Before Billy Graham, there was Reuben Archer Torrey. Torrey graduated from Yale in 1875 and, after graduate studies in theology, served what’s now Moody Bible Institute. He pastored a flock in Chicago for a number of years before leading the Bible Institute of Los Angeles.
However, we remember Torrey most for his evangelism. Like D. L. Moody before him and Graham after him, Torrey traveled the world, sharing the gospel by calling sinners to repentance and faith. Scores of Christians looked to him for counsel, and he had plenty to offer. In his book, Personal Work in Soul Winning, he exhorted Christians to take the gospel everywhere. He prescribed certain techniques to improve the chances of success: speak to people your own age, deal with people alone, be courteous, and try to get the person to pray on his knees. 1R. A. Torrey, Personal Work in Soul Winning: 15 Chapters by one of the greatest soul winners who ever lived (Wheaton, Ill.: Sword of the Lord, n.d.), 171–79.
We should be thankful for brothers and sisters laboring to see sinners saved. But looking back, Torrey’s methods were manipulative. Whatever his intentions, he portrayed people as projects to be completed instead of image-bearers to be known. The reality of hell should cause us to pursue unbelievers with a sense of urgency. But the kindness of God should lead us to relate to unbelievers as friends.
CAN WE BEFRIEND UNBELIEVERS?
The answer must be yes. Consider the work of Christ, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 13:36). Jesus befriended unbelievers. Paul goes out of his way to note that Christ did not die for us becausewe were already his friends. “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). In other words, Christ came to us, warts and all, bestowing grace on us through the work of the cross, that we might be his friends.
As a pastor, I regularly hear how people came to saving faith. For some it was during an evangelistic rally. Others believed during a sermon or a Sunday school class. Many recall the faithful witness of a parent or family member. But quite a few have told me God saved them through the love, perseverance and boldness of a friend.
The church today needs believers with the margin and the mindset to befriend non-Christians.
This requires an understanding of friendship, both inside and outside the church. The past few years, several authors have produced some excellent books on friendship. 2Vaughan Roberts, True Friendship: Walking Shoulder to Shoulder (Leyden, England: 10 Publishing, 2013); Jonathan Holmes, The Company We Keep: In Search of Biblical Friendship (Minneapolis, Minn.: Cruciform Press, 2014); Joel R. Beeke and Michael A. G. Haykin, How Should We Develop Biblical Friendship? (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Reformation Heritage, 2015). They are worth a close look. Though all of them target the Christian, even these books on Christian friendship can teach us a great deal about how to apply the kindness of God to our relationships with unbelievers.
Let’s take a look at friendship in general, with these authors as our guide. As we do, we can think more carefully about how to appropriately cultivate friendships with unbelievers for the sake of the Great Commission.
FRIENDSHIP AND THE LOCAL CHURCH
Each of these authors see biblical friendship as an extension of Christian discipleship. Jonathan Holmes in his book, The Company We Keep, presents friendship as the fruit of union with Christ. Friendship, he argues, is more than fellowship. When Christian fellowship, he says, “has been given added depth, refinement, and detail through active investment in one another’s lives” it can be called “biblical friendship.” 3Holmes, Company We Keep, 18.
Similarly, Joel Beeke and Michael Haykin argue friendship is a means of living out the scriptural command to be the church. Friendship “is a vital way that God works in the lives of His children to help them grow in grace and stay true to Christ.” 4Beeke & Haykin, Biblical Friendship, 44. Likewise, Vaughan Roberts in True Friendship,insists that because Christians share the priceless gospel, we have the capacity for the spectacular intimacy known as friendship:
Christians have the ultimate common passion and shared goal, which encompasses the whole of life. We have been called, as brothers and sisters, to belong to Christ’s family, as we travel along the way of the cross throughout our lives, with our eyes fixed on the destination of the new creation to come, which Christ will introduce when he returns. It is a long journey, with many challenges along the road. We will often fall and need someone to pick us up. 5Roberts,True Friendship, 21.
