The Way of Cruciform Friendship

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Like many, I have appreciated both letters from my friends, Bryan Chapell and Rick Phillips, about our common denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America. The wisdom that both have shared from their particular locations makes me thankful to belong to a "conservative mainline Presbyterian church" that has a diversity of perspectives around a common set of doctrinal, ecclesial, and missional commitments. I'm glad to be on the same team as these two Gospel-loving ministers.

But like many, I also wonder about the value of taxonomies and labels, splitting up our denomination into smaller tribes, trying to generalize about approximately 400,000 church members, 4,000 ministers, and 1,800 churches (if everyone reported their statistics). While the desire to analyze and understand for the sake of a common mission is completely appropriate, if our church is going to move forward together, we need a new approach to and conception of what God is calling us to be and do for his world.

What I want to propose is that, as we prepare to gather in Chattanooga next month, we do so with a focus on walking in the pathway of friendship. Now friendship has lost a bit of its luster these days, perhaps: all it takes to be a "friend" it seems is a few clicks on Facebook. But I'm not talking about that kind of friendship; I'm talking about the deep and rich friendship described in the Bible and modeled by our Savior. I'm suggesting that the PCA must walk together as a church in the pathway of cruciform friendship.

I first began thinking about the church as a community of friends through reading Stanley Hauerwas, the Duke theological ethicist. In his essay, "A Testament of Friends," Hauerwas observed that the only way he could do his theological task was through the friendship of others who remembered and engaged his work, who demonstrated vital practices of character and community, who lived out of the reality of Christ's life and resurrection. As he put it, "Friends have taught me how wonderful and frightening it is to be called to serve in God's kingdom. I began seeking to recover the importance of virtue and the virtues, and ended up with the church." The church as a community of friends is vital for living the Christian life in this world.

Of course, as friends, we don't necessarily have to agree with each other all the time. But we do trust one another and care about one another enough to believe that, when the other says something with which we disagree, he is motivated by the same love for Christ and his kingdom as I. Even more, we are willing to do the hard work of listening well to each other: actually to hear both the words and the music beneath the words, to extend ourselves into the heart and mind of the other, to think the other person's thoughts as our own. As we listen and speak well to each other, we live together with our differences.

But we also recognize our need for each other when we see who our true enemies are. The reality is that the world system represents a polis, a city, controlled my the true enemy; and without enemies, Hauerwas points out, there is no Christianity. "God may be using this time to remind the church that Christianity is unintelligible without enemies. Indeed, the whole point of Christianity is to produce the right kind of enemies. We have been beguiled by our established status to forget that to be a Christian is to be made part of an army against armies," Hauerwas observed.

And so, in order to be true friends, we need to see that we are lined up together on the same side against real enemies. And this was where I agreed thoroughly with Bryan Chapell's piece. We may not be agreed about the exact shape of our cultural challenge, but we should all be agreed about the nature of our enemy, the devil himself who wanders about to harm and destroy (1 Peter 5:8).

But if we are going to do this, if we are going to stand together, we must learn to live as cruciform, or cross-formed, friends. Because of all the biblical references to the character of friendship, the most vital is this: "Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends" (John 15:13). And Jesus point there is clear: "Just as I call you friends and love you to the extent that I would lay down my life for you, so you must call each other friends and be shaped by this same cross-oriented, cross-shaped, laying-down-your-life love. And you can only do this because I have loved you first" (cf. 1 John 3:16-17, 4:7-21).

And so, I believe that at this moment in the PCA's history, God through Christ by his Spirit is calling us to be cruciform friends. And to help us understand what that kind of friendship and what that kind of community, what that kind of church might look like, we would do well to listen to Wendell Berry. In his novel Jayber Crow, the title character envisions such a community:

What I say now was the [Port William] community imperfect and irresolute but held together by the frayed and always fraying, incomplete and yet ever-holding bonds of the various sorts of affection. There had maybe never been anybody who had not be loved by somebody, who had been loved by somebody else and so on and on....It was a community always disappointed in itself, disappointing its members, always trying to contain its divisions and gentle its meanness, always failing and yet always preserving a sort of good will toward goodwill. I knew that, in the midst of all the ignorance and error, this was a membership; it was a membership of Port William and of no other place on earth.

My vision gathered the community as it never has been and never will be gathered in this world of time, for the community must always be marred by members who are indifferent to it or against it, who are nonetheless its members and maybe nonetheless essential to it. And yet I saw them as somehow perfected, beyond time, by one another's love, compassion and forgiveness, as it is said we may be perfected by grace.

In some ways, Jayber Crow describes the PCA. As a particular, placed people, we are held together by imperfect, frayed, incomplete and yet ever-holding bonds of affection, struggling with disappointment with ourselves and each other, and yet a membership of those who have been loved by somebody who has been loved by Somebody else.

And this membership, this placed people, rooted in a tradition called Presbyterianism, finds that all of its members--those who are angry, disappointed, longing and hopeful; those who are traditionalists, confessionalists, neutrals, progressives, doctrinalists, culturalists, pietists, or some combination thereof--all of its members are necessary and essential to it. More than acquaintances, more than affinity groups, this is a community that is being perfected by its and Jesus' own self-giving, dying love.

As we walk together in the way of our Crucified Lord, taking up the Cross and bearing it for, with, and because of one another, we live as friends who may not always agree, but who always listen and love well. And as we do this and live this way, we are being perfected by grace. Thanks be to God.
Posted May 19, 2015 @ 11:41 AM by Sean Lucas

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