership.
One typical understanding of the relationship between friendship and servanthood is that while friendship with Christ is an important part of the spiritual
journey it is also only one step along the way to adopting the more dutiful and
responsible form of relationship of being a servant. This form of relationship is
1

This article is adapted from Bri; an Edgar, God is Friendship: A Theology of Spirituality,
Community and Society (Wilmore, KY: Seedbed, 2013).

Corresponding author:
Brian Edgar, Asbury Theological Seminary, 204 N. Lexington Avenue, Wilmore, KY, Kentucky 40390-1199,
USA.
Email: brian.edgar@asburyseminary.edu

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commonly seen as marking a high level of commitment and involves the adult
dimensions of duty and responsibility and it is closely connected with leadership.
It is as though Jesus had called the disciples to a new and higher level of relationship by saying, ‘I no longer call you friends, but servants.’ But this is to reverse the
actual trend of Jesus’ thought and to guarantee the development of a works-related
and duty-orientated view of discipleship, rather than one permeated by the grace
and love of friendship.
Up to the point in the narrative where Jesus declares the disciples to be his
friends the Gospel of John has recounted how Jesus and the disciples had shared
in a wedding together, eaten together, lived together, and had argued and been
through storms and rough weather (both literally and metaphorically). They had
stayed together and demonstrated many of the characteristics of friends and so,
after spending considerable time together in this way, there should have been no
surprise, at a human level, that Jesus declares, in John 15:10–17, that they are his
loving friends.
If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my
Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that
my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. This is my commandment,
that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to
lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command
you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the
master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you
everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you.
And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will
give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that
you may love one another.

However, the disciples’ new friendship with Jesus does not have its origin in times
of mutual sharing, conversation and experience, but more specifically in the decision and call of Jesus and generally as a sign of Jesus’ understanding of his role as
the messianic suffering servant. This is seen in the way that the themes of choosing,
servanthood and friendship are linked together in such a way that they are strongly
reminiscent of these words in Isaiah 41:8–10:
But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, you descendants of Abraham
my friend, I took you from the ends of the earth, from its farthest corners I called you.
I said, ‘You are my servant’; I have chosen you and have not rejected you. So do not
fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you
and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.

The connection is seen in the way that (a) both passages function within a general
context of imminent suffering; (b) both Israel and the disciples are described as
servants; (c) their assurance is based on the fact of their being chosen; (d) there are

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explicit promises of ongoing help in both passages; and, most importantly, (d) both
passages speak of the establishment of a new relationship based on friendship, a
relationship with messianic significance. This friendship has an eschatological character and significance beyond that of other typically close relationships, and it had
to be established by an act of grace. Those who become friends of Jesus are nothing
other than friends of the messiah and they have been chosen or elected to participate in those momentous events that mark the beginning of the end of all things.
The disciples are representatives of those who will come, as foretold in Isaiah, ‘from
the ends of the earth, from its farthest corners’ and they are not friends primarily as
a result of their own abilities, characters, or their own choice (although that is also
necessary), but because of God: ‘You did not choose me, but I chose you’ (Isaiah
41:9; John 15:16).

Servanthood and friendship compared
The teaching of Jesus described in John 15 involved two revolutions of thought for
the disciples. The first meant leaving lordship behind and embracing servanthood;
the second meant leaving servanthood behind and embracing friendship. The first
revolutionary call – to give up power and control in favor of humility and service is
certainly dramatic. It is a complete reversal of human tendencies. But it is, according to Christ, an insufficiently radical step. Servanthood is preliminary to friendship
with God in Christ and is a truly awesome, almost scandalous concept, one which
stresses that not only is Jesus to be seen as Lord, King and Master, but also that
every believer can be treated as a Friend of the King. This means a re-ordering –
rather than a rejection – of many aspects of the believer’s relationship with Christ.
Consider the similarities and the contrasts in the table below.

