Are “Vowed Friendships” Really What We Need?

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I wrote an article for Christianity Today on friendship, basically making the case that we ought to be able to think of our Christian friendships as more significant, committed, public, and permanent than we usually do.

Well, since then, Matthew Lee Anderson has offered a different perspective on his blog. Furthermore, he and his friends devoted an episode of their podcast to talking about the issue, and you can listen to that here.

Now, most recently, the really thoughtful Alastair Roberts has written up his thoughts on the issue, and, as usual, I think they’re worth reading in full. Here’s a sample:

In focusing upon a vow of friendship made to a particular person, we should think about the phenomenon of vow-taking, duty, and commitment more generally within our society and the capacity of deeper vows and loyalties to evoke friendship, without the need for explicit vows. The profound bonds between soldiers arise from loyalty, often involving a vow, to their country and their shared struggle. It is within their fulfilment of these duties that they are knit together with their brothers in arms, without having to take extra vows along the way. Similar things could be said about monastic vows. These vows typically focus upon things beyond the monks’ relationships with each other. Monks can be drawn into close friendship as they are formed together in the same form of life, all ordered towards something greater than and beyond themselves—the service of God and the poor, study, prayer, etc.

One of the deep problems in our understanding of marriage today is that marriage vows have become about a shared narcissism, rather than about the service of something that transcends the couple’s emotional attachment to each other. The institution of marriage is ordered towards creating a new form of society together, within which children can be conceived and welcomed, a wider community served, holy lives lived, and which aims at something greater than individual fulfilment. The vows of marriage exist because marriage, by its very nature as a relationship involving the sexual union of a man and a woman, is ordered towards the creation of something that transcends itself. Having vows of friendship apart from an integral ordering to a greater end seems to me to fall into the same error as the diminished model of marriage in our society.

Rather than taking this route, I believe that the cause of friendship would better be served by attending to our other duties and the other vows that we make. Are we committed and bound to various forms of life that will form us in union with others? If we aren’t, this is where the friendship deficit most likely arises. Instead of vows of friendship, perhaps what we most need is to create common and committed forms of life beyond marriage. As we commit ourselves together to forms of life through which we serve something greater than ourselves we may find that profound kinships arise more naturally.

I don’t think I’ll say anything in response for now. But do go read Alastair’s comments, and if you want to help me keep thinking through these things, I’d be glad to read what you have to say in the combox.

Also, just a reminder, all this is—for me at least!—jumping the gun a bit. My CT article was just the teaser-trailer for the book I’ve written that will, Lord willing, be on shelves in April 2015. So please don’t lose interest in the conversation before then! In other words, I still hope you’ll read my book.

38 thoughts on “Are “Vowed Friendships” Really What We Need?

  1. I think there is something to be said for vows as part of a larger purpose (when my wife and I got married we made a point of describing it as coming together for a purpose “beyond the immediacy of our own relaltionship”), but I’m wary of thinking we *must* have that purpose mapped out ahead of time (either in marriage or friendship). Also, as someone who invited a celibate gay friend to be a “part of our family” for a time, a vow would have helped us clarify what each of us was or was not expected. I think we felt it was an agreement of friendship for a time, but subject to change, but our friend thought we were committing to more. Even the question: “Do we want to vow to this?” Might have helped us clarify what we were doing.

  2. A terrific little group of articles to reflect on, all of them making me that much more eager for your book to come out!! Praying for the Lord to bless its publication.

      • 1 Corinthians 7 KJV

        [32] But I would have you without carefulness. He that is unmarried careth for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please the Lord:

        [33] But he that is married careth for the things that are of the world, how he may please his wife.

        [34] There is difference also between a wife and a virgin. The unmarried woman careth for the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and in spirit: but she that is married careth for the things of the world, how she may please her husband.


        Being married is not about having sex or being allowed to have sex. It is about concerning oneself with one’s spouse and children.

        Being celibate is not about not having sex. It is about not getting married. It is about being free to concern oneself with the things of God and the community first. So having a vowed friend defeats this purpose.

      • [ It is about being free to concern oneself with the things of God and the community first. So having a vowed friend defeats this purpose.]

        How? I am not really following the logic here. For hetero folks, I can understand the logic (Saul is referring to the difference between himself and married people in terms of serving God because he can be a full time teacher while a father of a kid can’t, obviously). I don’t see how those rules apply to two men or two women, though. With no kid, a celibate oathsworn relationship between two same sex people similar to a marriage but abiding the rules of the Church would in no way inhibit them from serving God as far as I can tell.

