Pictured above: Some of my greatest friends in the world from my Master’s cohort having lunch during our graduation weekend. Their spiritual friendship has discipled me in more ways than I could possibly count.
What comes to mind when you hear the word “discipleship?” For the longest time I had always understood discipleship as the process of becoming like Jesus. Ancient Christians would refer to this process as “spiritual formation,” which revolves around a certain set of practices that craft us more and more into Christlikeness and holiness. These practices are commonly referred to as spiritual disciplines, which include prayer, reading Scripture, worshiping, fasting, silence, solitude, simplicity, and so on. For the entire history of the Church, these disciplines were commonly held as the intrinsic practices we do to commune with God.
But what about friendship?
Rarely would we consider friendship making the list of spiritual disciplines that sanctifies us. Friendship just doesn’t… feel like it’s “holy” enough to be considered a discipleship practice. We may add “Christian community” to the list, or we may call it “Christian fellowship,” but why do we shy away from specifically using the verbiage “friendship” when talking about this?
But think about it. We are designed for community. God hardwired our brains as these remarkable social organs that are molded and shaped and influenced by the people we surround ourselves with and the communities we immerse ourselves in. Have you ever noticed you start to act like the people you hang out with the most? You start picking up on their phrases, mirroring their sense of humor, moving about with their gestures. Even for me personally, never have I in my life said “oofda” when I’m in a perplexed state of mind before I moved out to South Dakota. (For example: “Oofda! That’s a large bison!” Yeah. People really say that.)
We are literally formed by our friendships. That’s the essence of being persons. Friendships shape us and carve us and mold us into what we love, what we do, and how we live. Put simply, you are who you’re with. And if God is the greatest friendship we can possibly have, then he is the greatest force that forms our character into a spitting image of his likeness when we spend time with him.
But what happens when we’re friends with other believers whose lives are founded on that same friendship with God? We become even more like Christ because we’re rubbing shoulders with friends who are like Christ! In other words, we become Christ-like when we’re with Christ-like friends. You are who you’re with. Plain and simple.
This is what Aelred means when he says that friendship is discipleship, and ultimately why it’s imperative that we befriend the Church and fully immerse ourselves into Christ’s body. Because here’s the reality: You could do all of the spiritual practices we listed—like prayer, worship, scripture reading, and so—in isolation, and it would be considered good spirituality. But it would be absolutely terrible Christianity. Discipleship and spiritual formation are always done in community. To know Christ is to be a part of his church. Therefore, a lonely Christian is a contradiction. Someone who labels themselves as a Christ follower who isn’t embedded into Christ’s chosen community is about as out of place as a fish outside of water.
Now, certainly there are some spiritual disciplines and faith rhythms we need to do by ourselves, like silence and solitude, and even private prayer and Scripture reading. But doing these disciplines alone cannot be the only way we go about them. According to Aelred, discipleship and our pursuit of holiness are only magnified when we do so with friends who are after the same thing. In fact, he says that true discipleship can’t even happen without friends! You can go to public church services, and you can do the spiritual disciplines by yourself. But if you are not friends with people who are intentionally helping each other to become Christ-like, then quite frankly, you’re just missing out. And notice that I said intentionally: We can grow quite a bit just by being friends with Christ-like people, but we will become all the more like Christ when we intentionally help each other pursue the greatest good that exists in this world.
Friendship is discipleship. You cannot have the latter without the former. And I would even argue that you can’t have the purest form of friendship as God intended it without discipleship, either.
Author Brian Edgar sums up this point perfectly:
“Virtue cannot be achieved insolitude. Friendship, specifically virtuous friendship, is at the heart of Christian community. One needs friends in order to be holy.”