When surveying the life of the apostle Paul, we see his firm belief in the sufficiency of the gospel and his willingness to suffer for it. But there’s another, often overlooked, feature of the Pauline mission: friendship. As Paul planted churches throughout the Roman world, he didn’t do so as a one-man band.
Paul was relationally wealthy. He traveled with friends; he stayed with them; he visited them. He worked alongside them; he preached alongside them; he was beaten alongside them. He even sang in prison with friends. He encouraged them, and was encouraged by them. At times, Paul disagreed with his friends. And at times, he reconciled with them.
A quick read through Acts shows Paul’s commitment to, and genuine concern for, his friends: Barnabas, Titus, Silas, Luke, Priscilla, Aquilla, Lydia, Onesiphorus, Epapharoditus, John Mark, the Ephesian elders and more.
In Romans 16, he mentions more than 30 names. The whole list oozes with affection; it also magnifies the gospel, demonstrates beautiful diversity (race, rank, gender), and contains moving expressions of honor.
In our gospel-centered movement, we should emphasize Paul’s pattern of preaching the grace of Christ. But we should also highlight his deep commitment to friendship.
Paul’s constant interaction with his friends was a sign of maturity, not deficiency. Even the mighty apostle needed friends—and he needed them for the same reasons you do.
Here are three simple but glorious benefits of friendship.
As people who image God, we were made for relationships. In the Garden of Eden, everything was glorious, everything “very good,” except one thing: Adam was alone.
But wait—there’s no sin yet. How could Adam need anything? He’s in paradise! Why, then, was his heart aching? Tim Keller puts it well:
God made us in such a way that we couldn’t even enjoy paradise without friends… Adam had a perfect quiet time every day for 24 hours a day. Yet he needed friends.
We need friends because we are human beings, not trees. Our hearts ache when a friend or loved one has died. We miss their company. And when we’re on our deathbeds, it won’t be our accomplishments we long to hold (books, diplomas, trophies, house keys and so on); we will want to hold people.
Don’t let ministry—especially church planting—dehumanize you. You’re more than a content producer. You’re not the sermonator who mechanically cranks out sermons. And church planting isn’t lone ranger ministry, where you pioneer gospel work out on the barren frontier. We must value and cultivate friendships as people made in God’s image.
God regularly strengthens us through the presence and ministry of others. Consider Paul’s statement about Titus: “For even when we came into Macedonia, our bodies had no rest, but we were afflicted at every turn—fighting without and fear within. But God, who comforts the downcast, comforted us by the coming of Titus” (2 Cor. 7:5–6). God used Titus to lift and strengthen Paul.
What do you need when you have “fighting without and fear within”? Friends.
We need these kinds of friends because our hearts are fickle; because sin never sleeps; because Satan rages; and because the gospel is of first importance. We mustn’t underestimate the importance of coming alongside one another in the fight of faith.
After sharing his vision to visit Rome, Paul tells the church of his desire to see them—in person. He’s just written them a long letter, but he wants more: “I want to enjoy your company” (Rom. 15:24) and “be refreshed in your company” (Rom. 15:32). Even though Paul could communicate through writing, he knew that deeper joy and refreshment could only be experienced in person.
The apostle John says something similar: “Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink. Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face, so that our joy may be complete” (2 John 12).
Don’t settle for Facebook friends. We are holistic beings. You might be able to convey aspects of who you are online, but the online world will always fall short. The Internet can’t replace being physically present with people. We are people who feel, imagine and react; we touch, move and communicate through nonverbals.
We recently had our first “Gospel Party” with our church leaders. We invited everyone who has been sent out as a planter/pastor to come back and hang out for two days. It was so encouraging. We had friends on the back porch—laughing, playing, eating, praying, weeping, thinking, dreaming, planning and worshiping. All of this was done together, and all of it was made possible through Jesus Christ, who is the friend of sinners like us.
So make time for your friends in the faith, your partners in the gospel. Cultivate friendships in your own church. Show up in your various network or denominational meetings. Make a big deal out of “Titus ministry” (comforting fellow soldiers). May we seek to apply the various Proverbs that speak of friendship:
- Consistency: “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity” (Prov. 17:17).
- Candor: “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy” (Prov. 27:6).
- Compassion: “Whoever covers an offense seeks love, but he who repeats a matter separates close friends” (Prov. 17:9).
One of my favorite movie characters is Doc Holiday in Tombstone. He’s not a model of Christian piety, but there’s one scene that has always moved me. Doc and Wyatt Earp are seeking to liberate an area from the “Cowboys,” but Doc has grown ill with tuberculosis.
Nevertheless, out of love and loyalty, Doc rises from his deathbed to fight with Wyatt. In one solemn dialogue, Turkey Creek Jack Johnson asks, “Why are you doing this, Doc?” Doc replies, “Because Wyatt Earp is my friend.”
Loyal gospel friends are priceless gifts from God. And they are made possible through our union with Christ, the ultimate Friend (John 15:15), who has covered our multitude of sins. May his grace to us flow from us in the practice of Christian friendship. And may we exalt the Friend of Sinners by planting churches.
This article originally appeared here.