I watched this conversation just now and found it fascinating. One of the things Sam said which really struck me was that if the church had been fulfilling its vocation to be a family, we wouldn’t have the same problem that we do now with same-sex attraction.
The church needs to rediscover its vocation to family, friendship, and intimacy (but not sexual intimacy!). The nuclear family is not the be-all and end-all – yet sadly the church has for far too long (perhaps unwittingly) preached the message that it is.
Anyway, I thought this was a great conversation and lots of food for thought there. I hope you enjoy it.
I’ve just finished reading David Bennett’s new book “A War of Loves“, subtitle “The unexpected story of a gay activist discovering Jesus”.
I’ve found it to be a really excellent book. If you want to read a review with lots of quotes from the book to see what I mean, have a look at David Robertson’s review.
I don’t really want to review the book per se, but given that this is Friend Zone I wanted to make a brief comment about what the book says about friendship.
This site originated largely as a result of same-sex attracted / gay Christians who have helped the church rediscover the value in friendship. I read people like Wesley Hill on Spiritual Friendship, Ed Shaw in The Plausibility Problem and Vaughan Roberts in True Friendship. What I think these people have rediscovered of late is that friendship is so much more than what society – not to mention the church – thinks it is.
When the church makes an idol of marriage and family, rather than showing the world what the body of Christ should be, then it’s small wonder that people who can’t enter into traditional families for various reasons feel excluded. (Kevin DeYoung recently had some helpful comments about idolising the family).
One of the things I took from this book is that the church has actually failed to live up to its calling to be the body of Christ – too often the biological family has been held up and friendship sidelined. It is for this reason that I think it’s so important to be embracing friendship: if the church can’t show the world that sex and romance is not god, then who can?
What would it be like if everyone in the church – both single and married – started seeing the world a bit different, started seeing marriage as a good thing but not the ultimate thing? What if we started opening up to friendship with others – to love one another deeply, from the heart (1 Peter 1:22)? What if we asked the Spirit to so transform us that we could really show the world what life could be without the idol of sex and romance in the way?
So many things in David’s book were helpful on this, and I think it’s a really helpful read from his perspective. I highly recommend reading it and I hope it will give to the church a much needed perspective on friendship.
Yesterday I watched Louis Theroux’s documentary Altered States: 1. Love Without Limits. It was a fascinating programme and one which is well worth reflecting on. It was documenting the rise of polyamory – that is, people who choose to live in ‘open’ relationships, with more than a single couple involved. It followed about three different groups (I can’t call them couples!) and explored how their relationships worked.
I have a few reflections which I’d like to talk about here, because I think the documentary has some relevance to what Friend Zone is about.
1. Polyamory is desire gone mad
It was painfully obvious, in every single arrangement, that there was at least one person getting the raw end of the deal. No-one came out and said they were unhappy with the polyamorous arrangement, but it didn’t take much reading between the lines to see that was the case.
The phrase ‘have your cake and eat it’ sprang to my mind more than once during the course of the programme. I think in every arrangement, it had originated with someone being unhappy and wanting to add to what they had rather than stop a relationship and start a new one. It was unhindered desire – human lust given licence.
2. One is not enough
One thing which was said repeatedly during the programme was ‘How can one person be enough?’ – i.e, one person is not supposed to fulfil every one of their partner’s needs. This is something I completely agree with – and a big part of the reason why Friend Zone is here.
However, the solution is completely different. Polyamory says – ‘one person can never be enough… therefore you need multiple sexual relationships’. This is the complete antithesis of Friend Zone: this site exists to say ‘one person can never be enough… therefore you need lots of friends.’ Which leads on to the third point.
3. No-one got what they wanted
It really struck me that all the people involved were searching for something, but they never really found it. One of the things I enjoy is being around couples who’ve been together a long time – couples who’ve been through thick and thin together, who are comfortable with each other. I believe that my wife and I, having been married for 12 years, are more comfortable with each other now than we were to start with – and I hope that will continue to grow through the course of our lives. Because marriage is an exclusive relationship, we have a commitment to each other which has grown – and the level of trust and love for each other has grown as well.
