Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Life of the True Scholar: Intentional Selective Friendship

Philip Soen

Professors tend towards one of two ways, when it comes to the giving of advice to their students: either they tend to give an overabundance of counsel or they give none at all. The problem with both of these tendencies is that very often a professor has the potential to pay a significant role in the life of his/her students. Of course, an excess of advice leaves the student with a bad impression whereas defective silence leaves no impression at all. The principal question then is: how can a college professor administer council in such a way that is most beneficial to the student?

The purpose of this paper is to develop a rough theological/philosophical sketch of counseling, specifically nontherapeutic counseling, which will be administered within academic settings. I will call this type of counseling Intentional-Selective-Friendship. The goal of this type of counseling will seek to avoid the pitfalls of either excess (i.e. what is normally thought of as unsolicited advice) or defective advice (i.e. the teacher who is mute before the specific problems of his or her students). Positively, it will attempt to provide a starting point for building biblical community. In addition, it will provide philosophic framework for thinking about the types of problems one may encounter with student-teacher relationships.

This paper will be divided into two portions. The first portion will be a brief sketch of Intentional-Selective-Friendship. Within this portion I will briefly define this approach and provide a biblical basis for it. Then I will describe the appropriate contexts for this type of counseling. After which, I will provide a basic methodology. The second portion of this paper will focus the issues of the integration and implementation of this method within a reformed theological framework and an ecclesiastical context.


Its Definition and Biblical Basis

What is Intentional-Selective-Friendship? Basically, it is the art of friendship that is intentionally and thoughtfully exercised within a clearly defined context. This definition is not exhaustive but it is functional. Let me break down the basic components of this definition.

First, friendship is a nonhostile relationship between persons that has been established either by circumstance or design. This means that true friendship requires some semblance of mutual feeling and respect (i.e. nonhostile) between the persons involved. This relationship could have been brought about by mere circumstance (e.g. neighbor, coworker, student, and child) or perhaps by intentional design (e.g. best friends, spouse, etc.).

Second, friendship is an art. Aristotle was well aware of this aspect of friendship. In fact, he devoted several books to the subject within his discussion on ethics. Basically, this means that true friendship is not thoughtless but has set of governing principles, which makes it possible to practice. Within our context, friendship is thoughtfully and intentionally exercised. This means that in order to practice this type of friendship, we must seek to understand the principles that govern it, the setting for it, and the skills required for its continued growth and development.

Now, what is the biblical basis for Intentional-Selective-Friendship? I would suggest that the basis for this type of friendship is clearly taught in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5—7). This sermon is fundamentally about establishing community. First (and primarily), Jesus teaches that there must be true community between God and man. Second, there must also be community between man and man. It is difficult to distinguish at what point Jesus is addressing these two different types of community because for Jesus both of these types of community overlap. One's relationship with God will flow over into how one treats and establishes community with his fellow man. This sermon is principally addressed to disciples of Jesus or “his disciples” (Matt 5:1). This is important because the principles and perspective that Jesus assumes within a sermon could only be practiced by somebody who is in a right relationship with God.

Now, the pragmatic goal of Jesus’ sermon is that his disciples will intentionally and selectively establish community. How does this work? First, it must be noted that for the Christian there is no such thing as accidental circumstance (6:26), and therefore anyone within the Christian's purview is another opportunity to further establish community. In fact, Jesus will command all of his disciples to “make disciples of all nations” (Matt 28: 19).

If this is true, then how can a Christian be truly selective in his or her friendship? After all doesn't Jesus call us to love is in our enemies (5:43)? Yes, it is true that we are required to love our enemies; however this does not mean that trust is automatically extended to the same degree to our enemies. Jesus requires a Christian to establish trust with all men, but he does not require all Christians to dispense that trust in an undifferentiated and nonselective manner.
Jesus has three categories of relationship: family, neighbors, enemies. Family includes spouse (Matt 5:31-32), parent-child (Matt 7:9), and “brother” (ἀδελφός). Spouse and parent-child relationships apply to close and genuine kin whereas the latter “Brother” (ἀδελφός) can apply to family brothers and brothers within the community of faith. “Neighbors” (πλησίον) are nonthreatening neutral relationships: a relationship with “one who is near close by.” “Enemies” (ἐχθροὺς), of course, are threatening and hostile relationships. This hostility is expressed through violent actions (Matt 5:39) and a lack of shared communication (Matt 5:11 -- 12).

