No Greater Love: a Biblical Vision for Friendship (Part 1)
Book Review (Rebecca McLaughlin)
Stick around my substack long enough and you start to pick up some of my favourite themes and topics. One of them is undoubtedly friendship. I’m a person who highly values friendship, and highly values my friends. I’ve also read more than a couple of good books on friendship recently, but when I came across this one during recent book purchasing, I couldn’t help but pick it up. This two-part review comes in the form of an extended reading and conversation with the book, chapter by chapter.
1: No Greater Love
McLaughlin begins with a soft entrance into the topic by considering some of the failures and pains of friendship. Then we get a nod to CS Lewis' famous essay/book, before a Bonhoeffer poem. But where to start with friendship? Unlike Lewis or Austin, Rebecca McLaughlin (hereafter ‘McL’) begins with John 13:34-35 and 15:12-13. I think this is an ideal place to start, because Jesus calls us to a radical love, and yet exemplifies that love in friendship and the laying down of his life for his friends. I can think of no better way to begin a study of biblical concepts of friendship, than here.
However, McL then turns to a discussion of the meaning of the word 'friend', with reference to the Greek. This always makes me nervous, because people (even well educated ones, even NT scholars!) often poorly handle these kinds of questions. I would say a narrow study of φίλος usage in the New Testament isn't a good way to establish its meaning. McL does okay in the end, but word studies are tricky!
What McL does admirably is set friendship up as a type of sacrificial love relationship, similar to marriage, to parent-child, but different to both, and yet in many ways no less. It's striking that this teaching of Jesus' occurs on the night of his betrayal. One of his closest friends is about to sell him out. Another boldly claims that he'll never abandon Jesus, but then does so three times. All Jesus' friends leave him in his hour of greatest need. If Jesus is our first point of reference for friendship, he's also our model of what it looks like to have your friends betray, deny, and abandon you. And yet Jesus did not abandon them, but forgave them and restored them, because he'd laid down his life for them.
2: Nontraditional family
Here McL makes the (correct) argument that, for Christians, their primarily 'family' is in fact the church, and that this oddly trumps biological (and non-biological) family. While Jesus, and Christianity, does value both marriage and children highly, it ought not to place nuclear family at the centre. So this chapter goes on to paint a picture of not just church-as-community but church-as-family that is beautiful, enticing, desirable. And that's done in part by McL talking about her own experiences, both when her family had a health emergency, but also the picture of various brothers and sisters in the church being in and out of their lives.
There is so much I agree with in this chapter; it's always nice when something you think or advocate is put in writing by someone else! Here's one:
The longer I've been married, the more I am convinced that Christian marriage thrives when it's enfolded in the family of church. No marriage is an island. Not only do married believers, like me, need their siblings when their marriages are struggling, but we also need them in the normal times, especially when parenting. (p.40)
But the very next paragraph, and in fact this whole chapter, carries what I call the Hauerwas-syndrome.1 I would love to live in a church which was a vibrant community of faithful believers committed to life together, in which people were more involved in our lives, and rich friendships interwove into family life. That has rarely been my experience in churches, and I don't think it's from want of trying. Put it another way, you can try to open up your life and home, and invite people in, but that doesn't mean they want to. McL paints her experience as wonderful, but many of us don't experience church as family, and that often carries a degree of pain. There's pain when other families talk about the holidays they took together; there's pain when you sit alone in church.2
3: My very heart
Now we return to friendship proper, and McL picks up and begins with what's a real problem in our contemporary western culture: romantic, and to a lesser extent familial, love have taken up all the space, and oxygen, so that we (a) don't have the space and vocabulary to talk about friendship with deep love, (b) worry that friendship that has those elements is romanticised or sexualised.3
In this chapter, I want to argue that we must reclaim the language and the physical expression of deep friendship love. (p.48)
McL begins again with Jesus, in John's gospel in particular, and the identification of those 'he loved' - the author, but also Lazarus, Martha, and Mary. The language of love is readily deployed to depict Jesus' friends. Similarly, Paul does not hold back in speaking in terms of "warmth and intimacy" about friends, fellow workers in Christ, co-believers. In particular, McL points to Paul's language of "my very heart" for Onesimus, language of intense identification.
The whole contour of this chapter is that friendship is born of love, and we shouldn't shy away from that. We ought to recognise that friendship is a form of love, be prepared to express it in words, be prepared (as Paul says in Phil 2.27) that losing them would bring great sorrow, be prepared to back up these sentiments with actions like putting our money, reputation, etc., on the line for friends, and show physical affection.
