What does it mean to be a friend? You would think that this is the sort of question that we all would learn in Kindergarten, but according to Wesley Hill in Spiritual Friendship, the Church has lost a compelling vision for what friendship is, should be, and could be among those who share the bond of the Holy Spirit in Christ. Writing primarily from his experience as a celibate same-sex attracted male, but drawing also from his expertise as a biblical scholar, Hill plumbs the history of the church looking for a better way forward than the one we currently seem stuck with.
Hill’s primary question that the book seeks to answer is a question about love. And it’s a question that has both significant broad implications for the church, but also deeply personal applications for himself. As a celibate same-sex attracted Christian, where is he supposed to find it? Where is he supposed to give love? If the church reserves intimacy for marriage alone, does a faithful Christian sexual ethic mean that he is necessarily cut off from any meaningful form of deep intimacy?
Hill begins by laying out the problem of the idolatry of marriage and the nuclear family as he understands it from the perspective of a same-sex attracted single man. This idea forms a strong undercurrent in the writing for which Hill leverages illustrations (both personal and historical) that demonstrate the damage that is done by our simple evangelical obsession with the ‘traditional’ Family. Is there a better way forward that can be found by looking backwards? Hill believes that there just might be as he chronicles how there was, in the past, a greater appreciation for friendship, and a place for it alongside Christian marriage – a place that has all but disappeared today.
At the end of the first section of the book, Hill takes on the issue contemporary Christian objections toward the types of intimate friendship that we have seen throughout Christian history; most notably the notion that friendship involves a type of exclusivity that is counter to the spirit of the gospel where we are called to love everyone, and secondarily the idea that there can be no such thing as deep relational intimacy without physical sexual expression.
Both ideas form potent objections within the modern Christian psyche. First, we are reticent to privilege one relationship over another because we understand the call of the gospel to be one in which we love everyone, even our enemies. One of the most frightening issues that many contemporary churches wrestle with is the idea that within the fellowship of believers that cliques might form that could possibly make it difficult for outsiders to gain relational traction in the community. Multitudes of books have been written on the topic of how to keep congregations from turning inward on themselves, and this paranoia has led to a deep suspicion of anyone who forms a deep and genuine bond that they do not intentionally share with everyone else. To give one person access to your innermost life and not to also give equal access to the rest of the body is treated as though it is selfish and perhaps even sinful pursuit. The exception of course to this would be the privileged relationship between husband and wife. All manners of unhealthy secrets and privacy are joyfully granted to this coupling, but because of the reticence toward other intimate friendships, even marriages suffer from the unrealistic expectations placed upon them to be things that they frequently cannot be.
The second, and perhaps more socially volatile problem with intimate friendships between persons other than spouses is the cultural assumption that all emotionally intimate relationships always trend toward sexual intimacy over time. This is assumed of course in opposite sex friendships among heterosexual friends, but now, fuelled by secret fears and open homophobia by many within the heteronormative conservative culture it has become the assumption of many same-sex friendships as well.
And so, it is no surprise when we assume that sex is everywhere that we cannot fathom an intimate committed relationship where it would not be present. And this becomes problematic in Christian churches where a traditional view of sexuality is still understood as the only view of sexuality. Which brings us back to the crux of Hill’s question: How does a person who is committed to Christ, but who is unable to enter into a monogamous heterosexual marriage find love and intimacy?
This is where the bulk of Hill’s work is focused. Spiritual Friendship is first and foremost an apologetic for a renewed vocation of vowed friendship that allows those for whom marriage is not an option to experience the intimacy that God longs for every human to experience. Hill, unsurprisingly, is concerned largely with the unique challenges that same sex-attracted Christians face in a culture that is either suspicious of their intentions, or unconcerned about their holiness – but much of what he writes applies just as much toward single and chaste heterosexuals as it might to homosexuals.
