In chapter 3 of Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian, Wesley Hill gives a biblical argument for friendship. You could call it a theology of friendship. This might not seem to be a typical category of theology that you’d think of, but Wesley points out several arguments that have been made against friendship by Christians before pointing to primary passages for it. The main argument against friendship is that it is based on preference, while as Christians we are called to love all, even our enemies, without partiality.
John 15:13, Proverbs 18:24, Proverbs 17:17 gives biblical vocabulary for friendship, and Wesley spends time showing how the friendships of Ruth & Naomi, David & Jonathan, Jesus & Lazarus, and Jesus & John give biblical examples of the types of deep friendships Wesley describes. These are friendships that go as deep, if not deeper than a familial or even romantic relationship would.
The idea that friendships can go deeper than family or romance is a pretty bold claim in a culture that worships romance, is built around family ties, and only sees friendship as casual relationships, typically based around recreation and fun, that come and go as life circumstances change.
In Mark 3:32-35, Jesus talks about how these Christian friendships will be deeper than familial ties. Referencing Galatians 3:27-28 and 1 Corinthians 12:13, Hill concludes that,
Gradually, then, the ancient idea of friendship…wasn’t so much abandoned in the early church (as Kierkegaard thought) as it was transformed…friendship was now shaped by the cross and the empty tomb. No longer would believers gravitate only toward their social equals; now they would form committed, permanent relationships of affection that cut across lines of enslaved versus free, wealthy versus poor, highborn versus peasant.”Spiritual Friendship, PAGE 57
A question I plan to ask Wesley in our upcoming interview is in the tension between this wide definition of friendship and where he talks elsewhere about deep, committed, 1 on 1 lifetime covenant friendships. I love this Christian understanding of a widened friendship, one that doesn’t create friendship bonds over self-serving affinity, but forms them based on the relationship we now share in Jesus. But I can’t have a 1 on 1 lifetime covenant friendship with all of those people. That level of commitment just isn’t sustainable with more than 1, maybe 2 people. And in those lifetime covenant friendships, it seems that those must be forged through mutual affinity and connection, where you’d choose this type of friend in a similar way you would choose a spouse. Because otherwise, how could this friendship be life-giving and again, sustainable?
The beginning of chapter 4 marks the beginning of Part 2 (of 2) of the book, where Wesley really starts to get into the weeds of living out covenant friendship, particularly as a gay Christian. He begins the chapter describing a conversation he once had with a reader of his first book Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality, whom he calls Conor. Conor is gay / same-sex attracted and committed to being celibate, like Wesley. He affirms the Bible’s teaching on marriage and sex being between a man and a woman, as Wesley does. Conor’s conundrum is when he tries investing in friendships with guys, he many times will unintentionally develop romantic and/or erotic feelings toward the man he is trying to be friends with. He comes to Wesley for help.
What you have to love and appreciate about Wesley and his writing is that he is dealing with real issues for real people. I find it is so easy for heterosexual married pastors to come up with cookie cutter sermons and treatises on what the Bible says on homosexuality that are just preaching to the choir. They are really only intended to help biblically conservative, heterosexual Christians feel good about their biblical position on a sin that they don’t struggle with at all. These teachings have little-to-no intention of actually helping gay / same-sex attracted Christians who are held in a daily chokehold by their same-sex attraction, something they have little-to-no control over. These church leaders give them very little in the way of options or action steps, which is why so many end up turning away from the Church and pursuing gay sexual relationships and/or keep things bottled up inside with no one to help them as they struggle down paths of deep depression and suicide.
What would you say to Conor? I am thankful that Wesley is willing to walk the difficult path with gay / same-sex attracted Christians. Even if you disagree with all of his conclusions, you have to see that we must deal in reality and with grace and compassion to those who experience same-sex attraction and give them real options for getting their relational and emotional needs for love met.
Things get real here and I’m sure will provide for a lively interview with Wesley. He asks the question often posed by those concerned with gay / same-sex attracted Christians vowing a lifetime commitment of friendship:
If friendship becomes a solution to loneliness, won’t that make it edge ever closer toward becoming just another form of romance, all the more complicated because it’s calling itself “friendship”?Spiritual friendship, page 69
Friendship is seen as being blurred and confused with romantic, sexual love.
