True Fulfillment

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.

12 thoughts on “True Fulfillment

  1. I’m also Side B, and have admired your work over the years. A few quick thoughts: “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.” – I am glad this proposition does not persuade you. The idea of sex as a legitimate expression of friendship is more the theology of Friends and other modern sitcoms than Christianity. Sex is not a token of friendship and precisely mars the good being pursued. Sex is exclusively an expression of eros in the marriage covenant, and does not extend philia successfully. “Friendship sex” in my view is not a category at all.

    Conversely, though, I agree in a sense with the questioner that “giving it all” to another friend could border easily on over-investment. If all of one’s longing and attempt at fulfillment are thrown onto a singular friend – so that it is functionally a chaste marriage – it could so easily be an idol, and even in its chastity be distorting friendship in some smaller ways.

    I think the distinction that friendship is a deeply crucial and reliable form of intimacy, but is not precisely interchangeable with the intrinsic indissolubility of marriage and biological family, can be a healthier paradigm that limits over-investments or disappointments. Also, I think pairing investment in singular friendships with investment in “family” (the church) – rounds out intimacy as being neither too myopic (only personal friendships) or impersonal (only church communities.) This is what heaven will be like, at least! Blessings to you.

  2. Wes, I like what you said about sexual intimacy being misunderstood and “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” But you are talking about friendship love not eros. As well you had to get this light bulb moment from Augustine not from the Bible. Augustine was reaching within his own bias, as we all are. So this can cut both ways since you are postulating from your bias let me postulate from mine.

    I am persuaded with the argument that LGBT people are largely missing from scripture. If we exist now we must have always existed. So the content of scripture available in the Bible is incomplete with regards to teaching us about ourselves. Much like it is incomplete in many areas with regards to human experience and realities we understand better today. With regards to imperfections due to ‘the fall’ such as deformities and chromosomal variations and so on. These are not inherently sinful variations but brokenness. Brokenness that we live with. If I am attracted to a woman in a romantic way love is not deformed, love is not disabled, love wishes to do what it naturally desires and that is give of itself in sexual intimacy; it is not a friendship kind of love, it is eros, romantic. How can this be reconciled from individual to individual with a one size fits all call to celibacy?

    What is written in the Bible are prohibitions of sex in the context of heteronormativity ie: straight marriage and in the area of lust, promiscuity and abuse. Yet we know same sex people have been in faithful unions for a long time and those relationships have shown similar good fruit as a straight marriage. So we are all trying to use our imaginations to grasp at an understanding to support our decisions. It takes a leap of faith to even believe God accepts me with my authentic desires let alone bless me either in a marriage or with celibacy because many of the churches I tried to participate in did not accept me no matter what I did. The only church I was fully welcomed in was an affirming church and that says volumes.

    • I hear you, but would it be possible to disconnect sexual intimacy from the social construct of romance? In my view, romance as something that must be give way to sexual intimacy is a modern social construct. What if we allowed for romance in our friendships rather than exclusively tying it to sex?

      • Daniel,

        Excellent questions! I am thinking of romance in terms or eros or sexual desire not romance per say. The desire to have sexual union with someone is vastly different with the desire to have a best friend. Both are equally important in my estimation but one does not replace the other. There are some women I have had close friendships with and there is no physical attraction whatsoever and I would be an emotional wreck if I lost them. On the other hand I do not pursue every woman I sexually desire because we can appreciate someone in the most adoring way but there has to be compatibility in order to make a marriage work. And, honestly sometimes the more passionate your crush is the worse the relationship can be. There is a heart/mind balance we need to be realistic about. Maybe that is the gift of relationships; learning how we fit with each other. A muse may inspire a painting but may not be a long time companion. So romance can produce great acts of courage and beauty and character development. Romance is more than this social construct we see around us because I think what we see is often exaggerated and idealized.

    • I don’t know that I would conclude that the Bible possesses a heteronormative outlook. The notion of constructing identity around sexual desire was largely an invention of Freudian social theorists.