So what are we to do with these relationships? Jesus requires continual intentionality whether these relationships are threatening or peaceful. The spouse is required to remain absolutely faithful without a hint of external sexual intrusion (Matt 5:27 -- 32). The parent is someone who provides for the child, despite his or her or natural evil inclination (7:11). The brother is required to live selflessly for his brother and without persistent conflict (5:21 -- 26). The disciple is required to at least live on peaceful terms with his enemy, if at all possible (5: 38 -- 43).

In all of this, the disciple is summoned to make his “neighbors” into “brothers” and his “enemies” into “neighbors.” The disciple is in effect intentionally establishing community with all men, while selectively differentiating the types of relationships that exist among men.

Counseling with in an Academic Community

Now, I believe that Intentional-Selective-Friendship could be applied theoretically in almost any and every circumstance. However, for it to work effectively, one must give deliberation to what circumstances one will apply it. In my circumstance, I want to think about how this model could be applied within an academic setting, specifically within a smaller scale Christian liberal arts university. As a future teacher, I envision functioning with two types of friendship: peer-to-peer relationships and teacher-student relationships.

Now, by definition, both of these types of relationships are determined by incidence. In effect, both relationships are defined by mutual interest in “what is good for themselves;” that is, each party is involved for the sake of something that is useful for themselves. But the former is more strongly defined by mutual professional interest whereas the latter may only varying degrees of interest depending on the focus and aptitude of the student.

In addition, my peer-to-peer relationships will be longer and more indefinite in duration where as my student-teacher relationships will be shorter lived. In other words, it will be more of a temptation to invest more in my professional relationships then in my student relationships. In addition, it will be a great temptation to take less responsibility for what is said and done to my students than would be to my peers because the duration for student-teacher relationships is less and more sharply defined.

Regardless of these conditions I still will seek to intentionally established community with both types of these relationships, while recognizing the difference mutual interest, design, and duration. If I may apply uses terminology to the context, I will recognize that “brothers” (peer-to-peer) must continue and repeatedly established trust among themselves, while quickly resolving any conflict that may arise. In addition, I will seek to establish “brotherhood” among my future students. This means I will seek to bring them into closer community, despite the fact that the relationship by design is temporary.

Jesus’ pattern of intentional selective community, demands that within any profession we should seek to be a source of trustworthiness. In addition, it demands that we intelligently differentiate and define the types of relationships within that community. Community, of course, is not the goal of Intentional-Selective-Friendship, rather it is God's own glory. The Christian builds community in such a way that everything works towards this goal. He maintains brotherhood in order to worship in all purity and he who holds his enemies so that he can win them over into brotherhood, which will bring more glory to God. The implication for professors is that the academic setting does not exclusively define and determine the operational framework for building community within a Christian college. Ultimately, education functions within an ecclesiastical framework. It is a house built upon rock (Matt 7:25).

Framework and Method: Functional Holism and Intentional Selective Friendship

Since we have provided a functional definition of Intentional-Selective-Friendship, substantiated this model with minimal yet adequate biblical evidence, and given some thought to the specific challenges that one may encounter within an academic setting; we may now safely sketch out a biblical psychology with regard to an anthropological model and relational method.
I am under the conviction that all men can be understood within a Pauline/Petrine framework. I believe both of these biblical writers understood man as a functional yet differentiated whole. That is, these men understood the person to consist in rational, emotional, and physiological unity whereby these “functions are fully integrated.” This does not mean that Paul is an ontological monist. Ontologically Paul understood that there was a difference between the physiological, the psychological, and even the higher supernatural elements of the person (e.g. immortality, incorporeal existence, etc.).

There are three basic aspects of this anthropology, which should be kept in mind. First, we must keep in mind what a person was created to be (i.e. in terms of his or her original unity, diversity, and epistemic experiential dimensions). Second, we should keep in mind what has happened to the person since creation (i.e. his bondage to sin in terms of his passive condition, active contribution, and evil infliction). Third, we should keep in mind what God is doing for that person to redeem and restore him back into his original functional state.

