Bishop Peter Brain proposes friendship as the challenge to our idolatrous exaltation of sex.
‘Friends will go anywhere with you, friends share the good and the bad,’ is a truth that resonates with us all.
Kenny Marks’s song squares with God’s intention, ‘It is not good for man to be alone’ (Gen 2:18), the proverbial wisdom ‘there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother’ (Prov 18:24), and the longing of every human heart for a ‘kindred spirit’.
My reason for writing this article on friendship is the long held conviction that friendships are the antidote to loneliness and the means by which God would meet our deep longings for intimacy and by so doing keep us from adopting the wrong strategy of seeking this intimacy in sexual relationships prior to or outside of marriage.
If we are to win the battle of encouraging sexual fidelity, we must demonstrate the wonderfully positive benefits of a whole range of friendships given to us by our loving Creator. In so doing we will understand the God given purpose of our sexuality, and the restraints he has put on it.
Many side benefits will accrue. They will include a stronger and surer preparedness for marriage or celibacy. A clearer and winsome witness to a world weary of the heartache and health hazards of promiscuity. A strengthening of relationships within our congregations that will deliver many pluses for ministry.
The concept of friendship has been raised in the General Synod Doctrine Committee’s report into homosexuality. A chapter written by the then Primate, Dr Peter Carnley, is full of helpful and wise insights on the place of friendship. Sadly, the article falls at the last hurdle, when the suggestion is made that committed same-sex friendships, which are not promiscuous, but have a sexual aspect, might be countenanced as relationships worthy of church blessing.
It is always tempting, either from a pastoral concern, or simply from a desire to encourage people’s faithfulness and happiness, to be less strict than Scripture. However, my own pastoral experience has shown me that everyone thinks that they are the exception to the rule. That they are so deeply in love that:
• they don’t really need marriage preparation;
• their living together is because they are deeply in love and don’t need a public declaration in marriage.
This observation leads me to suggest that everyone considers themselves committed. On top of that we must inquire as to what criteria would be used to determine commitment? No other partner for six months? Only one other partner during the past twelve months? Given our propensity to rationalise, I’m very concerned about this thin end of the wedge approach both for those of same-sex and other-sex orientation.
There is a trend of thought within the church that the Spirit of God is leading us into new directions. My contention is that countless thousands upon thousands of men and women, both single and married, Christian and non-Christian have proved in their own experience the reality and joys of faithful non-sexual friendships. One could well argue that the whole fabric of society is built on such. In other words, the Spirit of God confirms within us the goodness and blessings of obedience to the revealed word of God. A return to and upholding of the plain Scriptural teaching regarding sexuality is much more likely to be the way of the Holy Spirit than a departure from it. Departures bear their own testimony through the unhappy consequences that are so evident in STDs, broken hearts, confused relationships, divorce and unfulfilled hopes. It would be wiser to conclude that departures are more likely to reflect the spirit of the age than the Spirit of the living, loving and Holy God. The way ahead for us as Christians is surely to affirm by our individual and corporate teaching and example the joyful consequences of sexual fidelity and wide ranging friendships.
But let me speak positively. I have observed that the two clearest passages concerning sexual morality in the New Testament are 1 Thessalonians 4:1–8 and Hebrews 13:4. The first contains eight very clear reasons for sexual purity whilst the latter just one—that of God’s judgement. In both cases there appears to be no presenting problem (as in Corinth). Both are set forth as part of the Christian’s God-honouring lifestyle, the call to be careful not to conform to the ways of this passing world.
And of course this is our challenge and here is my concern. What has interested me is that following the Thessalonians passage in 4:9–10 and preceding our Hebrews text in 13:1–3 are exhortations for Christians to continue in loving one another with an intimate and practical brotherly love.