Servant–master relationship

Friend–friend relationship

Does what the master wants
Acts out of duty
Obedience is the central virtue
Does not really know the master
A relationship defined by doing
Servanthood is a requirement
Work orientated
Hierarchical in form

Does what their friend wants
Acts out of friendship
Friendship and love are central virtues
Knows the friend intimately
A relationship defined by being
Friendship is a gift of grace
Relationship orientated
Egalitarian in form

The servant model of relationship is inevitably work orientated and less intimate. The friendship model does not imply that the friend does not do what the other
wants; indeed, the sacrifices offered by a friend are likely to be even greater than
those offered to a master. Consequently, the friendship model should not be seen as

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an easy way of opting out of the serious demands of discipleship or the hard work
of service. What it does do is change the attitude and the motivation involved. No
longer is obligation at the heart of the relationship; instead, the free act of love
which comes from a close friendship is the key. Unlike servants, friends are not
justified by their work; they are appreciated for their friendship.
This double revolution from lordship to servanthood and then from servanthood to friendship is relevant to the way that ministry and leadership are perceived
within many mainline Protestant, Evangelical and Pentecostal churches. The general parallels between biblical ‘lordship’ and contemporary ‘leadership’ are
obvious. In the New Testament, ‘lord’ was a broad term that could mean owner,
employer or superior. It could be used of husbands in relation to their wives,
masters in relation to slaves, angels in relation to those they address and God in
relation to people. Its range extended from simple politeness in everyday affairs
through to a designation appropriate for an emperor, but it consistently denotes
superiority and has implicitly within it the right of the lord to direct, control and
lead in a manner appropriate to the particular relationship (Matt. 10:24; Mark
12:9; Luke 16:3; 1 Pet. 3:6). Leadership in the modern era is a different, though
overlapping and equally multifaceted term potentially referring to a wide variety of
military, political, community, business and voluntary associations. The mode of
functioning for lords and leaders varies considerably within the usage range of both
terms, and yet there is a correlation that makes the comparison appropriate.
‘Leadership’ has become a significant ministry concept within the life of the
modern church only in relatively recent times. Over the past two thousand years
of Christian history, the church has worked with a number of different models of
Christian ministry and has always connected biblical images with local cultural
convictions. For example, when the dominant model of ministry was that of the
bishop or ‘overseer’ it was a role inevitably influenced by both biblical and secular
usage and when, at the time of the Reformation, the dominant ministry model
became that of the teaching pastor (the shepherd who feeds the sheep) it was
undoubtedly influenced by development of humanism and the importance attributed to the general spread of education at that time. The selection and use of
biblical imagery concerning the Christian life and ministry is always correlated
with current needs and cultural understandings. Therefore, it is no surprise that
in the contemporary era, the dominant model of ministry has become that of the
leader; and while this has a biblical justification, it is also a concept heavily influenced by cultural principles, which shape it in, for example, an individualistic and
success-orientated manner. Certainly, ministry understood in terms of contemporary leadership would appear as unusual to many Christians in earlier times.
The dominance of this model of ministry is seen in the way in which in many
churches ‘leaders’ has become the preferred generic term for those people previously identified as ‘pastors’, ‘preachers’, ‘priests’, ‘ministers’ and ‘full-time
Christian workers’. The older ‘clergy–laity’ distinction (which certainly created
some problems) gave way to a ‘leader–follower’ way of talking. Similarly, within
individual local congregations ‘the leadership team’ has become for many the

