When Dan Brennan began to explore his view of human sexuality and cross-gender friendships his pastor implored him to be extremely careful. His counsel was simple: “Dan, you’re playing with fire! Men and women are hard-wired for sexual union when they enjoy intimacy with each other” (21). To be honest this is exactly what I would have said before reading Dan’s book carefully. I do believe men and women must be wise, careful and respect the power of sexual attraction in a proper, mature way.
Brennan’s pastor went on to say, “The exceptions are familial intimacy, such as a close bond between mother and son, or brother and sister. Look at Genesis one and two; it’s all there. Dan, look at Scripture. Men and women are designed to experience intimacy and are wired to be one flesh” (21).
If you’ve ever counseled people in marriages where sexual sin has destroyed the bond you know why Dan’s pastor counseled him in the way he did. But is this counsel completely right? Is this the best way to avoid sin and build deep communion with God? Are we not going directly against all common sense and Christian wisdom to argue otherwise? Aren’t we playing with fire?
If you are looking for a a marriage and family book that wants to defend the value system and thinking of the pre-sexual revolution thinking of my parents era then Brennan’s book should not be on your recommended reading list. But if you want to get beyond the stereotypical “family values” debates of the last thirty years then I believe you just might be ready to think and absorb a great deal of the argument that Brennan makes in Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions. If you are not ready then do not trash yourself about your reaction to the highly emotional issue. But please do allow others to explore this issue as they seek greater understanding, through Holy Scripture, in the present missional context. I am 61 years old. I am still trying to learn and admit I have a whole lot to learn about “hot topics” that can be badly handled like this one. But I am very prepared dispositionally to be taught.
Let me put this another way. Is sex the inevitable outcome when men and women form friendships outside of marriage? Or could there be relationships of dialogical love that are rooted in more than “just friends” thinking but remain completely chaste? Lilian Calles Barger argues that “our society is centered on either the containment of sex or reducing all needs to the erotic” (25). Is there another way? Are we stuck in the “sex is always below the surface in relationships” thinking or can we understand sexuality in a deeper way that grasps its profound power while it doesn’t reduce all relational love to sex?
One of the arguments that Brennan makes about deep friendships is rooted in John 17:20-23, the text that has most powerfully shaped the journey I describe in my book, Your Church Is Too Small. The key word in this text is “oneness.” Jesus prays that we will be one. I describe this as a growing social and relational oneness. In fact, this is really a social “mystery” in New Testament language. Is marriage the only place where we enter into the mystery which is found with others in Christ? The answer of many exegetes is that this is the case, based particularly upon Ephesians 5:21-33. This is the very argument several made about my last post when I spoke about sexual union “supremely” revealing Christ’s love for the church. I may just may have chosen the wrong word to make my point but the point is better made and affirmed by Jennifer in the comments she posted on my blog yesterday.
I do challenge every reader to go back and read the Ephesians 5 text in its whole context and pay more careful attention to what the apostle is really saying. Paul is using marriage as a living, embodied example of Christ’s love for the whole church. Our response to each other, as brothers and sisters, is thus rooted in the mystery of this love for all of us. Paul may not use the word “mystery” in Galatians 3:28 that he does for marriage in Ephesians 5:32 but the theology is plainly there to support the idea. Indeed, theologians have explored the social, relational, spiritual and physical aspects of this brotherly love since the days of the Apostles. The present separation of the church, which I argue elsewhere is an unadulterated scandal, will never be corrected by anything other than a deepening of our love for Christ and then each other. This means that we must pursue oneness, not as an option but as a spiritual and social lifestyle. We have done so badly at this in the West that we are more influenced by sectarianism and radical individualism than we are by biblical language and “mystical” (Trinitarian) concepts. Brennan is right to conclude that Galatians 3:28 is saying that “something utterly profound has happened in Christ regarding male and female relationships
Brennan shares stories of radical friendships throughout church history. He shows how they were present in relationships that involved mind and heart. I came across this idea recently in doing some research into the life of Cardinal John Henry Newman, the 19th century English scholar and Catholic convert. Newman had such intimate relationships with several men that moderns have insisted that he had to be gay. In fact, he was buried in the same grave with one of these dear friends. To modern ears this sounds beyond anything normal. But then we have a hard time with the David and Jonathan story in the Old Testament as well. (The way the homosexual community and their opponents both argue about this story is remarkably sexual in all the wrong ways! I will say more about this when I do an extensive review of another book after the New Year, Love Is an Orientation. Having read Brennan’s book first, and then Andrew Marin’s Love Is an Orientation a few weeks later, was a one-two punch to certain assumptions.)
How do evangelicals deal with this business about same-sex and cross-gendered friendships? On the whole I am suggesting rather poorly. We have privatized spirituality into a personal relationship with Christ that has little or nothing to do with the church as real, embodied human beings. We teach people to have their “quiet times” and to confess their sins and struggles to God alone. This has set up Christian experience as isolated and entirely private.
Brennan rightly concludes, about this isolated spirituality:
In fact, evangelical theologians and pastors have encouraged, and entreated Christians to depend on God alone as their helper, deliver, burden bearer, refuge, strength, encourager, friend, and counselor. Scores of books have been written on the virtue and benefit of private, isolated, withdrawn, personal prayer. With this inordinate emphasis on the individual, it is rare to find an evangelical who values formation from paired friendship love and community (30).
If I got nothing else from this book than this paragraph alone then it was worth the whole reading. But there is so much else to write, of which I way say still a little more tomorrow.
Tomorrow: The Problem of Romantic Myth
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I appreciate you wrestling with the question of “Aren’t you playing with fire?” because I think it comes up for people a lot.
I tend to think that all my friendships – even my friendships with men that contain intimcy – aren’t hurting my marriage, they’re making me into a better person, a better wife, a better Christian. The argument that I might be playing with fire doesnt make much sense to me because the good I receive from friendsip far outweighs the risk.
John, these last two posts in sequence tell of the plight of sexuality and spirituality in Christendom. We’ve isolated marriage to make it this intense relationship of private romantic chemistry. And in the same romanticized culture, we have privatized spirituality and created such an individualistic, isolated spirituality as the feature of all spiritual love and maturity. No wonder why we are struggling in a divorce culture.
I think that a sexual morality based on victorian prudishness rather than biblical demands, the delusion that your spouse and mother should be the only females that provide any healthy intimate relationships, and a privatized spirituality push people towards actual genuine sin.
I think the real cure for lust (the unhealthy kind)is respect. I have found that it is difficult to objectify women who I have grown to respect. Not because they are unattractive or because I am lacking in sexual interest, but simply because sinful lust doesn’t really want a whole women, but rather something that is less than a whole person. When you get to know someone well it is inevitable that you start to see them as a whole person.
The irony is that the standard way of dealing with the opposite sexx in christian circles treats the opposite sex as nothing much more than a temptation.
This is certainly food for thought. I may have to pick up a copy for myself and my husband.