Paul’s Theology of Friendship

We find that Paul and the Philippians enjoy a fellowship of gift and suffering, with God as the divine source in a triangular friendship.

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).

 

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.

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.

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