When it comes to same-sex relationships and the church, I’ve heard more and more people propose some sort of committed, same-sex, non-sexual romantic friendships for those who want to uphold the Christian sexual ethic.
This, they say, avoids the supposed loneliness of singleness while upholding biblical standards of sexual behavior.
(Much of what Sam says is helpful and you should read the rest of the article).
I’d just like to pick up on one thing, the use of the word romantic. Now, I’m not quite sure who has been proposing ‘romantic’ friendships. I know there are couples like the women who write A Queer Calling, but I’m not sure whether they would describe their relationship as a ‘romantic’ one.
I think one has to be careful in defining things here. Clearly there is more to distinguish between marriage and friendship than simply sex: friendship is a different kind of relationship than marriage. As a married man, I hope I am qualified to say that!
At the same time, I do wonder whether there is some room to explore the concept of friendship further – and I don’t mean in a ‘romantic’ direction.
Sam makes much of the fact that marriage is an exclusive relationship, whereas friendship is not, and gives the example of a hiking holiday where having two friends with him actually made a better trip. The thing is, I think this could apply as much to marriage as it does friendship: I enjoy times with my wife alone as well as other people – everything about friendship applies to marriage. The only thing, virtually by definition, which is exclusive about marriage is sex – and, we might add, romance. But what is romance?
Romance is a pretty broad term, I suggest it might be helpful to think of romance as being things which ultimately are about sex: a romantic dinner date, for example, as preparation for a romantic night. You could call it ‘wooing’ – there’s a word which doesn’t get used often enough.
But a lot of romance is what’s going on in the minds of those involve: two people having a ‘romantic’ dinner will look basically the same as two good friends having dinner – the only difference being what they are thinking, and where they think it’s going to end up.
So, when it comes to friendship, I wonder: if you (rightly) take romance out of the equation, where does that leave you?
I’m not going to offer any answers her per se, other than to say this is what I am working on with this site. I just think there is a space here to develop our understanding of friendship – in a non-romantic way.
So I think the answer to the question, ‘May Christians have non-sexual romantic relationships?’ is a firm ‘no’. Romance, as I’ve defined it, should not play any part in non-marriage relationships. But, on the other hand, I would say the answer to the question ‘Is there a space to develop our understanding of n non-romantic friendship?’ is ‘yes’.
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.
A couple of days ago I saw this video pop up on YouTube. It’s a short but worthwhile watch.
The role of friendship in sanctification – that is, in making us more like the people God wants us to be – is often overlooked. I think too often we see sanctification as something which happens as a sort of ‘just me and the Lord’ affair, and we neglect our brothers and sisters in Christ.
That’s partly the reason why Friend Zone exists. If society’s obsession with sex causes problems with men and women relating, is that a problem that will be solved with a “just me and God” approach? Or do we need each other to help? Perhaps this is a problem which God wants us to solve in friendship with each other. Just a thought!
‘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).
Wesley Hill has written an article about friendship called Love, Again. He explains why he – a Christian, celibate gay man – befriends couples. In it, he tells his story of a friendship which went wrong. The whole article is worth reading – it’s well worth your time – but I just want to focus on one point which he makes. He says:
What I didn’t realize, though, is that, for the intentionally abstinent, giving up sex is only part of the deal, and there’s more than one line you can step across.
What he goes on to describe is a friendship which took on a bigger part in his life than it should:
Spencer was God’s solution to my loneliness, I was convinced. And, in so many words, I told God that I had made my peace with sexual abstinence—so long as I got to keep my friendship, the closest friendship I’d ever had, with Spencer. That was the deal. I felt confident about it, at peace with it, ready to shoulder the burdens of the decades ahead, so long as Spencer could live next door.
One of the issues we humans have is that of idolatry – the worship of created things (as in, things created by God) rather than God. In other words, exchanging the worship rightly due our Creator with the worship of created things. This exchange is described by Paul in Romans 1, but also Jeremiah 2:13 – “My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.” (Tim Keller wrote a book about this called Counterfeit Gods).
A god is something that we look to instead of the true God to provide us with security, prosperity, happiness, fulfilment, etc. And of course, the ‘gods’ we put in the place of God cannot satisfy. They might satisfy for a while – but we will be placing an intolerable burden on them.
This is why I think what Wesley says is helpful: it demonstrates what happens when a good thing – a friendship – becomes a ‘god thing’: a god substitute. It’s a salutary reminder that, as he says, there’s more than one boundary we can cross. It’s not enough simply to avoid lust – far more fundamental is the gods we worship.
I have a couple of thoughts about this:
Idolatry is not exclusive to friendships. Many couples go off the rails because they expect their partner to fulfil their every desire, when in actual fact only God can do that. If you put your spouse in the place of God, you will have real problems!
