The Pastoral Promise of “Vowed” Friendships

Sam Allberry, a Christian minister and someone who has been open about his own same-sex attraction, has written a review of my Spiritual Friendship book, and this week I’ve been posting some responses to it (see the first one here and the second one here). I’m grateful to Sam for his engagement of what I’ve written. And because his reaction to my book is one that I’ve encountered before, I thought it would be worth talking about. So here, again, is Sam’s basic worry about my book:

… 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…

This line of criticism is something we at SF tend to hear a lot, and I hope a lot of us here decide to write more about it in the near future. Francesca Aran Murphy voiced a similar worry about Eve Tushnet’s book Gay and Catholic: “It just seems to me that there’s something inherently erotic about ‘vows,’ so that ‘vowed friendship’ [as Tushnet calls it] is friendship perpetually on the verge of turning into erotic friendship.”

In a previous post I already gave some indication of how I’d respond to this: Basically, the fact that close, promise-bound friendships can be problematically “eroticized” doesn’t mean must be. The fact that something can become distorted doesn’t automatically mean the thing itself is bad. (For the positive case—that vowed friendships are, or can be, good, I’d say go read Eve’s book!)

Now for today here’s one other thought. Sam’s criticism seems to assume we’re talking about two gay Christian people who are contemplating entering a vowed friendship. But what about those who are already in such relationships?

Consider this scenario: Let’s say a gay couple has been legally married for ten years or so. Their lives are intertwined before they ever start talking with their pastor or priest or spiritual director about what it would look like to surrender their sexual lives to Christ’s lordship. They own a house together, they have a child, they’ve become each other’s closest confidant and support, and on and on. Let’s say, then, that they become convinced of traditional, biblical Christian teaching on marriage and sexuality. They come to believe, in short, that gay sex is not part of God’s design for the flourishing of a same-sex relationship. What should they do?

Obviously the answer to such a question can’t be given in the abstract. There can’t, I imagine, be a one-size-fits-all approach. You’d need to know the couple, and you’d need to have a lot of godly wisdom, in order to encourage them toward greater Christlikeness. And you’d also need to prepare for the fact that the pastoral responses to each partner might look different. But can we rule out that one possible answer for this couple is to stay together and continue parenting their child and give up having sex?

I’m sure that in some cases embracing traditional Christian teaching on sexuality might mean that such a couple would separate. For instance, when Rilene, a lesbian who had lived with her partner for 25 years and whose story is told in the very affecting film Desire of the Everlasting Hills, returned to the Roman Catholic Church, she discovered that her newfound desire to be chaste meant that her relationship with her partner slowly dwindled. She didn’t stop loving her partner, but they did end up separating. I expect that that’s a likely—albeit very painful and heartbreaking—outcome for many gay Christians who embrace chastity. And it shouldn’t be an outcome that we Christians consider beyond the pale—after all, we follow a Lord who told us to expect such drastic sacrifices: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26).

And yet I also expect that not every gay Christian who sets out to submit to biblical, traditional Christian teaching on sex will follow in Rilene’s footsteps. Listen, for instance, to the counsel from the US Catholic bishops’ document Principles to Guide Confessors in Questions of Homosexuality (1973), quoted here by Aaron Taylor:

A homosexual can have an abiding relationship with another homosexual without genital sexual expression. Indeed, the deeper need of any human is for friendship rather than genital sexual expression … If a homosexual person has progressed under the direction of a confessor, but in the effort to develop a stable relationship with a given person has occasionally fallen into a sin of impurity, he should be absolved and instructed to take measures to avoid the elements which lead to sin without breaking off a friendship which has helped him grow as a person. If the relationship, however, has reached a stage where the homosexual person is not able to avoid overt actions, he should be admonished to break off the relationship. (p. 10-11)

I can well imagine negative reactions to this both from those who lean theologically Left and those who lean Right—and indeed I feel some of that nervousness myself, for all sorts of reasons!—but can we really rule this out as one faithful option?

A few years ago, a friend sent me a link to a sermon by Greg Boyd, pastor of Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, Minnesota. Woodland Hills is a theologically conservative Baptist church, and, given the history and stereotypes of conservative churches, that makes this sermon all the more remarkable. The sermon is a brief foray into a theology of singleness, stressing the passages in the Gospels where Jesus dignifies celibacy. Most interesting of all, though, at least to me, was the anecdote near the end about a gay couple who attended the church for a while.