Is this without purpose? I think not. Can it be that the inspired authors, in setting forth the case for sexual purity within heterosexual marriage, knew perfectly well that this would be a difficult call for us all? In so doing they set forth the ‘brotherly love exhortations’ as one of the means God would use to keep us faithful (to our marriage partner, either in the future if single, in the present if married and to God in every case whether married or single, regardless of heterosexual or homosexual orientation).
Perhaps one fulfilment of Genesis 2:18, ‘it is not good for man to be alone’, is to be found in the whole range of friendships formed between fellow Christians.
My own experience, firstly as a single man and for the last 40 years as a married man, confirms that the rich and varied friendships of the congregation, home groups, denominational and wider Christian family are essential for our growth as persons and as Christians. I think my experience mirrors what I see woven throughout the Biblical record. The friendships of David, Jonathan and Mephibosheth bear out the Proverbs praise of caring friendships.
“ friendships are the antidote to loneliness and the means by which God would meet our deep longings for intimacy
Our Lord’s concentric circles of friendships including the Twelve, the three, Lazarus and his sisters, not to mention the taunt of enemies that he was the ‘friend of sinners’, remind us of the joy and need of friendship even for the Lord of glory. How much more for us mortals? Paul had close friendships with many—Barnabas, Priscilla and Aquila, Timothy and the 35 brothers and sisters mentioned by name in Romans 16. These bear eloquent testimony to God’s intention that we should derive real support and love from a wide circle. All this bears out Jesus’ promise in Mark 10:29–30 of hundreds of brothers, sisters, mothers and children for all who would wholeheartedly follow Jesus.
The implications of all this are vital for us to grasp.
In the first instance it means that the intimacy borne out of friendship is open to all people. This is in plain contrast and conflict with the popular notion that to be a real person one must be in a relationship that includes sex. This, in my judgement, is the lie of our age. It is felt most keenly by the single young women and men of our community and churches. All the media (print, visual and song) have conspired to persuade us that to be a real person we must be in a sexual relationship which often turns out to be only temporary. Perhaps we have contributed, unwittingly by our emphasis on marriage, and carelessly by offering only selective hospitality, to this awful perversion of the truth. Its corollary is that marriage completes a person. Many talk of their ‘better half.’ Although often in half-hearted jest, it sends a message that ½+½ = 1. The truth that Scripture affirms is that 1+1 = 1 when it comes to marriage. Marriage provides a place where a man and a woman may complement one another but not complete one another. If we complete one another in marriage, we must say that Jesus and all the other fulfilled single men and women we have known were not whole people. That would be a travesty of the truth. Whilst many may have hoped to be married, they, along with those who chose the single life, were always whole and real persons. Along with married people we only find ourselves complete as we enter into a relationship with God through Christ and the people he gives to us to share our lives with: a ‘real person’ is a person who is daily living out what it means to be created in the image of God. It will be the opposite of the kind of ‘needs-focused’ life modelled by pop songs which cry, ‘Oh, I need you baby’, and the like. It will be the generous, gracious, outflowing, providing, caring, supportive, responsible, faithful life that reflects the character of God. It will also reflect the mutuality, the fellowship, the rich relationships of the Divine Trinity. It is immediately obvious that this ‘real person’ is radically different from the person whose ‘reality’ is derived from relationships that include sex.
In God’s economy, sexual intimacy is reserved for one’s marriage partner but friendship intimacy is enjoyed and given in a wide range of relationships.
This means that no one needs to enter into a sexual relationship to find either intimacy or fulfilment as a person. Indeed all the evidence tells us that sexual intimacy without the publicly verified marriage relationship is a mirage delivering disappointment, deep hurt and doubt as to whether it is possible to enter into a trusting relationship. It follows that a person is most ready to be married when he/she is most ready to be single. People who marry reflecting the character of God, are much more likely to form a healthy marriage than people who marry to satisfy their ‘needs’. Larry Crabb described many marriages as a ‘tick on a dog’ relationship! With some, it’s more like ‘two ticks and no dog’. Such marriages, sadly, are often full of disappointment.
