Frederica Mathewes-Green is an award-winning Antiochian Orthodox author and lecturer, married to an Orthodox priest [full bio here]. The following was published on her website on March 13; we repost it here with her generous permission.
I recently received an email from a young man, an Orthodox catechumen, who is concerned about his best friend. This friend recently came out as gay and, after being scolded by family and church friends, has joined an “affirming” church that will endorse his choices.
The young man writing to me said he was encouraged by something in one of my podcasts. I had said that there is room in our faith for people of the same sex to form loving relationships. This kind of love is called “friendship.” It has always been held in honor, and appears in the Bible and throughout Church history. It can be found between two siblings, or between people who met as children, or as adults. Same-sex, non-sexual love is unlike romantic love in that it doesn’t include a sexual component, but it can be every bit as strong. It is to our loss that the concept of nonsexual friendship love has largely vanished. Those bonds between men and men, and between women and women, run strong and deep, and are foundational to society.
We can see life-long, same-sex friendships among many pairs of the saints, for example St. Sophronius (AD 560-638) and St. John Moschus (AD 550-619), whose feast was March 11. While still in their twenties these young men set out on pilgrimage through Egypt, Sinai, and Palestine. They wanted to see and hear the wise elders of the desert, and the book they wrote, The Spiritual Meadow, is a treasure of the early church. The two men were companions until death, and St. Sophronius fulfilled St. John’s final wish to be buried in Jerusalem.
The young man who wrote me said that this possibility of same-sex, nonsexual love gave him hope:
“It’s something that I’ve actually been thinking about for a while. If it would save him from himself, if it would help him come back to Christian faith, I would be willing to live a celibate life with him. (Even though I want very much to be married.) We are best friends and roommates at present. We get along very well. Does the Church say anything about doing this? I can live without sex, and I love him more than my own life.”
It’s hard to think of a sacrifice more beautiful, more touching, than this offer to sacrifice love and marriage in order to stand by a friend. It deserves to be called heroic. My grandmotherly head can also see potential problems, especially if the friend is not, himself, ready to practice celibacy; also, the young writer of the email might yet fall in love one day, and find it harder in practice than in theory to give up having a wife and family. A young Orthodox catechumen obviously needs to bring the whole situation to his priest. Still, his desire to make such a sacrifice for his friend shows what Christian love can do—what Christ within us can do, when he gives us grace to love others the way he does.
(It’s worth noting, too, that the sacrifice this young man offers to make, to live a lifetime without sex and without a romantic partner, is what we traditional Christians are asking every gay person to do. It is no less heroic when they do it.)
I love Frederica Mathewes-Green. Thanks for sharing this with us!
That is a very loving sacrifice. I’ve been blessed by platonic same-sex friendships along the way, and it helped me through the years before I started experiencing attractions for the complementary gender. I was able to travel and share life with great Godly women in ways that were very enriching, and non-sexual.
One note to the author – living a lifetime without sex and without a romantic partner is not something that traditional Christians are asking gay people to do. Saving sex for a committed marriage relationship between a man and a woman is something that the Lord asks everyone to do. For almost a decade, I didn’t know if my attractions and desires would ever change, but the Lord helped me to stay committed to Him as my first love along the way. And great friendships with fellow believers made a huge difference in sustaining me – I wasn’t just struggling or limping along, but was able to grow and enjoy so much of life through sharing it with others.
Attraction fluidity is not my experience. I am and always have been exclusivly attracted to guys only. Therefore for me, what the author states, “living a lifetime without sex and without a romantic partner,” is indeed something that I as a gay guy am being asked to do. That is my reality. I accept it however and look forward to my eventual sanctification at the end of days.
I’ve been single and celibate and now I’m married. Friendship is beautiful and cherished and a vital. Friendship is not the same thing as, or a replacement for, marriage because platonic intimacy is different than romantic intimacy. The author acknowledges this when she speculates “the young writer of the email might yet fall in love one day, and find it harder in practice than in theory to give up having a wife and family.”
It all depends on the individual romantic couple or friendship, personal values, cultural circumstances etc etc.
If I’m remembering correctly, you are in a mixed-orientation marriage. I shared my personal experience and you claim it’s not universal. I wonder what implication your comment has about your own marriage. Outside of sexual acts, is there no difference between your relationship with your wife and your most cherished friends? Does sex change the nature of the whole relationship? Or is sex, except for it’s procreative potential, no big deal? I ask this with sincerity and humility.
No, you must be thinking of someone else.