As Boyd tells the story, the couple gradually became convinced, through conversations with their discipleship small group in the congregation, that they should give up having sex. But they resisted this conclusion for a while because they felt that it would mean giving up their long-term relationship as well. Boyd said that, to his delight, the couple’s friends at the church convinced them that not sleeping together didn’t mean they needed to stop living together or considering their relationship as a “forsaking all others” sort of commitment.

The story ends there, and of course we’re all wondering, “What happened next?” I’d love to know how this worked out. Reading between the lines, it sounded to me as if the couple is no longer at the church. I wonder, how did the relationship go, assuming they stayed committed to abstinence? In what sense did it maintain “exclusivity”? What avenues of pastoral care and admonition did they pursue? I have a million questions!

But here, it seems to me, “vowed” or “covenanted” friendship might be precisely the right pastoral model for such a couple. It may be that such couples are, as Eve Tushnet has written in a slightly different context, meant to remain part of one another’s vocations: “God may be calling [the two partners] to love [each other], even though that love shouldn’t be expressed sexually.” If churches that maintain the traditional biblical perspective on sexuality are truly committed to evangelism in the coming decades, then—please God—many such couples will be crossing our paths all the time. What will be our pastoral responses to them?

So—to return to Sam Allberry’s review of my book—I wonder if Sam’s criticisms overlook an area where “vowed friendship” will prove to be germane for the church as it navigates new cultural terrain. Despite all the potential problems in “covenanted” friendships—and let’s not forget there are equal but not identical temptations faced by gay Christians who are not in “covenanted” friendships, who are trying to navigate the unbiblical life of contemporary “singleness”—I still expect this to be a viable way forward for some gay Christians committed to Scripture and the Christian tradition, perhaps more than ever in the days ahead.

25 thoughts on “The Pastoral Promise of “Vowed” Friendships

  1. Pingback: The Weekly Hit List: July 24, 2015

  2. Well said. I would add that what many conservative minded folk who object fail to recognize is how lack of intimacy is *precisely* the thing that leads to immorality. A starving person will eat anything to survive. Thus, ironically, many conservatives actually *contribute* to people turning to sexual relationships by demanding unnecessary emotional deprivation as well. It is the deep emotional intimacy of a vowed friendship that can keep a person living a sanctified life instead of giving into temptation. In fact, I think *encouraging* such relationships, not just tolerating them, would be an appropriate adaption to Paul’s command that people marry if they cannot remain celibate. A sexless vowed brotherhood/sisterhood or even partnership is not the same thing as marriage, but the principle of forming committed bonds as a way to protect against immorality remains.

    • Karen,

      I’ve made this point to certain conservative folk. I honestly don’t think such “Christians” have any interest in understanding the real-life struggles of LGBTQ people. Alberry is embraced by folks in the PCA and SBC because he is willing to be dehumanized and accept some status as a lower-class Christian. Those who refuse to do that are shunned. See, for example, the treatment the writers of this blog have received from Denny Burk and Owen Strachan (notable SBC voices on these issues) and from Tim Bayly (notable PCA voice on these issues).

      • Denny Burk’s farts smell as bad as anyone else’s. Don’t get too hung up on the evangelical power structure. Christ is far more than this.

      • Allberry probably genuinely admires the higher profile American evangelists. Most of the bible study resources British evangelicals use in their churches are imported from the US. Plus, any minister or author who want to climb the conservative Christian career ladder above a certain level has to cosy up to the bigger US names and institutions. I doubt he is insincere though.

      • Joe,

        I think this also hits home for me because it’s wrapped up in recognizing that evangelicalism has failed–and will likely continue to fail–to move beyond some of the “noble lies” that have animated the movement since its current origins in the post-War years. These issues include inerrancy, restrictive gender roles, and the family-values theology. None of these points is biblically mandated. They were all defensive positions that had more to do with surrounding political currents than with anything particularly evangelical.

        But, alas, that hope failed. The older generations seem to content to drive the boat over the dam unless we keep paying homage to the same old noble lies. So, you find growing numbers of 20- and 30-something evangelicals who are simply tired of church. We are better classified as “dones” as opposed to “nones.” We hold to orthodox evangelical theology, but we reject the hegemonic institutional expressions of that theology. Those institutions are hopelessly mired in efforts to promote doctrines that have more to do with the Culture Wars than with Jesus. We’re too gospel-oriented to fit into a mainline context. But we’re not willing to bow to the totems of inerrancy, gender roles, and the nuclear family. So, we are largely left without a church home.