What really came home to me watching the polyamory documentary is that, by introducing sex into everything, the polyamorists didn’t get either marriage or friendship. There seemed to be a constant level of tension and unease in the relationships. There was no real commitment.
And it struck me that, in order to have deep friendships, one must be coming from a place of security: in order to relate to someone – especially someone of the opposite sex – you have to have the security of knowing what kind of relationship it is. If every relationship is potentially a sexual relationship, then it’s going to spoil everything from the start.
And this is why I am increasingly of the opinion that the traditional Christian understanding of marriage – as in, the lifelong union of a man and a woman – is good news for the world. It is the bedrock of healthy relationships: sexual intimacy belongs within the confines of marriage, and is safe there. Friendships can flourish when sexual intimacy is taken off the table. However, if sex is loosed from the confines of marriage, it destroys everything – friendship included. As (I believe) Ray Ortlund said: “Sex is like fire: in the fireplace, it keeps you warm. Out of the fireplace, it burns the house down.”
I read an interesting article today about the Strictly ‘curse’. This is a curse which applies to contestants on the TV show Strictly Come Dancing:
As the years have passed, there have been so many relationship break-ups among the show’s contestants, that the phenomenon has become known as the “Strictly curse”. And the latest scandal has been grabbing headlines all week as professional dancer Katya Jones and Comedian Seann Walsh have had their private lives made excruciatingly public.
I hadn’t realised this before now, but apparently there have now been ten couples who have broken up as a result of Strictly. In some ways it’s not surprising:
Jeremy Vine, who himself has a Christian faith and has been married for 16 years said he had feelings he couldn’t explain towards his partner when he was on Strictly: “Suddenly I’m seeing someone who is like a goddess – super human. The power and the strength and grace of that person, and then you are spending eight, nine hours a day within two inches of them.”
I’m not really a fan of Strictly – I’ve watched it on occasion. But I have always wondered how it’s possible for a man and a woman to partner so closely together in such a physical way without there being a sexual element. However, since starting up Friend Zone, it has made me wonder whether I’ve been a bit short sighted.
I think most people would cite the ‘Strictly’ curse as powerful evidence for believing if you get ‘too close’ to a member of the opposite sex, you’ll end up having an affair. There are plenty of examples of this happening, not just on Strictly! But, as discussed on this site, the solution is not simply to avoid those relationships. I often think of Aimee Byrd’s book and its subtitle: Avoidance is not purity.
I wonder whether part of the problem for those dancers on Strictly is that when it comes to relationships between men and women, the only ‘box’ they have to put things in is that of sexual attraction. If you start to have ‘feelings’ for someone else, then it clearly must be sexual. So the only two options are: (1) deny it, and keep the relationship at a superficial level; (2) give in to it.
But, as discussed here before, attraction is not one-dimensional. I think too often attraction is assumed to be sexual because that’s just about the only thing our society knows. It’s easy to confuse them, and of course Christians should expect nothing less given that sin is disordered desire. I explored recently on the blog whether we have lost our ability to see beauty – and I think you can see something of that in Jeremy Vine’s comment. It’s one thing to admire beauty, it’s something else to want that beauty in a sexual way. But that’s not to say that it’s impossible for a man and a woman to be involved in dancing together, have a close relationship, and yet for it to be pure.
I’m not sure I’d like to be a contestant on Strictly, to be honest. I think it would be a lot of pressure – and, of course, the times when we are weakest are often times when we are under the most pressure. That said, I think there are a couple of things to say: (1) I wonder if the outcome for those couples would have been different if they had a better understanding of friendship between the sexes. Sometimes a different way of viewing the world makes all the difference. (2) Christians understand that sin does not spring for our external circumstances but from our hearts. We do not sin because we are tempted, we sin because our hearts give in to the temptation. The solution to the Strictly curse is not taking people out of those circumstances, but by changing hearts – something which, ultimately, only Jesus can do.
