Can Vows Change Friendships? And Should They?

Sam Allberry (whose own story of being a Christian and coming to terms with his same-sex attraction you can watch here) has written a sharp, charitable take on my new book Spiritual Friendship, and I’m grateful to him for it. While I don’t want to turn this blog into a platform for promoting my books, I do think, in this particular case, reflecting on what Sam says may help all of us grapple more deeply with what we’re trying to accomplish on this blog.

Sam says a lot of kind things about the book, but here is his primary substantive criticism:

[Hill] exhorts us to reconsider the place of covenanted friendships in the life of the church. No one can deny what earlier Christian generations can teach us about friendship. Nor can we deny that a lack of commitment drives so much of our contemporary loneliness. But it seems to me that resurrecting “vowed” friendships will only add to the current confusion about friendship. It’s hard to imagine such friendships not being confused with sexual partnerships. We also need to be mindful of the potential danger, particularly for two friends with same-sex attraction, of fostering unhealthy intimacy and of emotional over-dependency. One of the heartbreaking episodes recounted in chapter five suggests at least something of this. Hill anticipates these concerns but does not allay them for me.

I think there is also a significant category confusion. Making a close friendship covenantal takes it from a familial setting to something more approximate to a marital one. But whereas marriage is necessarily (at least in Christian thinking) limited exclusively only to one, close friendship is not. We have the capacity for—and it may be healthier to cultivate—close friendship with a small number. This is not the case with marriage. A covenant may not be the best vehicle for the commitment we need, and yet are so often lacking, in friendships today.

I have three main thoughts in response to this line of criticism. I’ll post the first one today and the second and third ones later in the week.

The first is simply that Sam and I may have a genuine disagreement here! I share all of Sam’s concerns about the dangers that might arise in a “covenanted” same-sex friendship, including co-dependency, sexual temptation, and others. But I have become more and more convinced that abusus non tollit usum (“the abuse of a thing does not negate its proper use”). Is it an adequate argument against committed, promise-bound friendships to note that they may go badly wrong? I’m not yet persuaded that it is.

A reader of the manuscript of my friendship book commented in the margin at a point where I was noting the danger of friendships becoming ingrown and obsessive:

Sounds almost like most marriages in their first five years! But we take it for granted that a marriage will have time to grow and mature…. That would be one advantage of a public bond and vow [in the case of friendship]: it’s the community’s way of making time available for growth into maturity. Nobody worries if a newly wed couple is narcissistic, because the community has pledged to support their love as something that will grow with time.

In other words, granting all the ways a permanent, faithful friendship might go wrong does not prove that the wrongness is inherent in the form of the friendship itself. Indeed, it may be that making the friendship more committed and recognized is a step towards its becoming holier, more accountable to the wider Christian community, and more hospitable to other friends and neighbors. If certain Christian friendships were to involve some kind of more visible commitment that the friends make to each other, that commitment might provide the means by which the friendship itself is purified and elevated and transformed into something more than just “sharing a house” or “having dinner and watching a movie multiple nights a week.”

Putting it concretely, there may be something profoundly healthy and right—not just permissible and excusable—about John Henry Newman committing himself so deeply to his friend Ambrose St. John, and vice versa, that the two end up with adjoining graves, notwithstanding all the ways such a relationship might have turned toxic.

28 thoughts on “Can Vows Change Friendships? And Should They?

  1. It occurs to me that the risk of antinomianism did not keep Paul from preaching “where sin increased, grace increased all the more ” (Rom 5:20). Not exactly the same thing, obviously, but it seems to be the same general principle in play here.

  2. I see no reason why someone should avoid vowed friendships merely because some third party may confuse the relationship for a sexual relationship. Perhaps the potential for such confusion should instead call us to proffer a more robust critique of the kinds of godless Freudian reasoning that leads people to make such assumptions. After all, I don’t see that we can ever make any kind of relevant space for LGBT+ Christians within the church until we recognize that the Freudian reduction of same-sex adult relationships to sex runs fairly counter to Scripture. Do opponents of contraception avoid marriage for fear that marrying may lead people to assume that they are engaging in contracted sex?

