Pastors & Friendship: St. Paul's Call to Shape a Christoform Culture

Feast of St Xenia, Deaconess of Rome

Paul_Square.jpegAN EDITOR once told me, “Never begin a chapter with a quotation.” Now that I have gotten that advice behind me, I turn to the magnificent stylist of yesteryear, Edward Gibbon, who in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, said this of the young emperor Alexander Severus and his advisors and educators as Rome’s decline was sputtering along:

But the most important care of [Julia Avita] Mamaea [his mother] and her wise counselors, was to form the character of the young emperor, on whose personal qualities the happiness or misery of the Roman world must ultimately depend. The fortunate soil assisted, and even prevented, the hand of cultivation. An excellent understanding soon convinced Alexander of the advantages of virtue, the pleasure of knowledge, and the necessity of labor. A natural mildness and moderation of temper preserved him from the assaults of passion, and the allurements of vice. His unalterable regard for his mother, and his esteem for the wise Ulpian, guarded his inexperienced youth from the poison of flattery (1.168-169).

Alexander’s character will determine the happiness of the misery of the empire, and one corrupted and corrupting emperor after another – with an occasional man of virtue – is put on display in Gibbon’s historic work.

The implication for us is this: leaders form, shape, and sustain cultures. Good leaders form and sustain good cultures and bad leaders form and sustain bad cultures. To swipe and alter words of Jesus, “by their culture ye shall know them.” Pastors are culture shapers. This is not to say that congregations don’t build culture because congregations both form the culture and help the pastor form the culture. They can also destroy the culture. This is not an either/or, but this book is about neglected themes in pastoral theology and I want to begin right here: pastors are leaders and leaders shape culture.

An entry into the culture pastors can make is with the theme of friendship. Friendship, I contend, is the first step in the pastoral calling.

Pastors and friendships
Pastors pastor people. But 66% of pastors like preaching and teaching far more than working with people! I cite the Barna: “There is a big drop-off from there. One in 10 says ‘developing other leaders’ is their most enjoyable task (10%), and one in 12 prefers ‘discipling believers’ (8%). ‘Evangelizing’ (6%) and ‘pastoral care’ (5%) bring the most joy to smaller proportions of pastors, and a mere 2 percent say they enjoy ‘organizing church events, meetings or ministries’” (The State of Pastors: How Today’s Faith Leaders Are Navigating Life and Leadership in an Age of Complexity, 96).

This needs to be repeated because pastors today are known for not having deep friendships with others (Ibid., 38-42). Conjoined with the disconnect of pastors with friendships is the role model so common to the pastorate, though I hear nearly every week of changes in this. I am referring to the pastor as solo pastor. One can spend time pointing fingers or one can propose an alternative, which is what I want to do in examining Paul’s co-workers as a network of friends. The implication for us leaps at us before we’re ready: pastors today, perhaps more than any time in history, need to become part of a network of fellow pastors. Many pastors burn out and at least some of them could have been preserved had they been a part of a network. A few of my pastor friends are in such a network – they meet annually for a retreat, they preach sermons in conjunction with others preaching the same series or texts, and they e-mail prayers and notes to one another in a network of collegial friendships. We need more of this.

Pastors also need more margin in their schedules because friendship only thrives in the margins of our life. Friendship, like golf and reading for pleasure in essayists like Michael Montaigne or fun-loving writers like Mark Twain, or wandering into a long walk through the forest to see leaves changing colors – friendship, I resume my thought, only finds itself in leisure time, and Americans are some of the worst at leisure in the world. More has been said by many about this topic, but we have space here only to observe that friendship, leisure, and margin are soul mates. Perhaps the pastors will now turn to me to ask if it might be advisable in seminary training for students to become familiar with the history of friendship studies? Yes.


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Paul, love and friendship
Those who read Paul’s letters carefully know that Paul had ministry associates, and from this point on I will call them both what he calls them – “coworkers” (synergoi) – and what they appeared as in the Roman world – “friends” (philoi, amici). A list includes Priscilla and Aquila, Urbanus, Timothy, Titus, Epaphroditus, Clement, Jesus called Justus, Philemon, Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke. The names known to Paul in Romans 16 is another indicator of the extent of Paul’s friends. 

Paul inherited a classical theory of friendship that was re-imagined through a covenantal understanding of love and reframed friendship entirely. In other words, Yes, due to his Greek/Roman education in Tarsus he could think in terms of virtue (a term he does not use) and goodwill and accord and trust. But as Jew trained as a rabbi, Paul thought in other terms and it was through these that he approached friendship with his many co-workers. The implication of this difference is that Paul refused to call his co-workers friends.

Is there something in Paul’s choice of agape rather than philia for his circle of associates that provides a clue to why he does not call his co-workers “friends”? To understand one of Paul’s favorite terms, love (agapao), requires that we dig into the Bible. One of the biggest mistakes made in Christian thinking about “love” is to assume the English (or American) dictionary gives us the meaning. Hence, my English dictionary, says love means “an intense feeling of deep affection.” Most dictionaries do the same, including Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary, where the #1 definition is “to regard with passionate affection, as that of one sex to the other.” But one of the beginning lessons in Bible studies is to let the Bible’s authors define their own terms. Hence, we need to re-ask the meaning of love by asking what love meant in the Bible. We need an even deeper beginning: we need to see how God loves in order to understand what loves means. 

First, the Bible opens up the meaning of love when the creator God becomes the covenant God with Abraham (e.g., Genesis 12; 15; 17; 22). God loves by entering into the rugged commitment of a covenant, a covenant that finds new expression in the promise to David, discovers a brand new future in the new covenant prophecy of Jeremiah 31, and each of these before the New Testament’s new covenant. God’s choice to express His love in terms of covenant defines love as a rugged commitment of one person (God) to another person (Abraham) and to a corporate person (Israel). These parties shuttle back and forth in their relationship throughout the Bible: each person is loved by God and God’s love is shown not only to Israel but to the expansive Body of Christ, the Church. Paul’s relationship to his friends – those whom he loves (agapetoi), is a covenant first and foremost; that is, his love for them is a commitment to them as persons.

The second element of love is that it is a covenant of presence.... 

*The rest of this piece will appear in Synaxis 5.1, which will be mailed to all Eighth Day Patrons, Pillars & Olympians. The full chapter, "A Culture of Friendship," will appear in Rev. Canon Dr. Scot McKnight’s forthcoming book Pastor Paul: Exploring Pastoral Theology as Nurturing a Culture of Christoformity (Baker Academic, 2019).

Scot McKnight is an American New Testament scholar, historian of early Christianity, theologian, and author who has written widely on the historical Jesus, early Christianity, and Christian living. He is currently Professor of New Testament at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary in Lombard, IL.

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