Obviously sexual intimacy makes a difference. I have never pursued a romantic/sexual relationship as a Christian (I converted in my late 30s) but my Christian friendships have been far more emotionally rewarding than any of my pre-Christian love affairs. Maybe I slept with the wrong guys! LOL
Affirming Christians are promoting a narrative – gay life is great and gay marriage will satisfy all of your needs – that doesn’t allow for any kind of dissent or public expressions of disappointment. At the same time they claim that dissent and tales of misery and hurt are all signs of liberating/healthy self-reflection when it comes to discussing the traditional Christian sexual ethic – with it’s emphasis on chastity (which for gay people probably means celibacy). It’s an infuriating double standard.
Hi Joe –
Thanks for the clarififation; sorry for my faulty memory. Let me take the opportunity to engage with your comments.
I think you mischaraterize the gay-affirming perspective.
We recognize the sanctity of gay relationships, but no one’s suggesting that marriage is easy or guaranteed. Marriage, for those who decide to enter into it, is cruciform. It requires life-long mutual sacrifice and fidelity in the service of community. It’s not a remedy for all of life’s ills for any couple – straight or gay. I would argue that evangelical churches teaching traditionalist doctrine have more often made an idol of marriage than churches who affirm gay relationships.
The objections you mention are grounded in the traditionalist insistance that gay relationships – and by extension the people in them – are immoral and inferior. The traditionalist doctrine is inherently harmful because it demands that gay people live contrary to God’s creative intention for humanity, and it demands that gay couples be viewed with contempt. So in that regard, you’re right: Christians that affirm the sanctity of gay relationships don’t have a lot of patience for calling those marriages “immoral and inferior” when they are obviously virtuous. And we certainly long to see a swift end to the harm (especially to kids) that comes from traditionalist teaching which means that the teaching needs to be adapted, ignored or abandoned. I think your frustration will persist until *obligatory* celibacy becomes *voluntary* celibacy (“answering a higher call” perhaps) in the traditionalist paradigm.
I think, too, it’s unfair and inaccurate to imply that revisionists don’t emphasize chastity. I wonder what the gay experience would have been – what gay culture would have looked like over the last thirty years – if gay kids were shepherded by their families and faith communities into a healthy understanding of sexual expression. Already we’re seeing a seismic shift in the gay community towards covenantal partnership and family.
My sincere best to you
If I accept your definition of (genderless) marriage as “cruciform; requiring life-long mutual sacrifice and fidelity in the service of community”, what is required of those who transgress it’s boundaries? Repentance?
What are the moral absolutes of a gay-affirming Christian sexual ethic? Is monogamy obligatory or voluntary? Is it OK to have sex with a guy first and then decide if he’s boyfriend/husband material (the normal pattern for gay men)? How many guys can you date and have sex with before it’s “fornication”?
I fail to see how your questions are tied to the gender of the couple. These questions are equally relevant to opposite sex and same sex couples. It might be outside of your experience, but the hook-up culture is thriving in straight America. Trying to smear gay people as sexually deviant ignores the rampant promiscuity of our straight peers.
I didn’t say anything about promiscuity. I asked you what you thought the limits of (gay affirming) moral behavior might be.
Is any sex outside of marriage sinful? Plenty of traditionalists believe that is the case for straight couples. Where is the evidence that any affirming church holds gay people to the same standard?
I’m well aware that individual gay men or women might choose to wait for marriage (which is entirely vocational) and a high percentage of straight conservative Christians ignore/defy the moral teachings of their church – but conservative churches do offer clear moral advice on this matter.
Couldn’t agree more, Ford!
Joe, there are actually plenty of churches that hold that gay members (just as their straight counterparts) reserve sex for a covenantal, marriage relationships. The church I attended in MD (prior to moving) was one such church. It’s true that certain denominations (e.g., many mainline churches) have simply never put a major stress on sexual ethics (with regard to say, “waiting until marriage” for example). So when they moved to fully accepting/embracing gay people, they likewise haven’t stressed it. But I think you’ll find that churches who have generally discipled their congregants to reserve sex for marriage, when they affirm gay people, they continue to maintain those guidelines. Some of the recent Evangelical churches which have made news by becoming affirming (e.g., Highlands Community Church in CO, East Lake Community Church in WA, Grace Pointe Church in TN, Danny Cortez’s previously SBC church in CA, etc.) would be good examples.
Though, I’m wondering why you’re bringing up that point. I’m not sure I see the connection to what you and Ford were previously discussing.
Well that’s interesting (and something I will research further). I bring up the point because every affirming gay Christian I know follows very different “guidelines”.
