Paul’s Theology of Friendship

October 21, 2019

by David E. Briones

A comparison between Paul and Aristotle on friendship may seem futile, at first glance. Paul doesn’t use the words “friend” or “friendship” in his writings. He only describes friendship conceptually. But even then, he lacks the philosophical precision of Aristotle. It therefore doesn’t seem as if a comparison would be fruitful, let alone possible. However, when we consider the many verbal, conceptual, and thematic parallels that New Testament scholars have discovered between Philippians and Nicomachean Ethics 8–9, a comparison is certainly possible, even fruitful. Especially noteworthy is Paul’s use of the terms koinōnia (fellowship/partnership/friendship; Phil 1:5, 7; 3:10; 4:14, 15), and phronesis (like-mindedness/understanding/care; Phil 1:7; 2:2, 5; 3:15, 19; 4:2, 10). These key words, which were standard elements of friendship language in the ancient world, help bridge the comparative gap between Paul and Aristotle.

Unlike Aristotle, Paul does not present us with an explicit definition of friendship nor with a categorization and explanation of the diverse forms of friendship. Instead, Paul provides an ideal (though implicit) definition of his friendship with the Philippians by employing the key words mentioned above, koinōnia and phronesis. We find that Paul and the Philippians enjoy a fellowship of gift and suffering, with God as the divine source in a triangular friendship. This is what friendship in Christ looks like.

Every time Paul recalls their fellowship, he thanks God and prays for the Philippians “with joy”

Two traits appear in Paul’s theology of friendship. The first is a reciprocity of gifts (immaterial and material) between Paul and the Philippians, which stems from a mutual phronesis—a way of thinking, feeling, and acting patterned after Jesus Christ (Phil 2:5–11). Two verses plainly convey this. In Philippians 1:7, Paul says that it is right for him “to feel” (phronein) confidently about the Philippians. Then, in Philippians 4:10, the Philippians express their “concern” (phronein) for Paul through their gift. The same word is used in these two verses because the same sentiment drives Paul’s and the Philippians’ regard for one another. A shared phronesis binds them together in a loving, reciprocal friendship.

But what exactly do they reciprocate? To begin with, Paul and the Philippians reciprocate affectionate concern for one another. Every time Paul recalls their fellowship, he thanks God and prays for the Philippians “with joy” (Phil 1:3–5). He says, “I hold you in my heart” and “yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus” (Phil 1:7–8 ESV). And he desires to be with them for their good (1:25–27; 2:24). Imprisoned, he sends Timothy to learn of their progress in the faith in order that Paul’s heart may be encouraged (Phil 2:19). The fact that Paul sends Timothy to the community demonstrates his affectionate concern; only a “like-minded person” genuinely concerned for the community is fit to visit his beloved congregation (Phil 2:20). Paul dispels the anxiety of the Philippians with comforting exhortations to pray and to receive the peace of God (Phil 4:6–7). In every situation they remain his beloved, whom he loves and longs for: his joy, crown, and boast (Phil 2:12–16; 4:1). In return, the Philippians express affectionate concern for Paul. They sent Epaphroditus to care for him spiritually and financially (Phil 2:25–30, 4:18). Notably, this sprang from a revived phronesis, a Christ-like way of thinking, feeling, and acting that couldn’t be expressed earlier, according to Philippians 4:10.

Moreover, Paul and the Philippians reciprocate sacrificial service for one another’s joy. Paul likens his ministry to a sacrificial drink offering and service for their faith (Phil 2:17), which is directly connected to their joy (Phil 2:17–18; cf. 1:25). In response, so also their material gift for Paul is considered a sacrifice (Phil 4:18; 2:17) and service (Phil 2:17, 30). The outcome of this exchange is mutual joy (Phil 2:17–18).

Finally, Paul and the Philippians reciprocate prayer to God on behalf of one another for present and ultimate salvation. Paul prays that their love would abound to “approve what is excellent” and to become “pure and blameless for the day of Christ” (Phil 1:9–11 ESV). He beckons them to “work out [their] salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12), and so become “pure and blameless” in the midst of a world gone awry (Phil 2:14–15). In the same way, just as Paul prays for their final salvation (Phil 1:4, 9–11; cf. 1:28; 2:12), so the Philippians will also pray for Paul’s salvation, physically from prison and eschatologically from death (Phil 1:19). By praying to God, Paul positions God as the divine source on which Paul and the Philippians mutually depend for their salvation (cf. Phil 1:6; 2:12–13).

The most interesting fact about the Philippians’ participation with Paul in gift and suffering is that God is behind it all.

The second relational dynamic in Paul’s ideal definition of friendship is enduring suffering on behalf of the other. In Christ, Paul and the Philippians have access to a particular mindset best exemplified by Christ’s humiliation on behalf of others (Phil 2:5–11). Paul exemplifies this Christological mindset by suffering on behalf of the Philippians. In Philippians 1:12–18, he makes known the advancement of the gospel through his suffering (Phil 1:12). Although Paul considers death gain (Phil 1:21), he nevertheless stifles the desire for gain because remaining in the flesh will mean “fruitful labor” (Phil 1:22), primarily for the Philippians. It is “more necessary for [their] sake” (Phil 1:24). In the background of all of this is God in Christ by the Spirit. He is the one behind the progress of the gospel in Philippians 1:12 and of their faith in Philippians 1:25. Paul willingly suffers for the Philippians’ benefit, but it is God who actively works in and through Paul on behalf of the Philippian church.

Similarly, to benefit Paul, the Philippians send a material gift, likened to a sacrifice (Phil 4:18; 2:17) and service (Phil 2:17, 30). By doing so, they share in his suffering (Phil 4:14). They are fellow-partakers of his chains (Phil 1:7). They are engaged in the same conflict as the apostle (Phil 1:29–30). Their struggle has two components: (1) theologically, they suffer as those united to Christ, and (2) socially, they suffer shame as those associated with a prisoner whom the law deemed a social deviant. But the most interesting fact about the Philippians’ participation with Paul in gift and suffering is that God is behind it all. He revived the Philippians concern to send their gift to Paul (Phil 4:10) and so share in his suffering (Phil 4:14).

Like Aristotle, it seems that Paul also defines friendship as a reciprocity of goodwill and a mutual concern to seek the good of the other person for their sake, with a shared awareness. He just uses different language to talk about it. But one insurmountable difference is obvious: there is a third party in Paul’s theological definition of friendship. The Triune God—Father, Son, and Spirit—appears on the scene as the vertical party whose presence naturally reconfigures the horizontal dimensions of friendship. But how does he do so? How, for instance, does God reconfigure the essential components of friendship mentioned above: self-love and virtue?


Excerpted from “Why Can’t We Be Friends? Paul and Aristotle on Friendship” in Paul and the Giants of Philosophy: Reading the Apostle in Greco-Roman Context (IVP Academic, 2019). Used with permission of the author.

Next Post...

Hermeneutics and the Heart

November 01, 2018

by David E. Briones