This post is an edited form of a talk I gave at Barneys evening church weekend away. The main theme of the weekend was connecting back up things about being human (love, sex, friendship and marriage) which in our modern world are too often separated in our thinking – separated from each other, and from God’s love. Bible readings: 1 Sam 20:1-23, 1 Sam 20:24-42

Lonely, sexually active people

Earlier this year Mike Paget, our senior pastor at Barneys, shared some interesting research about loneliness in this decade. Turns out that we have fewer close friends than two decades ago, fewer people to discuss important things with, fewer confidants outside our families. We long for intimacy, and yet we are still lonely. Our generation is full of sexually active lonely adults.

This is my attempt at raising some questions about friendship. (It’s based largely on my dear friend Rev Andrew Robinson’s excellent unpublished theological study of friendship.)

The story of David and Jonathan

David and Jonathan were unlikely friends. For starters, Jonathan was royalty. Jonathan’s father was Saul, the current king of Israel. David was not royal family and had little exposure to that world before being recommended by one of Saul’s servants as a decent musician. That’s how he became Saul’s servant and then armour bearer.

But the divide between royalty and commoner wasn’t the main issue. The real problems began when King Saul started trying to kill David. It’s a long story.

Much of the early story of God’s people Israel was about the search for the perfect king to lead God’s people, a search which only finished with Jesus. Saul was the first King of Israel, chosen by God after they begged him for a human king like all the other nations. He served his purpose in God’s plan but he was not a great King: he eventually turned away from God and directly disobeyed God. Speaking in human terms, the narrator says God “regretted” making him King. So God appoints a new King, David, to replace the corrupt Saul as king.

You’ve heard David and Goliath: the real story here though is David and Saul:

Saul is an impressive figure, strong and the most handsome young man in Israel. And the King.

David is an unlikely choice, a shepherd boy; nobody would think of him as a threat to the rule of the house of Saul. But on God’s instructions he is secretly anointed as King. That creates some difficult politics. New Kings and Old Kings are not normally friends. And New Kings and the sons of Old Kings aren’t either.

So David and Jonathan really shouldn’t be friends. Ultimately, being a friend to David will require Jonathan to betray his Father. And, as Jonathan’s dad points out in exasperation, helping David will mean no chance of Jonathan inheriting the throne. Because if David lives then the monarchy will pass to his family.

1Sam. 18:1               After David had finished talking with Saul, Jonathan became one in spirit with David, and he loved him as himself. 2 From that day Saul kept David with him and did not let him return home to his family. 3 And Jonathan made a covenant with David because he loved him as himself. 4 Jonathan took off the robe he was wearing and gave it to David, along with his tunic, and even his sword, his bow and his belt.

This is a serious friendship in a way that we just don’t know what to do with. One of my best buddies is Robbo; he was my best man at my wedding. I remember when we met. But I don’t remember when we decided to be friends – and I’m pretty sure it didn’t involve tears, covenants and disrobing.

David and Jonathan’s is a serious friendship, and one backed up with serious action – action which brings huge cost. When Jonathan even just stands up for David at the dinner table his own dad hurls a spear at him. Jonathan ends up helping David to escape his father’s assassination attempt. This is not just a political alliance or a moral thing – it is based in a deep friendship:

1Sam. 20:41          … David got up from the south side of the stone and bowed down before Jonathan three times, with his face to the ground. Then they kissed each other and wept together—but David wept the most.

1Sam. 20:42          Jonathan said to David, “Go in peace, for we have sworn friendship with each other in the name of the LORD, saying, ‘The LORD is witness between you and me, and between your descendants and my descendants forever.’ ” Then David left, and Jonathan went back to the town.

And it’s a tragic friendship. Eventually both Jonathan and his Father are slain in battle, and David sings this lament:

2Sam. 1:25 “How the mighty have fallen in battle!
Jonathan lies slain on your heights
26      I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother;
you were very dear to me.
Your love for me was wonderful,
more wonderful than that of women.
27      “How the mighty have fallen!
The weapons of war have perished!”

‘Clearly Jonathan and David were gay.’ That’s the conclusion that any number of modern readers reach – you can find blogs and even the occasional academic article which conclude that they must have been. Jonathan’s defensiveness about David at the dinner table echoes the experiences of countless children who get into fights with their parents about their boyfriends.

How else can you explain the depth of commitment, the sorrow at their separation? This is love. And because it’s love, it must be sexual love. And because it’s sexual love, it must have been consummated.

But when you start reading about friendship in ancient literature, to our modern ears, almost everyone in history was gay.

