Editor’s Note: Matthew Loftus, a family physician, will soon leave his current life in Sandtown, Baltimore to move with his wife and children to South Sudan, where he will serve at His House of Hope Hospital. A writer for multiple publications such as MereOrthodoxy.com, ChristandPopCulture.com, First Things, and The American Conservative, he is also a regular columnist for Christianity Today. Matthew is a personal friend to some of us who write here at SF, and it’s an honor to have his first “guest post” with us today. — Wesley Hill
The author with his family, some of whom have disordered inclinations towards the unnatural use of their tongues.
Unlike many other people who write or post on social media about the Church and LGBT relations, I don’t have a lot of gay friends. I have a handful of close friends who are either out publicly or who have confided about their sexuality to me, but I haven’t had to walk through the same difficult journeys that many others have experienced as they tried to support and care for loved ones who wrestled with their faith and sexuality. Even the intense conversations I’ve had with my gay and lesbian friends who introduced me to Wesley Hill’s Washed & Waiting and the rest of the Spiritual Friendship crew have not exactly been epochal for any of us involved.
When Wesley found out about this, he asked me to write about why I was still so interested in Spiritual Friendship. It had never struck me that a big emotional investment was necessary to be sharing and commenting on SF posts, but the question was a great opportunity for me to reflect: why should straight people care about Spiritual Friendship and the questions taken up here?
The most obvious initial draw for me was the role that sexuality has played in broader cultural discourse. Growing up in an era of “worldview training,” I heard over and over again that the battle for a traditional understanding of marriage was crucial and that reckoning with the issues of sexual orientation was necessary if there was any hope of advancing the Christian cultural witness. Few other things fascinated me as a teenager the way that sex, theology, and politics did, naturally inclining me to read everything I could in books like How Should We Then Live? or online sources like various Focus on the Family websites.
As I was coming of age, though, the narrative held by conservative Christian subculture that emphasized half-baked theories about why people choose a certain sexual orientation and the power of “orientation change” was beginning to unravel. The answers that I had used to justify the natural discontent between a traditional view of sexuality and the contemporary notions of love and gender were being exposed as brittle and unsatisfactory, just as I was starting to meet people who were gay and lesbian at college for the first time.
Spiritual Friendship filled the gap and helped me see that faithfulness to Scripture didn’t have to necessarily be shoehorned into a political fight. The instinct for any culture warrior, of course, is to use the emerging narrative of vocational celibacy among gay Christians as another weapon against the social forces we don’t like. While the writing of Spiritual Friendship is more resistant to this sort of weaponization than any “ex-gay” testimonies were, it is a real temptation to treat LGBT people as puppets to be directed. Still, there is a real public struggle to discern the meaning of marriage and its role, and the voices of Spiritual Friendship deserve an even greater place.
Conservative Christians who believe in a traditional sexual ethics should flip the script and let gay Christians do the directing for a while. Most have endured enough unjustified external ostracism and internal spiritual struggle to be worth listening to. If we are going to keep fighting for the values of marriage and family in our culture (and we should!), we should take our cues from the people who have defended these values at great personal loss and even mudslinging from their own Christian allies.
The cultural conversation about guarding and transmitting traditional values goes beyond gay marriage, though, which is the next reason why I find Spiritual Friendship so worthwhile. As the eponymous book on Spiritual Friendship rightly observes, the hollowing out of friendship and the idolatry of marriage has profound consequences for the straight and married just as it does for the gay and single. A variety of cultural and technological factors are pushing all of us toward atomization and disconnectedness and an atomized nuclear family will fall to Satan one way or the other almost as quickly as an atomized individual person will.
To this end, the conversations at Spiritual Friendship are engaging how and why we should build up lasting, meaningful friendships. Physical distance, cultural norms, and the natural rhythms of life (e.g. childbirth) shape our relationships with other believers and our neighbors in ways that we don’t always recognize, therefore, we always need to be identifying the forces that hold back or erode our love for one another and then push back with creativity and vigor.
Lastly, I keep reading because we all share the same struggles. Neither marriage nor friendship will fully salve our loneliness, quiet our lusts, or give us all of the intimacy we long for. The burdens that my sexual minority brothers and sisters face are qualitatively and quantitatively more difficult than mine, for sure, but their faith and hope are still instructive to me. Reading Washed and Waiting was undoubtedly a catalyst in my own sanctification and thinking through the public value of sexual sacrifice in marriage has helped me strengthen my convictions for the fight.
Just as most Christians who draw inspiration and hope from reading great missionary biographies and blogs (the sort that don’t skimp on the tribulations) don’t have the unique call to go overseas, so we can learn from the vocation and challenge of celibate gay and lesbian Christians. I believe that their trials are a gift to the body of Christ, so we should receive their words (and their personal friendship!) with gratitude. Pornography, fornication, adultery, and sexual abuse destroy many traditional Christian marriages– perhaps we would see more fruit if we paid closer attention to how people with much harder battles put sin to death.
The work of Spiritual Friendship is relevant to the personal, communal, and public concerns of Christians, regardless of sexual orientation. Even non-Christians curious about the value of friendships in our increasingly transient and disconnected society or the meaning of marriage and sexuality in our increasingly jaded and commercialized erotic milieu would probably find the writing here more engaging than a meme with an out-of-context Bible verse slapped over a picture of a smiling white family. Those of us who are in traditional marriages ignore those supporting us from outside at our own peril.
Matthew Loftus is a family physician who lives in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood of Baltimore and is preparing to teach and practice Family Medicine in South Sudan. Follow him @matthew_loftus or read more about his family and work at MatthewAndMaggie.org