How many friends do you have?”
Christina Fox’s question seems straightforward, but her definition of friendship is quite different from the culture’s definition.
“Which of your friends knows the real you, the you underneath the well-liked vacation photos, funny updates about your kids, and the happy face emojis? Which of them knows your heart struggles, your brokenness, and past pain? Which of them would encourage you with real Gospel-centered hope when you needed it most?”
While not every relationship among Christians will reach the depth Fox describes, the relationships among Christians are fundamentally different from relationships of non-Christians. Whatever interests or connections two Christians might (or might not) share, they are bonded by the spiritual reality of being united to Christ and the hope of spending eternity with the Lord.
In her book “Closer Than a Sister: How Union with Christ Helps Friendships to Flourish,” Fox paints a compelling portrait of biblical friendship. She examines the theological foundations for friendship, the origins of community, and how union with Christ creates unity among believers. While her book deals specifically with female friendships, the same biblical principles apply to friendships among Christian men.
Fox talked with byFaith writer Megan Fowler about biblical friendship’s origins and purpose, and what believers can do when they lack those deep friendships.
You tell readers that community has been God’s plan from the beginning, since God Himself exists in community. Can you elaborate on this?
God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit have existed together as a community for eternity — loving, serving, and glorifying one another. Genesis 1:26 tells us that we were created as image bearers to reflect who God is. We do that in many ways: through our creativity, our work, our management of creation, and also through our relationships.
We weren’t made to be alone. After God created Adam, He said there was one thing that was not good: for Adam to be alone. God then created Eve. Adam and Eve were the first human community. They lived in perfect community with each other and with God. They were fully known by God and one another. From the start, we were made to be in community with God and others.
Though man’s community with God and with one another was broken in the Fall, God continued to relate to His people in the context of community: through the family of Abraham, the nation of Israel, and finally, the church. Through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, He created a redeemed community, brothers and sisters who are adopted into the family of God. Through faith in Christ’s completed work for us, we are united to Him and to one another. We share the common blood of our Savior. That’s why the New Testament writers often referred to believers in familial language. “I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to me, says the Lord Almighty” (2 Corinthians 6:18). “Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity” (1 Timothy 5:1-2).
This new community, the church, images God to the world around us. In John 17, Jesus prayed for the church and for our unity with one another. “I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me” (John 17: 23). When we, as the church, reflect our Triune God in our love and unity with one another, the world will know Jesus.
These days, discussions of true Christian friendship must begin by defining terms such as “friend” and “fellowship.” How has today’s hyper-socialized culture eroded our understanding of these concepts?
It’s true, the term “friend” is very muddied these days. We use it to refer to any number of people. It can refer to someone we once knew in kindergarten, a neighbor, a co-worker, or someone we know only virtually. It’s often used in the same way we once used “acquaintance.” When we talk about Christian friendship, we need to know what we mean by that word because the way it’s used these days falls short of the way Christian relationships are described in Scripture. That’s why I chose the title “Closer Than a Sister” for my book. Christian relationships go deeper than friendship, deeper than even family ties. We are connected to one another through our union with Christ, and our bond is forever. The fellow believers we sit next to in worship on Sunday morning are the same people we will sing with in eternity.
“Fellowship” is also an important word to define. We often think of fellowship as spending time with one another in the church: Wednesday night spaghetti dinners, the annual women’s banquet, or some other social event. In the Bible, fellowship was more about spiritual connection than mere social interaction. It was about sharing spiritual life together: prayer, discipleship, growth in faith, service, love, encouragement. This is best seen in the passage in Acts 2: “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and prayers. … And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people” (Acts 2:42, 44-47).
Friendship is not a passive thing. It won’t happen to us. We must first be the friend we desire toward others.
As we think through these terms and the way we use them, why we use them, and even how we ought to use them, it helps us live out our union with one another in the church more intentionally. When we remember that we are united to one another through the blood of Christ and that our union is forever, we realize that our relationships with one another go deeper than sharing a similar interest in a shared hobby. We realize it’s more than “liking” a photo or a pithy quote. We realize that the way we interact with one another should be more than talking about the latest game or television series we watched — though there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just that in addition to sharing our mutual interests, our relationships in the church should also include spiritual fellowship — where we talk about what the Lord has done and is doing in our lives, where we love and serve one another out of the abundance of grace God has given us, and where we encourage and exhort one another in the race of faith.