The believers there to pick us up are called, “friends.”
Each of these authors strives to make a distinction between being merely a brother or sister in Christ and being a friend. Holmes, perhaps most helpfully, notes that Jesus had physical limitations which limited him to twelve disciples and, of the twelve, three with whom he stayed particularly close. If Jesus could only maintain a few, deeper relationships, we shouldn’t expect to be friends with everyone in our church. 6Company We Keep, 84. Again, church fellowship and Christian friendship aren’t exactly the same thing.
Nonetheless, even though we can’t be friends with everybody, the question remains: are we truly friends with anybody? God has given us local churches full of people who love Jesus and, in Christ, love us, too. We should be actively praying for and pursing friendship within the local church.
Sadly, the twenty-first century landscape is something of a friendship desert. From air-conditioning that keeps us off the front-porch to Facebook that keeps us glued to our screen, the kind of friendships described in the Bible seem all-too-rare. Proverbs 18:24, “A man of many companions comes to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” Are you experiencing this kind of relationship?
Many are not.
Sociologist Shelly Turkle says smart phones are killing friendships.
We let phones disrupt the conversations of friendship in several ways: By having our phones out we keep conversations light and we are less connected to each other in the conversations we do have. And we rarely talk to friends about how we feel when they turn away from us to their phones. This behavior has become a new normal. 7Shelly Turkle, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age (New York: Penguin Press, 2015), 157.
If Turkle is right, fewer and fewer believers are engaging in thoughtful, fruitful conversations with their non-Christian neighbors. Tragically, this is even true within the church.
Holmes points out several enemies to authentic friendship in the church today. First, social media friendships which aren’t really friendships at all and actually pull us away from crucial, face-to-face encounters. Second, specialized friendships which revolve around a stage-of-life or a common interest. Such relationships don’t go deep. Sports are fun, but are not the means God uses to knit people together. Sharing parenting woes is important, but is no guarantee of deep community. 8Company We Keep, 33–38.
According to Beeke and Haykin, the chief antagonists in the war against friendship are schedules and greed: “Early twenty-first century Western culture emphasizes extreme busyness and, as a rule, promotes receiving and possessing more than sacrificing and giving.” And the vice of the culture has become the sin of the church: “What is especially disturbing is that the values of Western Christianity often appear to be similar to those of the surrounding culture.” 9Biblical Friendship, 1.
A number of years ago I visited overseas with a missionary reaching out to Central Asian Muslims. During my trip, we went to a grocery store and bumped into a young man he’d recently met. They greeted one another, he introduced me, and they proceeded to engage in small talk. A few moments later, I felt like it was time to get home, but my missionary friend just stood there, in silence, with his new friend. I didn’t understand what was happening. From my perspective, the conversation had clearly ended, and it was time to move on. But from their perspective, taking a moment simply to be together, even without talking, was a normal part of building a relationship. After a minute—which seemed to me like a year—the conversation picked up again and my friend turned the conversation to the gospel. I stood amazed.
Can we learn something from their interaction? I’m sure we can. There are moments when it’s appropriate to push into the awkwardness—at least what we think is awkwardness—and wait. With our phones on silent and our hearts eager to connect with an image-bearer, we need to learn how to be with others.
Vaughan Roberts points out one other reason so many of us live in a friendship desert. He calls it “the idolatry of eros.” The married and unmarried alike have wrongly assumed an erotic relationship is the key to happiness. It’s not.
The Bible certainly has a very high view of marriage, but it is not designed to bear the weight that is placed on it when a husband and wife expect all their relational needs to be met by one another. The result is that they not only put impossible burdens on each other, but also give insufficient attention to other friendships. Single people suffer from the same delusion, too often believing the lie that they are bound to experience miserable, isolated lives unless they can find a spouse. 10True Friendship, 35.
Long story short, the world has never been more connected, and yet never have we felt so disconnected. That’s the bad news. What’s the good news? Christians know God can make it rain in the desert.