I read an article this morning which is becoming depressingly familiar – although, worryingly, largely ignored by the media and politicians. The biggest single factor when it comes to child’s mental health is family breakdown. I was particularly struck by this paragraph:
Second, the relationship with the opposite-sex parent matters. On the face of it, having a close relationship with either parent seems to benefit teens equally. But when you throw all these other factors into the mix – parents’ marital status, happiness, relationship quality, use of physical force, education, ethnicity – it’s closeness to mum that matters specifically for boys and closeness to dad that matters specifically for girls.
This is really a no-brainer, and yet it is apparently controversial in this day and age to suggest that a child does best with its mother and father. How else is a boy going to learn how to relate to women than through close family relationships with mother, sister, etc – but especially the mother? How else is a girl going to learn how to relate to men than with a father in particular? When children are deprived of those things – and in its place comes the fake way that men and women relate in pornography – then is it any surprise that they grow up unable to form meaningful relationships with the opposite sex?
Over the past few months I’ve met quite a few new people through baby & toddler groups I help to run. It has really come home to me just how many children are living in situations which a generation or two ago would have been the rarity: many family situations are what we used to call ‘complicated’. What are we creating as a society when this is the new normal?
This is what Friend Zone is about. Friend Zone is a small step to help restore what is broken in the world. Just because someone grew up without a parent doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be able to form meaningful friendships with the opposite sex. The goal here is to not just show what’s broken, but try to point to a better way. Articles like this simply convince me even further that this is the right path.
Last year, Aisling Bea wrote a moving article about her father, who committed suicide when she was very young. In it she wrote:
My father’s death has given me a lot. It has given me a lifelong love of women, of their grittiness and hardness – traits that we are not supposed to value as feminine. It has also given me a love of men, of their vulnerability and tenderness – traits that we do not foster as masculine or allow ourselves to associate with masculinity.
I’m very grateful to her for bringing this issue up, as it is very often overlooked. Male suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK – 84 take their own lives every week!
So what should we do about it? Aisling occasionally speaks on Twitter about the need for men to open up more about their feelings, to build friendships and support each other. I think she’s right – but I think there’s more to be said.
In particular, too often I think it’s simply assumed that men should open up to other men. Not that there’s anything wrong with opening up to other men, of course – but why should it be restricted to men, and not women?
A few years ago, shortly after university, I had a mixed group of friends who would meet up regularly. Occasionally the girls would have a girls night – and so one of my male friends decided that the boys should have a boys night instead. We had those on a couple of occasions. To be honest with you, I didn’t really like the boys nights so much – we just didn’t really have so much to say to each other. It wasn’t an evening with free flowing conversation, shall we say! Now maybe this is because of our particular personalities (mostly introverts…) – but I don’t think it’s the only reason.
In any social grouping, my preference is always for mixed-sex rather than men-only (obviously I can’t be part of women-only groups…) I just feel it works better. And that’s what we should expect given the differences between men and women. I have different conversations with men than I have with women – which is perfectly natural. I personally have benefited from the friendships I’ve had with both men and women – they each bring out a different side in me. I do generally find it easier to talk about my feelings and ’emotional life’ with women – it would feel quite forced and strange to have a conversation with another man about my emotional state.
I wonder if part of the problem with male suicide at the moment is that men are finding it more difficult to relate to women. In the past men might have been able to talk to a close female family member – a spouse, sister or mother, perhaps – but now good relationships even in the family are harder to find. Men and women need healthy relationships with the opposite sex – the problems cannot all be solved by single-sex friendship.
So what should we do?
I would say to men – don’t neglect friendship of any sort. Many men unfortunately do neglect friendship (especially once they’re in a long-term relationship) – but it doesn’t have to be that way. Keep your friends, keep talking to them, don’t let it slide. However – I would say – don’t neglect friendship with the opposite sex: maybe there are women around who you could talk to, who would love to help.