        The political captivity of institutional evangelicalism is no more clear than it is on this issue. No church that forbids women from serving in leadership positions or that looks askance at same-sex spiritual friendship can credibly claim that the gospel is a priority. Politics is its priority. And it has relied on a twisted theology of “biblical worldview” to justify the syncretism inherent in letting one’s gospel agenda be determined by the politics of social conservatism.

        I had hoped that evangelicalism could rise above the syncretism that has long plagued it and be true to its calling. It is now clear to me that this will not happen. We’re simply going to have to build a new evangelicalism while Denny Burk, Owen Strachan, Tim Bayly, John Piper, Tim Keller, and Don Carson drive the existing one over the dam.

  3. Wes and all bloggers in Spiritual Friendship. If you want the concept of Spiritual Friendship (vowed friendships) to really take hold in our churches you must not talk about it exclusively as a pastoral solution for people with SSA. Although I think it can very well be a pastoral solution for thus subgroup of people, if you want the church to take it seriously, you must widen your horizons and present it as something that can take many shapes and forms and something worthy to pursue because it will benefit the church as a whole. Many times, the way you speak about vowed friendships it makes it seem as an alternative to marriage for gay people. I strongly believe that this is the wrong way to present vowed friendships to the church.

    • Agreed.

      I think part of the problem is that other Christians say so little about friendship that there isn’t an existing conversation to connect with. For those of us who aren’t straight, it’s difficult to speak about friendship for straight people. Ideally, that is a conversation other Christians would be having that we would connect with.

      FWIW, though, I agree.

      • That may be part of the problem. But I don’t wonder whether the question–like most of Rosa’s questions–doesn’t implicitly reduce LGBTQ people down to their sexuality. That’s why I generally view Rosa as a concern troll.

        As I’ve reflected more about my status as an LGBTQ Christian, I’ve come to see that status as something that’s almost incidental to sexual desire. I would tend to define that status more along the lines of a decision–that’s partly reflective of certain biological and/or temperamental dispositions–to eschew the socially dominant heterosexualized script for how one is to be a man in the world. In other words, I’m simply refusing to accept that the most vital relationships in my life must necessarily center on heterosexual desire. In a world that falsely assumes that everything must be sexual, this refusal gets misinterpreted–even by those doing the refusing–as an implicit desire to have one’s most vital relationships center on homosexual desire. But to make that leap is to succumb to the Freudian lie. In that sense, I have come to see my status as an LGBTQ person as being defined, at a minimum, as nothing more than a disbelief in the necessity of taking on sexualized gender roles, whether they be heterosexualized or even homosexualized. And, to me, that’s what Spiritual Friendship is. It is a radical (at least in our current cultural context) critique of the seeming social necessity of sexualized relationships to human flourishing.

        That’s where I find Rosa’s inquiry to be incomprehensible. One can’t simultaneously praise the merits of conformity to heterosexualized gender roles–as Rosa frequently does–and simultaneously say that you want to maintain friendships that are interpersonally intimate and that transcend sexualized gender roles. You can’t enjoy the latter without foregoing the former. That’s not to say that you can’t be married and also partake of spiritual friendship. But that marriage would look very different from one that conforms to the culture’s hegemonic heterosexualized view of marriage. It would look more like the kind of interpersonally “open” marriages that Wes describes in the latter part of his book, i.e., marriages that, in Leithart’s words, make way for intrusive third parties.

        It’s not that we LGBTQ people need to do a better job of making spiritual friendship attractive to those happily living in conformity to heterosexualized gender roles. After all, spiritual friendship is fundamentally a critique of the reduction of people to their sexual desires. Making it more attractive to heterosexists like Rosa would require us to gut it of any meaningful critique of heterosexism. So, for the time being, it doesn’t bother me that the narrative is unpersuasive to heterosexists. That’s not a bug; it’s a feature.

      • Ron,

        I truly believe you have something good here. I believe you guys are engaged into something and that God will bless your work. I’m sure… It is a matter of perseverance and of being opened to the inspiration of the Spirit. Something good is about to happen… I can tell.

    • “Although I think it can very well be a pastoral solution for thus subgroup of people, if you want the church to take it seriously, you must widen your horizons and present it as something that can take many shapes and forms and something worthy to pursue because it will benefit the church as a whole.”

      Rosa is right. She outlined the big problem in this single sentence: we aren’t a part of the church. Things that would benefit us are of no consequence to the church. The church would be more comfortable if we simple went back in the closet or ceased to exist. The idea of a vowed friendship rubs heterosexual Christians the wrong way because we aren’t one of them, in their eyes. We are their enemies. We are the nefarious “other” that threatens from the shadows.