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preferred way of grouping together those people otherwise referred to as ‘elders’,
‘deacons’ or ‘pastors’. ‘Leader’ is also used for those involved in Christian education and worship. It has become an all-purpose word, and so it is not surprising
that training in leadership proliferated in all types of resources (books, magazines,
journals, tapes, seminars, courses and other materials) in such a way that the
implication is that leadership is ministry, or that ministry without leadership is
inadequate. So, for a long time now, seminaries and Bible and theological colleges
have stressed the development of leadership skills in formal ministry training.
Good leadership has not only become an essential part or pre-requisite for competent and successful ministry; ministry is, in fact, primarily to be defined in terms
of effective leadership. Therefore, the essence of Christian leadership tends to
become a clear, measurable, success in achieving objectives that have been laid
out beforehand, albeit done with a servant attitude. If one is to be a good
leader, one also has to be a good manager; for good leadership requires good
management. Leadership not only involves the ability to envision the future and
to motivate and lead people, it requires the necessary ability to organize and to
make this come about. A vision has to become a plan, and a plan has to be
implemented.
Of course, if ministry is defined primarily in terms of leadership then there are
two alternatives for those who are not leaders. The first is that they are logically
seen primarily in terms of being followers. This has the effect of perpetuating the
problem concerning the ambiguity of the term ‘the ministry of the Church’, which
has been used to refer to both the ministry of ‘the people of God as a whole’ and,
more narrowly, to the ministry of ‘the minister’ (the ordained minister, the pastor,
the preacher, or the clergy, depending on the particular tradition). This ambiguity
has been confusing and disenfranchising for many people because the terminology
suggests that the real ministry is what the pastor, minister or priest does. Biblically
speaking, however, every baptized person is a minister of Christ. If ‘ministry’ is
replaced by ‘leadership’ it does little to enhance the ministry role of the laity.
The alternative to this leader–follower distinction has been to develop the idea
of ministry as leadership as a model for all ministry, and to seek to train everyone to
become a leader in their own sphere of life and ministry. It can be argued, though,
that while universal leadership training enhances many people’s confidence and
awareness of their abilities, it also has the potential to reduce an emphasis on
the diversity of forms of ministry and the gifts of the Spirit by turning everyone
towards leadership. Nonetheless, the concept of ministry as leadership is one that
has been well accepted culturally and it has now been exercising considerable influence for many years. It has been able to do this because some of the obvious
problems associated with certain forms of leadership, especially domineering attitudes and behaviors, have been mitigated by attempts to Christianize leadership
through the adoption of servant attitudes utilizing the teaching of Jesus.
This means taking seriously Jesus’ injunction that ‘whoever wants to be first
must be slave of all’. The leader, therefore, has to be a servant rather than a lord.
Gradually, in the modern manifestation of the Christian life, servanthood and

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contemporary conceptions of leadership have become fused. Together they have
influenced the perception of Christians with regard to the way that Christian selfidentity, as well as the way Christian community and mission are to be understood.
The connection of leadership with servanthood has produced ‘servant-leadership’ a
term that is familiar throughout the church. This owes much to Robert Greenleaf’s
influential Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power &
Greatness,2 and ‘servant-leadership’ has become, arguably, the most dominant
model of ministry in recent decades. One of the great advantages of this correlation
of terms is that it has ensured that purely secular approaches to leadership have not
provided the only content for Christian leadership. Nonetheless, the movement as a
whole has had the effect of reinforcing the notion that ministers and full-time
Christian workers are essentially to be leaders. The basic concept is leadership,
with servant being a qualifying term. That is, the reference is always to ‘servantleaders’ rather than to ‘leading-servants’. The implication is that Christians need to
be leaders in order to be good ministers of Christ.

The difficulty of servant-leadership
The emergence of servant-leadership as a leading understanding of ministry is not
really surprising, as strong, decisive leadership is a well-regarded and much soughtafter factor in contemporary culture because it promises security in the midst of uncertainty. This is what many seek, within the church as well as society. It reflects the
situation of the children of Israel who asked for a king to be appointed so that they
could feel safe and ‘be like the other nations’ (1 Sam. 8:5–8). The same desire exists
today. Almost every organization wants dynamic, charismatic, visionary leaders, and
there is a whole industry that revolves around writing about, searching for and training leaders. This generates higher and higher expectations and increasing levels of
responsibility for leaders – and the Christian community is not exempt from this.
Pastors are expected to demonstrate high levels of leadership. The call to high-quality,
dynamic, charismatic leadership is such that many do not feel up to this task and so,
inevitably, even more is expected of fewer people. This, in turn, leads to the problems
of stress and burnout among church leaders. As Craig Blomberg comments:
Ours is an age that delights to exalt Christian celebrities, to demand that our pastors
entertain, have charismatic personalities, and display more spiritual gifts than any one
Bible character ever had! Little wonder that burn-out from full-time ministry seems to
be at an all time high and that moral failure often results from stress.3

As long as ministry is defined in terms of leadership, there will be a constant
tendency to define successful leadership as the mark of authentic ministry because
2
3

Robert K. Greenleaf, Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate
Power and Greatness (25th edition; New York: Paulist Press, 1977).
Craig Blomberg, 1 Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 257.

