Recently I read Tim Challies’ review of the book Spiritual Friendship by Wesley Hill. Wesley Hill is single and laments how hard it is to form good Christian friendships that last. Part of the problem is that we live in an increasingly mobile society; people regularly “move on” even when they don’t move away. Tim Challies asks, “Have you ever had a friendship that entered into irrevocable decline because your friend just up and moved away? Have you ever had a friendship that ended over matters of convenience or preference? My guess is that most of us have experienced something like this at one time or another. And I wonder if this is an inevitable part of friendship, or whether it may just be a sign that we take friendship too lightly.”
Wesley Hill notes how, for some, friendship is “based, above all, on personal preference”; and that in “preserving its voluntary character” it becomes “vulnerable at every point to dissolution if one of the friends grows tired of or burdened by the relationship.” He goes on to wonder whether we shouldn’t “consider friendship more along the lines of how we think of marriage”, i.e. “as more stable, permanent, and binding than we often do… Should we begin to consider at least some of our friends as, in large measure, tantamount to family?” This will not sit well with today’s individualistic focus in society; as Hill notes: “If your deepest fulfilment is found in personal autonomy, then friendship is more of a liability than an asset.”
Challies’ makes an interesting observation regarding our focus as churches. He asks, “Have Protestants, with all our emphasis on marriage and family, neglected friendship?” This is a good point. Those who are happily married can be blissfully unaware of the deep pain and loneliness that single people (unmarried, widowed, divorced) or those unhappily married can feel. Challies comments: “We all know that the strength of marriage is its bond, the commitment of one spouse to another through any and every circumstance, ‘til death do us part. Is it possible that our friendships remain insignificant because they require so much less and can be dissolved on a whim?”
Is there room for a form of “covenant friendship” that would provide stability in a relationship similar to that in a happy marriage? The answer to that question is, “yes”. It is called covenant church membership. Covenant church membership (where it operates as it should) provides “covenant friendship” for all who are part of that church family. We covenant to “serve in and contribute joyfully to the worship and work of [our church] to the best of our ability.” Also, “to love each brother or sister in Christ [in our church]; and to encourage and pray for them in their Christian walk and witness.”
Can it be that single people are lonelier today because so many churches have given up on covenant membership? While those of us who are in churches that have covenant membership need to take it more seriously? Covenant membership means covenant friendship; it means we don’t give up on each other when we get irritated or let down, or “get a better offer elsewhere” – we are there for each other no matter what (Colossians 3:12-15, 1 John 3:18). Let us continually renew our vows to be faithful to God. But also, to one another. Let us recommit to covenant friendship in the family of our church.