‘Friendship and the Body of Christ’ – A preliminary review.

I have called this article a ‘preliminary review’ because Friendship and the Body of Christ has just been published and the purpose of this review is to begin a conversation about it by providing the  readers of this blog with an initial assessment of the nature and purpose of this document and the strengths and weaknesses of its argument as the basis for further discussion.

  1. What is Friendship and the Body of Christ ?

Friendship and the Body of Christ is a short study of ecclesiology that has been produced by the Church of England’s Faith and Order Commission and  published by Church House Publishing[1] as an addition to the Living in Love and Faith suite of resources. It is described on the Living in Love and Faith website as a ‘reflective essay’ which is designed to ‘support the bishops in their ongoing discernment process as they seek to discern what they believe God is saying to the Church of England today.’

What the Living in Love and Faith process has underlined (in case anyone was in doubt) is that there is profound disagreement in the Church of England on the issues of ‘identity, sexuality, relationships and marriage’  and indecision about the best way forward for the Church of England  in relation to them.

In this situation the questions addressed by Friendship and the Body of Christ are:

‘…. when confronted with the discomfort, pain, fear and frustration of disagreement and indecision how does the church proceed? How does the church go about discerning together that voice which says, ‘This is the way; walk in it’ (Isaiah 30.21)? What does it mean to be obedient to the one head, Jesus Christ, to whom we owe our common life and for whose glory we exist?’ (p.3)

In order to address these questions, Friendship and the Body of Christ looks at two ideas, the idea of the Church as ‘a community of friends of Jesus’ based on John 15:12-17 and the idea of ‘our being church as a gift – the gift of the body of Christ.’ (p.3)  It explores ‘what these might mean for how we understand and live out our life together when we disagree.’ (p.3)

2. What is the argument developed in Friendship and the Body of Christ?

Friendship and the Body of Christ develops its argument over five chapters.

The first chapter ‘Taking Stock’ explains why it has chosen to focus on the concept of friendship and notes the questions that arise from the use of this concept

‘We explore one aspect of being church: what it means to be a community of the friends of Jesus. We have chosen this image because friendship is a human relationship open to everyone. Unlike the call to be a father, mother, brother, sister, wife or husband, which is only given to some, we can all be friends. It is a gift from God and excludes no one. It is also an image that resonates, though not necessarily harmoniously, with our culture, perhaps more than ‘bride’ or ‘body’ or ‘kingdom’; it bears fewer negative or problematic connotations, and because it has been used less, it carries less weight from history. It is also the relationship into which Jesus calls his followers.

Friendship is the word we often use for close relationships. How might it apply in our situation as the church seeks to discern ways forward in times of disagreement and change? Can friendship be both sustained and deepened by disagreement, in the way that some seem to have experienced in their engagement with one another? Is there a time when friendships need to be ended or recast as a result of disagreement, as some have suggested in their response to engaging with LLF? How might thinking about what it means to be church within the frame of friendship help us to better understand the quandary we find ourselves in?

Might understanding ourselves as a community of the friends of Jesus Christ offer new insights into what it means to be church in a world so riven with disagreement and division? Might it help us
to see not only friendship, but church – our life together as and in the body of Christ – as a gift from God?’  (pp.14-15)

Having looked in its second chapter. ‘Friendship’, at the nature and challenges of friendship today, both in society and in the Church, the study goes on to declare in its third chapter,  ‘Friendship as a Gift,’ that we learn from John’s Gospel that there is an order to the friendship between Jesus and his disciples (just as there is an order to the relationship between Jesus and the Father):

‘First, it is Jesus who first loved them – by coming into the world, sent by the Father, to dwell among them and share with them  God’s love, truth and grace. What Jesus demonstrates and illustrates in washing their feet is that his love for them goes as far as him laying down his life for them (15:13); a humanly embodied expression of the perfect and unreserved divine love between him and the Father. This love, completely self-giving, is the basis (the ‘vine’) on which the disciples’ relationship with Jesus is established, and which shapes the nature of their friendship with him. Jesus remains the vine on which they rest; the relationship is not reversible. Jesus himself drives home this point: ‘You did not choose me but I chose you…’ (15:16).

