In the church we talk about singleness, about marriage, about having kids, about being kids, about raising teenagers, but we rarely speak of a theology of friendship.
Wesley Hill has just published a book exploring this theme from a historical, theological, biblical, and personal perspective. His aim most generally is to begin a conversation about friendship, more specifically to argue that friendship can and should be understood along the lines of a vowed or committed relationship, much like marriage or a kinship bond (xix).
The questions the book seeks to answer are the following:
Should we think of friendship as based, above all, on personal preference? Should we think of it as preserving its voluntary character and thereby vulnerable at every point to dissolution if one of the friends grows tired of or burdened by the relationship? Should we consider friendship as always freshly chosen but never incurring any substantial obligations or entailing any unbreakable bonds? Or should we begin to imagine friendship as more stable, permanent, and binding than we often do?
Myths About Friendship
Friendship, according to Hill (and others), has been eclipsed or pushed to the margins of contemporary life by a myriad of myths. These myths obscure the truth about friendship. Hill identifies four myths that have pushed friendship out of the conversation.
First, sex is a threat to friendship because it is hard for us to imagine an intimate but non-sexual same-sex relationship. Second, the myth of the ultimate significance of marriage and the nuclear family. Thus friendship’s number one enemy is the elevated importance of spousal, parental, and extended familial bonds. Third that all human loves must be understood in terms of hardwired self-interest. The final myth is the one of freedom. We believe that the less accountable and anchored we are to particular relationships the better able we are to secure real happiness.
The Genesis of This Perspective
Hill’s book is not just unique because he brings up a neglected topic but he does it from the perspective of a celibate gay Christian. (I know there is a lot of debate about this phrase. I am using it because it is how Hill describes himself.)
Hill is seeking to “steward and sanctify [his] homosexual orientation in such a way that it can be a doorway to blessing and grace.” He is seeking to harness and guide the energies that God has given him into something good, intimate friendship. His homosexual orientation has lead him to be more of a friend and not less of one.
Most readers will rightly ask if friendship is an emphasis of Scripture? While some might think it plays a minor role, a little deeper reflection reveals it has some significant support.
Jesus and the apostle Paul were both single, and Paul says that he would prefer more people to be single (see 1 Corinthians 7). Jesus himself had some counter-cultural attitudes about the family, and he ended up relativizing its importance (Matthew 12:46-50).
What seems to ultimately mattered to Jesus was not marriage, but absolute loyalty to himself, and for some people this meant renouncing marriage and childbearing for the sake of the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 19:12).
The pairings of Ruth and Naomi, David and Jonathan, and Jesus and Lazarus (the one whom you love) show key examples of deep human intimacies within friendships. Further, in the New Testament, friendships within the Church are associated with familial relationships, such as “brother and sister,” terms that are meant to show commitment. Love, Jesus explains, is most highly expressed within friendship, as “no one has greater love than this, that someone would lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13).
Aren’t We Talking About This Already?
Some might object that the church is already talking about this but in the terms of unity in Christ. We are all brothers and sisters in the body of Christ. But I actually think Hill is getting more specific and more theological with his analysis.
We can speak about loving one another in the abstract, or even being involved in a local church, but we all know there are certain relationships that solidify in the midst of obeying those commands. Hill’s book therefore digs deeper into those issues and he dips his toe into undisturbed water in terms of evangelical discussion.
This makes Hill’s book worthwhile in my mind. He introduces a topic probably too few of us are considering.
There are a few parts of the book which I am sure will raise a few questions and even raised some questions in my mind. For the most part though I am giving Hill the benefit of the doubt (which in my mind is the best way to read). So I close with a few of the more controversial claims and offer responses.
First, although Hill calls for committed friendships some rightly will wonder if there should not still be a category difference between spouses. For spouses do make covenantal pledges to one another which make the relationship unlike friendships. Hill’s language is that friendships should be akin to marriage or kinship. The question becomes what akin actually means. Yet Christians should remember that in the body of Christ certainly there is a covenantal commitment to one another. In fact we are eating of the same body uniting ourselves together. The more I thought about it the more I realized that Jesus’ emphasis was not so much on the nuclear family, but the body of Christ.The two should not be seen in opposition for Paul still speaks of relationships between spouses and believes it is a picture of the Gospel, but the church is also a picture of the Gospel and friendships are part of this picture. I don’t think we need to resort to an either or here, and Hill is definitely right that the spousal relationship has had all the love (to speak metaphorically).
Second, and related, some might wonder if Hill is substituting friendship for erotic love or even downplaying the importance of erotic love. Yet, I don’t think that is what Hill is aiming at. Friendship is not a substitute for erotic love, but it is a way of expressing love. Love can certainly exist without erotic love, and those committed to celibacy are called to give up one form of intimacy, but we must remember it is only one form.
Third, Hill spoke of sanctifying, harnessing, or guiding homosexual orientation. Some may wonder if this is the right way to speak about it? Shouldn’t we want to rid ourselves of everything opposed to God? Should an alcoholic seek to harness this part of them? Once you start filling that blank with more categories it actually starts to become clear that we do this all the time. Can people sanctify their pornography? Their anger? Their depression? Well it somewhat depends on what we mean by that word “sanctify.”
We tell married folk who are tempted with pornography to find satisfaction in their spouse. We encourage the angry to not get rid of the passion in their life but to direct it. We plead with the depressed to turn to God and then turn and comfort others with the comfort they have received. My point is that this is a good way to think about one’s orientation in light of the Gospel, not a bad one. It represents mature thinking, not sophomoric thinking. This last point is probably effected by Hill’s recognition that the social construct of “being gay” is not reducible to what the Bible names as lust or sin. “Being gay” cannot be reduced only to the sexual act, it is also a cultural identity.
I was happy to wander into the theme of friendship with the help of Hill and be challenged in some of my preconceived culturally bound thoughts. I think Hill is moving the discussion forward and pastors need to begin considering how they can be sensitive, thoughtful, and biblical in light of changing cultural tides.