The importance of Christian friendships that defy expectations

Loving one another across generational and cultural differences

July 2, 2020

“Two things are essential in this world—life, and friendship. Both must be prized highly, and not undervalued. They are nature’s gifts. We were created by God that we might live; but if we are not to live solitarily, we must have friendship.” – Augustine

An unlikely friendship

Jamaal Williams: As a Black pastor of a multiethnic and multicultural church in a predominantly urban Black community, I can become deeply burdened and temporarily hopeless when there is racial upheaval due to the unnecessary and unjust killing of Black citizens. A primary reason that I’m tempted to be hopeless is the pervasive power of the sin of racism in our society. What keeps me from despair is abiding in the gospel of Jesus Christ, which promises me that the same power that raised Christ from the dead will one day make all things new. 

I also find hope in the personal testimonies that I have witnessed in the last 13 years of pastoral ministry. The Lord has allowed me to see people turn from apathy to action in joining the fight for equity, justice, and Black dignity. 

Another reason I often avoid the pit of despair is because I’m surrounded by fellow pastors and friends who bear my burden with me. This article focuses on one of these friendships—one that is both crosscultural and crossgenerational. I’ve come to realize as a pastor that one way forward is to cultivate meaningful and honest relationships with fellow believers who will not seek to require me to surrender my Black identity. This is necessary for me because I am unapologetically and unashamedly a “Black” Christian man.

In this article, I want to invite you into the story of my friendship with Jim Tipton. We have co-authored this piece to encourage you to pray for and be intentional about developing Christian friendships that intentionally pursue Spirit-empowered love for one another.

It’s fun to watch waiters at restaurants and coffee shops serve Jim and me when we are hanging out together. You can usually see the confusion on their faces as they try to figure out our relationship. Normally, we are too dressed down for a business meeting, and our body language and conversations say we’re not father and adopted son. It’s especially fun to watch their looks of bewilderment when I reach for the check. We get it, people should look confused. After all, we are opposites in many ways. 

I was born and raised in Chicago. I’m Black, in my mid-30s, and I listen to gospel music, R&B, hip-hop, and jazz. I also grew up going to more expressive Black Baptist and nondenominational churches.  

Jim Tipton: I, on the other hand, came from a small town in Kentucky. I am white, in my late 60s, and listen to contemporary Christian music, country music, “oldies,” and someone from the 70s named John Denver. I grew up in a Southern Baptist church. 

Jamaal and I met when I served on the staff of a local crisis pregnancy center, and Jamaal was the pastor of a historic 150+-year-old church in Louisville. I reached out to Jamaal for consultation on how to get more African American churches involved at the crisis pregnancy center, noting that much of the clientele was Black, but very few of the volunteers were. Jamaal shared his personal experience, historical realities of Black communities, and constraints posed by ministries that have historically been organized and supported by whites. 

During the conversation, we were each impressed with the other’s honesty, candor, wisdom, authenticity, and attitude. I invited Jamaal to participate in a weekly men’s Bible study that met in my home—a group made up of almost all white, 50+-year-old men. This was an answer to prayer for Jamaal because he had been praying for an opportunity to include older Christian men in his life. He jumped at the opportunity to join a Bible study group that he could learn from, do life with, and participate in without being the leader. This also was an answer to my prayer because I desired to see our group grow younger and more ethnically diverse. That was almost a decade ago; the Bible study still meets, and our friendship has blossomed. It has not grown, however, without conflict and soul-searching conversations. 

3 keys to sustaining a cross-cultural friendship

JW: For me, a key moment in our relationship came early on in our new relational experiment when our Bible study was in the minor prophets. As the study went on, I became uncomfortable with how the prophets were often applied to injustices outside of America or were easy evangelical talking points but missed the injustices done toward native peoples and African Americans. I’ll never forget Jim asking me if something was wrong toward the end of a meeting. I responded that there was and proceeded to speak freely and honestly for the next 15 minutes. I thought, “I’m going to be myself and speak my mind no matter the cost.” Some of the men appeared broken and intellectually curious. Jim received the critique well, and it initiated an environment of transparency and cultural sensitivity for all of us. For me, it was the changing point of our relationship. 

Jesus said to his disciples: “A new command I give you: Love one another.  As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you love one another (John 13:34-35).”  While there are no silver bullets that eliminate difficulties, Jim and I have discovered three principles that have helped us cultivate brotherly love and maintain a cross-cultural, cross-generational, genuine friendship:

1. Value the kingdom of heaven over earthly allegiances.

Jim and I each have political affiliations and opinions about what needs to happen for our nation to value the dignity of all image-bearers. Sometimes our opinions conflict. We can look at the same data and news briefings and draw different conclusions. What has kept us in fellowship with each other is that our greatest and truest allegiance is to Jesus.

Ultimately, neither of us puts our hope in men or political parties, for both disappoint and fade away. As Proverbs 11:7 says, “Hopes placed in mortals die with them; all the promise of their power comes to nothing.” Our hope is placed in Jesus, the Lamb, the Lion, and the Sovereign King who cannot be tied to any political party. In Philippians 1:27, Paul urged the church at Philippi, as citizens of heaven, to walk worthy of the gospel by which they had been called. Walking worthy of the gospel means that we know and trust the content of the gospel, but also that our conduct is modeled after Jesus’ self-giving and humble sacrifice (Phil. 2:5-11).

