With a Little Help From My Friends

Article
03.01.2010

Our culture is not one that provides great encouragement for the nurture and development of deep, long-lasting, satisfying friendships. Such friendships take time and sacrifice, and the busy world of the early twenty-first century West, as a rule, is far more interested in receiving and possessing than sacrificing and giving.[1]

What is especially disturbing is that western Christianity is little different from its culture. In C. S. Lewis’s remarkable little commentary on spiritual warfare written from the devil’s vantage point, The Screwtape Letters, Lewis imagines one letter from a senior devil, Screwtape, to his nephew Wormwood in which Screwtape rejoices over the fact that “modern Christian writings” offer “few of the old warnings about Worldly Vanities, the Choice of Friends, and the Value of Time.”[2] Lewis may or may not be right about the scarcity of Christian literature in the twentieth-century about “Worldly Vanities” and “the Value of Time.” He is undoubtedly correct when it comes to the topic of friendship.

How different in this respect is our world from that of the ancients, both pagan and Christian. In the ancient world friendship was deemed so vitally important that the pagan philosopher Plato devoted an entire book, the Lysis, as well as substantial portions of two other books, the Phaedrus and the Symposium, to discussing its nature. Aristotle, the other leading thinker of the classical Greek period, occupied two of the ten books in his major work on ethical issues, Nicomachean Ethics, with a discussion of friendship. For the ancient Greeks, friendship formed one of the highest ideals of human life. This was also true of the Romans.

THE SCRIPTURES ON FRIENDSHIP

While two out of ten books of Scripture is not devoted to the concept of friendship, we do come across,

  1. reflections on friendship like Ecclesiastes 4:7-12;
  2. marvellous illustrations of what friendship should be like, as with Ruth and Naomi or David and Jonathan;
  3. and nuggets of advice about having friends and keeping them in that Old Testament compendium of wisdom, Proverbs. For example, “a friend loves at all times” (Prov. 17:7).

These texts leave the impression that the Bible regards friendship as a very important part of life. Sure enough, the Bible uses two consistent images in its representation of friendship.[3]

  1. The first is the knitting of souls. Deuteronomy provides the earliest mention of “a friend who is as your own soul” (Deut. 13:6)—that is, a companion of one’s innermost thoughts and feelings, pointing to a concept of intimacy. This is well illustrated by Jonathan and David’s friendship (for example, see 1 Sam. 18:1, 3-4).[4] Here we see ideas of strong emotional attachment and loyalty.[5] Lazarus, Mary, Martha, and Jesus present a New Testament example of this kind of friendship in John 11 (see esp. John 11:5, 11, 35-36). In fact, “friend” naturally becomes another name for believers or brothers in the Lord (see 3 John 15). The privileges and responsibilities of a biblical “soul mate,” then, involve intimacy, loyalty, and a strong emotional attachment. Thus, it’s only natural that Jesus would use the language of friendship to refer to our ultimate loyalties—and his (John 15:13-15)! Are we friends with the world, or God (James 2:23; 4:4)?
  2. The second image that the Bible uses to represent friendship is the face-to-face encounter. This is the image used for Moses’ relationship to God: in the tabernacle God spoke to Moses “face to face, as a man speaks to his friend” (Exodus 33:11; see also Numbers 12:8). The face-to-face image implies a conversation, a sharing of confidences, and, consequently, a meeting of minds, goals, and direction. In the New Testament, the apostle John tells a church that he’s tired of writing, but hopes to visit and talk “face to face, so that our joy may be complete” (2 John 12). One of the benefits of face-to-face encounters between friends is the heightened insight that such encounters produce. A proverb that highlights this idea is the famous one in Proverbs 27:17: “Iron sharpens iron, and one friend sharpens another.”

