Social Issues

iron sharpeneth iron, part two


Growing up, I received some very specific messages about relationships and friendships. For many Christians, evangelicals in particular, who you choose for your friends is one of the most important decisions you’ll make in life. Aside from the idea that men and women are not allowed to be friends (which is so large a concept it’s almost a completely separate issue), we’re given a set of guidelines for how we initiate and structure all of our friendships.

One of the very first principles that we’re given is that while it’s ok to be friends with people who are “in the world,” or “non-Christians,” we’re not supposed to form deep attachments to them. This idea springs from verses like “A righteous man is cautious in friendship, but the way of the wicked leads them astray” (Pro. 12:26). The “wicked,” here, is not referring to truly wicked people, actually. “Wicked” people, in Christian parlance, are the unsaved, the non-elect. It’s not possible for us to form deep bonds with unregenerate people, and, if we do, the only thing that can happen is for the “wicked” to drag us down.

We’re given many metaphors to explain this idea– a rotten apple ruins the whole bunch, you can’t put clean water in muddy water to make the muddy water clean . . .

What this does, however, is set up a false dichotomy for us: Christians are completely unlike “non-Christians,” so much so that just associating with “them” can cause our downfall. We’re better than they are. Oh, I’m positive hardly anyone would actually say that, but, sadly, it’s what they mean. We’re more moral, more upstanding, have higher standards, better goals, and throwing a “non-Christian” into our attempts to be “holy” can only cause us problems.

This leaves us with only one purpose for interacting with “non-Christians”: evangelization. Sometimes we’re encouraged to be quite overt about this, but, most of the time, we’re just told to have a “shining testimony” in front of our non-Christian friends. And that . . . leads to problems, in my experience. Because then you wind up with self-righteous teenagers who think that adhering to the party line is what a “testimony” is. Defend your faith! we’re ordered, but, most of the time, all that looks like is defending our parent’s politics.

After we make sure we’re not fraternizing with the enemy too much– just enough to make sure they know we’re better than them see our testimony– what are we supposed to do with our friends who are Christians?

The basic, guiding, principle behind most Christian friendships is the concept of “iron sharpeneth iron.” That’s our purpose in friendship. Sometimes this is described as “edification.” We’re supposed to do all we can to help our brothers and sisters in Christ become better Christians. We’re to help each other stay on the straight and narrow, and, if we see someone straying from the path of righteousness? Well, “Open rebuke is better than secret love. Faithful are the wounds of a friend” (Pro. 27:5-6) or “Two are better than one . . . For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow” (Ecc. 4:9).

But, what I’ve experienced, and what I heard from many of you yesterday, is what this mentality frequently leads to is all of us watching each other like hawks. We start wondering who’s going to slip up next? We start looking for things like “besetting sins” in each other. We offer ourselves as “accountability partners.” In the end, we do everything within our power to maintain the system.

A reader, David, wrote a comment yesterday that I thought made an excellent point:

Part of the issue is that within Christian circles there always seems to be an ulterior motive, not just in terms of friendships but in general. You’re not a friend for the sake of being a friend but because Jesus wants it. You’re not feeding the poor because they need feeding but because it gets you Jesus points. You’re hugging that person because it’s what one does not because you want to hug them. The subversion of social motivations is insidious and so damaging.

And, I have to say, I agree with him. There’s a level of superficiality in most Christian relationships that I think is baffling. Which, I’m not saying that only Christians have superficial relationships, that’s not true at all, but it’s surprising to me that a group of people who are told “they shall know you by how you love one another,” aren’t known for that at all. We’re supposed to be striving for deeper, more meaningful relationships. Friendships where the overwhelming characterestic is love.

I haven’t gotten a whole lot of love from most of my Christian friends.

Condemnation, sure.

Constant admonishments to toe the Christian line, absolutely.

But love? That’s scarce.

For many Christians, however, the two are conflated. Condemnation is love. Accusations are loving.

I’ve had this idea explained to me, on more than on occasion, as “The Poisonous Cookie.” Your friend sees a plate full of cookies, and they look absolutely delectable– all warm and soft and melted chocolate. They decide that they want one, but at the last second before the take the first bite, you snatch it out of their hand. Initially, they’re extremely frustrated with you. “Why would you do something like that?!” But then you explain: you saw the butler put poison on the cookies. If they’d eaten the cookie, they would have died. And, voila, suddenly they’re eternally grateful.