This irreversible order has implications, secondly, for the disciples’ relationship among each other – a point that is especially relevant to our purposes as we reflect on the nature of the church. It is important to note that Jesus does not befriend his disciples as individuals, chosen severally and separately. When Jesus addresses his disciples in this passage, he uses the second person plural (‘ye’ in the older translations, rather than ‘thou’). They become Jesus’ friends together, which implies they become friends of one another as well as (and as an implication of) becoming Jesus’ friends.

Furthermore – and crucially – the friendship which Jesus establishes with and among his disciples, flows from and continues to depend on Jesus’ gift of friendship to them. Indeed, in line with what was said earlier about Jesus’ sharing what he has first received from the Father, we can see that his gift of friendship is rooted in the dynamic of giving which is at the heart of the life of God: Jesus’ giving himself to his disciples is an affirmation of the Father’s having first given these to him (John 17:6). 

Moreover, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in Jesus’ name (John 14:26), will make those given to Jesus into the church, Jesus’ Body. Jesus’ gift of friendship, then, will be sustained and confirmed in the work of the Spirit, the advocate and sustainer, who dwells in the midst of Jesus’ friends sustaining and forming them, and sending them out in fellowship into the world’ (pp.34-35)

In the same chapter the study then goes on to explain that what Jesus’ gift of friendship means in practice is that we are summoned to a life of free and active obedience to Jesus’ commands:

‘In John 15, as we saw, Jesus tells his disciples: ‘You did not choose me but I chose you’ (15.16). This means, first, that we are not free to shape or develop our friendships as we might wish: we are Jesus’ friends (and hence each other’s friends) if we do what Jesus commands us (15.14); if we love each other after the example of Jesus’ love for us, as demonstrated and illustrated in the foot washing. This does not mean, as Jesus explains, that our obedience is to be unquestioning – in the way servants obey a master (in a relationship of inequality). For Jesus to befriend us, we saw, is to invite us to become participants in the economy of love and obedience that exists between him and the Father: ‘I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father’ (15.15). Divine freedom gives us freedom. We are free in our following and obeying; and because it happens in an economy of love, our freedom is expressed in love for the other rather than the self. Thus, while we are primarily recipients of Jesus’ gift of friendship – a gift deriving from the Father’s self-giving to the Son, and vice versa – we are nonetheless invited to become active participants in this friendship.’  (p.36)  

In addition, it says, we need  to understand that our fellow disciples are given to us by Jesus as part as part of his gift of friendship to us and that this needs to shape how we relate to them:

‘As a disciple of Jesus, I may receive another disciple as my friend only in and with Jesus’ friendship with both of us – never in isolation from Jesus’ gift. And I, in turn, am given by Jesus to the other, just as they are given to me. Therefore, just as much as I am to give myself to them in friendship (following Jesus’ example), so they are to give themselves to me. And that means, crucially, that I need to learn to welcome and accept them, and their gift of friendship, even if they or their gift are not what I was looking for. A powerful example of the dynamic at play here – perhaps indeed the paradigm case of Jesus’ giving his disciples to one another – is when Jesus assigns Mary and ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’ to one another as mother and son respectively, at the point of dying on the cross. The disciple freely takes Jesus’ mother into his home and she freely joins him.’  (pp.36-37)

In its fourth chapter, ‘Receiving and understanding the gifts of God,’ the study goes on to suggest that this understanding of our fellow disciples as Jesus’ gift to us means that it might be conceivable:

‘…. to feel, on the one hand, that our friendship as members of Christ’s church has run aground on our disagreement, and yet to believe that we are nonetheless held – and held together – by Jesus’ gifts of friendship. If this were possible, it would be because we would find it possible to continue to respond to the calling that comes with Jesus’ gift: to receive those we disagree with as friends of Jesus, and hence as our friends, seeking their good and open to receiving their gift.’  (p.42)

In the same chapter it further suggests that thinking about God’s gifts to us also serves to focus our attention:

‘…. on Jesus Christ, the single, authoritative teacher. Jesus shows how his disciples are to receive the gifts, the words and the name which they have been given as his friends. Through Christ, the Father nurtures a disciplined life in which friends may learn – may reflect, deliberate and decide. Because of their friendship with  Christ, the church is not free to follow whomsoever it chooses but is bound to follow only the Word given by God in and through Jesus. It is in following Jesus, who holds everything together, that our creation for communion, fellowship, togetherness with others and with God can be fulfilled.