      • Paul doesn’t mention kids. He says that a married man is concerned with pleasing his wife and a married woman is concerned with pleasing her husband.

      • Regardless, I am not seeing how partnering with someone stops you from focusing on what God wants you to do. And, for that matter, what if a partnership with someone who compliments your abilities and temperament is what God wants you to do? What if you serve God better in that regard than you would alone?

        Without any objective, observable reasons for not pursuing this kind of relationship I don’t see why one should deprive themselves of said relationship if within the rules of their faith (assuming they want to abide the rules).

      • You were right, I was mixing up Chastity and Celibacy. My bad.

        That said, you are still incorrect. A homosexual abiding by Catholic tradition is called to chastity, not celibacy in the sense of a Carmelite or a Franciscan. At least, I can find nothing in the Magisterium corroborating this view. That is because celibacy is something that can only be chosen, not forced upon you.

        But, I will admit, there is always a chance I could have missed something so lets assume for a moment you are better informed than I am on the topic and, somewhere, it states that each homosexual person is required to swear Celibacy, officially, before a bishop in some capacity.

        Even if it was a requirement, you would still be wrong since the Sacrament of Marriage requires a Priest and an official ceremony verified by the Church. Marriage is not just you and your husband making an oath together – that is not a Sacramental Marriage. You dishonor that Sacrament by not bothering to differentiate between it and an oath between two people, no matter how binding.

        Thus, Professor Hill here has a fine idea for those who want to abide the rules of the Church yet for whom celibacy would be a miserable slog towards death. Not a shock considering he holds the title of professor, I suppose.

  3. I scanned through Roberts’ blog post. Some thoughts:

    1.) Roberts suggests that the main friendships modeled in the biblical texts are primarily political and governmental. While my first thought is to disagree vehemently with the assertion, I think there is a bigger point to be made. It is possible to hold the biblical texts as authoritative and at the same time acknowledge that the texts do not portray model societies; the biblical texts are portraying those seeking to follow God in societies just as broken as ours. So while we need to respect the cultural milieu in which the texts are placed, we also need to realize that our goal is not to return to the culture(s) of the biblical texts. This means that it may be true that most of the friendships modeled in the biblical texts may be political and government, but that doesn’t mean our friendships must be or even should be based on these things. Just because the Bible doesn’t portray friendship based primarily on affection doesn’t mean that our culture is broken if, as he maintains, friendship (in our society) is based primarily on affection.

    2.) In another section of his post, Roberts’ notes that: “it seems to me that in many respects the notion of vowed friendship, for which personal intimacy is the primary end, owes more to our current cultural situation than it does to Scripture…We have few remaining strong given relationships, in which we truly belong to others—‘I love you because you are mine’—so we must create ones to fill the gap. This is a noble venture in many respects, but we should be clear that it is largely a compensatory measure, responding to deeper failures in the structure of society.”

    This leads me with two questions:
    a.) Is a vow “creating” a friendship or calling it valuable?
    a.) Is personal intimacy actually the primary end of vowed friendships?
    c.) If taking a vow is supposed to encourage personal intimacy, how is this a compensatory measure? It seems to me that making a vow is not a compensatory measure. It is a measure that demonstrates a commitment to being friends with someone regardless of the level of “personal intimacy” or “affection” at any one point. A vow to stay by someone if they meet the needs of my future self for affection or personal intimacy seems profoundly counter-cultural and fully in line with scripture.

    3.) Roberts seems somewhat suspicious of “affection” in his post. It’s understandable: we live in a world where “if you don’t meet my needs,” I can walk away, no questions asked. But affection is still part of life; it isn’t necessarily fallen.

  4. I am surprised people can get so worked up about vows. I suspect some like Anderson feel it is threatening to the definition of marriage. Another example of married people thinking about themselves at the expense of the unmarried.

    I don’t think this is rocket science. Human beings all need covenanted lifelong kinship in order to thrive. That is how God created us. Science bears it out. Unmarried people did not live disconnected lives in the past. They lived in shared household with relatives. Or perhaps a permanent community of a religious order. Modern “singleness” is extremely unhealthy and detrimental to spiritual and emotional health.

