There are many who have written on the subject of friendship over the centuries. It is an important topic and one that is worth thinking about. I began thinking about it this morning because I received an email from my friend, Fr. Al Kimel (Roman Catholic), telling me of a new Pontifications website. Al is a friend whom I first met in the late 80’s when I was doing work at Duke. Geoffrey Wainwright, the noted British scholar, who was chairman of my thesis committee, saw in my work things that he thought Fr. Al would like. Through Wainwright we arranged to meet and I enjoyed the hospitality of his home. Time has taken us in different directions, but it has not altered my friendship.

One of my definitions of friends are people who will stand by you in the tough times. They are not always your greatest philosophical sympaticos, but they are people whose integrity you admire and trust and of whose goodwill towards yourself you do not doubt.

In the late 80’s and especially the early 90’s, I began to be very actively involved in some of the larger battles within the Episcopal Church. I caught some flak and certain gained a few enemies. At such times the existence of friends becomes all the more important. My immediate family were friends as well as being family. But there were a number of others, some Episcopalian, some not; some Orthodox, some not; in one case a Reformed Jew and in another a self-professed agnostic. When their firing at you in the foxholes, you are glad for every friend.

What those disparities reveal is that friendship is something that transcends agreement – at least on some level. I need not agree with someone to remain their friend, nor do I count someone’s disagreement with me a violation of friendship.
Does this say something negative about friendship, or something that is, in fact, contrary to the Orthodox faith? I do not think so. It is obvious to me as I look through my years of Orthodoxy, that not all Orthodox Christians are my friends. Some would likely even behave in a fashion that would make me think of them as enemies. I have seen priests who should know better, speak in bitterness to other priests, violating both the commandments of Christ and the normative understanding of friendship.

Christ spoke of friendship to His disciples – treating it as a very high honor indeed. Speaking in the 15th chapter of St. John’s gospel He said:

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you (12-15).

There is an intimacy associated with the word friend. Christ sees the Apostles as his friends because He has made known to them all that He has heard from the Father. There is an element here that I think touches on several different levels: it is the issue of loyalty or something like that. A friend does not betray a friend.

I recall a painful moment, not long after I was Chrismated, when, in the course of conversation with another priest, he spoke of my being “not yet” Orthodox. I understood what he meant. He was thinking of the Orthodox mind, the phronema, as it is called in Greek. I am still acquiring that phronema, but I do not see that ending in this life. Nor do I think it should be anything other than an ongoing matter for all Orthodox Christians, whether born to Orthodox parents or not. What felt painful to me was the sense of being excluded from something for which I had just recently made huge sacrifice. With Baptism and Chrismation, or with Chrismation (depending on how one is received into the Church) one is Orthodox. There is much still to know – and yet you are Orthodox. St. Paul addressed the Church in Rome as “saints,” although he also spoke to them of the renewal of their minds (nous). What felt painful to me in that conversation was that my act of obedience, confession and submission at Chrismation, was an act of friendship to Christ. I might have been a wet-behind-the-ears friend – but still a friend. One must not speak of the gaining of a phronema and the gaining of friendship in the same way. You take a step, take up the cross, lay down your life, and there is no greater love, no matter the depth of the phronema.

But friendship, I think, goes a step further. Not all of my friends are Orthodox (as I noted above). For a variety of reasons this is not yet something that I have in common with all of my friends. It would be the height of ingratitude and simply false to think of those who have laid down their lives for you (in a sense) as anything other than friends. I also know that friendship is a very essential thing. We do not live well without them.

In Christ’s conversation with Peter, after the resurrection (this conversation does not translate into English very well) He asked Peter three questions: first, “Do you love me more than these?” His word for love in that question was agape the deepest form of love. Peter answered, “Lord, you know I love you.” But Peter used a different word in his answer, the word that means the love for a friend (phileo). Christ asked him a second time, “Do you agape me more than these?” Again Peter answer with phileo. Finally, Jesus asked, Peter do you love me (phileo)? Peter, we are told, was grieved and said, “Master, you know all things. You know that I love (phileo) you.

In His humility, and aware of His sin, Peter demurred from the word agape. He had failed the test the night Christ was arrested. But Peter was still a true friend. He had not gone in despair and hung himself. He rushed to see Jesus at every opportunity after the resurrection. Though he would claim no more than friendship, he could not have any peace without at least that.

I pray that all my friends be Orthodox. How could I not? I also pray that all the Orthodox be friends. How could I not? But I pray to God always for my friends and simply give thanks that I have any. It is a precious thing, tested by everything in our lives. But without friendship (phileo) there will be no love (agape).

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.



4 responses to “Friendship”

  1. fatherstephen Avatar

    Photo: Dinner and a pint with friends at the Eagle and the Child, a pub in Oxford. The table just beyond us with the site of frequent refreshment by the friends, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein and their circle, The Inkings.

  2. Mary Avatar


    RE: Gospel passage. I always thought Christ was rebuking Peter about the betrayal here (I recall being taught a ‘Christ is testing Peter’ interpretation when I was younger). Thank you for your explanation of a compassionate Christ.

  3. Mark D. Moore Avatar
    Mark D. Moore

    Thank you, Father.

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