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a need to succeed is built into the very concept of leadership. The extent of the
identification of leadership skills with Christian ministry is seen in the way that
management skills become determinative in the appointment of pastors to larger
and, thus, more complex congregations. The top-management skills required for
leading a congregation of five thousand are very different from those needed in a
congregation of fifty where a competency equivalent to that of a general supervisor
is required. Such assessments are necessary as long as the understanding is that the
fundamental role of the pastor is to ‘manage’ or ‘run’ or ‘lead’ the congregation in
a manner comparable to that of the managing director of a business. The inevitable
consequence is that the minister becomes less and less of a pastor and more and
more of an executive with the exercise of spiritual gifts being supplanted by the
need to demonstrate leadership and management skills. The secular principle of
‘management by objective’ is spiritualized and becomes the measure of ministry.
In a secular context, the exercise of modern, charismatic, effective, visionary
leadership is difficult. And within the church, which is primarily a voluntary association, it takes on additional challenges relating to motivation and inspiration in
order to achieve measurable success. And, in addition to that, the expectation that
leaders be servant-leaders creates a new and particular difficulty for ministers.
There is not only the stress of seeking to be an empowered, visionary and successful
leader, but there is also the difficulty of being a willing and eternally gracious
servant at the same time. The expectations associated with this form of ministry
undoubtedly add a high level of personal obligation on the leader in terms of
character to the already extensive, often almost unlimited range of responsibilities
that they are expected to engage in or oversee. The success of leadership has to be
accompanied by a similar success in personal life and manner.
Altogether, servant-leadership is an exceedingly difficult concept to practice. Lean
too far to the leadership side (with all the attendant notions of what it means to be a
leader as defined in a secular context), the leader becomes (albeit unintentionally)
dominant and controlling. Lean too far to the servant side, and the leader is likely to
become an over-worked, stressed-out doormat whose life is controlled by everyone
else. These two concepts of leadership and servanthood have been put together
precisely because they are seen to represent opposite aspects of ministry – one is
needed to counter the worst tendencies of the other. However, this can produce a
personal tension that is unbearable for the one who tries to live it out. It is possible to
feel inadequate both as a leader and as a servant – and to be criticized for it as well.
Is this stating the matter too harshly? Not for many ministers and full-time
Christian workers, and especially not for the large proportion that have dropped
out of ministry. The issue is particularly sharp for evangelicals, younger people and
those involved in church growth strategies. It is they who have been particularly
enthusiastic about adopting these servant-leadership expectations. Much of the
literature related to the idea of servant-leadership addresses these difficulties, and
it is true that many useful, appropriate and helpful biblical principles can be
applied to minimize the problems. However, it is possible to ask the potentially subversive and dangerous question as to whether the basic servant-leadership model of

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ministry actually creates these problems and whether it deserves the extensive attention it has received in recent years. From both biblical and practical points of view,
both the leader and the servant dimensions of servant-leadership need to be rethought, though not rejected. The practical implications of this principle for every
minister, even (perhaps especially) those called and set apart by the church as ordained
or full-time workers, are very clear. The task of the minister-servant will always include
the most humble service and may include unblocking the church toilets as much as
preaching fine sermons. Those who profess to follow one who washed dirty feet must
be prepared to do likewise. However, although the importance of this servanthood
cannot be over-estimated, it is vitally important that it be placed within the context in
which Jesus placed it – as functioning within the orbit of a divine–human relationship
that is described in terms of friend–friend rather than master–servant because Jesus
said, ‘I no longer call you servants, but friends.’ However, this is not always the actual
situation, and the difficulty of accepting the friendship model of relationship rather
than the servant–leader model is nothing other than the difficulty of accepting grace.