    What we have is an unprecedented breakdown in kinship networks and village more broadly. The “single” person is a modern phenomenon and the tragic side effect of social and familial fragmentation.

    The question then is how do we restore kinship, especially for those who will never marry? New modern social structures and realities require new solutions. If people are unable to reintegrate into shared household with biological kin, then absolutely we should encourage alternative lifelong commitments. Perhaps another word for this is adoption. Adopt someone that you will live with and treat as kin.

    There is a difference between kinship and friendship. We all need kinship, and not just friendship to thrive. For some of us that might mean taking a friendship beyond that to adoption as kin with all its expectations and responsibilities.

      • I agree. I made a vow to love a particular friend (as in “good times and in bad”) but those vows were made to God. Of course deciding who is “the one” must also involve something more than picking the person I want to fulfil the role of a special friend.

      • Rosa

        I meant Karen’s idea of “adopting someone that you will live with and treat as kin” is fine as long as it’s promise is made primarily to God. When vows of friendship are made primarily to each other (even if said in the presence of God) there is the risk of it becoming something other than friendship.

        An example from my own life: several years ago I discerned a Spirit led calling to love a particular friend with all the expectations and responsibilities that come with “adoption” (on the understanding that this form of unconditional love would help me grow as a Christian). This meant I had an obligation to carry on loving him even if he was a jerk or the friendship fell apart. I made that vow one day in a prayer. The friendship has (so far) never faltered but I feel my main obligation is still to God and not to him. It wasn’t a mutual exchange of vows because I have no reason to believe he “adopted” me in the same way! We are both gay but it has (at least for me) avoided many of the pitfalls of close friendships between SSA friends. The distinction Wesley Hill makes between “You’re mine because I love you” and “I love you because you’re mine” opened my eyes to why this friendship did work out.

        But I didn’t ‘plan’ to adopt this friend. If I had read Wesley’s articles on ‘spiritual friendship’ first and then tried to find someone to fit that role, my own selfish desires might have derailed the whole thing (although I don’t say that to discourage others).

    • Thank you! I appreciate your emphasis on the importance of kinship, and as a celibate guy (I guess, though apparently not by some definitions) I appreciate the relationships I have with my parents and with the two wonderful fellow followers of Christ whom I am privileged to call my close friends.

      And, while I appreciate the discussions that go on at this site, I see no need to bind myself by the consciences of others, who seem to believe that, if I understand correctly, either having one friend closer than another in Christian community, or having a _chosen_ close friend… or both? … would not be permissible for me. Particularly, I just can’t see how we can necessarily read into Paul’s words that a celibate condition mandates upon a person that they not have specific close relationships.

    • Karen, as someone who is serving full-time in a cross-cultural context where friendship looks quite different from that in the US, I wholeheartedly agree with you on almost every point. The only point I would take issue with–and it’s my aim to comment about this on my own in more detail–is your use of the term “covenanted”. I believe that this term is very important to define and clarify. O. Palmer Robertson, in his book THE CHRIST OF THE COVENANTS, defines a covenant as “a bond in blood sovereignly administered”, where looking at the covenants the God makes with individuals and His people. The blood is now the shed blood of Christ, but I think it’s crucial that we look at that term “sovereignly administered”. Most people today ascribe the term covenant to what really is, biblically speaking, more of a contract than a covenant, in the biblical sense. Hopefully, I’ll get some time in the next day or so to jot down more of my thoughts on this.

  5. I’m all for new ways of creating families, other than by (traditional) marriage. But I think it’s a mistake to look amongst one’s friends for new family members. A characteristic of friends is that they’re mutually and freely chosen. But that’s exactly what makes friendship unsuitable for permanent vows. A characteristic of family members is that they’re *unchosen*; they’re yours because that’s just how it is. And one of the reasons family relationships (significantly, other than marriage!) are usually permanent is that people are well aware that familial relations are conceptually and often practically independent of affection.

      • Karen, I’m sorry, I don’t think I wrote clearly. Of course I believe in adopting children–and even siblings, parents, what have you, in adulthood. But you shouldn’t adopt someone (especially a child!) on the basis of an existing or hoped for *friendship* with them. Friendships isn’t the basis of family relationships. Family is just yours; you love them because they’re yours. Vowed relationships should be modeled on those family relationships, not on friendships.