One goal of your book is to flesh out what life in community looks like: helping each other, mourning together, rejoicing together, exhorting one another, learning from one another, and growing together. Why did you choose to highlight these characteristics?
There are certainly more areas I could have covered, but these are ones we often see commanded in the New Testament. These are the practical ways the New Testament writers called us to live out the Gospel in our relationships with one another. One example of this is in the book of Romans. Paul spent numerous chapters explaining and expounding on the Romans’ absolute depravity, God’s righteousness, and the righteousness that was theirs through faith in Christ. Toward the end of the book, he turned to practical matters, and in Romans 12, he exhorted them to live out the Gospel with one another; “Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality. … Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another” (vv.13, 15-16). The characteristics I cover in the book are hallmarks of Christian friendship.
But we can’t do any of these things apart from our union with Christ. As we abide in Him, are fed by Him, and receive His daily provision of grace, we are then enabled to help, serve, disciple, and love one another. These characteristics of Christian friendship are grounded in our union with Christ and are an overflow of our union with Him. And ultimately, they reflect to the world the truth of who God is and what He has done.
While the portrait of community that you paint is compelling, many women do not find this type of fellowship in their churches. What can women do to cultivate this community in the church?
“Closer Than a Sister” was born out of my own experiences in cultivating community. I share some of that experience in the book. Though God created community through Christ, though He has chosen our brothers and sisters in Christ, we have to do the work of cultivating and nurturing those relationships. And it is hard work! While some who have grown up in the church may know what such community looks like, those who did not grow up in the church do not. We have to work together in our churches to make community a priority. We set an example for others by living it out in our lives. We invite others to join us in living out Christian community until it becomes the way and rhythm of the life of the church.
There are many ways to cultivate community. From inviting a sister-friend out for coffee, to hosting a small group in your home, to reaching out to a younger woman and befriending her, there are many ways and opportunities to build and grow deeper friendships in the church. Consider, who is new in your church? Who is often on the fringe and on the outside? Reach out to that person. Share a meal with them. Invite them into your life. Get to know the real them, the person beneath the status updates and the vacation selfies. Share with them what God is teaching you, the hardships you have endured, and your growth in faith. Pray with and for one another.
The thing to remember is that friendship is not a passive thing. It won’t happen to us. We must first be the friend we desire toward others.
Deep friendship isn’t born overnight. It takes time and shared history. Over time, as we invest in the lives of others, sharing our mutual love and faith in Christ together, praying for one another, serving one another, working together for the good of the body, we grow closer in our friendships. Someone has to take that first step. Why not let it be you?
You counsel women who have experienced the painful loss of a friendship to remember Jesus. Why?
Jesus is our first friend, and our only perfect friend. He is our first friend because He first loved us. We love others out of that love He has for us. We love and serve one another only out of our union with Him. This means we have to abide in Him first before we can be a friend to others. He has to be a central part of our relationships with one another because without Him, we can do nothing.
Jesus is also our perfect friend. In this fallen world, people will let us down. Even among the redeemed. People will fail us, hurt us, and reject us. We have to remember that though others let us down, Jesus never will. When people hurt or reject us, Jesus never will. He will never gossip about us, grow weary of us, forsake us, or turn His back on us. He is always faithful to the end. This is so encouraging as we face challenges and heartaches in our friendships. What a friend we have in Jesus!
It’s also important to remember that Christ calls us to love others as He has loved us. When we look at Jesus’ own relationships here on earth, we see that He
was despised and rejected. His closest friends ran away when He needed them most. But He loved them, forgave them, and died for them. He calls us to do the same in our relationships. We are to pursue unity with one another in the church, bearing with one another, and forgiving one another just as Christ has for us. He did not give up on us; neither should we give up on the church. That is my hope for “Closer Than a Sister,” that we would pursue deeper and richer spiritual connections with others in the body of Christ. No matter how hard it is; no matter what it takes.
Christina Fox is a graduate of Covenant College and serves on Covenant’s advisory board as well as the Wilberforce Scholarship Committee. She is the editor of enCourage, the women’s ministry blog of the PCA, and writes for a number of ministries, including Ligonier and TGC. She is the author of “A Heart Set Free” and “Closer Than a Sister.” Christina and her family attend East Cobb PCA in Marietta, Georgia.
Megan Fowler is a writer and editor for byFaith. She and her family live in Grove City, Pennsylvania.