FRIENDSHIP IN THE CHRISTIAN TRADITION

It is instructive to observe that the spread of the church throughout the Roman Empire in the centuries immediately after the death and resurrection of Christ did not negate this rich appreciation of friendship. Despite the Christian emphasis on showing love to all men and women—family, friends, acquaintances, even enemies—friendship continued to be highly valued. In fact, the emphasis placed on the unity in Christ of all Christians encouraged a high degree of spiritual intimacy that resembled and even surpassed the intimacy considered by Graeco-Roman paganism to be essential to the experience of genuine friendship.[6]

Gregory of Nazianzus (c.329-389), a leading fourth-century Greek Christian theologian, could thus write of his friendship with Basil of Caesarea (c.330-379) during their time together as students in Athens in the 350s:

In studies, in lodgings, in discussions I had him as companion. . . . We had all things in common. . . . . But above all it was God, of course, and a mutual desire for higher things, that drew us to each other. As a result we reached such a pitch of confidence that we revealed the depths of our hearts, becoming ever more united in our yearning.[7]

Given this estimation of friendship, it is no surprise that Gregory could also state, “If anyone were to ask me, ‘What is the best thing in life?’, I would answer, ‘Friends’.”[8]

In the Middle Ages, Ælred of Rievaulx (1110-1167), an English Cistercian monk, penned a classic on this subject, Spiritual Friendship. For Ælred, genuine friendship must “begin in Christ, continue in Christ, and be perfected in Christ.” And such spiritual friendship is to be highly prized:

In human affairs nothing more sacred is striven for, nothing more useful is sought after, nothing more difficult is discovered, nothing more sweet experienced, and nothing more profitable possessed. For friendship bears fruit in this life and in the next.[9]

At the beginning of the modern era, John Calvin (1509-1564), who has had the undeserved reputation of being cold, harsh, and unloving, also had a rich appreciation of friendship. The French Reformed historian Richard Stauffer reckoned that there were few men at the time of the Reformation “who developed as many friendships” as Calvin.[10] Two of his closest friends were his fellow Reformers William Farel (1489-1565) and Pierre Viret (1511-1571). Calvin celebrated his friendship with these two men in his preface to his Commentary on Titus, where he stated,

I do not believe that there have ever been such friends who have lived together in such a deep friendship in their everyday style of life in this world as we have in our ministry. I have served here in the office of pastor with you two. There was never any appearance of envy; it seems to me that you two and I were as one person. . . . And we have shown through visible witness and good authority before men that we have among us no other understanding or friendship than that which has been dedicated to the name of Christ, has been to the present time of profit to his church, and has no other purpose but that all may be one in him with us.[11]

This brotherly friendship is expressed in the correspondence of these three men. Extant are 163 letters from Calvin to Farel, 137 from Farel to Calvin, 204 from Calvin to Viret, and 185 from Viret to Calvin. Not only do they frankly discuss theological problems and ecclesiastical matters, they demonstrate much openness about the problems of their private lives.

To note but one example: On January 27, 1552, Calvin wrote to Farel and chided him for reports that he had heard—true reports one must add—about the undue length of Farel’s sermons. “You have often confessed,” Calvin reminds his friend, “that you know this is a fault and that you would like to correct it.” Calvin went on to encourage Farel to shorten his sermons, lest Satan use Farel’s failing in this regard to destroy the many good things being produced by his ministry.

TWO EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY NEW ENGLAND FRIENDS

The importance of friendship in the Christian life continued to be intensely experienced and discussed in the early part of the modern era. Esther Burr (1732-1758), who lived in colonial New Jersey, unequivocally declared, “Nothing is more refreshing to the soul (except communication with God himself), than the company and society of a friend.”[12] As the mother of two children and the wife of Aaron Burr, the president of what eventually became Princeton University, Esther earnestly sought to know the presence of God in the hurly-burly of her daily life. As she did, she came to appreciate the fact that friends are a divine gift. Writing in her diary on January 23, 1756, she was convinced that “‘Tis…a great mercy that we have any friends—What would this world be without ‘em—A person who looks upon himself to be friendless must of all Cretures be missarable in this Life—Tis the Life of Life.”[13] For Esther, friends were one of this world’s greatest sources of happiness. Why did she value friendship so highly? Surely because she realized that Christian friends and conversation with friends are vital for spiritual growth.

Similar convictions are found in something she wrote the previous year on April 20, 1755, to her best friend named Sarah Prince:

I should highly value (as you my dear do) such charming friends as you have about you—friends that one might unbosom their whole soul too. . . . I esteeem relegious Conversation one of the best helps to keep up relegion in the soul, excepting secret devotion, I dont know but the very best—Then what a lamentable thing that tis so neglected by Gods own children.[14]

Notice the connection between friendship and what Esther calls “relegious conversation.” For the Christian, true friends are those with whom one can share the deepest things of one’s life. They are people with whom one can be transparent and open. In Esther’s words, they are people to whom one can “unbosom [one’s] whole soul.” And in the course of conversation about spiritual things the believer can find strength and encouragement for living the Christian life. In referring to spiritual conversation with friends as “one of the best helps to keep up relegion in the soul,” Esther obviously views it as a means of grace, one of the ways that God the Holy Spirit keeps Christians in fellowship with the Savior.

