Friendship is portrayed in many ways in Western culture. Television shows reveal both twisted and humorous types of friendship. Consider NBC’s “The Office.” In the show’s nine seasons, Jim Halpert and Dwight Schrute developed a relationship that ended in a close friendship. Though often at each other’s throats, they shared several things in common. They both sought to make sales, they both worked for the laughable Michael Scott, and they both enjoyed pulling a good prank, such as when Jim dressed as Dwight and posed the question, “What bear is best?” Despite all the buffoonery, their friendship created a sense of loyalty and comradery.
Ideas of friendship will undoubtedly vary from person to person. Some may define friendship in terms of common interests, common enemies, or shared experiences. I imagine for you, like me, friendships in your own life come in all shapes and sizes. This has been the case throughout history.
Like many still do today, John Calvin (1509–1564) sent letters to his friends during the Protestant Reformation. His letters were marked by instruction, direction, and concern, but his tone could be harsh, rude, and arrogant. For some of us, friends like this don’t last long. Yet with a closer look, it becomes clear that Calvin deeply cared for his friends. In fact, he serves as a model for friendships today.
Calvin’s understanding of friendship had several key components. First, Calvin learned the nature of friendship from the Scripture. Anything not built on the Scripture was futile in his mind. Because of this, friendship had to be understood through God and his Word. Second, Calvin understood friendship in terms of redemption. Jesus, who gave his life as a ransom for many, called his disciples friends. Calvin wanted to see all people become friends of God through faith in Christ. Third, friendship was a relationship marked by intimacy that was ongoing and accustomed rather than intermittent and unfamiliar. Human relationships were to model God’s relationship with man. The incarnation of God the Son demonstrates the closeness man can have with God. Jesus’s coming, marked by humility and service, sets the trajectory for our relationships with one another. Fourth, friendships involved personal presence. Calvin’s commentary on The Gospel of John suggests that friendship involves personal interaction, much like a bridegroom bringing his friends to a wedding (John 3). Being present (in all its forms) is significant, as there can be little relationship if there is no engagement. Fifth, friendships should be marked by love. Central to this was Jesus’s command to love others as he had loved them. Jesus called his disciples friends (John 15); this friendship was marked by love, grace, and truth. Sixth, Calvin viewed friendship in terms of reconciliation. The atoning work of Christ provided all that is necessary to be reconciled to God and to one another. And seventh, Calvin understood friendship through the act of service. Friends of God served God; therefore, Christians were to serve one another as Christ had served them. All this to say, Calvin found friendship to be rooted in love, understood through the gospel, and characterized by time, intentionality, intimacy, and service.
“Calvin deeply cared for his friends. In fact, he serves as a model for friendships today.”—Aaron Lumpkin
Calvin had a wide variety of friendships. Some of Calvin’s closest friends included Martin Bucer, Guillaume Farel, Henry Bullinger, and Philip Melanchthon. Bucer and Farel shared a particularly warm friendship with Calvin in comparison to his relationship with Bullinger and Melanchthon. Bucer and Farel served as mentors for Calvin, and he developed a love for them through this relationship. Though, at one point Calvin said he wanted to release all his “fury” on Farel. But this comes as no surprise. Even the best of friends has moments of frustration and anger. Consider Bullinger and Melanchthon. They often disagreed with Calvin, which led to several annoyances in their friendships. Still, Calvin proved to be a friend that loved and cared for his companions. Their belief in the gospel served as the foundation of their friendship, and they valued faithfulness, truth, love, and humility in their relationships.
I fear that our society, and particularly the church, has far too often been satisfied with shallow friendships. I believe much of this is because of our desire to protect ourselves rather than to love others in a grace-saturated, Christ-exalting way. Christian discipleship is friendship; it exudes a genuine love for another person that seeks his good in the gospel. Calvin’s example helps us foster and develop Christ-centered friendships. If Christians understand all their relationships in light of the gospel, and if they act on those relationships through the power of the gospel, we will see a great movement of the gospel through Christ-centered friendships.
Editor’s Note: This essay is adapted from Dr. Lumpkin’s longer treatment on the friendships of John Calvin.