Ministry as friendship
One of the best-known definitions of Christian ministry is found in 2 Corinthians
5:17–20 where the apostle Paul refers to the ministry of reconciliation that is part of
the new creation in Christ. The central concept of reconciliation, expressed by various forms of katallage, appears four times in three verses as Paul shows how God’s
work of reconciliation in Christ leads to a ministry of reconciliation for all believers:
God reconciled us . . . Christ was reconciling the world . . . he entrusted the message of
reconciliation to us . . . we entreat you to be reconciled to God.

Properly understood, katallage refers to the process of ‘making friends’, and the
intent of the passage is to emphasize the way that the death of Christ has actually
transformed enemies into friends. Unfortunately, few translations express the full
extent of the way that relationships are transformed because reconciliation in
modern thought has taken on a largely negative connotation as the removal of
enmity, rather than being a positive creation of friendship between those who were
formerly enemies. John Fitzgerald notes that very few modern translations convey
to readers ‘the idea that reconciliation implies not simply the termination of hatred
and hostility but also the establishment or restoration of friendship, and thus the
inception or return of affection’.4 One translation which does exactly that, and
4

John Fitzgerald, ‘Christian Friendship: John, Paul, and the Philippians’, Interpretation:
A Journal of Bible & Theology 61 (July 2007), 290. Fitzgerald notes that Hesychius of
Alexandria gives philia (‘friendship’) as one meaning for katallage (‘reconciliation’)
which is used in 2 Cor. 5:18–20 and ‘to make a friend’ (philon poiesai) as the meaning
of ‘to reconcile’ (apokatallaxai) which is used in Eph 2:16; Col 1:20, 22. He quotes
Spicq: ‘For pagans and Christians alike, reconciliation is the action of reestablishing

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which thus puts the full, positive meaning of reconciliation into this well-known
passage, is that of William Barclay:
And the whole process is due to the action of God, who through Christ turned our
enmity to himself into friendship, and who gave us the task of helping others to accept
that friendship. The fact is that God was acting in Christ to turn the world’s enmity to
himself into friendship, that he was not holding men’s sins against them, and that he
placed upon us the privilege of taking to men who are hostile to him the offer of his
friendship. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors. It is as if God was making his
appeal to you through us. As the representatives of Christ we appeal to you to accept
the offer of friendship that God is making to you.5

Unfortunately, although formal English definitions indicate that reconciliation is
the restoration of friendship after estrangement, common usage tends towards
understanding it merely as the removal of a barrier that returns a relationship to
a more neutral standing, rather than turning it into friendship. According to this
attenuated view of reconciliation, forgiveness does not automatically mean friendship. But Paul’s point is that Christian reconciliation is not merely the process of
dealing with a problem; it has a positive dimension that goes beyond the idea of
overcoming sin and dealing with enmity and stresses that this produces a new,
warm relationship with God. The idea of a ‘new creation’ is shown to be grounded
in this ‘new relationship’. When a war between nations comes to an end and an
armistice is signed, it does not mean that the previously warring nations are now
suddenly friends; it merely means that hostilities have ceased, but when Christ’s
sacrifice brings enmity to an end between God and anyone at all, it immediately
involves the creation of a new relationship. God’s grace is not a grudging dismissal
of a set of awkward problems but the start of a beautiful friendship! Consequently,
Paul is enthusiastic about this conception of the ministry that God has given to
believers as a ministry of friendship. In these few verses he repeatedly makes the
point that God not only called people into friendship with him, but that he gives
them the task, the privilege, of helping others accept the offer of friendship that
God is making to all. The Christian message is not just that one can be released and
forgiven, but that it is possible to have a friendship with God.
The centrality of friendship for Paul’s theology can be expressed in two claims.
The first is that being a friend of Jesus and taking the friendship of Jesus to others is
Christian ministry, and one that is a privilege. And the second is that friendship
with Jesus is not the means by which one achieves salvation – it is salvation.
This critical point is frequently misunderstood. It is popularly thought of in this
way: that a relationship with Jesus is important as the means to achieving eternal

5

friendship between two persons who are on bad terms, to replace hostility with peaceful
relations.’
William Barclay, The New Testament: A New Translation, Vol. 2 (London: Collins,
1969), 72, cited by Fitzgerald, ‘Christian Friendship’, 290. Emphasis added.