      Moreover, sexual desire is highly depend on social context. In general, we are attracted to narratives more so than people. Our attractions to people simply reflect an attraction to a role they play in a narrative to which we’re attracted.

      Yes, I’d agree that people are wired differently and that they may experience attractions differently. But those attractions must necessarily find their embodiment within social contexts.

      I found women to be more attractive once I cut ties with the church and stopped limiting my dating possibilities to Christians. It turns out, women were often unattractive to me because I had no attraction to the role I’d be called to play in a patriarchal relationship that my church context would have demanded. It turns out that my problem had less to do with me than that I spent too many years in the toxic environment of American evangelicalism.

      • Evan,

        Interesting comment, me and a friend were talking along these lines the other day and we both had to conclude so much of what we think depends on our experiences, education, upbringing even our participation in social media; such as blogging. Then I thought, yeah, I always had to give up my personality when I joined a church, conform my thoughts, my tastes, my interests, my attractions to what was taught and then expected by the church.

  3. Many Side A Christians (gay and straight) seem to want to find/express a personal spirituality in sex and marriage. Side B takes a more ‘corporate’ approach – marriage is what a man and a woman are permitted to do with their bodies (with a view to creating new life).

    It’s interesting to see how quickly Julie flipped from (what seemed like) an open-minded but conservative position to an indoctrinated progressive one. You should invite her back to talk about how that change happened.

  4. I too am curious also how/why Julie changed her mind and would be interested in reading her explanation (should she be invited back.) But I wouldn’t say she “quickly flipped”. She was side B for about 12 years. She mentions giving a talk about it in her senior year of high school. She was involved with Exodus. It sounds like in the last couple years her philosophy slowly changed.

    • I’m only going by what she decides to publish. I don’t know her personally – so I don’t know if she was reconsidering anything a long time before she announced it. I did suspect that she might be about to change her mind based on the last few articles she posted here (I feel that way about Wesley’s recent posts).

      It would be great if she could return and explain how it happened.

  5. I’m not sure what the argument is here. Is the very idea of a sexual consummation of friendship misguided because it betrays a misunderstanding of the nature of sex and its proper role in marriage, traditionally understood, or because it betrays a misunderstanding of the nature of friendship?

    The scriptural passages you cite all speak to marriage, not friendship. Nor is it clear what your theologian friend’s observations about marriage, traditionally understood, have to do with friendship in general. Surely, romantic or sexual relations do not distort *all* forms of friendship. Friendship often coexists with romance and sex, as is the case for many marital (opposite-sex) spouses: couples make love, not as friends, but as lovers, yet they remain friends (perhaps best of friends, even) all the same; their friendship, if it existed before, may not be the same as what it was before romance or sex entered the picture, but neither does it disappear. (I believe Lewis makes similar observations in The Four Loves.)

    I wasn’t sure how much of the problematic nature of physically consummating same-sex friendships is in your view supposed to derive from two people being *same-sex* friends vs. their being same-sex *friends*. I take it the former is the more problematic element. Again, there is nothing inherent in friendship (as between opposite-sex friends) that morally prohibits sexual relations on any traditionalist conception. There may be plenty of other reasons two individuals who are friends shouldn’t engage in sex – fornication, adultery, celibacy vows, etc. – but friendship is not typically an intrinsic reason for abstaining from sex. Even when it is – sometimes people choose not to enter into a relationship precisely because they want to “stay friends” (at least, keep the friendship as is, instead of running the risk of altering or ruining it) – the friendship in question presents no *moral* reason for abstaining from sex. On the traditional Christian sexual ethic, sex between two friends will be wrong (if at all) because it lies outside the confines of certain marital relations, not because it perverts friendship. (Indeed, it does pervert the friendship, but this is an injustice to the friendship, not necessarily a moral wrong done to one’s friend, absent special circumstances (of marital infidelity etc.).)