  4. Allberry, in his criticism, worries about the culture misunderstanding “vowed friendship” and therefore does not see it as an appropriate way of dealing with homosexuality. But, the culture already misunderstands the way traditional Christian teaching deal with homosexuality and it’s driven many far from the Church. Why is this preferable? Do I misunderstand something?

    • I’m afraid I don’t understand your postulate that the culture “misunderstands the way traditional Christian teachings deal with homosexuality..”

      I thought that most people know that the traditional teaching regards homosexual sex acts as immoral and, to the extent homosexual feelings encourage homosexual sex acts, such feelings should be resisted. Same with situations which would give an opportunity/tempt one to commit those acts.

      {I assumed that is why Allberry worries about Christians approving vowed friendship; “the culture” will assume that traditional Christianity is softening its condemnation of same sex acts because such friendships may give the appearance of romantic love and temptation for sexual contact.)

      BTW: I don’t necessarily endorse the traditional Christian teaching on homosexuality; I’m just trying to understand irksome’s reasoning.

      • Hang around a gay bar or a college campus and you will find many people who believe that the Church endorses a life of loveless solitude for homosexuals. Indeed, the practical application suggested for such things as “resisting the feelings and situations that could lead to homosexual sex” can sometimes be so broad and restricting as to reinforce the original impression.

        The growing popular support for the acceptability of homosexual sex and gay marriage seems to be based on this negative view of the Christian teaching on the matter. The teaching, as I have framed it here, is correctly rejected as cruel and inhumane, propelling the culture further away from Christian sexual ethics.

        I think it’s reasonable to see the teaching in other ways and I think Allberry would also reject the “loveless solitude” interpretation as a gross distortion. Nevertheless, that understanding is pervasive in the culture, yet Allberry’s primary concern here is with the misunderstanding of an abstract proposal to bring homosexuals more in line with traditional Christian sexual ethics. It’s like a starving man who rejects a loaf of bread because it’s not gluten-free; his priorities seem misplaced.

      • But Irksome, many, many churches endorse a life of loveless solitude for ‘homosexuals’, as you put it, otherwise sites like SF would not exist, which try to remedy to this sorry state of affairs. Sam Allberry himself only found the guts to come out to his own church (for political reasons, he’s now one of the poster boys for the new chastity movement) in his forties.

      • Irksome12: Thank you for your clarification. I do wonder, though, if “Allberry’s primary concern here is with the misunderstanding [presumably by Evangelicals and by the larger culture] of an abstract proposal to bring homosexuals more in line with traditional Christian sexual ethics. It’s like a starving man who rejects a loaf of bread because it’s not gluten free; his priorities seem misplaced.”
        Yes, they seem misplaced if his primary concern is what others think. But I suspect it isn’t. I wonder if it is that vowed friendships will increase the the temptation and likelihood of sex between the two “friends”. (Wesley’s chapter 5 has a poignant description of him falling in love with his friend–without realizing it till facing his loss to a woman. Hill did not act on his sexual feelings, but he had/has professional and political incentives to celibacy that few other gay people have. Plus his friend was straight.)

        If one believes that same sex acts lead straight to hell, a better analogy would be a starving man offered bread laced with cyanide.

        With such a religious view, it would make perfect sense for gays to live a life on earth isolated and guarded from same sex affection; it avoids the risk of eternal torture and rewards one with eternal bliss. This is seldom explicitly pointed out, perhaps out of a wish to be “winsome”. That word is used a lot lately in the context of promulgating this view of heaven/hell/gay sex.
        Of course, only Allberry could say if my inferences (about his reasoning) are accurate.

    • “Why is this preferable? Do I misunderstand something?”

      The Southern Baptist brand of Christianity, like much of the far right leaning and orthodox types, is one that demands there be few winners and many losers. I suspect that driving many from the church is seen with secret glee by those who long to be one of the few thousand who walk the golden streets of heaven and relish the agony of the billions of us damned in hell. It is a culling of the goats from the lambs.

      The true Christians get to look forward to “persecution” and the End of Days while the rest of us prove they were more special and wise than us the whole time when Jesus comes back to brutally kill us for falling in love with the same gender.

  5. Pingback: Review: Spiritual Friendship by Wesley Hill | Allkirk Network

  6. Pingback: Singled Out | Liminal Glory

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