These convictions regarding friendship were challenged the following year, when one of the college tutors, a Mr. Ewing, told Esther that “he did not think women knew what friendship was,” since they “were hardly capable of anything so cool and rational as friendship.” Esther lost no time in rubbishing his views. As she wrote in her diary, “I retorted several severe things upon him before he had time to speak again. He blushed and seemed confused. . . . We carried on the dispute for an hour—I talked him quite silent.”[15] Esther had evidently learned much from living in the house and under the tutelage of the greatest American theologian of the century, her father, Jonathan Edwards.

TWO BAPTIST FRIENDS

Another excellent illustration of a biblical friendship is that of John Ryland Jr. (1753-1825) and Andrew Fuller (1754-1815). From 1781 to 1793, Ryland was involved in the pastoral leadership of College Lane Baptist Church with his father, John Ryland Sr. (d.1792) in Northampton. In 1793 Ryland Jr. was called to be the pastor of Broadmead Baptist Church in Bristol, England, as well as the principal of Bristol Baptist Academy, and held both positions concurrently. He stayed in these offices till his death in 1825.[16] All of the institutions in which Ryland served were part of the Calvinistic Baptist denomination in Great Britain, the major Baptist grouping of that era.

Among Ryland’s life-long friends, his closest was Andrew Fuller. Fuller was born in Wicken, a small agricultural village in Cambridgeshire.[17] His parents Robert Fuller (1723-1781) and Philippa Gunton (1726-1816) were farmers who rented a succession of dairy farms. In 1761 his parents moved a short distance to Soham, where he and his family began to regularly attend the local Calvinistic Baptist church, and where Fuller was converted in November 1769. After being baptized the following spring, he became a member of the Soham church. In 1774 Fuller was called to the pastorate of this church. He stayed until 1782, when he became the pastor of the Calvinistic Baptist congregation at Kettering.

His time as a pastor in Soham was decisive for shaping Fuller’s theological perspective. It was during this period that he began a life-long study of the works of the American divine Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758). This study, along with his commitment to live under the authority of the infallible Scriptures,[18] enabled him to become what his close friend John Ryland Jr. described as “perhaps the most judicious and able theological writer that ever belonged to our denomination.”[19] Succeeding generations have confirmed Ryland’s estimation of his friend. The Victorian Baptist preacher C.H. Spurgeon (1834-1892) once described Fuller as the “greatest theologian” of his century, while the twentieth-century Baptist historian A.C. Underwood said that “he was the soundest and most creatively useful theologian the Particular Baptists have ever had.”[20] David Phillips, a nineteenth-century Welsh biographer, may have put it best when he called Fuller “the elephant of Kettering,” an allusion to his weighty theological influence.[21] He also served as the first Secretary of the Baptist Missionary Society, founded in 1792, from its inception until his death in 1815.

Ryland and Fuller first met in 1778 when both of them were young men and were wrestling with a number of extremely important theological issues. Within a year they became the closest of friends. After Fuller moved to Kettering in 1782 the two of them had frequent opportunities to talk, to pray, and to spend time together, since Northampton and Kettering are only thirteen miles apart. Their friendship would remain unbroken for the next thirty-seven years, till Fuller’s death in 1815.

Nine days before he died, Fuller asked one last request of Ryland: would he preach his funeral sermon? Ryland agreed, though it was no easy task for him to hold back his tears as he spoke. Towards the end of this sermon, Ryland reminisced about the fact that their friendship had “never met with one minute’s interruption, by one unkind word or thought, of which I have any knowledge,” and that the wound caused by the loss of “this most faithful and judicious friend” was something that would never be healed in this life.

THE COST OF FRIENDSHIP

The year following Fuller’s death, Ryland published a biography of his close friend. In the introduction, he stated the following about their friendship:

Most of our common acquaintances are well aware, that I was his oldest and most intimate friend; and though my removal to Bristol, above twenty years ago, placed us at a distance from each other, yet a constant correspondence was all along maintained; and, to me at least, it seemed a tedious interval, if more than a fortnight elapsed without my receiving a letter from him.

