“Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13)

In our present cultural moment, romantic relationships and sexual expression are viewed as the pinnacle forms of love, with parent-and-child relationships perhaps a close second. Friendships, while nice when we can have them, don’t really compete.

Likewise in our churches, marriage and parenting are typically seen as the ideal expressions of love toward which everyone should strive, barring extenuating circumstances. Singleness is often seen as a temporary state, lamentable and perhaps even selfish. Friendships, while good and worthwhile, are farther down the relational pyramid.

But according to Jesus, the highest expression of love is for someone to lay down their life for their friends. We can so readily focus on the sacrificial nature of this love that we might miss its object – our friends.

In her book, No Greater Love: A Biblical Vision for Friendship, apologist Rebecca McLaughlin explores the nature and varieties of friendship through a Gospel lens. She argues that, far from being a secondary add-on to our lives, friendship is vital for shaping us to be like Jesus and fitting us for service in his Kingdom.

The heart of friendship

McLaughlin begins by establishing that friendship, like all relationships, has its source in Jesus Christ. No less than marriage or parenthood, friendship reflects some facet of God’s character and his relationship to his people. Because God is relational and has made us in his image, all our relational categories have value, and none is less vital than others. They don’t form a pyramid but a circle, each pointing in its own way to God at the centre.

In times past, friendship was considered the highest and most valuable relationship. McLaughlin elaborates with a pair of quotes: “‘To the Ancients,’ C.S. Lewis observed, ‘Friendship seemed the happiest and most fully human of all loves; the crown of life and the school of virtue.’ In the fourth century BC, the Greek philosopher Aristotle stated bluntly that ‘without friends no one would choose to love, though he had all other goods.’”

This high view of friendship is evident throughout Scripture, especially in the New Testament. Jesus built his life and ministry around his friendships – not just with the Twelve, but with Mary, Martha and Lazarus, with Mary Magdalene and with many other men and women. These friendships were marked by deep emotional ties and physical displays of affection, as at the Last Supper, when John leaned back and rested on Jesus’ chest.

Paul in his letters expresses similar depths of love for various churches and individuals, both women and men. In his letter to Philemon, he refers to Onesimus, the runaway slave whom he led to faith, as “my very heart.”

For modern readers, such displays of love in friendship can seem confusing or even uncomfortable. Because we’ve elevated romantic and sexual love above all else, we tend to read sexuality back into intimate non-sexual relationships. We can’t conceive such depth of emotion in friendships outside of teen drama or without romantic entanglement.

Nevertheless, while remaining sensitive to different cultural levels of comfort, McLaughlin encourages followers of Jesus, both women and men, to freely express our love and affection for our friends in appropriate ways that model the example of our Lord.

Friendship and family

“You can choose your friends,” the old saying goes, “but you can’t choose your family.” The idea is that we’re forced to bear with our family through good or ill, forgive or at least tolerate them, but we can let friends come or go, depending on whether they continue to please us or not. Conversely, for those who come from dysfunctional or abusive family situations, friends can become their chosen family with whom they share mutual bonds of love and support despite not being related.

As followers of Jesus, we’re also part of a chosen family, but our Lord is the one who does the choosing. Through the Gospel, he brings us into relationship as his sisters and brothers, along with others whose tastes, opinions and personalities may clash sharply with our own. Among the Twelve, it’s impossible to imagine political enemies like Simon the Zealot and Matthew the tax collector ever being friends apart from their connection with Jesus.

In this chosen family, we’re not called to merely tolerate one another, but to forgive, support and love each other as genuine friends. More than that, we’re to welcome others into our circle just as Jesus welcomed us into his family. Our familial bond in the Gospel isn’t theoretic or metaphorical, but a reality that Jesus prioritized over natural family ties (Matthew 12:48-50).

This in no way denigrates our Lord’s high view of marriage and parent-child relationships. As McLaughlin explains, “Jesus is the reason for our valuing of marriage as a permanent, equal, and exclusive bond between a husband and a wife – and for our valuing of babies as persons in their own right. But Jesus didn’t elevate the nuclear family above all else. The family He valued most was the family of His followers.”

For those heartbreaking situations where we’re forced to choose between our physical family and Jesus, our Lord is clear that we are to choose him (Luke 14:26; 18:28-30; Mark 10:28-30). Again, the author elaborates: “The biological family is a precious gift from God. But it’s a gift that calcifies when cut off from the family of church. If we must choose between family and faithfulness to Jesus, we must choose Jesus. If following Jesus means we get rejected by our parents, remain single when we longed to marry, or miss out on having children, Jesus promises us much more in Christian family than we might have lost. For those who put their trust in Jesus, family does not come first. Jesus comes first. Our love for anyone and anything must stem from our first love for Him.”

McLaughlin doesn’t shy away from challenges that endanger Gospel friendship, such as codependence and abuse within the church. She discusses tensions between boundaries and sacrificial love, between keeping close friends and welcoming outsiders, and between opening our hearts to deep friendships and being prepared to let them go.