    It also strikes me that Alberry’s concern may have less to do with avoiding appearances of impropriety than with justifying his own refusal to critique the evangelical tendency to reduce gay people to their sexuality. I’ve noticed that Alberry has established something of a cottage industry for himself as being the favored gay Christian of those who promote the Christo-Freudians (e.g., folks associated with CBMW, ERLC, etc.).

    I actually welcome the potential confusion of vowed friendships with sexual relationships. If, via vowed friendship, two people can flourish without positing genetical-erotic desire as the end glad of the relationship, it would seem to suggest that genetical-erotic desire is somewhat superfluous to the Christian life. After all, that’s fairly close to what Paul suggests in I Corinthians 7. And perhaps that’s what the patriarchalists at CBMW and ERLC really fear: flourishing same-sex friendships would undercut the apparent necessity of conforming oneself to sex-centric, hierarchical gender roles.

    • It does seem as though Alberry’s main argument is that *they* might suspect an inappropriate relationship. It supports the dangerous reality of gay Christians being accepted only if they live alone and in constant fear, not only of sin but also of the very appearance of it, which, according to some, includes identifying as gay. So gay Christians (I’m sorry…people with SSA) are expected to be hyper vigilant of themselves and hyper vigilant of others perceptions? How is that existence life-giving? Interested in hearing Wes’s continued reply.

    • Alberry would be accountable to a very socially conservative congregation. If Freudian reasoning is now the new normal, then Maidenhead is not the place to go looking for anything genuinely counter-cultural.

      • Thanks for the clarification, Joe. That makes sense. Alberry’s seems to be popular in the US among very conservative evangelicals who are heavily invested in the right-wing side of the Culture Wars.

        Yes, vowed same-sex friendships would never be accepted within such contexts. But if you’re a gay person who feels compelled to seek approval from the likes of such ultra-conservative evangelicals, perhaps it’s wise advice. I’d simply suggest going to a different church.

      • To be fair to him, I think he writes well. and his books/articles have been very influential in getting the US right-wing to appear more supportive of SSA Christians (with all the usual caveats). For me he typifies a British conservative evangelical minister – which is not a problem – he is who he is. His church is a 15 minute drive from Windsor so maybe there are some royal household staff and in the congregation – very Downton Abbey LOL

  3. Great example of John Newman and Ambrose St. John as healthy. The seeds of a good, healthy, flourishing vowed friendship (same sex or cross-sex) seem to be all present within a biblical trajectory.

  4. If we buy into C.S. Lewis’s distinction between romantic love and friendship (that the former involves two people staring into each other’s eyes and the latter two people standing side by side and staring at some great mutual interest), then it seems to me that vowed commitment only makes sense for two friends in the context of their joint commitment to the thing outside of themselves to which their relationship is pledged.

    For married couples that thing is automatically the fecundity of the marriage itself. I love my wife but my marriage to her is only a marriage insofar as we have pledged not just to be faithful and loving to one another but to be fruitful in our relationship for the betterment of the world (in our case this mostly means having and raising kids but it need not only mean that).

    But for two friends the thing outside themselves is more fluid, and unique to whatever has drawn them together in friendship (an intellectual interest, a social or political cause, music, etc.). To the extent that it is valuable for their relationship to be publicly affirmed and formalized it seems to me very dangerous that it be done so absent a reference to the external impetus of the friendship. And not because of any risk of romantic or sexual temptation (indeed – perhaps a gay man and a lesbian will find themselves drawn into deep, lifelong committed friendship), but because healthy relationships between two people require an external center of gravity. Otherwise they either descend into unhealthy obsession or transfigure into unhealthy narcissism.

  5. It makes tons of sense to vocally assure your friend (covenantally) that you will be there for him, through thick or thin. It makes little sense — at least, to me — to broadcast this vow to the world.

    I suppose it makes sense to, in relevant contexts, share it with other friends and family. But friendship is not intrinsically public the way marriage is, so I guess I would want to see an argument that this must be done publicly — although that might not be what Wes has in mind? (If it isn’t, then Allberry’s criticisms make little sense to me).

  6. One of the fascinating and complex issues about exploring vowed friendships in Western world in the 21st century is our embeddedness in the therapeutic culture. As I have sought to forge healthy straight cross-sex friendships I have encountered well meaning brothers and sisters all along the way citing psychological or therapeutic reasons as reasons for resistance of such formation like their anxieties over triangulation, and so on. I’ve noticed in this conversation (in this thread and beyond) about vowed friendships similar therapeutic objections about two gay celibates articulating public vows for friendship. But here is where we need to grow beyond our anxieties for the same therapeutic culture that provides the resisters with psychological reasons to avoid vowed friendships also provides positive psychological theories to consider them. Self-differentiation in the systems theory is one great example.

