Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions: Engaging the Mystery of Friendship Between Men and Women

John ArmstrongBooks, Friendship, Sexuality

Cover I began reading the book Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions (2010) with an eye to find loopholes and practical problems in the author’s thesis. To say that his idea made me very cautious about endorsing this is a huge understatement. When I finished the book my personal copy was marked and annotated throughout. And almost every concern that I had was addressed in a way that I found quite satisfactory. This does not mean there are no practical problems in working out the thesis in everyday community but it does mean the thesis is itself worthy of the serious attention it just may not get from far too many Christians.

Let me begin by telling you that the author is a personal friend. Dan Brennan was once a part of the church family that I served as pastor for sixteen years. We have recently reconnected in a deep and personal way as older (hopefully much wiser) men. But I hasten to tell you that I do not endorse this book because my good friend wrote it. I endorse it because I believe it to be a book that is profoundly needed in the church if we are to become missional in the best and most profound sense of this word. I also believe this is a book that has answered some of my deepest questions about friendship, which is the real underlying theme of Brennan’s project. I have made friendship a primary goal of my life for years and have read a good deal on the subject in the process.

The subtitle sums up Brennan’s thesis very well. Cross-gender friendships are not only possible in our overly sexualized age but deeply important to the overall health of the body of Christ. How should brothers and sisters in Christ relate to one another in “the mystery of friendship” when almost everything that we’ve ever heard from respected leaders warns us about the dangers of close friendships with the opposite sex? We have a deeply ingrained instinctive fear of others that needs to be challenged if we are to proceed with care. Brennan is truly up to the task. He offers a way to think about authentic community that I’ve rarely encountered in current Christian literature. The way forward that he sets out is balanced, carefully researched and very well written. Scholar and ordinary leader alike can profit from this book.

Lilian Calles Barger, the author of another important book, Eve’s Revenge, says: “Dan Brennan provides a provocative path to rethinking our sexuality and cross-gender friendships. It may be that sex scandals and broken marriages among Christians is the result of a famine in cross-gender friendships.” Please read that statement again. Could the Freudian assumptions that remain normative to much of what we think about sex today, joined with conservative Christian teaching on romance and marriage, have fostered broken marriages? I believe so and I believe Dan Brennan makes a strong case for why this is the case.

Before I engage more directly in Brennan’s principal arguments I want to urge every reader to buy and read this book whether or not you agree with cross-gender relationships or not. (Practically, there is a lot of dialogue needed in the church about how such friendships should work. Where do we even begin this dialogue and how do we listen to one another? Brennan admits all of this, which is where the honest differences with him will undoubtedly come for some, myself included.) But unless, and until, we gain a solid grasp of the biblical, theological and historical literature about sacred friendship we are doomed to more prejudice and emotionalism regarding this provocative subject. Brennan understands this and carefully navigates a course of thought and response. If you start here, with a right view of sacred friendship, you will experience less emotional resistance to the more controversial issue of cross-gendered friendship. Such friendships are admittedly going to be an issue that will not be worked out easily in the present setting. If truth is known I think Brennan’s project will require incremental changes that will take a generation or more to bring about. My generation will likely die opposing what he says but the 20s and 30s who will someday lead the church are ready for this discussion if my guess is right. Personally, I want to be involved in the conversation  as a responsible Christian leader whether I can enter fully into the practice or not.

Dan’s wife Sheila writes the foreword. She says, “Methinks that friendship has fallen on hard times. When Facebook announces that a subscriber has ‘469 friends’ I have to wonder what ‘friend’ has come to mean in today’s parlance. While the concept of friendship has been expanded to such a degree that it has largely been diluted, the concept of intimacy has been narrowed to mean primarily sexual intimacy, and, within the Christian community, exclusively martial sexual intimacy.” I know Sheila and can attest that she deeply believes in Dan’s thesis and remains his very best critic and friend. She is herself a devoted wife and mother, a former college professor of mathematics and a most Christian.

Simply put, how can a married man and a single woman, to use but one controversial example, have a close friendship and remain chaste? Is such a relationship desirable, much less possible? Is it wise? This is where I would have responded negatively over the course of my six decades of life. You might get away with such a relationship, in some private context, but it is never, ever wise. Brennan has convinced me that this thinking is simply wrong. (I admit, again, that I have no idea how to proceed except by means of honest dialogue and learning.) The good news here is that he doesn’t tell me what precisely to do, in the sense of giving me a formula. Rather, he gives me nuanced answers so I can begin to make sense of a huge relational mine field. No married person should even begin to act on what the author says unless they can do it in a context of faith and love with their marriage partner. You must do nothing to harm your marriage, nothing. Love would have you respond no other way thus this is not a book to embrace and run off into the wild blue yonder.

The introduction begins with this paragraph, which sums up what the author is attempting to do rather succinctly:

What would our marriages, our friendships, our churches, and our communities look like if men and women were not afraid of connecting with each other in deep ways? What if men and women could really know each other without sex getting in the way? What if we did not have to be so afraid of our own and other’s bodies that we cannot trust ourselves with them?

I spent last week in the suburbs of Philadelphia. The hotel where I resided for six days was hosting a major conference for hundreds of employees of a large company. Men and women mixed freely, evidence of the great social changes of the last forty years. I thought, as I watched these people share drinks, food and laughter, “What a difficult challenge this brave new world presents to the Christian man and woman, especially if they travel away from home and mingle with each other so openly in public and private.” Then I thought about the implications of the sexual revolution I’ve lived through for six decades as I watched men and women relate to each other in this convivial context. I am sure a few marriages were being destroyed right before my eyes. But then I asked, “What is a Christian man or woman to do in a context like this?” My pat answers were challenged afresh as I pondered Brennan’s provocative book throughout the week. In general, I believe he says that any connecting in this particular social setting must be done very, very carefully. Remember, remaining chaste is plainly at the heart of his thesis. But if Christ’s perfect love casts out fear then there is no room for sexual stereotypes that should keep us from genuinely loving our neighbors, both male and female. The problem, as anyone with any experience knows, is how do you actually do this and remain committed to biblical chastity and fidelity?

You can engage with Dan Brennan’s book and thoughts on his excellent book blog site. I encourage you to check out what he has to say. I will engage his arguments further over the next several days.

Tomorrow: Sacred Sexuality and Friendship