As we saw in the previous article in this series, God calls human beings to be either single or married. What both of these vocations have in common is that they are undergirded by a call to friendship.
The key biblical passage that tells us this is John 15:12-17 where Jesus’ speaks to his disciples on the eve of his crucifixion:
‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide; so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. This I command you, to love one another.’
These words are addressed, in the first instance, to Jesus’ first disciples. However, they also apply to everyone he calls to follow him and, thus, potentially, to all human beings. They tell us that Jesus is our friend and that he has shown his friendship by laying down his life for us (v.13) and by teaching us all that he has heard from the Father (i.e., making known to us the saving plan of God and our part in it) (v.15). In turn, we are Jesus’ friends if we do what he commands (v.14), which is to love one another as he has loved us (vv.12 and 17).
What kind of love is this? It is clearly not sexual love. Jesus’ love for his disciples was clearly not the sexual love between a husband and wife, nor does he expect his disciples to express their love for each other in that way (unless they are in fact husband and wife).
The kind of love in view here is instead friendship. In our society we tend to contrast love and friendship. Thus someone might say, ‘I don’t love him. We’re just good friends.’ In reality, however, friendship is arguably the overarching form of love, of which the love between husband and wife is one subset.
What does it mean to love one another as friends? If we take God’s love for us as the model three things stand out.
First, there is openness. Jesus does not hide from his disciples who he is and what he has come to do, but makes it known to them. In a similar way we are called to be open and honest with our friends. We are called to share with them who we truly are and also to allow them the opportunity to share who they are with us.
Secondly, there is constancy. God is not there for us some of the time, but all of the time, and we likewise have to be constantly there for our friends through thick and thin and not just when we feel like it.
Thirdly, there is self-sacrifice. We need to be willing to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of our friends. Jesus laid down his life for us and we, in turn, have to be willing to lay down our life for our friends. This does not necessarily mean literally dying for them (although it could), but what it does mean is dying to self by being willing to put the needs of our friends before our own wants and desires.
This kind of serious, committed, friendship is at the heart of Christian marriage. It is the concrete form of the ‘mutual society, help, and comfort’ between husband and wife referred to in the Book of Common Prayer marriage service. However, it is a form of relationship which all Christians need, and to which all Christians are called, whether they are married or not.
What this means is that all Christians have the responsibility to offer this kind of friendship to the other members of the body of Christ. Mere casual acquaintance is not enough. There needs to be the kind of deep friendship that we have just described. That is what it means to obey Jesus’ injunction to ‘love one another as I have loved you.’
Obviously, there is a limit to the number of people any one individual can befriend intimately, but the net of friendship should be cast as wide as possible, even if some friendships are going to be deeper than others.
In summary, there are two vocations to which God calls people, marriage and singleness, and both of these vocations involve a call to the kind of friendship which God gives to us and calls us then to give to others.
In the next article we shall go on to look in more detail about what the Bible teaches us about the particular shape of the relationship of friendship between husband and wife in marriage.