The solution to the problem is not avoidance. I’ve said several times on the site that the solution to lust is not to avoid those you are attracted to! It’s a matter of being transformed to love rather than simply avoid sin. It’s the same with idolatry – when we are let down by people or things, the solution is not to avoid those things but rather put our hope and trust in the Lord. I believe that God sometimes gives us this kind of experience to help us know more deeply the truth that only he satisfies our deepest longings. Much of what I’ve already said about immorality could be applied to idolatry also.
It’s helpful to be reminded that in relationships it’s always possible to go wrong in more than one way – we focus on lust because it in society it is perhaps the most visible, obvious issue. But the first greatest commandment is to love the Lord God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength – if we go wrong with that, we don’t do well with loving our neighbour as ourselves.
The article then goes on to say that friendships are important in combatting loneliness – but they can be difficult to form as adults.
Clinical psychologist Linda Blair agrees that this can be difficult to achieve: “Usually the basis of making a friend is a shared experience.” These are often in abundance in our earlier years, but once those easy opportunities are gone, you can forget that the initial basis for a friendship is to have a similar passion or interest. Joining a group or class based on something you really love, or volunteering for something you care about, can be a great first step for finding friendships, she advises.
The article then looks at the experience of a few people who have found friends in adult life, and concludes with some tips about finding friends from Linda Blair. Her tips made me think of how I would put it with Friend Zone – there are a few key differences as well as similarities.
Her tips, and my response:
Build your self-confidence.
She says: “When you’re comfortable with yourself, it shines out of you.” She seems to be saying, “Make sure that you’re an attractive person – the kind of person someone would want to be a friend to.”
This is probably the key difference with Christian friendship: friendship is not based on how much you think you can get out of the other person, but rather how much you can give. God doesn’t love us because we are worthy of his love – he loves us because he is love.
This is how the book of Deuteronomy talks about why God chose the Israelite people:
The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath he swore to your ancestors that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt. Know therefore that the Lord your God is God; he is the faithful God, keeping his covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commandments. (Deut 7:7-9)
The Lord chose them because he loved them. Why did he love them? Because he chose to. God’s love is not arbitrary, but neither is it dependent on the worthiness of the recipient. God loves us because he chooses to love – not because we deserve it. And we are called to love others in the same way: Jesus said, “As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34).
I think this is hugely significant: truly deep relationships are built not on presenting ourselves as perfect and wanting for nothing, but rather as sinful, imperfect people who are desperately in need of a Saviour. When we let other people in to what we are truly like, that is the gateway to true friendship. Friendship is not built around a projected image of self-confidence, but rather a shared experience of our brokenness.
Find something you feel passionate about
Of course, if you meet a fellow Christian, whatever else you may or may not have in common there is one thing at least: Jesus and his kingdom. I’m always struck in church by how different people are – many of the people in church I wouldn’t naturally be friends with. We are a variety of ages, ethnic backgrounds, jobs, etc – and yet, our common ‘interest’ in Jesus is what unites us. And, in fact, should unite us – the church is called ‘the body of Christ’ for a reason. Paul talks a lot about unity in the book of Ephesians: “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3). Where the church exists, so should unity (although it doesn’t always in a sinful world!)
I often think of Christian friendship as being about two people walking together towards Jesus – helping each other on the same road.
Put yourself out there
This is related to the first point, but I think here again is a difference in the Christian way of doing things. I would say – it’s not about promoting ourselves, rather it’s about taking an interest in others. Don’t ‘put yourself out there’ as a great friend to find. Take an interest in others – talk to them, get to know them, help them. Be a great friend. I remember reading a quote once which is apt: “I went out to find a friend, and not one could be found. I went out to be a friend, and friends were everywhere.” The second greatest commandment, as Jesus told us, is to “love your neighbour as yourself.” This involves talking to people, taking an interest, being a friend to them.
Meet in a neutral place
I remember learning about the importance of ‘third places’ – that is, places which are not home (first place) or work (second place). Church, of course, can be a good ‘third (neutral) place’ – most churches these days meet in a dedicated building (or community centre, school etc) – not in a private home. Relationships can easily develop in a church environment without the pressure of being in a one-to-one situation too quickly.
It’s important to find out about the other person – we already covered this under ‘put yourself out there’.
Don’t expect too much
Recently at church we did the Life Explored course. The main message of Life Explored is that only God can satisfy our deepest longings. If we are banking on anything human (or anything created by humans) to give us happiness – ultimately it will not satisfy. This includes friendships. Idolatry – worshipping something other than God – is real and it is destructive. The first most important commandment is to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength – if we do not love him, we will be loving other things. If we do not love and worship God first and foremost, we will be disappointed by whatever we do love and worship.
Idolatry happens when good things become ‘god’ things – when the good things we have as gifts from God replace him. Christians are warned about these things in the Bible. However, we know that a gift can best be appreciated when it is received with joy from the giver – we don’t think of the gift as greater than the giver, but we can appreciate it for what it is. Friendship is like this: when understood as a wonderful gift from God, we can truly enjoy it for everything it has to offer.
I hope that this has been helpful in thinking about Christian friendship – do please explore the rest of the site for more!