They value marriage (or committed loving relationships) because they grew up in conservative family orientated cultures. “Reserving sex for marriage” is more of a personal lifestyle goal than a moral standard. They advise against promiscuity on emotional/physical health grounds (a therapeutic framework) but don’t have any hang ups about having sex with guys they date. If one relationship doesn’t work out, they quickly move on to the next without worrying about the “lifelong” bit of fidelity. They half-heartedly disapprove of porn but do not “repent” of using it. They aren’t indifferent to purity mandates because they’re opposed to a culture of shaming/judging others – they just don’t think any “rule” applies other than love+consent – a humanistic rather than a Christian sexual ethic. They certainly don’t go round telling non-Christian gay men and women that marriage is the only moral option.
They are, of course, far more honest about their lives when talking to other gay people. They understand the need to say something else in church – to maintain a semblance of “evangelical” values.
A commitment to lifelong monogamy can fit within a moral framework based on consent & personal choice. The traditional Christian framework excludes (as sinful) anything that isn’t lifelong marriage. The only way to tell whether a church is following an ‘evangelical’ sexual ethic is to ask/observe what happens when individual church members make other choices.
Hi Joe –
The ethic DJ articulates is exactly what evangelical theologian and ethicist David Gushee lays out in his important book Changing Our Mind. It’s a short book and well worth the read.
Honestly, Joe, everything you describe here sounds an awful lot like most straight guys I’ve known in (conservative) Christian churches, as well as gay guys. I think this is a much bigger issue about cultural understandings of sexuality than it is a phenomenon of gay liberation. Reports since the 90’s have shown that large swaths of Evangelical youth are sexually active. (See for example: http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2011/09/27/why-young-christians-arent-waiting-anymore/)
Even among my family members and in-laws, all of whom are readily identified as strongly conservative (mostly Evangelical) Christians, my husband and I maintained our virginity the longest.
It sounds as if you are under some notion that straight Christian = morally ethical while gay Christian = morally compromising in terms to sexuality. I think the more accurate interpretation of the data shows that Western Christians in general seem to have a dissonance between belief and behavior.
DJ, I accept that large swaths of evangelical youth are sexually active. I just wasn’t aware that many gay affirming churches taught an evangelical sexual ethic – or as you say “put a major stress on sexual ethics”
I also think a much larger proportion of gay people in affirming churches are indifferent to the idea that any form of consensual sex could be immoral than their straight counterparts. If there is any gay Christian out there saying “sex outside of marriage is sinful” (rather than recommending monogamy as a personal choice) I’d welcome links.
That’s exactly what Matthew Vines argues in God and the Gay Christian.
I’m curious about what bearing that has on your perspective. You seem to be incredulous that gay people who affirm the sanctity of gay relationships could actually be conservative.
No he doesn’t! Where does he say that? In his book Vines said he was committed to abstinence until marriage (or at least he was “at an early age”). As he didn’t actually wait, I guess his personal goal is now monogamy with whoever he is currently dating.
Vines is promoting respectability not a gay-inclusive evangelical sexual ethic. He and others like him express contempt for gay men who make other choices (open relationships, hook-ups etc) within the same ethical framework (consent + personal preference).
Powerful! “No greater love, than one laying down one’s life for his friend” comes to mind.
It is amazing that a person would do that sacrifice for another however being married and having a committed friend are not mutually exclusive.
In a post-Sexual Revolution world it shouldn’t surprise us that almost every ‘affirming’ Christian (gay and straight) believes in the supremacy of romantic love. Undoing all of this will take decades and a commitment to the kinds of love that the current generation sincerely believe are “lesser” or “unconvincing” forms of love.
What this young catechumen plans to do for his friend seems to be noble, even romantic. However, rather than worry about some speculative romance in the future, aren’t there far more pragmatic things to be worried about?
For instance, what was the nature of the “scolding” that the young, gay man received? Was the scolding in response to the fact of the gay man’s inclination or to the expressed desire to act upon it? What is the likelihood that the young catechumen’s sacrifice will bring his friend back to the Church? If it doesn’t immediately work, will the young catechumen renege on this commitment? How long might he wait? What if it works initially, but the gay man relapses? Is the young catechumen prepared to share living arrangements with his gay friend? How might that be perceived by the gay friend? How might this be perceived by the church community? Could the young catechumen be able to bear the same sort of “scolding” that his friend received? Is there a danger that the catechumen could be converted to support the gay man’s intent to genitally express his sexuality?
All of these questions seem far more pressing and urgent than the possibility of a romance at some time in the future. For an individual who is yet young in the Faith, it seems that these questions, and the concerns behind them, are far more important.