Friendship is under fire.
The Survey Center on American Life recently reported that nearly half of Americans have fewer than three close friends. Twelve percent have no friends at all. In the UK, where I live, one in three men have no close friends. Forty percent of 16-to-24-year-olds say they always or often feel lonely. Young people today, living in an era of social media and digital technology, are in one sense the most connected generation in history. So, why do they struggle with one of the most fundamental human relationships?
This is especially striking given all we know about the goodness of friendship. It has profoundly positive effects on our mental, emotional, and physical well-being. Studies consistently show that those who eat badly, lack exercise, and neglect other areas of physical health but have good friends live longer in comparison to those who are socially isolated and keep themselves in shape. And friendship is vital to a life of faith.
It is therefore surprising that there should be, relatively speaking, so few books on the subject. In my own searches online, I’ve discovered more than 10,000 books with leadership in the title and just a fraction with the word friendship. For many in the church, friendship is one of the most important but least talked about relationships.
Into this void comes Rebecca McLaughlin’s beautiful contribution, No Greater Love: A Biblical Vision for Friendship. Her subject matter is both timely and timeless, and I’m delighted she has invested her creative and theological energies into exploring it. This is not a book to make us feel warm and fuzzy about our friends, as it deliberately counts the cost of fellowship and community. But it should inspire us to raise our horizons and our levels of commitment to those around us.
One of the great challenges when exploring friendship is defining the term. Who is a friend? The word covers such a broad range of human connections—from the most intimate of lifelong relationships to the most casual of acquaintances. McLaughlin’s wise approach is to give readers a selection of lenses the Bible uses to describe and define friendship.
She first looks at friendship through the lens of nontraditional family, which might surprise or even unsettle some readers. Bravely, and with biblical grounding, McLaughlin challenges our habit of elevating our biological families over the family of faith. As she writes, “Our first identity as followers of Jesus is not biological. It’s theological.”
Two subsequent lenses provide inspiring images of friendship but also ask pertinent, often provocative questions. The first is that of comrades-in-arms. Scripture is clear that both individual believers and the church as a whole face a range of spiritual battles. Seen in this light, the gift of friendship is like the provision of fellow soldiers with whom one can stand shoulder to shoulder.
McLaughlin gives examples of the struggle and joy of sharing a common cause, drawing on Paul’s New Testament relationships with fellow apostles and the fictional friendship of Frodo and Sam in The Lord of the Rings. Some readers might disagree with the extent to which she stresses the relationship between Christian relational connection and Christian mission. Others, myself included, will be inspired to reflect on the fact that, as McLaughlin puts it, “our closest friendships, if we’re Christians, should be gospel-spreading partnerships.”
The second lens is that of brothers and sisters. Leaning into the strength of affection that Paul expresses for fellow workers in his letters, both male and female, McLaughlin grasps the nettle of asking how close our friendships should be with members of the opposite sex—or members of the same sex, for those who are same-sex attracted.
Beginning with the so-called Billy Graham rule, which refers to the evangelist’s commitment to never meet alone with a woman who wasn’t his wife, McLaughlin gives permission to create appropriate boundaries to guard against sexual sin, while being wary of a one-size-fits-all approach. As she argues, drawing the boundaries too tightly might rob us of “the good things that God might have for us in friendship” and the riches we gain in having brothers and sisters of the faith.
Personal and honest
One of the book’s most striking and winsome features is its inclusion of stories from McLaughlin’s life. She is disarmingly vulnerable and honest about her own insecurities and shortcomings as a friend.
For example, McLaughlin describes how feelings of insecurity sometimes create undue pressure to seem impressive or lovable to others. She shares a story of mutual accountability with a friend who challenged her in this regard, explaining that “part of loving someone is the willingness to tell them when they’re wrong.” She remembers a wake-up call that saw her shift from asking, “Who will love me?” to asking, “Who can I love?”
As a reader, this sort of candor provides encouragement as you reflect on your own disappointments over relationships that have broken down or not reached their potential. It also embodies the power of openness and integrity in building the kind of life-giving friendships McLaughlin envisions. Her deeply personal insights allow us to walk with her through the complexities of the relationships she is helping us to understand.
Another way the book provokes readers to take friendship seriously is through practical examples that go beyond theory into the realm of countercultural behaviors. One striking case in point McLaughlin shares is the practice of sitting apart from her husband at church so that newcomers and single people can feel more welcome sitting next to either party.
In another chapter, she reflects on the inclination of the New Testament writers to eagerly express love for friends not only with words but also with appropriate physical contact. She laments that, especially among men, the fear of being misinterpreted has discouraged hugs, physical bonding, and telling our friends that we love them. “We are not trespassing on romance when we use such terms,” she writes. “We’re following the Scriptures.’
A vital conversation
While No Greater Love is extremely readable and McLaughlin’s skillful use of language eases the reader through the short chapters, I could not help but want just a little bit more. The topic of friendship is so little explored, and there is such depth that remains to be plumbed. Some readers, I suspect, will be left with a longing for more practical wisdom on how to create and cultivate friendships.
Beyond the how question, I think the book could have benefited from greater attention to the intentional nature of Jesus’ time with his disciples and the investment of his relational energies. Having read McLaughlin’s previous work of apologetics, Confronting Christianity, and observed her perceptive analysis of contemporary culture, I couldn’t help thinking that she might have gone further in connecting the crisis of friendship to broader cultural trends and developments. I hope No Greater Love is not McLaughlin’s final contribution to this vital conversation.
Having said all that, it’s worth underscoring that McLaughlin’s subtitle is A Biblical Vision for Friendship. In this respect she does not let the reader down. Like a gardener with a limited patch of land, she tends lovingly and carefully to the Bible’s references to friendship and community, contextualizing them to fruitful and nourishing effect. As they progress to the book’s conclusion, most readers will feel inspired by God’s passion and mandate for friendship. And they will find themselves challenged to think and relate differently, in greater alignment with the wisdom and story of Scripture.
At one point in No Greater Love, McLaughlin recalls almost giving up on the book and backing out of her contract to write it. It was a friend who intervened—saying, “Don’t you dare!” and giving her the “pep talk” she needed to press on. This anecdote illustrates the power of encouragement we find in friendship, something all of us need amid the pressures and disappointments of everyday life. All who read No Greater Love will be grateful for this intervention and the gift that emerged from McLaughlin’s perseverance.
Phil Knox works as a missiologist and evangelist at the Evangelical Alliance in the UK. He is the author of The Best of Friends: Choose Wisely, Care Well and Story Bearer: How to Share Your Faith with Your Friends.