I would say to women – don’t neglect your male friends. Don’t assume everything is OK with them – men are also vulnerable. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.
There is no easy answer to this question – but I am convinced that the problem of male suicide is not just a problem for men to solve but for everyone. I believe this is another example of why Friend Zone is necessary – we need men and women to pull together on this, and many other things.
I’ve just finished reading Aimee Byrd’s new book “Why can’t we be friends”. The summary version of this is, it’s a great book and I would thoroughly recommend it!
What I like is how Aimee builds the case – she particularly looks at friendship of men and women from the perspective of being brothers and sisters in Christ, and goes into some detail about what that means for us. This is a book which I think will be difficult to argue with – and, from the conversations I’ve had even since starting this site, sorely needed.
As I was reading the book I highlighted some of my favourite quotes, let me give you a few of them before coming to my thoughts:
“To view the other sex as constant temptations to sin and threats to purity merely perpetuates the thinking and behaviour of the unredeemed.” – What Aimee said about sexual temptation was great. If we only see each other as sexually – as our culture encourages men and women to do – then the way to combat that will be to avoid contact with those of the opposite sex. What needs changing is not the time we spend together but – more fundamentally – how we see each other as men and women.
“We are to strive for real wisdom, not the appearance of wisdom. We are to live according to who we are. Real wisdom will discern that pharisaical hard and fast rules only give faux safety and faux friendship.” This is very much what Friend Zone is about – I liked what Aimee said about avoidance and purity. Avoidance gives the appearance of wisdom – but does not come from God. Purity is a purity of the heart, which can only come from God through the Holy Spirit. We can’t fake purity through following rules.
“Is it possible that we misread appropriate feelings due to the overly sexualised messages we hear, don’t know how to recognise or maturely handle them, and resist the intimacy that we could experience as brothers and sisters?” This is in a chapter where Aimee talks about attraction – something I have blogged on recently. I thought this was very insightful – attraction is not simply a black/white thing (as our culture tends to make out) – i.e. if you’re attracted to someone, it’s not necessarily a sexual thing.
These are a few choice quotes, but there are more – do pick up a copy and see!
I only have a couple of mildly critical points about the book:
The writing is perfectly accessible, but I’m not sure I would recommend this book to absolutely everyone at my church. I think it would help to have a reasonably mature knowledge of the Bible and some theological understanding. Maybe I underestimate people, but I can see this book going a little ‘over the heads’ of some of the folk in our congregation. A few more stories might have helped.
This is just a matter of personal style, but I think the book tailed off a little towards the end – I wonder whether so much needed to be said in so much detail about the sibling relationship. It’s all good stuff, but maybe it would have been punchier to have a little less content.
At the end of the day, I left the book feeling encouraged – encouraged that others are thinking about this issue as well, and writing such good books about it. The church is beginning to have some excellent resources on male-female friendship and, I hope, beginning to wake up and take note.
But I also feel encouraged because I left feeling that there’s so much more to say. As I got to the end of the book, it struck me that there are many more angles on this which weren’t covered. I don’t say that as a negative – just that I have realised this topic is so much bigger than I thought it was a few months ago. Recently someone said to me that the big battle of the early 21st century church is going to be anthropology – what it means to be human. Being male or female is fundamental to what it means to be human – we’re not just sexual beings, we are whole people. I wonder if God is working in the church at the moment to bring about some careful thinking about what it means to be embodied creatures, male and female, and how we relate.
Either way, it is an encouragement to carry on with Friend Zone and to persist in thinking through these important questions in applying the Bible to the problems of our age.
‘Men and women can’t be friends – the sex part always gets in the way.’ (When Harry Met Sally, 1989)
It’s thirty years since Billy Crystal told Meg Ryan they couldn’t be friends and during that time, Western society’s obsession with sex has only grown. We are witnessing more and more of its ugly fruit in the breakdown of relationships between men and women.