The goal of friendship with Christ is communion: with God, and, by God’s mission in the world, with all those called to be friends of Christ, led by the Spirit into the holy life of God. How can we learn to share the gifts we have been given in a common life, in love and in faith, as the Church called to be a holy people, and so participate in the life and mission of God, showing true friendship to the world?  (p.57)

Finally, in chapter 5, ‘Friendship and the Gift of Life in Love and Faith,’ the study contends that, because we are held together by Jesus, we can leave it to Jesus working through the Spirit to change the beliefs and practices our fellow disciples and the Church as a whole when such change is needed:

‘Thinking back to our ‘ordinary’ friendships, no doubt we have disagreements between us, and we have hopes that our friend might change in a particular view or habit. Sometimes we might talk about these. Sometimes our hopes may be unspoken. This is natural and to be expected: we want the very best for our friend. When it comes to our friendship with followers of Jesus, these longings may be very deeply held and integral with our understanding of truth about God. In relation to questions of identity, sexuality, relationships and marriage, for example, they may be about the holy way of life to which God calls us. They may be about wanting our friend – and indeed the church, the body of Christ – to be saved from spiritual, or even eternal harm by following the ways of holiness to which we believe Christians are called.

Because Jesus stands between us and holds us together, we can place these longings for our friend to change in Jesus’ hands. We can trust the living Spirit of Christ to be at work as we obey Christ’s command to love one another. In so doing we create space for the Spirit to be doing the work of conviction and fruit- bearing that Jesus promised his followers.

In our disagreements, therefore, how do we avoid usurping a power that belongs only to God, while at the same time discerning the work of the Spirit in convicting and fruit-bearing, never forgetting the gift of one another’s friendship with Jesus Christ in the Spirit?’ (pp.64-65)

The study then goes on to further add that:

‘The call to be friends of Jesus is a call to try and keep walking together, to speak well of one another, to recognise the fullness of the other, to be generous in our behaviour, our words and assumptions, both individually and corporately. Even more than anything, it is a call to mutual love – and this call makes deep demands on us in seeking the temporal and eternal welfare in of the one who is profoundly different yet connected through our common Saviour.’ (pp.65-66)

At the end of the chapter the study concludes by declaring that:

‘As the body of Christ, our call is to bear witness to the Christ who is our head, drawing us into the reality of holy communion in the midst of our frailty, friction and confusion – communion with one another and with God.

This is a communion that turns weaknesses into opportunities and disagreements into creative possiblities. It is a communion that makes it possible for those who suspect each other of rejecting Christ’s friendship to become friends in the fellowship of Christ, living together a faithful, penitent, holy life. It is a communion of the friends of Jesus who confess Christ together, bear with one another in love and seek the mind of Christ. It is a communion that is held together through mutual service in the pattern of Jesus who washed his disciples’ feet. It is a communion that is oiled by the fruits of the Spirit that grow by abiding in the vine: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control. It is a communion that points the world to God’s future as a sign and servant of the new creation, manifesting its life in the present.’ (p.68)

3. What are we to make of Friendship and the Body of Christ?

  • What is good about what it says

There are a number of good things about what is said in Friendship and the Body of Christ.

First, the study is right to highlight the teaching in John’s gospel about how Jesus calls us to be his friends in response to God the Father giving us to him and how Jesus’ gift of friendship is ‘sustained and confirmed’ by the work of the Holy Spirit.

Secondly, it is right to note that as friends of Jesus we are called to life of free and active obedience.

Thirdly , it is right to highlight that as those called to be friends of Jesus, disciples are also called to act as friends to one another.

Fourthly, it is right when it says that we are called to view our fellow disciples as God’s gifts to us.