When Ryland moved to Bristol in 1793 he was no longer close enough to his friend in Kettering for them to meet on a regular basis. The only way that they could keep their friendship alive and intact was through the medium of the letter. Thus, for more than twenty years, they faithfully corresponded with one another. Ryland notes that if he did not hear from Fuller at least once every two weeks he found the time gap “tedious.” Both Ryland and Fuller knew that their friendship was a fragile treasure that could be easily lost or neglected in the unpredictable business of life if they did not give it the attention it needed. As the American preacher Haddon Robinson has recently noted, “Even strong friendships require watering or they shrivel up and blow away.”

FRIENDSHIP—WARTS AND ALL

What had initially attracted Ryland and Fuller to one another was the discovery that they shared “a strong attachment to the same religious principles, a decided aversion to the same errors, a predilection for the same authors,” in particular, Jonathan Edwards. In other words, they had that fundamental aspect of a good friendship: a union of hearts. They found deep joy in their oneness of soul—their passion for the glory of Christ and the extension of his kingdom. But friends are not Siamese twins or clones of one another. It belongs to the essence of genuine friendship that friends accept one another for what they are, warts and all. And they give one another room to disagree.

In the case of Ryland and Fuller, their main difference of opinion revolved around an extremely volatile issue among eighteenth-century English-speaking Baptists: the issue of open and closed communion, and open and closed membership. In the eighteenth century the vast majority of pastors and congregations in the Calvinistic Baptist denomination, including Fuller, adhered to a policy of closed membership (only baptized believers could become members of their local churches) and closed communion (only baptized believers could partake of the Lord’s Supper in their meeting-houses). Ryland, on the other hand, was of the conviction that both the Lord’s Supper and membership in the local church should be open to all Christians, regardless of whether they had been baptized as believers. He was thus committed to a policy of both open communion and open membership.

When Ryland was the pastor of the College Lane Church in Northampton, for instance, one of the leading deacons of the church, a certain Thomas Trinder, did not receive believer’s baptism until six years after he had been appointed deacon. Fuller would never have tolerated such a situation in the church that he pastored in Kettering. But the two men were secure enough in their friendship to disagree and not have it destroy their relationship.

The only time that this theological difference really came close to disturbing their friendship was in connection with the Baptist Missionary Society’s mission at Serampore, India. Headed by William Carey, William Ward, and Joshua Marshman, all of whom were friends of Ryland and Fuller, this mission adopted a policy of open communion in 1805. Writing to Fuller that year, the Serampore missionaries informed him they had come to the conviction that “no one has a right to debar a true Christian from the Lord’s table, nor refuse to communicate with a real Christian in commemorating the death of their common Lord, without being guilty of a breach of the Law of Love.” “We cannot doubt,” they went on to affirm, “whether a Watts, an Edwards, a Brainerd, a Doddridge, a Whitefield, did right in partaking of the Lord’s Supper, though really unbaptized, or whether they had the presence of God at the Lord’s Table?”

Fuller was deeply disturbed by this reasoning and the decision made by the Serampore missionaries, and exerted all of his powers of influence and reasoning to convince them to embrace closed communion, which they eventually did in 1811. Ryland, though, was not slow to criticize this reversal of policy. But, as he later said of his disagreement with Fuller, “I repeatedly expressed myself more freely and strongly to him, than I did to any man in England; yet without giving him offence.”

We are all subject to the temptation to make our views about secondary matters far more important than they actually are, and to squeeze our friends into our own mold when it comes to these non-essential issues. Fuller and Ryland, on the other hand, genuinely knew how to give each other space to disagree on what many of their Baptist acquaintances regarded as an all-essential issue. In so doing, they revealed that they were seeking to shape their friendship along the lines of that old adage, “In things essential, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”

THE ONE ESSENTIAL FRIENDSHIP

When Fuller lay dying in April, 1815, he was asked if he wanted to see Ryland, his oldest living friend. His response was terse: “He can do me no good.” His reply seems to be an odd statement, lacking in appreciation for what their long friendship had meant to the two men. But it needs to be understood in context. In his final letter to Ryland, Fuller had begun by saying, “We have enjoyed much together, which I hope will prove an earnest of greater enjoyment in another world. . . . [There] I trust we shall meet, and part no more.” Clearly, his feelings about his friendship with Ryland had undergone no alteration whatsoever. In the light of his impending death, however, there was only one friendship which he knew to be needful in that moment: his friendship with the Triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. As another eighteenth-century writer, an Anglican rector by the name of James Newton, had written when faced with the death of his brother, “If we have God for our Friend, what need we to fear, Nothing, but without his Friendship we may be looked on as the most miserable of Men.”