The #MeToo movement has recently opened the floodgates for women to speak up about sexual harassment and abuse that they’ve experienced. But #MeToo is simply the tip of the iceberg. Mark Regnerus’ 2017 book Cheap Sex offers a terrifying account of the extent of the problem, and its effect on the younger generation.
I’m afraid you’ll have to buy the magazine to read the rest – but it’s worth it for some other good articles by Emma Scrivener, James Cary, and Ros Clarke. In particular I enjoyed reading what Ros had to say about the body in Christian theology – something I’ve been thinking about with respect to Friend Zone. But probably the subject of another blog!
One thing I would have mentioned in the article if it had been published at the time was Aimee Byrd’s new book, which I mentioned yesterday (keep your eyes out for a review here in the next week or two).
One sign that God is at work is when several people come up with the same idea at the same time. If God is working in various different people, provoking in them the same kind of answers, it may well be a work of the Spirit. I think this is the case with friendship: a number of people have written about it now, and I hope that many people are more switched on to the idea.
Case in point: I just saw this morning that Aimee Byrd has written a new book about friendship between men and women, “Why can’t we be friends?” Which is subtitled ‘Avoidance is not purity’. You can read an extract from the book here – “we don’t view each other holistically.”
Friendship between men and women is a taboo topic in the evangelical subculture. It makes us uncomfortable. Apparently, we are all time bombs on the brink of having an affair—or of being accused of having one. Because of this, men and women often feel uncomfortable around each other, even in innocent contexts, and we impose strict hedges on behavior in order to avoid the threat of sexual impropriety.
Most of us instinctively know what constitutes sexual impropriety in conversation and action—but, due to influence from our overly sexualized culture, we tend to scandalize ordinary acts of kindness and business. It becomes suspect to give someone a ride, share a meal with a coworker in a public place, or text the other sex without copying our spouses or another third party. Prohibitions of these acts are couched in language of protecting our purity, honoring our spouses, or wisely avoiding the threat of temptation. Challenge any of these suggestions, however, and the language of danger is invoked. If these ordinary acts are dangerous, it must be downright foolish to use a meaningful term like friendship to describe a relationship between the sexes.
Needless to say, this book has gone straight on the reading list and I will aim to review it properly in due course. From what I’ve seen so far, it seems that Aimee Byrd has written a book which resonates very much with everything that Friend Zone is about. I hope that many people will read it and come to discover what friendship is all about.
There’s been a bit of a storm created over the last few days about the Revoice Conference. The conference description says: “Supporting, encouraging, and empowering gay, lesbian, same-sex-attracted, and other LGBT Christians so they can flourish while observing the historic, Christian doctrine of marriage and sexuality”.
This has created a big discussion online – for a start, Douglas Wilson has some links to different people as well as his own take. The gist seems to be (1) is it OK to identify as a ‘gay’ Christian? (this is what Owen Strachan takes issue with); (2) it’s not right to explore the bounds of celibacy as to what is appropriate for same-sex attracted Christians.
I don’t want to talk about the first issue as that has been going on for some time. I do want to talk about the issue of celibacy, as it’s relevant to what we’re about here at Friend Zone.
Doug Wilson says this in his piece:
As Hill’s book makes plain, a commitment to celibacy does not prevent one from falling in love with a best friend, or from being heartbroken when that friend moves away. So on one end of the spectrum we have a prohibition of sexual consummation, and in the context of this Revoice conference, no one disagrees about that. But on the other end, what is legitimate? Where is the line supposed to be? When does okay turn into not okay?
Some of my questions might seem ludicrous, or impertinent, but I am in deadly earnest. Suppose that an oath-bound set of friends—what Hill is arguing for—is living together. They are committed to celibacy, which means . . . what, exactly? What does day-to-day life look like in the home? We would appear to know of the one thing prohibited (although even the boundaries of that may be uncertain), but there would also appear to be a wide range of things that still need to be discussed.