Loving neighbours and enemies

What about friendships with nonbelievers? Amidst cultural pressure and growing hostility against Christian beliefs, especially in the realm of sexual ethics, it’s tempting to adopt one of two opposite positions. On the one hand is separation, withdrawing from non-Christians and hunkering down with our fellow believers. On the other is syncretism, modifying our beliefs to accommodate those of the surrounding culture.

But as McLaughlin points out, we’re not called to separation or to syncretism, but to what she calls shining. Jesus didn’t pray that we’d be removed from the world, but rather that we would be a light to it. Likewise, Paul didn’t instruct Christians to avoid sinful people outside the church; otherwise, we’d have to leave the world, since all of us are sinners. Instead, his strategy was to be all things to all people while maintaining the truth of the Gospel.

In the author’s words, “If you, like me, are a Christian, we should be completely clear that we will only worship the one true Creator God, revealed in Jesus Christ. At the same time, we should be willing to set aside our own cultural preferences to come alongside the nonbelievers in our neighborhoods, schools, workplaces, and families. We’re not called to blend in or to check out, but to shine.”

When a Jewish lawyer asked Jesus to define “neighbour,” the Lord responded with the parable of the Good Samaritan. Jews and Samaritans despised each other, yet Jesus made this member of a hated group the hero of his story. His message was clear: all our neighbours may not be our enemies, but all our enemies are also our neighbours, and we’re to love them as such.

McLaughlin offers examples of what that might entail: “Loving our enemies today might look like coming to the defense of our ideological enemies when they’re being unfairly attacked online or responding graciously when we’re attacked. Often, loving our enemies means patiently listening to those who think of Christians as foolish, immoral, or harmful, and asking gentle questions to find out more about what’s shaped their perception, rather than immediately leaping to defend our tribe. Best-case scenario, it means building real friendships based on mutual love and respect, despite deep disagreement.”

Our friendships with nonbelievers shouldn’t feel pragmatic, like our only goal is to share the Gospel without truly caring about them. No one will want to be friends or listen to what we have to say if we treat them like casework. Our Lord invited people into friendship before they believed in him. He ate with them, talked with them, invested deeply in relationships with them. As his followers, we’re free to enjoy genuine, heartfelt friendships with those who share our faith and with those who don’t, while also pursuing their ultimate good – to come to faith in Christ and become part of his family.

The author gives examples of both kinds of friendship from her own life. As she explains, “Sometimes, we’ll need to recognize that friends with whom we deeply disagree may be just as well-thought-out and driven by desire for good as we are.” She continues, “This does not mean all views are equally true. . . . But it does mean not demonizing those with whom we disagree, as if they couldn’t be both highly intelligent and deeply compassionate while also profoundly mistaken. In fact, if Christians grasp onto the Bible as their guide, how we relate to those who do not share our faith does not look like hostility, avoidance, disrespect, or even tolerance. It looks like love.”

No greater love

Jesus never married nor had children. Except for his mother and siblings, all his recorded relationships were with his friends. When his mother and brothers came to see him, he responded that it was his friends – those who trust and obey him – who are his true family.

Likewise, Paul – the second-most influential person in church history after Jesus – had no wife or children. Far from denigrating singlehood as a second-class relationship, Paul elevated it as having some advantages over married life for serving the Lord.

There can be no question that Jesus and Paul, along with the rest of Scripture, hold marriage and parent-child relationships in the highest possible regard, higher than any culture or belief system before or since. But there’s also no question that Jesus defined the greatest love as existing between friends. He made this extraordinary statement knowing that in a few hours, all his friends would abandon him in his time of greatest need – friends for whom he was about to give his life.

We likely won’t be required to literally die for our friends, but we are called to sacrificially live for them. Our life together as sisters and brothers opens endless opportunities for true, deep, joyful friendship as we support and encourage one another in our walk with Jesus and help others join our family. Whether single or married, our Gospel friendships can shape us and equip us for the Kingdom in ways that complement our natural family relations.

As the author sums up, “In modern Western culture, we are primed to think of friendship as a nice-to-have, while sexual and romantic love and parent-child love are vital to our thriving. But Jesus flips this script. Instead of telling His disciples that they must get married and have children, Jesus tells His followers that they must love each other, even to the point of death. When Jesus said there was no greater love than laying down one’s life for one’s friends, He wasn’t being hyperbolic or naïve. Instead, He was inscribing the good news of His unfathomable love for us onto Christian friendship with indelible ink.”

Rebecca McLaughlin presents the case for biblical friendship in a winsome style, writing with intelligence and compassion for believers and nonbelievers alike. She doesn’t shy away from difficult questions, and is sensitive to the ways friendship, family and church life can be twisted and abused.

For her Christian as well as her non-Christian readers, she offers a challenge: “If Christianity is true, then any joy, delight, and comfort we might find in friends is just an echo of that greater love. While other friends will never ultimately satisfy, the one Friend who has loved us to the point of an excruciating death is also ready and equipped to walk us through our own death into everlasting life – if we will only let Him take our hand.”

Sources and further reading

Rebecca McLaughlin, No Greater Love: A Biblical Vision for Friendship, Moody Publishers, 2023.

Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.

© 2023 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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