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  8. Why do I have the feeling that whenever vowed friendships are mentioned in Spiritual Friendship the writer than the commenters always seem to assume it is about two gay people? This is fundamentally wrong. Vowed friendships could be between any number of gay and straight people. Why do gay people would want to only have one vowed friendship with another gay person? I think this is where it goes wrong… At least for me.

    • I don’t think anyone is making such an assumption. It’s just that most people who write and comment here are LGBTQ Christians. Further, same-sex vowed friendships–even among those who don’t identify as LGBTQ–would likely fall under the same scrutiny in an evangelical context.

      • That’s ok Evan but if it is a conversation amongst LGBT people then how can I fulfill my calling? The one stated in the Cathechism… The one that makes me responsible for my gay brothers and sisters?

      • Well, Rosa, that’s the theme of the blog. I’m not saying that you’re excluded. But don’t be surprised when people talk about things that are of concern to LGBTQ Christians.

        Also, it’s unclear to me in what sense you see yourself as having a responsibility to exercise spiritual oversight over LGBTQ Christians. And, to the extent that you do, I’d suggest that that’s an oversight that’s better done through the local parish.

        Lastly, Albert is an evangelical, as is Wes and most of us who are commenting here. I realize that this blog publishes the writings of both Protestants and Catholics. I generally avoid commenting on the Catholic-themed threads. I’ve never darkened the door of a Catholic church, and have no clue concerning what it’s like to be an LGBTQ Christian in a Catholic parish. So, I keep quiet. Is there some reason why the Catholic commenters don’t afford the Protestants the same courtesy?

      • Anglican can include evangelical. progressive and Anglo-Catholic traditions. Sam Allberry is an Anglican minister and his church is conservative evangelical (low church) – hence his association with American evangelicals.

      • Evan,

        There is nothing specifically evangelical about this post, nor about the comments about it. Everything Wes and Allberry wrote about applies equally to Catholics. Your suggestion that Rosa should be quiet in this thread strikes me as more ecumenically insensitive than her comment about the Catechism. I think you owe her an apology.

        Now Rosa may have spoken carelessly, in a way that seemed to imply that all of us would consider the Catechism an authority. It would make sense to gently correct her for that. But saying that it’s inappropriate for Catholics to comment on Protestant matters is both untrue (anyone is free to comment respectfully) and inapplicable to this thread.

        Peace,
        Daniel

      • OMG! Really? That’s how it came out? I thought it was clear I was speaking about myself: My calling as stated in the catechism. Because I am catholic. I did ask about how can I fulfill my calling. I did not intent to tell others what to do.

        Sorry if that’s how it came out…

      • Rosa,

        As Joe points out, the many Anglicans are evangelicals, including Wes and Alberry.

        I would also suggest that the practice of “disinterested friendship” is better carried out through developing interpersonal relationships within your parish, not by commenting on a blog largely inhabited by Christian LGBTQ academics who live in disparate locations halfway around the world from you. In fact, base don the content of some of your comments, it’s unclear to me that you’ve even bothered to read and intellectually digest the books and articles of those who write here. For example, I don’t think you’re going to be able interact meaningfully here without taking the time–as most here have–to familiarize yourself with Foucauldian critiques of Freudian thought.

        I understand that you’re trying to help. The problem is that most of us are not seeking your help. That’s not why we come here. So, your offers come off as a bit presumptuous, if not somewhat condescending and microaggressive.

      • *Her* comments come across as condescending?

        Happily ignorant of Foucault, but somehow getting by,
        Daniel

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  10. I appreciate your writing Wesley; I am reminded by something Dietrich Bonhoeffer said about the dynamics of vows when it comes to marriage: “From now on, it is not your love that will sustain your marriage, it is your marriage that will sustain your love.” Some roll their eyes, as this were old fashion, but as my wife & I are marriage mentors, and being married over 32 years, I recognize the strength of a vow. (https://moreenigma.wordpress.com/tag/marriage/)

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