Fifthly, it is right when it says that the Church is ‘is bound to follow only the Word given by God in and through Jesus.’

Sixthly, it is right when it says that Christ is our head and that through our relationship with him we are drawn in to communion with each other and with God.

Seventhly it is right to say that we should be ‘seeking the temporal and eternal welfare’ of our fellow members of the body of Christ.

  • What is problematic about what it says

However, In addition to these helpful thing that it says there are things which it says which are problematic, either because what they say is  misleading, or because it requires further expansion.

First, it is simply not the case that ‘Jesus does not befriend his disciples as individuals, chosen severally and separately.’ As the stories of the call of  Andrew, Peter, Philip and Nathanael in John 1:35-41 make clear, Jesus does indeed call people as individuals to become his friends.

Secondly, neither in John 15 nor anywhere else does Jesus say that because he has made all Christians his friends, therefore we ‘become friends of one another as well.’  This follows from the very nature of friendship, which is an intentional conscious relationship with someone else. As God, Jesus can have this relationship with all his disciples. However, the limitations consequent upon being human mean that no Christian can have this kind of relationship with any more than a small number of other Christians. It is meaningless, for example, for me to say that I have a friendship with a Christian in Canada of whose very existence I am unaware, or indeed all the members of my local church.

It is important that all Christians should offer friendship to other Christians as time and circumstances permit, but this is not the same as saying that all Christians are (or should be) friends with one another as a consequence of their being friends of Jesus.

Thirdly, the study is wrong when it says that the distinction that Jesus makes in John 15:15 between servants and friends means that our obedience to him is not ‘to be unquestioning – in the way servants obey a master (in a relationship of inequality).’ As Don Carson explains in his commentary on John, the point that Jesus is making is that:

 ‘An absolute potentate demands obedience in all his subjects. His slaves, however, are simply told what to do, while his friends are informed of his thinking, enjoy his confidence and learn to obey with a sense of privilege and with full understanding of their master’s heart. So also here: Jesus’ absolute right to command is in no way diminished, but he takes pains to inform his friends of his motives, plans, purposes.’ [2]

We are called to offer Jesus unquestioned obedience. What the fact that Jesus has made us his friends means is that we know why we should do so.

Fourthly, the study suggests that is possible to disagree with another Christian ‘and yet to believe that we are nonetheless held – and held together – by Jesus’ gifts of friendship.’ This suggestion is correct as far as it goes (I can, for example, disagree with another Christian’s musical preferences without doubting the reality of their relationship with Jesus), but it does not address the question of whether there are some kinds of disagreement that are so serious that Christians cannot simply agree to disagree about them. As the 2004 Windsor Report puts it:

‘This question is frequently begged in current discussions, as for instance when people suggest without further argument, in relation to a particular controversial issue, that it should not be allowed to impair the Church’s unity, in other words that the matter in question is not as serious as some suppose. In the letters already quoted, Paul is quite clear that there are several matters – obvious examples being incest (1 Corinthians 5) and lawsuits between Christians before non-Christian courts (1 Corinthians 6) – in which there is no question of saying ‘some Christians think this, other Christians think that, and you must learn to live with the difference.’  On the contrary: Paul insists that some types of behaviour are incompatible with inheriting God’s coming kingdom, and must not therefore be tolerated within the Church. ‘Difference’ has become a concept within current postmodern discourse which can easily mislead the contemporary western church into forgetting the principles, enshrined in scripture and often rearticulated within Anglicanism, for distinguishing one type of difference from another.’ [3]

The Windsor Report goes on to suggest, for example, that if we look at the letters of Paul we find that there are things about which there is no room for disagreement: ‘That which embodies and expresses renewed humanity in Christ is always mandatory for Christians; that which embodies the dehumanising turning-away-from-God which Paul characterises with such terms as ‘sin’, ‘flesh’, and so on, is always forbidden.’ [4]

It is a significant weakness of Friendship and the Body of Christ that it fails to address the issue of the need to distinguish between different sorts of disagreement and also fails to address the issue of whether there are some forms of conduct that are so serious that the person committing them ceases to be a friend of Jesus. That this is the case is suggested by Jesus’ statement in John 15:14 ‘You are my friends if you do what I command you.’ The implication here is that failure to obey Jesus will lead to ceasing to be his friend and this is reinforced by the related saying in John 15:6 ‘If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers.’ Here ‘abiding’ means the same as being Jesus’ friend in John 15:14 and , again, the warning is that we can behave in such a way as to be cut off from relationship with Jesus.