When a young man who had been a close friend died, Augustine wrote:

“My heart was darkened over with sorrow, and whatever I looked at was death. My own country was a torment to me, my own home a strange unhappiness. All those things which we had done together became, now that he was gone, sheer torture to me.”

St Aelred of Rievaulx wrote a whole treatise on friendship:

“Here we are, you and I, and I hope that Christ makes a third with us.  No one can interrupt us now, no one can spoil our friendly conversation; no one’s voice or noise will break in upon this pleasant solitude of ours.  So come now, dearest friend, reveal your heart and speak your mind. … My friend must be the guardian of our mutual love, or even of my very soul, so that he will preserve in faithful silence all its secrets, and whatever he sees in it that is flawed he will correct or endure with all his strength. When I rejoice, he will rejoice; when I grieve, he will grieve with me”

When Montaigne’s friend (Etienne de la Boetie) died he wrote:

“When I compare all the rest of my life…I say, with the four years which were granted me to enjoy the sweet companionship and society of that man, it is all smoke, a dark and wearisome night”

To the modern ear, whenever anyone talks about their friends they sound like they’ve having sex. To the modern ear all this talk of love and intimacy takes us in one direction. We just can’t imagine that you can love someone with your clothes still on. When it comes to deep friendship, moderns don’t even speak the language.

“To the ancients, friendship seemed the happiest and most fully human of all loves; the crown of life and the school of virtue. The modern world, in comparison, ignores it.” (CS Lewis, The Four Loves)

But it’s not as simple as going back to the ancient writers to recover their ideas about friendship, either. Because some of the ancient literature on friendship is quite strange.

Take Aristotle, for instance. He thought that equality was essential to friendship. He mostly meant equality of virtue: true friends are attracted simply to each other’s goodness. Which means only two good people can be true friends. And by two good people he means like two like-minded well-educated people. By which he means, two men.

He also didn’t think you should share your sorrows and misfortunes with each other (which sounds like exactly the type of friendship most of us don’t need any more of).

So we moderns don’t get friendship, but it’s not clear where we turn.

Which I think leaves us worse off in many ways.

Can guys and girls be friends?

The issue comes to a head in the old dilemma, “can guys and girls be friends?” Or will it be too complicated, too likely to be ruined by unrequited romantic feelings?

Luckily, scientists have solved this one too. The Journal of Social and Personal Relationships published a peer-reviewed study involving a survey of about 88 undergraduates . It found that:

  • Men were much more attracted to their female friends than vice versa,
  • Men were also more likely than women to overestimate their opposite-sex friend’s level of attraction to them,
  • Women typically were uninterested in pursuing romantic involvement with friends who were in a relationship. Men were less likely to care about details like that, and
  • While women listed the potential romantic confusion as a negative, a risk for friendship with someone of the opposite sex, young men were more likely to list that as a potential advantage.

So, in conclusion, can men and women be “just friends?” Is there such a thing as a safe platonic relationship? Probably not, according to the scientists.

Of course, this is rubbish

The problem is not with the intimacy that grows in friendships of all sorts, the problem is that we don’t know what to do with it when it does:

“Sex and intimacy have been conflated, with profound effects on all sorts of relationships… The sex part does get in the way, because the relational narratives of our culture lead us to no other resolution.” (Andrew Robinson, unpublished honours thesis)

In other words, if there’s the smallest hint of attraction, or even a whiff of desire for greater intimacy on one side of a friendship, we don’t know what to do with it. Because we have taught ourselves …

  • That the only proper form of intimacy is sexual in nature,
  • That to feel sexual desire requires us to act on it or dangerously repress ourselves,
  • That inequality of feelings (I like you as friends, you see me in a different way), once revealed, is terminal to a relationship.

Jesus, on the other hand, was friends with girls. I think probably a lot of them were attracted to him in lots of complex ways (he is the perfect man!) And what’s more a lot of people assumed he was doing naughty things with them – some of them were sex workers and women with bad reputations around town. And Jesus didn’t care.

This is why this matters

Consider Wesley Hill, for instance, Bible scholar who visited Barneys three weeks ago. For him, rediscovering friendship was crucial to understanding his calling as a gay, Christian celibate man:

“Aelred [remember the patron Saint of friendship who people think was gay but is actually just a good friend] helped me to see that obedience to Christ offered more to me than just the denial of sex and romance. Christ-centered chaste friendships offered a positive and fulfilling—albeit at times challenging—path to holiness.” Wesley Hill, Washed and Waiting.

Without a robust idea of friendship we have no category for understanding same-sex-not-sexual relationships. People don’t need sex, but people do need to be loved.