PURSUING FRIENDSHP—INSIDE AND OUTSIDE THE CHURCH
Admittedly, there is no silver bullet to finding a good friend. Friendship, like marriage or anything else, can be idolized. I know I’ve done this in the past. I’ve complained about a lack of meaningful friendships in my life when, truth be told, I had such a high standard of friendship nobody could meet it. I wanted friends to be what only Christ could be to me. I needed to pursue Christ more.
Faithful friendships should come after the faithful pursuit of Christ.
All of these authors rightly prioritize a relationship with Christ above community. “Most importantly,” write Beeke and Haykin, “you must receive a new heart and live a daily life of faith and repentance in order to build your relationship with God through Jesus Christ as your covenant-establishing and covenant-keeping Redeemer.” 11Biblical Friendship, 20. Roberts asserts the gospel is the driving-force behind good relationships. Befriending others “is not something we can do by ourselves, which explains the mess we so often make of relationships. But, wonderfully, God is determined to change us by his Spirit so that we are transformed from being turned in on ourselves to reaching out in love to him and others.” 12True Friendship, 17. At the heart of biblical friendship, writes Holmes, is a commitment to Christ: “Biblical friendship exists when two or more people, bound together by a common faith in Jesus Christ, pursue him and his kingdom with intentionality and vulnerability.” 13Biblical Friendship, 27.
Clearly, the best friends will be those who have experienced the undeserved love of Christ and know how to share that love with others.
But once saved, there are practical steps we can take to become better friends. Holmes encourages us to live lives of constancy, candor, carefulness, and counsel. Constancy implies a commitment to being a friend for the long haul. Candor means speaking what your friend needs to hear and not merely what they want to hear. Carefulness means knowing what not to say and when not to speak. Counsel means working hard to provide sound wisdom to a friend-in-need. 14The Company We Keep, 45–59.
Holmes is focusing on friendships between believers. But each of these marks of good friendships could easily be applied to an unbeliever in your life. Picture a co-worker you’ve gotten to know over lunches the past few years. Are you willing to be a fixture in this person’s life (constancy)? Will you be honest when the time is right (candor)? Will you say enough to be clear about where you stand without leaving him or her constantly feeling judged (carefulness)? And will you give wisdom as your “friend” experiences the trials of life (counsel)? I hope you would! It is quite possible God put you in this person’s life for these very reasons.
Beeke and Haykin have some simple suggestions to be a good friend: talk, listen, serve, enjoy life, think, be, trust, pray, repent, and hope together. 15Biblical Friendship, 26–44. Obviously, it is hard to truly trust someone who isn’t leaning on Christ. You can’t pray, repent, and hope with an enemy of the cross. But look at how many of these practical steps could be used to bless unbelievers. So many of our neighbors are lonely. You can give them the gift of speech, listening, serving, enjoying life, thinking, and being together.
Roberts expected non-Christians to pick up his book. Though he wrote with Christians in mind, his tips on friendship apply to more than the church. Common grace implies unbelievers can also experience genuine friendship, too—even if it is only a taste of the real thing. “I hope,” Vaughan writes at the introduction of his book, “that some of you who would not call themselves Christians will also read this book. If that is you, I trust you will find some insights that will help you in your friendships.” 16True Friendship, 13.
We can hope our unbelieving friends will pick up his book, but we wouldn’t we rather they get a taste of friendship with us? Who knows, perhaps over time as they come to see the gospel at work in us, they’ll realize there is such a far better friend to be had in Christ. Christians may make the best friends, but the best Christians can make friendships with people outside the church.
A WORD OF CAUTION
We should pursue friendships with non-Christians both because they are made in God’s image and because they need to be re-made in the image of Christ. But we must be careful. The pursuit of friendships in the world should not come at the neglect of basic and important scriptural principles:
- “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers” (Psa. 1:1).
- “Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm” (Prov. 13:20).