  6. This whole celibate marriage-ish oathsworn friendship thing is actually a pretty good idea. It solves many of the issues people (myself included) tend to have with the whole Side B model of chastity and actually has a Biblical precedent despite the best efforts of detractors to keep making it seem like some sort of radical, novel invention*. I think I will look into your book when out.

    * While there is no precedent for a gay celibate marriage-ish relationship there is one for heterosexuals: Saint Joseph and the Virgin Mary. Unless you are Gnostic or mistook the movie Dogma for a theological documentary, you likely believe Mary was a Virgin and stayed one till she was assumed into heaven, Enoch-style (at least if you are Catholic). So pow. Checkmate,

    • In the biblical sense (and also in the historical sense) being celibate is the same as not being married. It doesn’t equate to not having sex (of course if you are not marry you will not have sex if you follow an orthodox point of view relating to sex).

      Therefore, Mary and Joseph were not celibate in the biblical sense. They were married. They did not have sexual relations but they were married.

      Not having sex is a new definition of celibacy (20th century). very new definition indeed.

      • That isn’t what the Magisterium says. The Magisterium labels the sex itself as disordered, not any other sort of union. I would think that if God intended celibacy to mean no marriage instead of no sexual relations, He would have been more clear so as to avoid confusion. Catholics like Wesley Hill are supposed to abide the Church and the Scripture. Neither appear to have anything against this sort of arrangement, nor is their a good reason to oppose the arrangement.

        If it did attempt to ban this then what next? Why not ban all friendships between two people? Why not ban contracts and prevent everyone from making oaths or anything of the sort, just to be safe? Unless those opposing it can provide objective, observable reasons why such arrangements are not permissable or not within the purview of serving God I see little reason the Side B folks shouldn’t pursue the option if they meet someone special.

        If you are right, they will still be in the clear since, again, this isn’t clear. On judgement day they will be able to claim ignorance since God wasn’t clear enough on this issue. God has no one but Himself to blame, in that case, if we get it wrong.

    • I’m confused about Mary not having sex. Granted, I’m an evangelical and there’s obviously differences, but I thought there were clear places in Scripture where Jesus is said to have brothers?

      • I am not sure, actually. Since I was responding to the blogger being Catholic I was referencing Virgin Mary as a good example for this. Catholicism teaches that Mary remained a virgin until she was assumed up to heaven as I remember.

  7. Also please note that I support the notion of vowed friendships within a fellowship of friends (a community) and made with God in mind first and foremost. But yes, I don’t support vowed friendships between couples.

    • It seems we don’t disagree quite as much as I thought we did. : )

      I’m afraid I put your statements in the context of what I saw someone else post about previously, which was the idea that celibate people should be miserable, or, that is, not be allowed any close friends, because that is to be our “sacrifice.” I’m sorry, I think it was one of those “I’m totally not ex-gay” ex-gay folks who did a few drive-by postings in the past few months. Mea culpa, and thanks for clarifying.

      (With that said, I still don’t have a problem with adventures like that of the wonderful women over at A Queer Calling.)

      • I’m glad LJ. Thanks for the clarification.

        I need to underline: I think a person that is miserable is very far from being what God wants us to be. We must strive to be happy always although within the constraints of God’s commandments. I speak from experience: one came be extremely happy within His commandments. So I don’t wish anyone to be miserable but full of joy in Christ.

  8. Wes:

    I’m not a theologian, but I’ve spent some time developing a “practical theology” of friendship from a perspective more based in Covenant theology. I posted this elsewhere in a community as my considered response to your article, after I mentioned to some folks in a prior comment that I didn’t agree with certain aspects of your article. So, since you invited thoughts, here follows…

    …thanks for giving me a platform to air my thoughts. It’s been a couple weeks since I read [Wes’ article], to be honest, but one of the things that stuck out to me was the sense that I got…and I get this frequently in different contexts online…of a sort of expectation that the commitment to friendship be mutual. I look at how God makes covenants, and I look at the marriage covenant. Those are all about one person taking the initiative to love the other, regardless of whether or not that love is reciprocated (agape love). We see it in Paul’s discussions on marriage…he expresses that one spouse can’t require, or even expect the other to love in return. That’s why, if one is married to an unbelieving spouse, for example, who wants to leave, the believing spouse must love them by giving them the freedom to walk away. Nouwen and Bonhoeffer also speak to this, but from different angles. And Paul always speaks to a spouse from the standpoint of how they are to approach the relationship and give of themselves, in summary, without expectation of reciprocation.