Thinking of Conor’s, his own, and so many other gay / same-sex attracted Christians’ experiences, Wesley says:
If we couldn’t eradicate our homosexuality, and if we couldn’t, therefore, entirely separate out our romantic attractions to men from our desire to be friends with men, then were we simply in a situation that meant we would never experience real friendship–friendship, that is, unalloyed with erotic feelings? Were we double doomed…What were we supposed to do?spiritual friendship, page 73
Hill concludes that giving up one thing (gay sex, in this case) is always about the embrace of another.
A loss or a place of pain becomes a gateway into a greater benefit that one wouldn’t have been able to find without the loss and pain. And that benefit is best described as a “vocation,” a calling and a divinely given commission, to make one’s loss and pain a means of service to others.spiritual friendship, PAGE 75
My being gay and saying no to gay sex may lead me to be more of a friend to men, not less.Spiritual friendship, page 81
Hill gives this specific clarification on friendship among gay / same-sex attracted Christians:
Perhaps celibate gay and lesbian Christians, precisely in and out of their celibacy, are called to express, rather than simply renounce and deny, same-sex love. And perhaps this is where, for all the potential trials and temptations that come with this way of thinking, same-sex friendship represents one way for gay Christians who wish to be celibate to say: “I am embracing a positive calling. I am, along with every other Christian, called to love and be loved.spiritual friendship, page 76
I think one reason it’s difficult for biblically conservative heterosexual Christians (myself included) to digest what Hill says here is because when we hear “same-sex love,” we instantly think of sex and romance. But the love I have for my male friends is same-sex love. Our culture’s obsession with sex has made it so it’s hard to even think of the concept of love outside of sex anymore, which is precisely the problem making so many so lonely. Single people are lonely because they don’t have a sexual partner and married people are lonely because they bought the lie that sex would extinguish their loneliness.
At the end of the day, Hill is saying that his same-sex attractions are inescapably bound up with his gift for and calling to friendship (pages 78-79).
As far as the many temptations this calling brings, particularly when the friendship is between two gay men in Wesley’s case, he says he knows he needs accountability. He needs trusted counselors who can serve as his sounding board and reality check, making sure he isn’t allowing himself to rationalize immature, irresponsible sexual behavior in his quest to find deep friendship (page 79).
He goes on to say:
Despite what you might conclude from cultural sound bites, being gay isn’t only, or even primarily, about what people choose to do in bed…being gay colors everything about me, even though I’m celibate. It’s less a separable piece of my experience, like a shelf in my office (separate from other shelves)…and more like the proverbial drop of ink in a glass of water: not identical with the water, but also not entirely distinct from it either.spiritual friendship, page 80
This is a huge topic amongst Christians trying to navigate this topic. Many teach that everyone should use the label “same-sex attracted” instead of “gay” because of the sin and sexual connotation that “gay” brings, particularly as an identifier (versus identity in Christ as a new creation). There are good points to be made with that argument and it’s not my intent to refute that teaching here. What I want to do is bring up one of the sticking points in this debate, and that is the inability of heterosexual Christians to understand how being gay colors everything about a gay person, not simply their sexual actions. (And how could we? We aren’t gay. We think that since our heterosexual attraction is like one shelf on our wall, separate from the other shelves of our life, it is this way for gay/SSA people as well. But once you start talking to gay people, you discover this is not the case for many, if not most of them.) And if the sexual actions are what God calls sinful, then many Christians with same-sex attraction still choose to use the identifier of “gay” as Wesley shows here, as it allows them to simply be themselves, but not be in sin. This is a huge topic with more branches than I have room here to write on here, including our fallen nature and sinful desires, different from willful or actual sin, which we’ll get into another time! But we need to chew on and consider both sides of this question. I’m looking forward to hearing Wesley’s perspective here.
I will conclude this post with words Wesley uses to conclude his chapter and words he spoke to Conor:
Perhaps, in the end, that determination to make the best of a complex, fraught set of circumstances is where those of us who are Christian, gay, and committed to celibacy all find ourselves, sooner or later.Spiritual friendship, page 84
Wesley is trying to make the best of the situation he was given, and trying to help others make the best of theirs as well. The waters are murkier than we’d like, but I hope you and I are helping gay / SSA brothers and sisters make the best of it too.