    I have my doubts whether there is even a substantive issue here worth debating. Is the issue whether same-sex friendship admits of physical consummation? (It cannot be whether friendship *in general* admits of physical consummation. Again, this is highly implausible in the normal case of male-female friends.) I doubt anyone is seriously under the illusion that entering into a gay relationship and becoming romantically or sexually involved with another friend will somehow consummate or otherwise complete their friendship, as it is. It’s common knowledge, as it were, that once you become physically involved with someone, your friendship with them doesn’t (at least doesn’t easily) remain the same; as the saying goes, you become “more than friends”. The idea of becoming “friends with benefits” in today’s hookup culture tries to resist this reality somewhat, but even there, the point is stay friends, and enjoy sex with no strings attached; it isn’t to somehow enhance the friendship or make it more or better than it already is. Even traditional gay Christians who, in their times of doubt question their moral convictions or fantasize about starting a gay relationship with someone they know, are tacitly entertaining the idea that they might be happier or more fulfilled if they were to enter into such a relationship, not that it would somehow fulfill or complete the friendship they currently enjoy: there too, the point is not to remain friends but to become something more. I don’t know of anyone (of a mature, adult mind by reasonable standards) who would readily believe or seriously entertain the idea that sex can somehow “consummate” a friendship.

    There are probably stronger arguments to be made from Scripture anyway against the idea of physically consummated same-sex friendships – ones that directly emphasize the nature of friendship, as illuminated by Scripture, rather than trying to draw tenuous implications from specific claims about sex and marriage. Scripture offers instances of same-sex (specifically, male) friendships that evidently stand in no need of physical consummation. David proclaimed the love of Jonathan as being “more wonderful than that of women” (2 Samuel 1:26). What “consummation” or union was there was not physical but spiritual in nature: together they were “one in spirit” (1 Samuel 18:1). And if there is a hierarchy of loves, the greatest, as our own Lord confirmed, is that of friendship, not of romance or its physical incarnations like sex – specifically, the sort of love that calls for one “to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).

    Relatedly, it is worth asking how exclusively non-romantic opposite-sex friendships, albeit uncommon, can be fulfilling despite the absence of any sexual involvement or physical consummation. Church history offers a number of examples: St Francis and St Clare of Assisi, John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, John Paul II and Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka. Such examples resemble “one-sided” same-sex friendships, where only one friend is gay (hence the possible one-sided attractions), more closely than those where the attractions may be mutual: in both, the possibility of any romantic or sexual involvement is already off limits so as to present no question of “Would it be better if…?” These are a kind of half-way case between cases like David and Jonathan, where (presumably) no possibility of romantic or sexual attraction presents itself, and cases of mutually gay friends, where shared attraction is a real possibility. If such precedents of “either-celibate” or “single-gay” friendships present real-life examples demonstrating how friendship can exist between two people and be whole and gratifying without sex, then surely similar reasons for abstaining from sexual relations will apply to same-sex friendships where both friends are gay. Perhaps therein lies the secret to the sort of intimacy afforded by friendship that doesn’t require any sort of physical or sexual manifestation. But I think ultimately this will be revealed by reflection over what real friendship consists in, and not by assuming any “crucial qualifier” about what sorts of sexual activity a traditional sexual ethic already prohibits.

  6. I am the straight husband of a lesbian who took over thirty years of marriage to understand and accept herself. We’re not ‘living in sin’, either of us. But we are now trapped in later life in a sexless marriage. I’ve moved a long way in my own thinking and believing, largely pushed by this traumatic experience.

    How can a loving God implant in some of his children a deep and unchangeable attraction to their own sex, and then deny them the possibility of experiencing that deep connection with another that is granted to the straights through no virtue or choice of their own? How can we (my wife and myself) see our sexuality as a gift and a blessing, when there is now no desire and so no sexual connection at all, only friendship, affection and mutual support (which of course are all very precious)?

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