A Friend not an Example

A Friend not an Example

Teachers in theological education are often told to be examples for their students. Of course, there is truth in this but in its historical manifestation in theological education, it is a teaching concept from above, all part of the old pattern of the “delivery of my riches” teaching style. It often has little space for fallibility, sinfulness and failure on the part of the example, or how such things should be dealt with in a life. Do you know how to say “be like me” in a humble way?

This is not the best way of passing on such deeper issues which require a more intimate acquaintance with the person. How do we live in joy? What is the role of beauty in one’s life? How is internal disappointment dealt with? When is it good to be foolish rather than wise? We would tend to confine our example to spiritual and academic things, but should not the students understand better how to be a fallible yet happy human being from being with us?

There is another reason why ideas of relationship are better than ideas of example. An example sees the influence only travelling in one direction – from the teacher to the student. Yet, in order to teach well, we have to know our students well. And not only the knowledge but the benefit – even example – can then travel in both directions.

The concept of friendship, which is a sharing of yourself as a gift to the other, is beginning to be used in some circles of theological education today. The word “friend” is a dangerous one to use in this context but it is biblical in that Jesus expressly used it to describe his relationship with his disciples in John 15.

One of the best ways to see this concept is through the other friendships the teacher already has. He has a close and deep feeling relationship with his subject. He has a friendship with a number of individuals who have blessed him in the past and present, either in person or through their books (Erasmus’s “friends”). He has a friendship with God, a lively, hopeful, growing relationship. In the atmosphere of friendship, he introduces the students to his other “friends” and hopes they will also develop a friendship with them and maybe his friendships will inspire theirs.

There are, of course, varieties of friendship and we need to think carefully about what sort of friendship we are looking for with students. Most sorts of friendship have elements of time spent together, not always working; a level of trust which goes both ways; a sense of obligation to the other; and some openness between the parties (this seems to have been the way Jesus used the idea). All of this is good.

It is this openness which defines the depth and nature of the friendship. Most people only have a few very close friends with whom they can be entirely open. It would not be appropriate for this to exist between a teacher and student. Furthermore, sharing can be used to evoke intimacy which is inappropriate. Or such sharing can be used to dissolve the difference between teacher and student – we portray ourselves as “just one of them” and so look silly. This motif of friendship must be carefully controlled and practiced for the right motives.

But it is more powerful than the motif of example. It rightly asks for more open-ness between teacher and student, more humility on the part of the teacher, than older models. Don’t ask your students to retrace your steps or even walk in the same manner, count it a privilege to walk with them as a guide, help and yes, friend.

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4 Comments on “A Friend not an Example”

  1. Editor Says:

    Aristotle describes three kinds of friendship in Nichmachean Ethics: friendship for pleasure, friendship for utility and friendship where unity is cultivated in common virtue and search for the good. The latter is friendship of the highest degree, and provides an interesting framework for us theological educators. Is our relationship with students marked by common virtue and search for the good?

  2. Perry Shaw Says:

    Thanks again Graham! I have found the pervasive New Testament motif of “paraklesis” extremely helpful. The root understanding of this standard New Testament term for the “teacher-student” relationship is of one inviting/calling/urging from alongside, a term more in tune with “friendship” than “example.” While Paul does call on others to be “imitators of me as I am of Christ,” it is from and through a “parakletic” relationship.

  3. Brethren, many thanks for your comments as always, they enrich and take further the tentative thoughts of this post.
    I would be grateful for any further help in developing this subject.

  4. Thank you for this post!

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