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life or salvation, but the reality is that the relationship – a friendship – with Jesus is
exactly what eternal life or salvation actually is. There is nothing more beyond
friendship with Christ. Certainly, the form of friendship changes as either death
comes or this world ends and believers transition to a new, resurrection life.
The fundamental nature of the relationship, however, stays the same – believers
are friends with Jesus and live in his presence. There is a danger that ‘having a
relationship with Jesus’ or ‘accepting Jesus into your life’ can be seen as the means
to an end – avoiding condemnation and entering the kingdom of heaven – but the
relationship is what God wants.

Friendship as the formation of the Christian
This friendship, like all true friendships, is transformative. It is inevitable that
friends become like those they live closely with and who they appreciate, admire
and love. And so, as believers live in friendship with Christ, they are transformed
into his likeness. Friendship is the means by which believers are clothed with the
new self and conformed to the image of Christ. Through friendship, believers are
made like their friend Jesus (Col. 1:15; 3:10–11).
I regularly give the students in my ethics classes an exercise that asks them to write
a brief account of the person who has most influenced them for good in terms of
morality and holiness of life. This informal survey shows that for these students there
are three main categories of influential people: parents, pastors and friends. The
inclusion of parents is no surprise given the role parents have in bringing up and
modeling right behavior for children. What is significant is that when one examines
the role pastors and other Christian leaders are described as having in influencing the
students, it is relatively rare to read about ministry gifts and abilities, such as good
teaching and preaching, or biblical knowledge or professional attitude. Nor is there,
initially at least, much reference to the presence of general moral qualities such as
honesty, humility, peacefulness, truthfulness, and so forth. These are, indeed, often
the qualities that are learned; but what almost everyone is more concerned to stress
in explaining the influence these people have had are the personal and relational
qualities that have been expressed. Again and again one hears that they were ‘more
like a friend’, they were ‘interested in my life’, ‘we were genuine with one another’,
‘they spent hours sharing their lives’ and ‘she demonstrated this to me in her life’. It is
these friendship qualities that impress people and opens them up to learn about the
right way to live. Ministry without friendship is minimized in its effect.
Christian friendship is to be transformative. It is a loving ministry that transforms us into the image of our friend, Jesus, and enables us to be friends and
reflectors of Christ’s character to others. Christ’s kingdom is not won by war. It
does not come by force. Evil is not overcome by sheer power. The moral life is not
achieved by anything other than friendship with Christ and this is most often
mediated by friendship within the Christian community.
It was true of Jesus, as the proverb says, that ‘a man is known by the company
he keeps’, for Jesus was widely known for his association with those who were

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socially outcast. Indeed, the teachers of the law could not comprehend this and
demanded to know of his disciples, ‘Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ (Mark 2:16; Luke 5:30; 15:2). It was considered such unusual behavior for a
man of God that he probably became better known as ‘the friend of sinners and tax
collectors’ (Matt 11:19; Luke 7:34) than as a prophet or a teacher. Jesus did not
merely treat the sinners, the unclean and the outcast as objects of mercy and
compassion, he treated them as human beings, as real people and even as friends,
and in the eyes of his enemies this was the worst sin of all. Ultimately, Jesus was not
condemned so much for being an unorthodox teacher or social activist as much as
for being a friend to sinners. It was this that they found most offensive. Perhaps it
would have been easier for the scribes and Pharisees to understand his manner of
dealing with sinners if he had related to them, to use an anachronistic term, in a
purely ‘professional’ capacity. The Pharisees also came into contact with poor and
outcast people and would sometimes have related to them with charity and kindness, for they were teachers and leaders who knew what the law said and they
sought zealously to obey it. They were religiously committed people, and it is
wrong to assume that they never engaged in any kind or charitable deeds.
Indeed, they are not condemned by Jesus for a complete absence of such actions
or because they were the worst of all people, but because they considered themselves among the best and relied on their actions to save them. The real problem for
the Pharisees – and also potentially for believers today – was not sin but selfrighteousness and the failure to understand grace. They could have understood a
ministry that offered the services of education, liturgy, counsel or charity, but they
could not understand the grace of friendship. They would not refuse the obligations
of the law, for they understood religious duty all too well. But. But they would
refuse to associate or eat with ‘sinners’ (and therefore with Jesus), for they did not,
they could not, they would not understand grace or friendship that goes beyond all
that is required by law and duty. Our context today may be different, but the
implications are the same. Friendship goes beyond what is expected of a servant;
it exceeds the requirements of the law; it is more than charity can give; and it
challenges a purely professional view of ministry. Jesus’ friendship-based ministry
was central to both the way he lived with the disciples and his mission to others,
and so there is no surprise that it was taken up as a model for ministry in the
theology of Paul.
As Wayne Oates said in his discussion of The Christian Pastor, the first level of
pastoral care is friendship. So much of the time, what is needed in pastoral care is
provided by friendship. Oates defined five levels of pastoral care: friendship, comfort, confession, teaching, counseling and psychotherapy. All these can be used to
move people towards spiritual growth, but he observes that friendship is the ‘indispensable necessity for all other deeper levels of pastoral work’.6 Pastoral friendship
has, however, been resisted. Many pastors will be aware of the tradition that insists
6