But here’s another one. I’ve got a pet theory that goes like this: without cross gendered friendship we cannot have equality within the workplace. So much of life is built on friendships, networking, old boys clubs. To prohibit men and women from being friends is to effectively exclude one or other group from whatever field it is we are in.

And when you work closely with people it’s natural to grow in affection for your comrades. We gave up long ago on the idea of having men’s jobs and women’s jobs. And I’m glad we did. But it means we need to be able to see them neither as strangers nor as potential sexual partners but as friends.

So then, friendship.

1. We are made for friends

We saw on Friday night that it is not good for man to be alone (see Genesis 2:18). But as Christopher Ash points out, sex is not the solution to loneliness, people are: both in family and in community. Adam and Eve don’t actually get it on until Genesis 4:1. The arrival of Eve is the start of a family relationship. A co-worker. A type of friend – though not the only type.

“People are wired, it seems, to pursue relationships of love and commitment” Wesley Hill, Washed and Waiting.

The ancient wisdom of Proverbs puts forward friends and brothers as crucial for life:

Prov. 17:17 A friend loves at all times,
and a brother is born for a time of adversity.

Notice here, though, it is a good friend that is important:

Prov. 18:24 One who has unreliable friends soon comes to ruin,
but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.

Friendship can be a school for good or evil; helping us stay committed to our most important projects or sending us down a dark path. Augustine reflects on this when he thinks back to his misguided youth when his friends encouraged him to steal some pears:

“It has only to be said ‘come on let’s do it’ and we become ashamed at not being shameless’.. (Augustine, Confessions)

Augustine didn’t even want the pears (that’s why we call it pear pressure).

So friendships can be a force for evil, but can they be a force for good?

At one level, friendship can seem like an inherently selfish thing. You can’t be friends with everyone. We tend to only be friends with people we like – people who are like us.

But I think this is neither bad nor good – we are inevitably limited by our embodied-ness. I cannot be a good friend to everyone, so I will just try to be a good friend to a few. Evolutionary anthropologists talk about a thing called the “Dunbar number”: the number of people we can know personally is no more than 150, and within that there will be smaller groups of 12-15 people, then of three people, with increasing intimacy. Jesus had his group of 12 disciples, and then his group of three who saw things the others didn’t.

But what if there was a way to use friendship for bigger purposes? As we will see, true friendships overflow with neighbour love. We turn now to an idea that Aelred of Rievaulx came up with – that friendship could be a radical force for spiritual good.

2. The gospel makes possible a new type of friendship

You may have heard C.S. Lewis’ description of the difference between friends and lovers. Lovers gaze into one another’s eyes, friends look forward together, gazing on the same truth. It shouldn’t be taken as a hard and fast distinction. But as a broad generalisation it does seem to illuminate something. In romantic love, the lover is your project, your goal. In friendship, your friend and your relationship are not your primary goals. Friendship is discovered, according to Lewis, in that moment of delightful discovery that we share an interest, or a goal: “You too? I thought that no one but myself…” (C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves)

St Aelred goes further. Friendships differ based on their shared object. He finds three types:

  • carnal friendship, based on shared pursuit of pleasure (rockclimbing friends, drinking friends);
  • worldly friendship, based on mutual advantage (networking, trying to get ahead in life)
  • and spiritual friendship, grounded in shared discipleship.

For Aelred, the only real friendship is this third one, in which the goal is to encourage each other to love God and love neighbor.

Personally, I think he goes to far in writing off the other types of friendships. I think there is real value in friendships with non Christians, for instance. And all real world friendships are more complex, and will have an element of each, I suspect.

But it is an interesting idea. Friends bound in deep unity, love, but with a greater purpose to their friendship – to serve Christ and love neighbour.

Friendship for Aelred should begin in Christ, continue in Christ and be perfected in Christ. He wrote a very influential book on it called Spiritual Friendship.

All this got me wondering: does such a Spiritual Friendship exist today? I think it’s rare, but it does.

Frances Whitehead was for 55 years John Stott’s secretary and right hand (see JEM Cameron’s excellent biography, John Stott’s Right Hand: The Untold Story of Frances Whitehead). He named her in his will as “Friend and executor”. They worked closely, just the two of them, for decades. He would buy her spontaneous gifts while travelling. While travelling he would ring her to let her know he landed safely.

People would ask those who worked with them both whether their relationship ever became more. Certainly Frances was cautious about this from her first day on the job. And we’ve been trained to assume, haven’t we, that something must have been going on. “Surely, working all those long nights, travelling over the world, for 55 years?”. But, according to those who knew them best, no. The relationship was incredible close. Incredibly tender. But a type of intimacy and partnership that modern ears just can’t contemplate because it doesn’t happen in the nude.

