By / Dec 8

You may have seen the video that’s making the rounds through the internet after the Dobbs arguments. A group of presumably pro-choice women, vehemently protesting on the steps of the Supreme Court, recently took part in a demonstration wherein they each swallowed what were purported to be “abortion pills.” 

Did we just witness the intentional killing of four pre-born babies?

In our pro-life circles, there were, and continue to be, plenty of commentators. Some called it a form of religious worship; others, a sort of sacramental ceremony. And they’re right — this demonstration was without question an act of worship. But instead of merely pointing our fingers and diagnosing the problem — quote-tweeting from a safe distance — isn’t there a better way for us to engage with the issue and the people involved in it?

As those on both sides of the debate grow further apart and the conversation grows more militant, a piercing question hangs in the air: how will this divide ever be mended? 

Many don’t believe it will be. Some don’t even believe it can. Others just aren’t willing to do the work involved in rebuilding what’s been broken, preferring instead to wag their collective fingers and comment from afar. But how should Christians approach and seek to answer this question?  It’s really not all that complex. And we don’t need to look any further than the ministry of Jesus for our marching orders.

Jesus, friend of sinners

In the Gospels according to Matthew and Luke, readers are introduced to a supposedly derogatory phrase used to describe Jesus. Speaking to the crowds around him, Jesus repeats to them the charge that’s been levied against him: he is a “friend . . . of sinners” (Matt. 11:19; Luke 7:34). While Jesus offers no immediate or explicit comment either for or against this accusation, Luke wants his reader to understand that this Pharisaic charge is true. But what the crowds and the Pharisees saw as evil, Jesus embraced as good (Gen. 50:20).

In the very next scene recorded by Luke, after being invited into one of the Pharisee’s homes, Jesus was approached by “a woman in the town who was a sinner” (Luke 7:37). While he was reclining at the table, presumably sharing a meal with “upright” and “clean” religious men, this woman — this sinner — descended on Jesus, fell before him, and spilled her tears and a jar of perfume on his feet. In response, the Pharisee who had invited him reiterated in his mind, with seeming disgust, that she was a sinner (Luke 7:39). Responding to this man’s thoughts, Jesus proceeded to tell a story, eventually commending this woman, declaring that her sins were forgiven, and charging her to “Go in peace” (Luke 7:50). 

While all the men around the table were clamoring for a spot in Jesus’s inner circle, it was the most unlikely character who left the table as his friend.

Christians, friends of sinners

In his book, Friend of Sinners: An Approach to Evangelism, Harvey Turner opens the first chapter with a powerful question: “Do you like sinners?” He goes on:

“I hear many Christians talking about personal holiness. They talk about being like Jesus, walking like Jesus, and following Jesus. But most Christians I know don’t love sinners like Jesus did. They don’t hang out with them, they don’t share the gospel with them, and they just plain don’t like them. But could it be that the process of becoming more holy includes hanging around those who are considered unholy?”

Jesus loved sinners, and still does. And not just that, but Jesus liked sinners, and still does. How else would we have been welcomed into the kingdom of God if Jesus hadn’t befriended us? 

So, what does all this have to do with the group of women standing on the steps in our nation’s capital, swallowing abortion-inducing pills for public viewing? After watching the video and surveying the large number of comments being offered by men and women who I greatly respect, and whose comments I mostly agree with, I couldn’t shake (and still can’t) this single question: what amount of progress might be made, in this conversation and others, if, instead of making an example of these women with our clever and incisive comments, we simply walked across the street and sought to befriend them?

Would the culture change overnight? Certainly not. But, little by little, as friendships are born “across enemy lines,” maybe the temperature of this heated debate would begin to lower, maybe pre-born babies lives would be saved from the prospect of abortion, and maybe, when confronted with the kindness of God’s people, “sinners” would be made disciples and be welcomed into eternal life with God. It is God’s kindness that leads men and women to repentance (Rom. 2:4). May God’s people go and do likewise.

“Our mission from Jesus,” Turner says, “is to make disciples of people who are not currently disciples (Matt. 28:18-20) . . . If we are not friends to sinners, we are not following him [Jesus].” 

Christians, befriended sinners

I suspect that part of the reason we find this so difficult is because we’ve forgotten some crucial things about our own pathway into God’s family, namely that Jesus has come and made friends with those of us who follow him (John 15:15). The “hound of heaven” chased us down, sinners though we were, and slathered us with lovingkindness.

Where were you when Jesus came and befriended you?

This should force us to ask a couple of questions. Are the steps of the Supreme Court off limits for Jesus to come and birth a new friendship? Are women with abortion drugs under their tongues too unclean for Jesus to welcome them, forgive them of their sins, and offer them the shalom of God? The answer to these questions is clearly no. So, why would we not follow in the way of Jesus and invite them into friendship with God by making friends with them ourselves? Can we expect to win them, and the persistent debate on life, any other way?

The people of God, regardless of where we find ourselves, have been given a new vocation: we are fishers of people, charged with going and making disciples of men and women, teaching them what it means to follow the one who says to them, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). We, imitating the God we worship, have been called to make friends with our enemies.

So, whether on the steps of the Supreme Court or the cubicle across the hall, may we, for the love of God and neighbor, have the courage to put down our commenting devices and go befriend someone into the kingdom of God. And, in the stead of our Savior, may we wear the label “friend of sinners” with joy.