Wayne E. Oates, The Christian Pastor (Philadelphia: Westminster John Knox Press,
1982), 196.

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that pastors ought not be particular friends with any of the people within their care.
I well remember being somewhat astonished, but at the same time challenged, at
the exhortation of a senior minister to the cohort of ministry candidates to which I
belonged, to the effect that, ‘You cannot be friends with anyone in your church.’
This emerged out of the pastoral concern that special friendships can inhibit the
need for pastors to relate well to all of their people, and has been intensified by the
expectation that a professional relationship should not be in conflict with other
forms of relationship. But, of course, pastors need friends just as much as anyone
does, and friendship is not always to be denied when people work together. Care
must be taken to ensure that such friendships do not damage other relationships
within the congregation, and it is appropriate for codes of ethics to limit certain
forms of relationships to avoid power or sexual abuses. But Christ’s own example
of friendship and ministry indicates that the two are not incompatible. This is seen,
most obviously, in the relationship Jesus had with the Twelve – especially with
some of the Twelve, including James, John, Peter and Andrew. He set an example
of leading by friendship, and this is possible because friendships are inherently
influential, whether for good or ill. The level of influence increases as a friendship
deepens. The closer people become, the more they will listen to, trust and respect
what is said. If leadership is about influence then close friendships have the greatest
potential for significant leadership. This kind of leadership will function without
any precise program being involved. It will change people in every area of life.
To put it simply, ‘People who get along best in life and deal with uncertainties and
trials and tribulations have friends.’7
Without friendship in leadership, institutionalism will inevitably dominate, the
joy of leadership will diminish, and the ability to experience transformative change
will be reduced. Messner concludes that leadership needs to be enhanced by intentional friendships that follow the example of Christ. He hopes that they will understand that they cannot be best friends to everyone, but they should nonetheless
look for people with whom they can develop strong friendships. By doing so, ‘they
will not only be more effective and influential, but also more satisfied as people’. He
recommends ‘that Christian leaders at all levels, follow the example of Jesus by
setting the goal of intentionally developing friendships with twelve people, and
even closer friendships with two or three. By doing so, they will have a deep and
lasting impact that otherwise will not be realized.’8
This issue is not new. The English bishop and popular writer of his day, Jeremy
Taylor (1613–67), wrote a Discourse of the Nature and Offices of Friendship in order
to respond to the question, ‘How far a dear and perfect friendship is authorized by
7

8

Alan Booth, Distinguished Professor of Sociology, Human Development and
Demography at Penn State University, cited in Florence Isaacs, Toxic Friends, True
Friends: How Your Friendships Can Make or Break Your Health, Happiness, Family, and
Career (New York: William Morrow, 1999), 1.
Matthew Messner, Leadership that Cares: How Intentional Friendship Revolutionizes
Leadership (D.Min. Thesis, Massachusetts: Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary,
2005), 94.