Kingdom citizens can live in unity with diversity because we know that we are a kingdom filled with people from every nation, tribe, and tongue. There will be Christians in heaven from numerous political and economic persuasions. Because the cross is what defines us as ambassadors of a greater kingdom, we can disagree on issues while pursuing the Great Commission together. 

2. We have strived to understand and be understood, not to win debates. 

JT: Our life experiences relative to race relations are vastly different. Jamaal and his family have experienced racial prejudice and have been personally wounded by it. I grew up in a time of segregation when African Americans were not allowed to swim in the city pool and were forced to sit in the balcony of the only movie theater in my hometown; I experienced the civil rights protests and the passage of the Civil Rights Acts in the 60s; and I have seen race relations change to the point where I now have an adopted African American grandson as well as a soon-to-be adopted biracial granddaughter.  

My perspective of progress conflicts with Jamaal’s perspective of pain. We see the issue of ethnic conciliation from significantly different viewpoints, but we recognize the differences, and we seek to see the issue through each other’s eyes.

Friendship is messy and painful; awkward conversations should be expected. But, on the other side of the pain and awkwardness is Christ conforming us to his image and rejoicing over his multiethnic, multicultural church. 

We respectfully agree to disagree, with the understanding that we are both flawed and biased because of our fallenness and experiences. Without an attempt to see the issues through the other’s eyes, we are destined to butt heads forever without any understanding.  

By agreeing to allow disagreement on such issues, we give ourselves the freedom to consider the other’s viewpoint without surrendering our convictions. Consideration of the other’s viewpoint (even if we still disagree) expands the horizons of our thoughts, fostering empathy and understanding that would not be possible without the willingness to allow our respective views to be challenged.

We seek to understand and be understood because we recognize that without that effort, no progress will be made. We both care too much about our culture and our country, and we each respect the character and convictions of our friend too much to not make the effort. Our mindsets are that of not aggressive conquest in which the objective is to defeat the other, but patient respect in which the objective is communication and understanding.  

3. Be intentional, and don’t give up. 

Not much is accomplished without intentionality. In our friendship, Jamaal was intentional in seeking out older Christian men with whom to study the Bible. I was intentional in introducing generational and ethnic diversity into the Bible study. Both efforts resulted in the stretching and discomfort of the individuals involved, but the effort was worth it. Likewise, the effort to fight for friendship when disagreements present themselves is also worth the effort. We must be committed and not give up when the going gets tough.

JW: We live in a culture where people, including Christians, “cancel” each other. If a person says something that is honest but offensive, some decide that person shouldn’t be respected or given a voice on any subject again. The Bible, however, calls Christians to bear with each other, forgive each other, and to work toward peace with each other (Eph. 4:2-3; Rom. 12 9-21; Col. 3:12-17). 

As a Black man who watched the news clips of Ahmaud Arbery’s and George Floyd’s violent and egregious deaths with tears in my eyes, there were times when I was on edge talking to my white friends. There were scripts running through my head that if they disagreed with me on this, our friendship might need to end. Then, I reminded myself that Jim and a few other trusted white brothers have proven their love for me, my family, and the pursuit of justice over and over again. They’ve also demonstrated wisdom and sympathy knowing how to “weep with those who weep.” I also remembered the Bible stories of Paul confronting Peter and the churches of Galatia and Corinth with truth and grace. Should we not do likewise?

By God’s grace, Jim has listened when I’ve hurt the most. Part of authentic friendship is not living in the “what if’s,” but rather in the moment, with a heart that is ready to forgive “seven times 70” times. I’m not suggesting that disfellowship is never the wise choice but that we shouldn’t be quick to daydream about it or to pursue it. After all, Jesus didn’t and doesn’t “cancel” us.  

In the quest for racial equity, I have found a number of evidences of grace that have kept me out of despair. One major evidence of grace is my crosscultural, crossgenerational friendship with Jim. Throughout our friendship, we have had times where sparks flew, but that’s to be expected because sparks fly when iron sharpens iron. As our friendship has strengthened, our trust of each other has also strengthened because we have experienced the other’s character and learned the importance of conversing with civility.

Friendship is messy and painful; awkward conversations should be expected. But, on the other side of the pain and awkwardness is Christ conforming us to his image and rejoicing over his multiethnic, multicultural church. And by the Spirit, he is helping me rejoice in his multiethnic bride while valuing and celebrating my own dignity as a black man made in his image.

Jamaal Williams

Jamaal Williams is lead pastor of Sojourn Community Church Midtown in Louisville, Kentucky. He is a native of Chicago, Illinois. He received a bachelor’s degree from Michigan State University and has a D.Ed.Min. from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He also serves as the president of Sojourn Network. Jamaal is … Read More

Jim Tipton

Jim Tipton is a member of Sojourn Community Church Midtown in Louisville, Kentucky, where he leads a Bible study for members aged 50 and above. A retiree from AT&T, he is a native of Shelbyville, Kentucky. He received his undergraduate degree from the University of Kentucky and two doctorate degrees … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24