But in this new world of blurry definitions, what does celibacy not allow? Is hand-holding out? When they are watching a movie, how close can they sit together? Can they cuddle? When a man falls in love with his friend, is that a violation of the commitment to celibacy? I think it is high time for someone to define celibacy. What do you mean by it? Does a commitment to celibacy exclude sleeping together? Showering together? Nudity? Physical, affectionate contact? Hand-holding? Back rubs? Falling in love? If there is sexual arousal, but no orgasm, is that still celibacy? If a man falls in love with his celibate partner, and they kiss, but it goes no further, is that celibacy?
This is interesting because I think it raises a question around the nature of sin and sanctification which underlies this disagreement.
Sin, I think all would agree, is more than simply actions – it comes from the heart. Luke 6:45 says, “The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks” (ESV). It’s not just the mouth – we know that sin proceeds because our hearts are impure, not the other way round. Our actions do not make us impure – impure actions flow from impure hearts. Therefore – the only solution is to fix the heart problem, not to fix our actions. God alone can fix our heart problem – these oft-quoted verses from Ezekiel 36 prophecy what God was to accomplish in Jesus: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws” (Ezekiel 36:26-27).
So we need new hearts, we need to be renewed by the Spirit. I think all would agree so far. God takes our sinful desires and transforms them into gospel desires. We are renewed from the inside out. It’s important to remember that the goal is not for us simply to avoid what is sinful but to love.
The issues seem to be (1) here exactly does same-sex attraction ‘fit’ within this? Is it ENTIRELY bad, or is there something good which is horribly distorted by sin? (2) is it actually possible for our desires to be truly transformed? Is it reasonable to expect that this side of glory?
Let me give an example from my own life. I am a married man, but I occasionally find women who I am not married to attractive. I used to think this was an entirely sinful thing and repent of it all – but, the thing is, it didn’t stop attraction happening, and it actually led to me basically avoiding women for fear of what might happen. In my mind, avoiding women became the way I dealt with sin. Over time, I have started to see that I was wrong here – or at least, only partially right. As I said previously, attraction is not one-dimensional: it has multiple dimensions – some of them are good and right and godly, some of them are bad and wrong and sinful. It has been in recognising this that I’ve been able to take steps towards friendship – when I meet a woman where there is attraction, I find it helpful to think that there are some good things about my feelings as well as some which are sinful. Through prayer and the work of the Holy Spirit, as I repent and turn to Christ, I hope that what is bad is decreasing whereas what is good is increasing. I wonder if something of this is going on with Christians who experience same-sex attraction – is the desire entirely wrong, or is there something which can be redeemed?
I often return to 2 Peter 1:3, “His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.” We don’t lack the tools here – we have the Holy Spirit, we have the gospel, sinful hearts can be made new and desires restored.
Returning to Doug Wilson’s piece, I disagree with his argument around celibacy. It seems to me the Revoice conference is not about trying to push the boundaries of what might be permissible – the Bible is quite clear that we are called to absolute sexual purity. You can’t have a little bit of sexual purity! At the same time, I think it is right to explore what celibacy and friendship looks like – not for the point of ‘pushing the bounds’, but rather what love might look like in these cases. Physical contact is not necessarily sexual – in some cultures, for example, it’s quite normal for two men to hold hands. It’s not about trying to do everything right up until crossing some kind of red line! It’s about working out what sanctification and holiness look like in a specific set of circumstances.
My contention, and this is partly why Friend Zone is here, is this: we live in a sexually saturated world. Everything is affected by it. Christians need to show the world not just how to avoid doing anything wrong, sexually, but more – that there is a better way. Sex is not God. Desires can be transformed, sinners can be forgiven – and that love is truly possible without the corruption of sexual desire. Maybe I am being over-optimistic, but what I read from the pages of the New Testament is that God doesn’t call us to anything which he doesn’t also provide the resources for. If God is calling the church to a new area of sexual purity and holiness, one which has perhaps been unexplored for a long time, then maybe it’s time for the church to listen.