Practically speaking within an academic context this means helping my students understand the functional relationship between their emotional, intellectual, and physiological dimensions. My goal should be to demonstrate and exemplify a fully integrated life of true scholarship. This will be done both in the classroom and within interpersonal settings. In order to clarify this, I will need to (at a later date) attempt to further understand Paul's theology of the divide itself in Ro 7:14—25.


Reformed Psychology or Reforming Psychology?

So is it possible to integrate various psychological theories into this schema of Intentional-Selective-Friendship? To put it quite bluntly: yes! Karl Barth once stated in a rare interview that was conducted in English, “the Christian need not fear science, sociology, or psychology, there is only one fear that matters... the fear of God!” I think this statement goes a long way in summarizing the integration of psychology and reformed theology. Basically, as long as any given method of psychology does not contradict the place and supremacy of God's glory, then the only problems that remain are purely pragmatic, which can only be solved in real-world settings.

Intentional-Selective-Friendship As Church Mission?

Throughout this entire essay I have been making the case for Intentional Selective Friendship, which I argued has its biblical basis in Matt 5-7 with a supplemental Aristotelian framework in Nichomachean Ethics. The implicit argument is that this is certainly a pragmatic and functional goal of every believer and consequently the church. However, what is the place of professional counseling within the church? Without going into too much detail, I would suggest that there is certainly a place for professional counseling within the church simply on the basis that there is such a great need for counseling and a lack of genuinely good counselors.

Without going too deeply into the subject, I would suggest that the presence of professional counseling is highly indicative of the fact that many believers have failed to adequately think about the subject of friendship and consequently failed to develop the skills necessary for good and healthy friendships; that is, friendships that go beyond mere incidence (i.e. utility or pleasure) and transform into ideal and perfect relationships. As a consequence of this failure many people are not even aware that friendships could be improved and deepened by a conscientious and intentional effort to develop people literacy or speaking and listening skills.

This failure is not the sole responsibility of the church. Mortimer J. Adler states that schools have also failed to incorporate speaking and listening training within its curriculum. I would extend the criticism to include the responsibility of pastoral clergy. Preaching is a larger-than-life and simplification and demonstration of speaking and listening. It demonstrates before the body of Christ: 1) how the preacher engages the biblical text and 2) how the preacher engages the audience. In my experience, preachers tend towards one extreme or the other.

I would suggest that the church could better learn to develop the skills through a batter pulpit education. By this I mean that the preacher should learn to develop speaking and listening skills through a more active engagement with the text at the language level. Preachers should understand that active engagement with “digital” texts is transferable ability. To actively engage in text at a digital level requires an attention to detail, deleted information, generalized information, as well as selected information. Correspondingly, active engagement of a person could assist the pastor in understanding the questions that his congregation is interested in as well as the areas of theological ignorance as well as hostility.


This essay has advocated a non-therapeutic approach to counseling, which I have called Intentional-Selective-Friendship. Our goal here was to begin to develop an approach to counseling that negatively sought to avoid the common pitfalls of mere unsolicited advice and positively to intentionally and actively established biblically based friendships that can be sorted through an understood within Aristotelian framework. The goal of this counseling is to embody the life of true scholarship in such a way that adequately administers advice tailored to the needs of specific students. The task is to recognize the different types of relationships, while at the same time seeking to deepen those relationships by transforming and inviting relationships to go from incidence to intentional selective biblical community. The goal of this community is the glory and worship of God. Although there was particular attention paid to the application of this approach in academic settings, it can virtually be applied to any real life setting.


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Gordon, David T. Why Johnny Can't Preach: the Media Have Shaped the Messengers. New Jersey: R & R Publishers, 2009.

Hawthorne, Gerald F. and Ralph P. Martin. Dictionary of Paul and His Letters. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press. 1993.

Lewis, Byron and Frank Pucelik. Magic of NLP Demystified: A Pragmatic Guide to Communication & change. Portland: Metamorphous Press, 1990.

Theilman, Frank. Theology of the New Testament: A Canonical and Synthetic Approach. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005.