And vocation is the operative word; Hill argues that his call to celibacy (and as an example for others, the call to celibacy more generally) is a vocation that has been given to him by God for some greater purpose than to simply deny him the joy that is more readily available to heterosexual Christians. “My question, at root, is how I can steward and sanctify my homosexual orientation in such a way that it can be a doorway to blessing and grace.” (p.78)
Hill outlines six key steps in developing a better understanding and practice of friendship in the church. Disciplines, if you will, that help to bring the church back to a point of balance where friendship occupies its rightful place alongside marriage rather than as a lesser consolation prize for those who cannot meet the heteronormative standard. The first application is simply to recognize that we all have need for friendship. In some cases that need can be met by the same person that we are married to, but I would contend that those instances are rare, and perhaps fraught with unique challenges of their own.
Secondly, we must recognize that often what we need is already available to us by the grace of God; we need only acknowledge it and embrace it. As it pertains to friendship this means that we may very well already be in the company of people to whom we are called into deep spiritual friendships, but we have resisted the call, or been blind to the possibilities. The best friend that we long to be with may already be present to us in a less intimate relationship that only needs care and intentionality to blossom into something deeper.
Thirdly, we need to grasp that even as a friendship between two persons goes deep and becomes intimate, it only truly flourishes when it is rooted in a community that values, affirms, and nurtures it into what God longs for it to become. There should be no fear of unhealthy clique-ness in healthy spiritual friendships because the friendship itself drives its participants back into the community to serve out of the fortitude of that intimate friendship. In this way, Hill contends that the church is the ideal locus for spiritual friendships to grow and deepen.
Fourthly, friendships are for the spiritual community just as much as the community is for friendships. Hill maintains that a healthy communal encouragement of friendship keeps a community from becoming cold and bureaucratic. It helps us to continue to always see the others in our community as people rather than merely resources for or even obstacles to the mission of the community. A church that values friendships is a church that sees the trees and not just the forest – pastorally this is an important element that I have been trying to harness in my ministry. Understanding the temptation to manage the church rather than shepherd it we have intentionally called our elders to a relational office rather than a bureaucratic one. Their first, and highest responsibility is to get to know a group of about ten families in the church and build (or deepen) a relationship with them. And then to go further with one individual who they will mentor and do life with. Of course, there are other duties that the board of elders is responsible for, but they serve with the understanding that those relationships always come first.
Fifthly, we ought to see friendship as a vehicle for extending Christian hospitality in a way that closed-off nuclear families frequently aren’t good at. My own personal struggle with this is challenged by friendships with people who are better with it, and while I lack the natural disposition to open our home as freely as I would like, I have friends who by their relationship with us are free to invite others to join us and as a result enable and empower me to be more hospitable and welcoming than we could be on my own. It is the power of that friendship that helps me to better reflect the heart of Christ toward others.
Sixthly, and finally, Hill exhorts his audience to consider friendships to have more gravity than we are wont to give them credit for. This takes the form of a type of vow of stability whereby we consider, and even include, our committed friends in decisions about whether to stay or go as the winds of life in a highly mobile society blow us around the world. Frequently we will agonize over whether to move away from our parents or siblings (or children and grandchildren depending on our stage of life) but we rarely give a second thought to the relationships we would risk losing among our friends. Moreover, we are not programmed culturally to consider the feelings or needs of the friends that we would potentially leave behind. We see family as valuable but friendships as disposable. Until we can move past this unbiblical cultural priority of personal independence, the true blessings of spiritual friendship will most assuredly remain out of our grasp.
There is much to appreciate in Hill’s apologia for a rediscovery of committed spiritual friendship within the church. But I can’t help but feel, as a pastor, that these lofty ideals are a generation or two away from being realized by the rank and file of the congregation. We still exist within a modernistic, post-war, idealized family sub-culture that is suspicious of anything that smells like it diminishes that which is perceived to be under attack from all sorts of cultural forces. The nuclear family still reigns supreme within most churches and elevating any other type of relationship (especially one that is advocated largely to make room for same-sex attracted Christians) is going to be a tough sell. But little by little I see hope in the emerging generations that there might be an appetite for these sorts of cultural revolutions within the church in the years to come. I know that comes most assuredly as a disappointment to those who have unfairly been suffering in isolation for too long already, and that hope for the future is a poor substitute for belonging and purpose in the present. Until that day though, when we once again value friendship in the way that Hill calls us toward in his book, we must simply put our hand to the plough and keep making space for people – gay or straight, single or married – to be friends.
*Spiritual Friendship is available to borrow from the church library