Because, as a Christian, you wouldn’t let someone you cared about do something you know is bad for them, right? The best thing for them is to have a “good relationship with Jesus,” and you have to keep them away from the poison cookies– which could be “sin,” but is frequently “anything that doesn’t conform to our rigid standards for Christian behavior which may or may not have “biblical” backing.”

We’re not really taught what it means to be someone’s friend. We are given messages about love and understanding and “beams and motes” and don’t be judgmental, but it all gets overridden in the flood of be as judgmental as possible.

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  • Janet

    You have *so* hit the nail on the head here. And this doesn’t apply only to friendships; I have experienced the same thing from family members as well.

  • Manner. C

    yep; this is exactly how it works, though i have to say you have framed this quite gently and mildly in comparison with how it is put in practice. It is a fierce, brother stabbing brother, don’t let them see you fail, obsession with appearances kind of thing, where is there no “rest for the wicked” (or anyone for that matter)
    I have come to think my acquaintances(and relatives) who operate out of this ideology don’t have ANY real relationships. and if they don’t have any real relationships, even as a child, then how could they have a real relationship with God? I don’t think they have much of one, anyways- judging from how self-righteous and proud and memorized their prayers are. If they really believed in God, they would be thinking long and hard before rattling off a chain of catch phrases and then invoking Jesus name.

    • ‘If they don’t have any real relationships, even as a child, then how could they have a real relationship with God?’ Excellent point!

  • Carl

    It is so easy to ask how a person is doing and not even pause for a response, let alone hear an honest reply. We ask but don’t listen, and don’t give any encouragement to be told an honest answer.
    Because of that, for the past 3 years when someone at church asks me how I am doing I sometimes reply with “I’m trying to lie less often at church. Well, and other places too.” I go on to tell the person that when I’m not “fine” I’m trying to actually tell the questioner how I truly am. That begins to restore depth to what are otherwise superficial interactions.

  • Stacey

    Oh my goodness! I just had this same coversation about “fellowshipping with “unbelievers”” with a pastor at my church recently. I have not been as angry as I was in a very long time! The Christian snobbery is killing me! I was told that if a non “Christian” organization wanted to help starving children in Africa and wanted our church to assist, that the organization would be turned down. I was incredulous. The reasoning was exactly as you described above. I want OUT of fundamentalism but am stuck. I bite my tongue a lot with the narrow minded bigotry that is displayed with pastors and Christians with this kind of thinking. Christians need help getting off their “holier than thou” pedestals. Jesus said “love one another.” We should not be pigeon holing people…

    Can we please find a way to reform fundamentalism and learn to be real, caring, people regardless of where a person’s spiritual walk may be?

    Sorry for the rant. You hit a nerve that was exposed last week in full color.

    • ‘I want OUT of fundamentalism but am stuck.’ I empathize with you, but I don’t see fundamentalism open to being reformed. I don’t know how you are ‘stuck’, but I suggest finding a new community of believers.

  • The overall principle of being cautious around people who are bad news, perhaps trying to disabuse them of their ills or otherwise keep a distance, is actually not a bad one. How would one expect, for instance, parents to respond if they learned that one of their children’s friends was a hooligan or a drug addict? Being afraid that one’s own child would become violent or drug abusing from such an association does not seem an unreasonable fear. How should the parent of a violent or drug-addicted child respond to the child? Very likely with a form of love that would not make the child very happy: one that would easily come across as condemnation, and yet nonetheless be done out of love and for the child’s benefit.

    The religious priorities in some families and churches surely have some basis like this, and the problem is, I reckon, in the failure to determine what sorts of character traits are poisonous to others or in need of repair. It’s not fundamentally wrong to avoid lousy people or to shelter one’s children from bad influences, nor is it wrong to try, if one is able, to correct or to offer guidance to someone who is on the wrong path. If the basis of such judgment (deciding whom to avoid, whom to correct, whom to spend one’s time with) is a bunch of “rigid standards” that have no legitimate basis or are perversions of bona fide righteousness, then avoiding or admonishing becomes a folly.