By / Nov 8

In the 2008 comedy, Step Brothers, Brennan (played by Will Ferrell) and Dale (played by John C. Reilly) are newly established step siblings after their single parents marry one another. The movie shows the antics that ensue when two grown men who have never left home are forced into sharing their lives together. The goofy, and admittedly irreverent, tricks they play on one another come to a point when they discover that they have much more in common than they realized. Brennan asks, “Did we just become best friends?” “Yep,” is Dale’s quick and assured reply. Their friendship then develops through common interests such as velociraptors and Steven Seagal movies. 

Friendship in this way is mostly about common interests. So long as there is agreement on favorite movies, fast-food restaurants, and 80’s rock bands, friendship is possible. Common interests are certainly avenues for establishing relationships, but can true friendship be sustained on Taco Bell runs and the latest superhero movie franchise? Is it as simple as declaring someone as your best friend? 

What are the ingredients for true and meaningful friendship? We can learn much about deep friendship from Augustine of Hippo (354–430 AD).

Friendship as a school in Christian love

Paul Waddell, scholar of friendship and Christian ethics, describes Christian friendship according to Augustine in his book Friendship and the Moral Life. He explains it as a “school in Christian love.” Augustine described a similar “Step Brother” friendship in book 4 of his Confessions. They shared common interests and pursuits, and while they didn’t settle-in for a Steven Seagal direct-to-home action flick, Augustine assumed this friendship was genuine. He soon came to realize that this friendship could not be a friendship in its truest form because it was not centered on Christ. 

Reflecting on this friendship after the fact, Augustine stated, “But in childhood he was not such a friend as he became later on, and even later on ours was not a true friendship, for friendship cannot be true unless you [God] solder it together among those who cleave to one another by the charity poured forth in our hearts by the Holy Spirit, who is given to us.” Thus for Augustine, true friendship occurred when one loved the good in another, with the good reflecting God in that person. 

While he wrote about specific relationships in his Confessions, we see specifically how he viewed friendship in his numerous letters. Augustine was certainly not the first to discuss friendship. The topic of friendship had occupied the minds of philosophers centuries prior to Augustine. Unique to Augustine, however, was his view that friends and friendship were a gift from God. 

Whereas Aristotle would assert that we choose friends based on the virtue we see in them, Augustine viewed friends as those who are placed in one’s lives for the purpose of seeking God together. Friendships that have their genesis with God must find their source in God. It originates with the Spirit and propels friends toward friendship in God’s eschatological kingdom where all will be friends as they share in true friendship with God.

Friendship as a work of the Spirit

The key for Augustine was love granted by the Holy Spirit through grace. God-initiated love is the binding agent for true friendship. Also important for Augustine was that friendship be rooted in the triune nature of God. Whereas the Roman orator Cicero (106–43 BC) defined friendship as “agreement in all things human and divine,” Augustine refined the divine character of friendship to depend upon the inner relations of the triune God. Human friendship can only begin from the perspective of trinitarian love. The center of Christian friendship is the Spirit, that trinitarian bond of love. This love both connects friends together and serves as the means of mutual transformation. 

Grace is also essential for Christian friendship according to Augustine. Agreement on best pizza toppings does not make for a true friendship. One needs transforming grace focused toward God’s kingdom. Friendship, for Augustine, is the context where this kingdom love is learned and practiced. Therefore, Christian friendship is vital if one is to grow in kingdom-focused eternal love. 

A debt owed to all people

In his letters, Augustine often described friendship as a “debt” that each one owed to the other. His friend Evodius even wrote Augustine to collect on this “debt” (ep. 158.1). In his letters to the deacon and eventual bishop of Rome Celestine, Augustine described a certain “debt of love” that was owed based on a mutual affection for the other person (ep. 192.1). According to Augustine, love is owed to one another based simply on the fact that one is a fellow human. Love for one’s enemy sought to transform them “whom we truly love to become a friend” (ep. 192.1). Friendship is owed to all people based on a shared human nature, even though its truest and final fulfillment is found between those who claim the name of Christ. 

Despite what some ancient philosophers said, friendship was not for an elite few, according to Augustine. Love is due for all. This ideal of friendship is expressed in his letter to a wealthy widow named Proba. He asserted, “The health and friendship of a human being are sought for their own sake. . . . Likewise, friendship should not be bounded by narrow limits, for it embraces all to whom we owe affection and love” (ep. 130.6, 13). Thus, friendship is a practical way to demonstrate the love that Christians are called to exhibit to everyone. 

According to Donald Burt, since we cannot make friends with every person on earth, Augustine’s encouragement should cause us to “strive to make every human we meet a friend.” This was Augustine’s posture in his engagement with Christians and non-Christians alike. Augustine extended the hand of friendship in order to bring others to the truth. To those who are not yet true spiritual friends, we love and befriend with the hope that they will one day be counted among true friends in the eternal city of God.

The transformative potential of friendship

Augustine believed that the command to love God and love others never ceases but is extended throughout eternity. Our love for others, the foundation of friendship, is grounded in the love of God. In writing to Proba, Augustine framed the universal love owed to all as the beginning of Christian friendship. This was a transforming type of love, which sought to turn enemies into true friends transformed by God’s grace. Augustine concluded, “In him we, of course, love ourselves if we love God, and by the other commandment we truly in that way love our neighbors as ourselves if we bring them, to the extent we can, to a similar love of God” (ep. 130.7, 14).

So while friendship may require more than agreement on favorite dinosaurs and action movies, it can be as simple as asking someone, “Did we just become best friends?” If we consider the example of Augustine, we can show the kind of Christian love we are called to give by extending the hand of friendship to all as we are able. While the truest friendship is only possible between those who have the gift of the Spirit, and while not all of us will be close friends, by seeing everyone as a potential friend we can begin good and fruitful conversations that may lead to one enjoying true friendship in the light of God’s grace and love.