John Yates, who worked closely with both of them as an assistant, was asked by many people what the nature of their relationship was – did they ever consider marriage?

“[Being asked by so many people about them] made me pause to consider the nature of their long and fruitful partnership. Their relationship was unique, not least in the nature of their deep, mutual affection. They both had a very clear sense of vocation: John was to serve Christ’ Church through a ministry of writing, preaching nad encouraging younger leaders; Frances was to serve Christ’ Church through serving John – making him more efficient and effective. They were passionately committed to their intertwined vocations and both saw the great grace of God in the gift of each other. While intertwined at the deepest level, however, there never seemed to be an unhealthy co-dependence or a longing for something more in their relationship. There was a sense of joy in standing alongside each other and serving together.” (quoted in Cameron, John Stott’s Right Hand)

I don’t know what this means for us today. Because I’m a pastor I spend a disproportionate amount of time talking to people when things have gone wrong, so an occupational hazard is that I’m nervous about this kind of thing. I’m nervous about suggesting unmarried people commit to intimate living arrangements ­– be they gay, straight or (as I suspect most people are) somewhere in between. And yet I know people who have made it work – I have two dear friends who have committed to working alongside each other, owning their home together, caring for each other as they get older.

3. The gospel makes possible unlikely friendships

We began our exploration of love on Friday night with God’s love, the eternal love of Father Son and Holy Spirit. I want to return to this now to raise one more question about friendship.

The theologian Meilaender reminds us of the eternal giving and receiving in the Trinity:

“In that divine life the Father eternally begets the Son – that is to say, eternally affirms the being of the Son. The Son, eternally receptive, receives that begotten life and offers it back, returns it to the Father. And the Spirit is the bond of their love, the Spirit of their self-giving. For it is self-giving that makes possible the Father’s affirmation of the Son, and it is likewise self-giving that makes possible the Father’s affirmation for the Son, and it is likewise self-giving which makes possible the Son’s glad receptivity. Even here love seeks not its own.”

What’s important to note is that God’s other-centred love does not remain within himself, but overflows to us as well. It is able to cross the divide between creature and creator: first to a few (Abraham, Moses) then to a few more (Lazarus, Jesus’ disciples), and finally to all Christians (see John 11, 13, and 15).

I don’t quite know what this means. But it seems that friendship can exist in all sorts of places. We can embrace friendships of radical equality, but also across radical difference.

“Christians will have all kinds of unlikely friends, because so does their God.” (Andrew Robinson)

Where to from here:

I don’t know quite how to do this. But here are some thoughts as we continue wrestling with this as a community:

  • We need to take friendship seriously: We need to think about covenants and living arrangements. Even covenanted friendships.
  • But we don’t just want to take friendships more seriously – in many ways the Facebook generation is all about friends! We need to refocus our understanding of friendships around the gospel. Friends are not status markers, nor idols who we fear to offend, nor opportunities to advance our careers. Our friends are people to be loved, and with whom to love the world.
  • We need to work out some guidelines for PSP friendships (potential sexual partner) friendships. This will probably mean we need to:
    • get over sexuality: attraction is not a choice, but what you do with it is. If someone, gay or straight, finds me attractive I can express gratitude for their honest, even be flattered, but also be clear about my feelings without making them feel stupid.
    • be prepared for honest conversations.
    • embrace some forms of accountability. Married men, for instance, often find themselves attracted to people who are not their wives – talking about it with another buddy can be a great way of diffusing the secrecy whilst keeping accountable on what choices they make.
    • accept limits of fallen intimacy. It may be that we cannot have perfect spiritual friendships all the time this side of heaven. This might mean that some subject matters remain off limits (I might choose not to talk about sex even with my close female friends). Some friendships may, sadly, not be possible (e.g. with ex-girlfriends or boyfriends).
  • Our communities needs to be places of soul enriching love, and particular honour for those whose obedience to Christ for them means not pursuing romantic relationships. Churches cannot afford to idolise marriage or patronise the unmarried.

This will require a willingness to be vulnerable and risk hurt. Awkward conversations will abound. What can give us confidence to enter this strange new world of friendship?

The gospel.

In the good news of Jesus Christ we find an identity that can never be taken from us.

We know that we are in many ways ugly yet loved more than we have any right to expect. What tempts us to run from intimacy, to avoid risking friendships by being honest? It’s our great fear that other people will find out about us: what we’re really like. And yet we know that Jesus has already dealt with all that.

In the gospel we realise that we have been welcomed, and made unlikely friends of God. So who cares what my choice of embarrassing and awkward and socially outcast friends says about me.