    I think it’s a safe bet that trust is an inherent component of friendship, and that both trust and friendship exist in degrees. It’s hard then to form much of a friendship with someone who is, say, addicted to heroin or prone to outbursts of violence. Not a trustworthy sort. It’s also hard to have a friendship with someone who judges others by false standards. They can’t be trusted to judge others decently, and they are full of irrational mistrust for others themselves. That erects a mighty barrier against any kind of genuine intimacy, which is to say friendship.

  • A truly fascinating view of the difference. I find myself shaking my head and wondering how you would possibly be able to form true friendship if this was the only foundation for relationships you knew or had experience with. I find I am sad for those who are so limited, so unable to understand and know true friendships and their meaning.

  • republibot3


    I’m 46 years old, I was raised in the church, I was a radical fundamentalist (I’m not anymore), I graduated from a Bible College, even, and I went to 4 Christian gradeshools.

    I was never, never, never, never, never, never, never, never never, NEVER told that I wasn’t supposed to be friends with Non-Christians, I was never told that not to hang around with unbelievers, and I was NEVER told that women and men weren’t supposed to friends. I mean for Pete’s sake, HOW many times does the Bible show Jesus hanging out with sinners? Sheesh.

    What kinda’ cult were you guys in, anyway?

  • There is so much solid stuff in this post that I can’t enumerate it all! You describe my situation in a small church during high school. I had no friends my age in the church and in my large high school I found only two ‘Christians’ to be my friends. I didn’t have close friends until my senior year, and they were not what we considered believers, but they were good relationships.

    My typical approach to people my age was evangelistic rather than relational; I was a teenage Jesus salesman. How many friends do you think that got me?

    I also experienced what you described as Christian friendship at the Christian college I attended. Judgment! Judgment! Judgment! It is a wonder any of us survived.

  • republibot3

    Yeah, I’m just not getting this. I neglected to mention that I was a missionary for a while, too. I didn’t go to a mainline denomination. We were pretty small. I reiterate: at no point was I told *NOT* to have friends with people outside the church. Never.

    I’m sure such things happen – obviously you’re talking about it, so it did – but how common are these experiences? I’m not trying to diminish your traumas, I just don’t have any real experience with such things, and I’m having a hard time wrapping my brain ’round it.

    What *KIND* of Church did you folks go to, that they treated you like this?

    • I can’t speak for everyone here, but I grew up in an Independent Fundamental Baptist Church in the deep South. So, that colors my experience a bit, I’ll admit. However, I went to a fundamentalist college and this message was loud and clear.

      This might have something to do with the fact that you’re from a very different generation. What teenagers were told in the late 90s and early 2000s is very, very different from the messages you got in the 80s. Conservative christian culture like it is today, the “take back ____ for Jesus!”… a lot of it just didn’t exist like it does today in the early 80s.

      Again, I can’t speak for everyone, but I do think this is pretty common for people my age. I know that this was the standard message I was given during chapel at my fundamentalist college (and at Liberty, a much more “liberal” place), and it was something I heard from virtually all of my peers.

      From facebook, twitter, and other conversations I’ve had over the years, I do think this is pretty common.

  • republibot3

    I’m aghast and apalled

    >>What teenagers were told in the late 90s and early 2000s is very, very different from the messages you got in the 80s. Conservative christian culture like it is today, the “take back ____ for Jesus!”… a lot of it just didn’t exist like it does today in the early 80s.<<

    That's just horrible. Christians wonder why Christianity is seeming more irrelevant to folks today, and why Christians are losing "The Culture Wars." (Which is a term pretty much only Fundamentalist Christians use, and it's kind of an example of why Christianity is seeming more irrelevant to most people) You need look no further than that.

    I was raised to set a good example. I wasn't raised to hide myself from the world. I was raised to be in the world, that's my duty, or so I was told.

    Granted, there was an increasing level of alarmism in Fundamentalism in the mid-80s (D&D is the devil's game! Rock and roll music is the devil's music! Satanists are killing children, etc), but it was alarmism. Most of us didn't take it seriously.

    I lost my faith for a long time. I came back less than a decade ago, and I tell ya, I go to church now and it's like I'm on a differen tplanet than the one I grew up on.

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  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    For many Christians, however, the two are conflated. Condemnation is love. Accusations are loving.

    — Three Slogans of The Party, George Orwell, Nineteeen Eighty-Four

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