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the principles of Christianity?’ The answer, he argued, was that friendships should
really ‘be as universal as our conversation’. That is, the Christian should treat
everyone they have contact with as their dearest friend, and the only limitation
on universal friendship is the limitation that we, as finite and sinful people, place
upon it. Consequently,
the more we love, the better we are, and the greater our friendships are, the dearer we
are to God; let them be as dear, and let them be as perfect, and let them be as many as
you can; there is no danger in it; only where the restraint begins, there begins our
imperfection; it is not ill that you entertain brave friendships and worthy societies: it
were well if you could love, and if you could benefit all mankind; for I conceive that is
the sum of all friendship.9

He understood rightly that there should be no limitation placed upon messianic
friendship, neither refraining from special friendships nor from treating everyone
we possibly can, in every way that is within our power, as dear, close and spiritual
friends, just as Jesus did when he told his new friends, ‘everything that I learned
from my Father I have made known to you’ (John 15:15). The minister who adopts
this open, honest and revealing form of friendship in all dealings will reflect the
openness of Jesus who, after his arrest, declared to the High Priest, ‘I have spoken
openly to the world, I always taught in synagogues or at the temple . . . I said
nothing in secret . . . ask those who heard me. They know what I said’ (John
18:20–21). This open speech was replicated in the early preaching of the church
and it should be the same today. Preacher and professor Gail O’Day describes
preaching as an act of friendship in ministry:
At least one possible function for preaching is to be a friend in one’s preaching. Note
carefully that I did not say that one possible function is to be friendly in one’s sermon.
There is plenty of friendliness in much of the church’s preaching – jokes, chatter,
anecdotes told simply to make a congregation smile or to get them on one’s good
side, tangential personal asides – but friendliness is not the same thing as gospel
friendship.10

Being a gospel friend means speaking plainly, frankly, and honestly. It means
telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. A failure to do this
can happen in a number of ways. Flatterers say what they believe people want to
hear said about them in order to advance their own position by being well thought
of; deceivers preach doctrines that people would like to be true in order to gain
more adherents to their way of thinking (2 Tim. 4:3) far more common than either
of these are the well-meaning, measured sermons of those whose friendship is not
9
10

Jeremy Taylor, The Whole Works of the Right Reverend Jeremy Taylor, Vol. 1
(London: Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, 1854), 73.
Gail O’Day, ‘Jesus as Friend in the Gospel of John’, Interpretation 58(2) (2004), 147.

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fully formed. They tend to think that friendship depends upon kind words and
gentle encouragement, and there is not enough to challenge or extend the believers.
It is important to note that Jesus told his disciples some very hard things about
being ready to die. The Great Commission specifies that disciples are to be taught
everything (rather than some select teachings), and the apostle Paul chided the
Corinthians that despite their immaturity they needed to receive the ‘solid food’
of his difficult teaching that critiqued their willingness to listen to, and boast about,
foolish teachers (1 Cor. 1–3). In short, preaching as a friend in the tradition of the
ancient world means almost the opposite of what it means according to contemporary thought. It is not a lightweight, personal sharing that is always ‘friendly’, it
means making an open, honest assessment of the situation and applying spiritual
lessons in order to build up that which is good and to challenge that which is not
helpful.
In these and other ways friendship can be seen as the essential form of ministry,
provided that one views friendship as being of the messianic form exemplified in the
ministry of Jesus. This messianic friendship is, of course, not inward looking or
self-centred friendship but one that is constantly seeking to extend the circle of
friendship in every direction. It is vitally important to a full understanding of the
Christian life to take seriously the words of Jesus to the disciples: ‘I no longer call
you servants, but friends.’

Author biography
Brian Edgar is Professor of Theological Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary
(USA) although resident in Melbourne, Australia for much of the year. He was
formerly Academic Dean and Lecturer in Theology and Ethics at the (now)
Melbourne School of Theology and also Director of Public Theology for the
Australian Evangelical Alliance. He is the author of The Message of the Trinity
(IVP, 2005) and God is Friendship: a theology of spirituality, community and society
(Seedbed, 2013) and has a forthcoming book on the theology of play arguing
that play is the essential and ultimate form of relationship with God.