During my conversation with Julie Rodgers at City Church last weekend, the moderator voiced a question that our friend Tim Otto had posed. If people like me are celebrating committed spiritual friendships, is there any good reason to think that that vision couldn’t include sex for gay couples? In other words, if I’m celebrating spiritual friendship so intensely, why not also celebrate the physical consummation of that love in committed same-sex partnerships? Here’s how Tim put it in his review of my book a while ago:
[I]f Wesley is encouraging people of the same sex to “go all the way” in spiritual, emotional, and intellectual ways, why not “go all the way” with the body as well?…
I’m curious as to how Wesley would respond to concerns that by singling out physical intimacy as wrong, his proposal is dualist or even gnostic.
Tim’s question, I think, is in some ways a deepening of Julie’s. Why should “Side B” be a part of what we’re all about here at SF, and, perhaps more poignantly, isn’t “Side B”—i.e., asking gay Christians to refrain from gay sex in faithfulness to Scriptural teaching—potentially curtailing many rich forms of friendship that gay Christians may be called to?
A few years ago, I was talking about these matters with a distinguished Roman Catholic theologian who said something like this:
If the Scriptural, “traditionalist,” Augustinian understanding of marriage is true—if marriage is defined as the coming together of male and female to enjoy the goods of (1) childbearing, (2) exclusive fidelity to one another, and (3) a permanent bond with one another, and if sexual intimacy finds its rationale only in that covenantal union—then trying to make same-sex friendship a kind of surrogate or substitute for marriage will only end up distorting both marriage and friendship. If the Augustinian view of marriage is right, then a same-sex friendship is actually more fully itself if it does not try to look like marriage. If two men or two women weren’t intended by God to enjoy a physically intimate sexual relationship, then that means that their intimacy with one another will actually be greater and deeper if they are sexually abstinent than if they weren’t.
Hearing that was a light-bulb moment for me: What if expressing one’s love for the same sex in sexual intimacy is actually a hindrance to the relationship developing in the way God intends—and not just in the way God intends, but in the way that would be most truly fulfilling to us? What if same-sex sexual intimacy is actually a misunderstanding and a “missing the mark” of the richer, fuller sort of same-sex friendship God created us to want? And what if, therefore, abstaining from sex with a same-sex friend to whom one is attracted is actually what will make the friendship truer and more fully what it was created to be?
I think my theologian friend was exactly right in what he said to me—but notice the if clauses: If the Augustinian view is right. That’s the crucial qualifier.
All of us who write here at SF are convinced that this so-called “traditionalist,” Augustinian view of marriage does, in fact, represent the teaching of Scripture and is, in fact, correct. We’re convinced that, regardless of what we wish it were, marriage just is the covenantal union of male and female (Genesis 2:24), ordered to procreation (Genesis 1:26-28), marked by exclusivity and permanence (Hebrews 13:4; 1 Corinthians 6:18), and blessed and sanctified by God (Matthew 19:6) to be an acted-out parable of Christ’s love for the church (Ephesians 5:31-32). If we didn’t think all these things—if we thought, for instance, that marriage could include same-sex partners—then we probably would need to worry about whether our encouragement to same-sex attracted people to say “no” to same-sex sexual intimacy might be based on some kind of gnostic disdain for the body and sexual expression. But as it is, we do take marriage to be “male and female,” and therefore our understanding of friendship is one in which friendship becomes more fully itself—more fully alive and fruitful and (truly) fulfilling—if we seek to practice it in line with the norms of Scripture. Sex was made for marriage, not same-sex relationships or friendship, and therefore to try to take it out of its God-ordained place and use it for other purposes… well, the Christian story would say that when human beings attempt that sort of thing, when we use God gifts in ways they weren’t intended, we not only forsake God’s design but end up defeating our own deepest yearnings in the process.
I admit, sometimes this simply feels like a matter of faith. Sometimes it really does look as if a same-sex friendship might be better and truer if we were able to express our love in sexual intimacy. But our reading of Scripture and the Christian tradition keeps telling us otherwise, and we trust that it won’t ultimately lead us astray.
In one of his wonderful “sermons” on homosexuality and the church, the Anglican theologian Oliver O’Donovan said: “It is perfectly possible to think of desires as no matter for blame, and yet be persuaded that their literal enactment can never be their true fulfilment.” I’ve thought about that sentence a great deal over the past few years. And I think it would be my way of trying to answer my friend Tim: Can we think of same-sex desire as no matter for blame and yet, at the same time, remain persuaded that its literal, physical expression in sexual intimacy is not the true fulfillment God has in mind for our desires? That, at least, is what I understand myself to be trying to do.