What the study should have considered is what it means to disobey Jesus’ commands and therefore cease to be his friend, and how such disobedience differs from the inevitable propensity that all Christians have to commit sin in thought, word and deed.

Fifthly, while the study is correct to say that the Church ‘is bound to follow only the Word given by God in and through Jesus,’ what it fails to say is how we find this Word given that Jesus has now ascended into heaven and is therefore inaccessible to normal forms of human contact. It should have said that we find it through the witness borne to Jesus by the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament and through the faithful witness born to the teaching contained in the Scriptures by the other sources of doctrine acknowledged in Canons A5 and C15, namely the teaching of the Fathers, the ecumenical Councils and the catholic creeds, and the teaching found in the ‘historic Anglican formularies’ (the Thirty-nine Articles, the Book of Common Prayer and the 1662 Ordinal).

Saying that the Church is bound to follow the Word given in and through Jesus is an empty statement unless we know where to have access to this Word and what the study ought to have said is that we have access to it through these sources (which in turn means that that the Church should not follow any form of teaching that is incompatible with what is found in these sources).

Sixthly, the study is misleading when it declares that we can simply leave our desire that people should be  ‘saved from spiritual, or even eternal harm’ in the hands of Jesus and the work of the Spirit. Of course, it is ultimately Jesus working through the Spirit who saves people from spiritual harm and eternal death. However, Jesus most often works through human agents and part of what it means to practice Christian friendship is to allow him to act through us in this way. As Tim and Kathy Keller note this means that ‘Christian friends are not only to confess their sins to one another ‘James 5:16), but they are to lovingly point out their friend’s sins if he or she is blind to them (Romans 15:14).’[5]  Furthermore, they are not only to point out their friend’s sins, but to lovingly encourage them with their support and God’s help to turn from them.  

If we turn to a secular analogy for a minute, we would not think that someone who deliberately turned a blind eye to someone’s addiction to alcohol or to online gambling was acting as a loving friend to them. Why then should we regard it as loving to ignore someone’s addiction to sin, something that will not only harm them in this world, but has the potential to cause them unending harm in the world to come?

Obviously part of the issue is that we have become aware of the potential for ‘saving people from sin’ being used as a cover for controlling and abusive behaviour. However, as the Latin tag goes ‘abusus non tollit usum,’ the misuse of something does not eliminate the possibility of its correct use. The key is in the Kellers’ use of the term ‘lovingly.’ What is proper is action to address sin that is motivated by a loving desire for someone else’s well being and which respects their God given free will by not engaging in any form of physical or psychological coercion.   

Seventhly, as we have seen, the study says that our ‘communion with one another and with God…. turns weaknesses into opportunities and disagreements into creative possibilities.’  This is a nice piece of rhetoric, but unfortunately the study fails to give us any examples of what it thinks this might mean in practice in the current situation facing the Church of England. Where does it think these opportunities and creative possibilities are to be found? Rhetoric is not enough. What is required to justify the study’s argument as this point is specific examples to back up its claim.

  • Two major omissions in Friendship and the Body of Christ

In addition to the points just noted, there are also two major omissions in Friendship and the Body of Christ

The first is the omission of anything about the role of bishops. Reading through the study, bishops might as well not exist. They (and all other forms of ordained and lay ministry) play no role in it at all. Although bishops are mentioned in the first chapter, they then play no further role. In the main body of the argument the only players in the study are Jesus and the undifferentiated mass of his friends.

This a really surprising omission since the whole point of the documents is to ‘support the bishops in their ongoing discernment process.’  How can the study help bishops know what to do if it does not give some indication of what bishops should be doing? 

