Sacred Sexuality and Friendship

John ArmstrongFriendship, Marriage & Family, Sexuality

Author Dan Brennan believes that friendship love between a man and a woman is poised to become a receptive love that can coexist with marriage and not become a rival to it. I doubt that few conservative pastors or marriage and family writers in America agree with him. His thesis is simple, but clearly provocative: cross-sex friendship love is a journey toward communion with God through life with others. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic little book, Life Together, comes to mind here!)

7153_1_ftc_dp Put another way Dan Brennan is saying that men and women, in the new creation, are not limited to stark contrasts between romantic passion in marriage or inappropriate sexual expressions beyond marriage that lead to infidelity. Most conservative Christians that I know really do believe these are the only two real options in cross-gendered relationships. Passion in friendship is for marriage and if pursued anywhere else will lead to sexual unchastity.

I have recently been watching an A & E series titled: “God or the Girl?” This series follows the lives of four men ranging from 21 to 28 years of age. These men are all considering becoming Roman Catholic priests, thus committing themselves to a celibate life. As one man counsels with his priest the priest reminds him that he can still have a deep friendship with his girlfriend and enter the priesthood, remaining celibate. I found this counsel consistent with Brennan’s thesis and also a reminder that other Christian traditions respond to this issue very differently.

Having believed the opposite of what Brennan believes for so long I know how many of my peers will respond to his Christ-centered, theologically argued points. They argue that chaste relationships of this kind are simply not possible. There is one question, however, that bothered me for decades. Brennan answers with powerful persuasiveness: “What do you do with the biblical stories of cross-gendered relationships? Especially, what do you do with the New Testament teaching about brothers and sisters and the numerous commandments about love and relationship?” (The answer is that we ignore them or assume the commonly taught stance about male/female relationships that argues that they are not advisable if you are married.)

Brennan offers a different response when he says that men and women who are in Christ are called into the communion of his love. He believes there is a distinctive calling for “supreme allegiance and communion in marriage, [but] the way of friendship between the sexes is the quest for beauty, goodness, and truth in marriage, in relationships extending outward from marriage . . . or outside marriage if one is single” (18). But, and this is the burden of his argument, “Communion between sexes is not solely contained between husband and wife” (18).

Wisely Brennan does not offer a “model for this sacred friendship.” This will frustrate some readers since he does not give them a list of what they can do and where they can do it. He concludes, helpfully, “Interpersonal communion cannot be reduced to one model”  and “the Christian community does not need more how-to books on male-female relationships” (18). He wisely admits that his own life is flawed and that he walks in weakness with a real limp. He candidly admits that what he is proposing is not “an easy stroll along a sun-drenched beach” (18). This may be the biggest understatement in the entire book! Let the reader decide.

Let me be honest. I am so challenged by Brennan’s thesis that I did not want to read his book for several months. I put it off even though I knew I would likely pick it up. I feared it might mess with my simplistic paradigm about the complexity of relationships. I also feared, and this word is carefully chosen, ever hurting or sinning against my wife. I fear this more than almost any human fear I embrace. I fear this sin because I have seen the damage sexual immorality has done to my own friends in the ministry. (I wrote a book about this more than a decade ago: The Stain That Stays.) I found myself reading Brennan and asking, at many places in the text, “What does this argument do to my views about chastity and the dangers of sexual temptation?” To be honest most of my male Christian peers still treat women as if they are sex objects who naturally (even unknowingly) tempt men to fall unless the man is on caution 24/7. Most do not realize this but the assumptions are common in so-called “practical counsel.”

But this is not all. Brennan suggests “that the possibility of deep spiritual friendships between the sexes may decrease the divorce rate among Christians” (19). Read that again. It is massively counterintuitive to say the least. But he just may be right. The divorce rate among Christians is often higher than among non-Christians so we need to consider how we can strengthen the church. Brennan proposes a way that almost no one is seriously considering, at least in my circles.

But what is “sacred sexuality” in Brennan’s thesis? He argues strongly for chastity but says any relationship that is open to intimacy cannot really be “nonsexual” because we are all sexual beings. He has to be right here unless we are practicing Gnostics. It is impossible to authentically live our lives as anything but a sexually embodied beings since that is what we were created to be by our loving Father. Thus Brennan reasons: “Embracing a healthy, positive chaste view of one’s sexuality in friendship is an expression of beauty, goodness, and truth in God’s story” (19). He chooses to use the helpful phrase “nonromantic” to describe friendships that are not built on romantic love and the sexual expression of that love.

Dan One of the most important things Brennan does is show the reader how Christians actually regarded this issue long before our contemporary distinctions were being made by Christians about sex and marriage. Deep friendships rooted in affection, prayer, confession and mutual love were common in other eras and in varying contexts. In fact, cross-sex friendships that were celibate can be seen in every period of Christian history.

Here is the $64,000 question for our time: If we are to build community that is Christ-centered and missional how are we going to handle the whole problem of sexuality in an age gone mad over sexual expression? Just say no will not work. Try that counsel with people of same-sex attraction and without a compelling call to discipleship. It will never work. Try doing that with singles who are attracted to the opposite sex and tell them to “wait for marriage.” Honestly, this is not working well either, at least not in the way we are teaching it. “Just say no” is rooted in a denial of who we are and how God made us. We can, and should, say no to sex outside of marriage but we have to have a better reason, namely the love of Christ. We also need a greater power, namely that of the compulsive power of new affections found in intimate union with Christ. And we must use the resources that God has actually given to us, namely the reality of community and good ways to express deep human love where chastity is the norm for the right reasons.

Brennan is right when he concludes: “Chaste cross-sex [or for that matter same-sex] friendships cannot flourish in communities that limit sexuality to sex or to lust management” (20).

Our sexual theology has been too legalistic, too mechanical. It has not been deep enough, sacred enough. It is not rooted in the nature of God, who sees deep friendship in himself as the basis for relationships formed in the image of the Trinity.

It is time to change our paradigm about sexuality. We have portrayed it in terms that are purely romantic when the beauty of oneness is found in many other forms that are good and right. Brennan asks: “What would our churches look like if men and women sought deep communion with God and each other?” I suggest they would be more mature, less hung up about sex and far more redemptive in spirit. I also suggest, in my agreement with Brennan, that marriages would ultimately be stronger. Yes, there is a risk here for sure but the present solutions are not working as I’ve noted. Look at the data. It is obvious.