- “Do not be deceived, ‘Bad company ruins good morals’” (1 Cor. 15:33).
Every human heart longs for friendship. This longing can blind us, leading us to lock arms (and even hearts) with people who are not good for our spiritual health. “Those who are lonely and feel isolated,” Roberts counsels, “are in danger of rushing into any friendship that is available without thinking about the possible consequences.” 17Ibid., 39.
By all means, be careful. It’s utter foolishness, for example, to dive into a dating relationship with an unbeliever with the hope he or she will one day be converted. It’s unwise to wrap your life around someone who will work relentlessly to drag you away from Christ and his body, the local church. Discernment is the order of the day.
WHAT CAN YOU DO?
It can be daunting to find non-Christian friends, especially if you are already having trouble keeping Christian friends. What can you do to grow in this area?
- Ask yourself if you are convinced you ought to welcome unbelievers into your life. If you aren’t convinced of this biblically, you won’t act practically.
- Think about the biblical mandate to be hospitable. Though elders are uniquely charged to open up their homes (1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:8), this is a field of ministry for every Christian. Read Rosaria Butterfield’s The Gospel Comes with a House Key and The Simplest Way to Change the World by Dustin Willis and Brandon Clements.
- Consider the neighbors and co-workers already in your life, and pray God would give you wisdom to know whom it would be wise to pursue into a deeper friendship. Take the first step by inviting them to share a meal.
- Be thankful Christ has befriended you! The best friends don’t ever get over the grace God has lavished on them.
“WHAT A FRIEND WE HAVE IN JESUS”
Holmes, Roberts, Beeke, and Haykin are good guides to the topic of biblical friendship. They accurately diagnosed a pattern of loneliness within the church and put pen to paper to help us embrace the importance of friendship. If you are struggling in this area, their work will be a deep encouragement and practical help.
But consider this: we live in a world filled with people who may know the gospel, but who haven’t seen it lived out. So many are longing for company, but don’t know where to find it. They need a friend who will lovingly, honestly, gently, and boldly point them to Christ. Remember, their biggest problem isn’t the absence of a friend, it’s the lack of a Savior. The Irish poet, Joseph Scriven, knew full well that all friends, except Christ, disappoint:
Are we weak and heavy-laden
Cumbered with a load of care?
Precious Savior, still our refuge—
Take it to the Lord in prayer.
Do thy friends despise, forsake thee?
Take it to the Lord in prayer!
In His arms He’ll take and shield thee,
Thou wilt find a solace there. 18Joseph M. Scriven, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” 1855.
|￪1||R. A. Torrey, Personal Work in Soul Winning: 15 Chapters by one of the greatest soul winners who ever lived (Wheaton, Ill.: Sword of the Lord, n.d.), 171–79.|
|￪2||Vaughan Roberts, True Friendship: Walking Shoulder to Shoulder (Leyden, England: 10 Publishing, 2013); Jonathan Holmes, The Company We Keep: In Search of Biblical Friendship (Minneapolis, Minn.: Cruciform Press, 2014); Joel R. Beeke and Michael A. G. Haykin, How Should We Develop Biblical Friendship? (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Reformation Heritage, 2015).|
|￪3||Holmes, Company We Keep, 18.|
|￪4||Beeke & Haykin, Biblical Friendship, 44.|
|￪5||Roberts,True Friendship, 21.|
|￪6||Company We Keep, 84.|
|￪7||Shelly Turkle, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age (New York: Penguin Press, 2015), 157.|
|￪8||Company We Keep, 33–38.|
|￪9||Biblical Friendship, 1.|
|￪10||True Friendship, 35.|
|￪11||Biblical Friendship, 20.|
|￪12||True Friendship, 17.|
|￪13||Biblical Friendship, 27.|
|￪14||The Company We Keep, 45–59.|
|￪15||Biblical Friendship, 26–44.|
|￪16||True Friendship, 13.|
|￪18||Joseph M. Scriven, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” 1855.|