What the study should have said is that following on from the apostles the bishops are called to be the chief shepherds of the flock consisting of the friends of Jesus (John 21:15-19, Acts 20:28-31, 1 Peter 5:1-5).  Their role as shepherds is to feed the flock, guard the flock, and rescue those in the flock who have become lost, and in the Bible and the Christian tradition this means that bishops are called to teach the faith, drawing on the Bible and orthodox sources of Christian teaching based on the Bible, identify and confute error, ensure a supply of new orthodox ministers, exercise ecclesiastical discipline on serious unrepentant sin when required,[6]  and restore to the communion of the Church those who are penitent.

The second omission, which is again really surprising, is the omission of any suggestion as to what the bishops, given their role, are called to do in the present situation in the Church of England.

What the study should have said is that what we learn from the Biblical witness to Jesus (as also from the created order) is that God has created through Jesus (1 Corinthians 8:6) two sexes, male and female, and has given sexual intercourse as the means by which they are to ‘be fruitful and multiply (Genesis 1:28). What we also learn from the Bible that goes beyond what we learn from creation is that God has also created through Jesus marriage between one man and a woman as the sole legitimate setting for sexual intercourse and for the begetting and raising of children (Genesis 2:18-25).

These two truths then form the basis of what is said in the Bible as whole about human sexual identity and behaviour. The Bible sees human beings as males or females (and prohibits any attempt to behave as thought this were not the case (see Deuteronomy 22:5 and 1 Corinthians 11:2-16) and consistently teaches both explicitly and implicitly, that all forms of sexual activity outside marriage are contrary to God’s will and off limits to God’s people (which is why, the New Testament forbids porneia, that is, all forms of sexual activity outside heterosexual marriage).

What it should then have gone on to say is that all this means:

  • that same-sex sexual attraction and difficulties with accepting one’s given sexual identity are a result of creation’s brokenness rather than its diversity;
  • that engaging in same-sex sexual activity or adopting a transgender identity are inconsistent with the holiness to which God calls his people;
  • that the basic disciplines to which all Christians are called are to live as the men and women God created them to be and to avoid porneia by abstaining from all forms of sexual activity outside marriage, including all forms of same-sex sexual activity, and that such disciplines are particularly to be observed by those who are called by God to ordained or licensed lay ministry since ministers are called to be particularly exemplary in their way of life.
  • that the bishops of the Church of England  need to exercise their roles as shepherds of the friends of Jesus by seeking to do all that they can, using the spiritual tools given to them by their role in the life of the Church, to ensure that those for whom they are responsible understand these truths and live by them.

4. Conclusion

Overall, in spite of the helpful things that it says, the problematic aspects of the study and these two major omissions means that like the other LLF resources, Friendship and the Body of Christ contributes to the current theological, ecclesiological and ethical confusion of the Church of England rather than pointing the way to a more godly way forward.

The study is fundamentally a re-presentation in a slightly different form of the idea of ‘good disagreement’ or ‘disagreeing well’  that has become prominent in the life of the Church of England and the Anglican Communion during the tenure of the current Archbishop of Canterbury. At base what it says is that those in the Church can simply agree to disagree because they are all friends of Jesus. This is a simplistic argument and it is also a really dangerous one, because it fails to take into account the reality that there are matters about which we cannot simply agree to disagree because they have the potential to cut people of from being friends of Jesus now and forever.

[1] Friendship and the Body of Christ (London: Church House Publishing, 2022).

[2] Don Carson, The Gospel According to John (Leicester: Apollos:1991), p.523.

[3] The Lambeth Commission on Communion, The Windsor Report 2004 (London: The Anglican Communion Office, 2004), paragraph 89

[4] The Windsor Report, paragraph 90.

[5] Tim and Kathy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2011) , Kindle edition


[6] As Dietrich Bonhoeffer notes the purpose of such discipline:

‘…is not to establish a community of the perfect, but a community of men who really live under the forgiving mercy of God. Discipline in a congregation is a servant of the precious grace of God. If a member of the Church falls into sin, he must be admonished and punished, lest he forfeit his own salvation and the gospel be discredited.’ (The Cost of Discipleship. London: SCM, 1959, p. 259).