The argument about physical affection is well-made, and given an appropriate cultural caveat - how we express physical affection in 202x US, UK, or dare we say it Australia, differs from the first century Middle East. Which is fine! But we still ought to do it.
4: Comrades in Arms
No surprise to see Frodo and Sam opening this chapter! And some nods to Tolkien and Lewis. The theme of this chapter is that deep(er) friendships form in and around serving a greater purpose. That's seen in the military language of "fellow-soldier" that Paul employs for people like Epaphroditus and Archippus. And it speaks to a reality of friendship itself - that friendship generally does not fare well when it's turned inwards and focused on itself, but when it's turned towards a common third thing that friends share in.
For Christians, that 'thing' above all is "mission". McL is quite strong in this chapter, with some reasonable caveats (e.g. this doesn't mean every friendship all the time needs to be doing evangelism or something. Nor does it make friendships just utilitarian instruments to help us do mission better. I think I would say that provided we operate with a broad enough definition of mission, then I'm all on-board here. My hesitation is that there has long been a strand of Christian thinking with a very narrow view of mission that is literally "get people across the line of belief in Jesus, so they're saved, and then we're all done, move on." The classic evangelicalism of just "saving souls" is, I would argue, biblically deficient precisely because it's partial. To be fair to McL, quite a few examples that she draws upon are indeed Christians engaged in living out their vocational calling in the world, in various spheres, in the Lord. And when we partner in these things, our friendships do indeed grow richer by their shared toil.
The close of this chapter talks about the vulnerability that comes with closer friendships, and the danger of 'friendly fire', and also avoiding 'comrades of the wrong kind'. I was particularly intrigued by the way she tackles the question of 'boundaries.' McL admits to struggling with this concept for years, because of the way it seemed to run counter to the "necessary vulnerability bound up in discipleship". However, she has come to a point where, as she says, "I've realized that if I let me closest Christian friends behave unlovingly to me, I am not loving them." Boundaries, in this frame, is really being willing to say no, to in fact be willing to rebuke, correct, admonish, and reprove a friend. It's not about maintaining emotional distance per se, as if a boundary were self-protection from vulnerability and damage. It's precisely about a vulnerability that comes along with the courage to say, "No" as well as "Yes."
5: The Inner Ring
I really like chapter five, let me say. It launches with C.S. Lewis' famous lecture on the "Inner Ring" - our desire to always break into those more and more exclusive circles. Lewis' recommended antidote is friendship, but McL has a different take, and it is summed up in this: instead of asking "Who will love me?" we should ask "Who[m] can I love?"4 Honestly, this is the antidote to the kind of hurts I described back in chapter 2 above. Yes, loneliness and feeling unloved and unwanted do hurt, but there's precious little that you can do about it anyway, but what you can do, ought to do, and in fact follow in Jesus' footsteps in so doing, is seek out others to love, especially the outcast, the marginalised, those in need. This precisely is gracious other-centred love in practice. It's a form of welcome, and when we welcome others like this we are seeking to enfold them into community.
McL offers a great metaphor here, switching up Lewis' ring inside a ring inside a ring, to chain mail - woven rings that all interconnect and interbind. In this way, we aren't trying to met everyone's needs, but everyone together is, through individual and smaller connections, helping to meet each other's needs, and strengthening the whole fabric. What a wonderful metaphor.
If our love for others is proactive, we will indeed take the initiative in seeking relationship with others, seeking to be available and initiating contact and time together. And we do that better by asking whom we can love.
As I close this half-review, let's have a quote from McL:
You see, when we stop asking, "Who will love me?" we will find that it's not because the answer to that question doesn't matter. It matters greatly. If you are a Christian, you should feel the love of friends who know and love you deeply, as you know and love them. But if each of us moves outward with our love, we'll find that there is more than enough love to go around. 
Part 2 in a weeks’ time.
I call it Hauerwas-syndrome because Hauerwas often talks about a rich vision of church community that I am certain very few people experience, and so the ideal of church eclipses the reality of your local church and its people.
I think McL, and her husband, are right that you should pro-actively not leave people alone at church, you ought to look for people who are alone at the gathering and go and be with them.
This is why I dislike the word bromance. It's part of a pattern of not being able to appreciate deep male friendship, and so we feel obliged to borrow the language of romance. It's similar to the way in which we can't read stories of male friendship without assuming sexual undertones. E.g. Frodo and Sam. (One could discuss Jonathan and Saul, or Achilles and Patroclus, but both those pairs need a significant discussion of their own).
even McL doesn't add the m here.