    O. Palmer Robertson defines a covenant as “a bond in blood sovereignly administered”, in his book THE CHRIST OF THE COVENANTS. Paying closer attention to what that means, and referencing pages 3-15 of his latest printing, it refers to one party sovereignly (freely of their own power and unilaterally) taking the initiative to commit themselves to that relationship. I’m doing a lot of summarizing here for the sake of brevity, but that’s the essence.

    The sense that I get from various voices out there–and there seemed to be at least an undercurrent of this in Wes’ article–was more of a “mutual expectation” sort of thing, similar to the way we approach business contracts. I may have read more into it from that angle, but that’s the way some of it read to me. And this is honestly quite typical for the way we Americans approach most relationships. I’m blanking, at the moment, on who to reference you to for more clear writing on this, but others also have observed that we tend to approach relationships from the standpoint of what both parties stand to gain from it. That is contractual, but it is not covenantal. And that is a key issue for me in approaching relationships from a covenantal perspective, at least in terms of how Scripture approaches covenants. “While we were yet enemies, Christ died for us.” He didn’t go into it from the perspective of expectation of reciprocation.

    So, as I approach friendship, I desire to do it from the same “covenant-initiating” perspective. I am committed to that friendship and I let them know that in whatever way is appropriate to the context. However, I must allow the other person the privilege and the dignity and freedom to either reciprocate that or not. I cannot walk away, but they can…just as the believing spouse is obliged to stay with the non-believing, but the non-believing must be free to leave. I see this in Christ’s initiating toward us, as well. He has committed Himself to us and will NEVER EVER relinquish or recant. However, we have the freedom to refuse that initiation of covenantal love. (I will grant that there are certain situations, such as spousal abuse, where we have to approach it from the standpoint that the most loving and committed thing an abused spouse can do for the abuser is to actually physically remove themselves from the physical environment, but such particular situations are beyond the scope of your original question, while at the same time the principles are still intact.)

    I don’t know if that makes sense, and I’m open to discussion on it. As I reference above, I have done a bit of summarizing, but this is a decent attempt to summarize concisely some of my perspective on it. Your thoughts are welcome. Peace.

    • It makes sense. However, it is my understanding that, a marriage (between two believers) is null if one of the spouses did not have the intention to enter into a mutually loving relationship. Am I wrong believing this?

      • Personally, I cannot respond competently to that, Rosa. I am from a Protestant tradition and have not heard that my tradition utilizes “annulment” of marriage.

      • Oh ok! In the catholic church there are certain requirements for a marriage to be valid. If at the time the marriage is celebrated these requirements are not met then no marriage has taken place. For instance, if a person is not capable of freely consenting (say because mental illness or incapacity, even temporarily) then there is no marriage even if the person seemed to consent. I believe that one of the requirements is that both parties are willing to honor their vows. If one of them pronounces his/her vows but has no intention of carry them through the marriage never happen. This is my understanding but I might be wrong. After all I’m not a canon law lawyer…

  9. I look forward to your response, Wes. I read Anderson’s and Roberts’ critiques, and just didn’t feel altogether comfortable with the points they were seeking to make.

    As far as Anderson is concerned, I’m not even sure what his point was. Even though he doesn’t come out and say it, I suspect that Anderson’s objection largely lies with his fear that your argument undercuts right-wing political efforts to ban same-sex marriage. Anderson is, after all, deeply connected with the “values voter” movement. He’s just a fresh-faced, softer-toned version of Gary Bauer., i.e., a less annoying version of Eric Teetsel.

    Roberts does raise a much more cogent objection, but one that I still think misses the mark. I fear that Roberts sets forth a view of marriage that so spiritualizes the institution that it becomes stripped of its earthiness. Not only does this strike me as bordering on Gnosticism, it seems to go against the New Testament’s view that limits marriage to our earthly pilgrimage. Moreover, this seems to contradict the Reformers’ rather practical view of marriage, wherein they denied marriage any more spiritual merit than the art of hair-cutting. So, Roberts states a cogent objection to your thesis; I’m just not sure that it’s a theologically sound objection.

  10. Pingback: Trawling the Internet for Friendship | Adelphopoiesis

Leave a Reply to Evan Cancel reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s