  1. Diogenes Allen, Love: Christian Romance, Marriage, Friendship (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley Publications, 1987), 45-46.
  2. The Screwtape Letters, Letter 10 in The Best of C. S. Lewis (Washington, D.C.: Canon Press, 1969), 43.
  3.  “Friendship”, Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, eds. Leland Ryken et al. (Downers Grove, Illinois/Leicester: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 308-309.
  4. Also note 1 Samuel 23:16-18.
  5. R. Paul Stevens, “Friendship” in Robert Banks and R. Paul Stevens, eds., The Complete Book of Everyday Christianity (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 439.
  6. Carolinne White, Christian Friendship in the Fourth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 57.
  7.  De vita sua 225ff. [trans. Denise Molaise Meehan, Saint Gregory of Nazianzus: Three Poems (The Fathers of the Church, vol. 75; Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1987), 83-84].
  8. Cited in White, Christian Friendship, 70.
  9. Spiritual Friendship 1.9; 2.9 [trans. Mary Eugenia Laker (Kalamazoo, Michigan: Cistercian Publications, 1977), 53, 71].
  10. The Humanness of John Calvin, trans. George H. Shriver (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1971), 47.
  11. Cited Stauffer, Humanness of Calvin, 57.
  12. The Journal of Esther Edwards Burr, 1754-1757, eds. Carol F. Karlsen and Laurie Crumpacker (New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 1984), 185.
  13. Journal of Esther Edwards Burr, 185.
  14. Journal of Esther Edwards Burr, 112.
  15. Journal of Esther Edwards Burr, 257.
  16. On Ryland’s life, not much has been written. For an overview, see Michael A. G. Haykin, A Cloud of Witnesses: Calvinistic Baptists in the 18th century (ET Perspectives, No.3; Darlington, [Co. Durham]: Evangelical Times, 2006), 45-51. See also the older studies of J. E. Ryland, “Memoir” in Pastoral Memorials: Selected from the Manuscripts of the Late Revd. John Ryland, D.D. (London: B. J. Holdsworth, 1826), I, 1-56 and James Culross, The Three Rylands: A Hundred Years of various Christian Service (London: Elliott Stock, 1897), 67-91.
  17. For Fuller’s life, the classic study is that of John Ryland, The Work of Faith, the Labour of Love, and the Patience of Hope Illustrated; in the Life and Death of the Reverend Andrew Fuller (London: Button & Son, 1816). A second edition of this biography appeared in 1818. For more recent studies, see Arthur H. Kirkby, Andrew Fuller (1754-1815) (London: Independent Press Ltd., 1961) and Phil Roberts, “Andrew Fuller” in Timothy George and David S. Dockery, eds., Baptist Theologians (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1990), 121-139.
  18. For example, he could state: “If any man venerate the authority of Scripture, he must receive it as being what it professes to be, and for all the purposes for which it professes to be written. If the Scriptures profess to be Divinely inspired, and assume to be the infallible standard of faith and practice, we must either receive them as such, or, if we would be consistent, disown the writers as imposters” [The Calvinistic and Socinian Systems Examined and Compared, as to their Moral Tendency in The Complete Works of the Rev. Andrew Fuller, ed. Joseph Belcher (1845 ed.; repr. Harrisonburg, Virginia: Sprinkle Publications, 1988), II, 196)].
  19. The Indwelling and Righteousness of Christ no Security against Corporeal Death, but the Source of Spiritual and Eternal Life (London, 1815), 2-3.
  20. The Spurgeon remark is taken from Gilbert Laws, Andrew Fuller: Pastor, Theologian, Ropeholder (London: Carey Press, 1942), 127. See also A. C. Underwood, A History of the English Baptists (London: The Baptist Union Publication Dept. (Kingsgate Press), 1947), 166.
  21. Memoir of the Life, Labors, and Extensive Usefulness of the Rev. Christmas Evans (New York: M. W. Dodd, 1843), 74.