Friendship has so much to offer to so many. As a church we can offer a distinctive way of life that refuses to focus on our community’s obsession with sex. This can only be done, however if we are distinctive. There can be no exceptions or variations to the God given and Scripture revealed guidelines for the context of the sexual gift to be enjoyed. Put simply these are:
• between a man and a woman,
• married to one another,
Our community is showing all the signs of being torn asunder from within. Not only are there STDs of many kinds, but emotional heartache and relationship devastation are causing havoc amongst us. We have a chance to commend, by our teaching and our actions, a winsome way of living, but only if we do not dilute the biblical teaching.
Friendship as the chief ingredient of intimacy can only strengthen our marriage and family life. Marriages are put under pressure when too much is expected. The accumulated pastoral wisdom would remind us that, even in marriage, sex is not the means of intimacy and will itself be enhanced for both husband and wife where time has been taken to share as friends. The Puritan author who described marriage as a ‘perpetual friendly fellowship’ was surely correct.
Friendship as the means of intimacy is the only way of strengthening the hand of unmarried people (especially the young) in ‘keeping out of bed’. By learning through experience the joys of a wide range of friendships, singles will be less likely to succumb to the many temptations to seek intimacy in non-married sex. All the statistical data points to the fallacy of the try-before-you-buy conventional wisdom. Living together before marriage delivers not certainty and freedom as supposed but rather at least doubling the chance of marriage failure and delivering up to four times as much depression for women. The reason is clear. Sex of itself is so powerful, so physically enjoyable that a relationship can be built for a few months on it alone, but then ironically, the couple realise that they don’t know each other. Nonsexual friendship time would have been much more likely to deliver the building blocks of marriage, because non-sexual friendship delivers unpressured time to share dreams, reveal fears, show courtesy, promote listening and a whole range of mutually caring activities. All these provide the basis for knowledge and then respect—all so essential in experiencing intimacy. When that couple marries and enjoys sex it becomes the icing on the cake—the cake of mutual respect born and nurtured in unpressured friendship.
Adopting this line of thinking will also make our pastoral counselling and mutual encouragement more effective. This is because we are in the position to affirm the deep longings we all have for intimacy and reveal the wrong strategy, of sexual activity outside of heterosexual marriage, for experiencing it. In revealing the wrong strategy, God through his word is inviting us to open up the way (through repentance) for experiencing the rich gifts of relationship with himself (through faith) and others (through fellowship).
The Apostle Paul was a realist when it came to sexuality and friendship. This is why in an exhortation found in his first letter to Timothy, he said, ‘treat the younger men as your brothers, the older women as mothers and the younger women as sisters, with all purity’ (1 Tim 5:1–2). This kind of friendship becomes a great challenge for us as Christians. It condemns our arm’s length, formal and sometimes half-hearted relationships. It requires of us a full and committed love to one another which we see called for in the many ‘one another’ passages (e.g. John 13:14; Rom 12:5, 10; 12:16; 15:7; Eph 4:2, 32; 5:21; Col 3:9, 13, 16; 1 Thess 4:18; 1 Pet 1:22; 4:9; 1 John 1:7; 3:11, 23) and our Lord’s new commandment (John 13:34–35). Yet it also reminds us of the need to maintain sexual purity in our filial fellowship and friendships. Indeed one could make a case that when sex intrudes into a friendship that is not marriage, the friendship suffers. This is because an expectation of what rightly belongs to the committed relationship of marriage has been aroused. It is just possible that one reason we have such high levels of suicide amongst young people is because we are not as clear and realistic as the apostle in the role that pure friendships play in building, and impure relationships play in destroying, self esteem.
If Mother Theresa was correct, when to the question of what she thought was the world’s worst disease, she answered, ‘not AIDS, not leprosy or cancer, but loneliness’, we have, in line with our Lord’s new command, a great opportunity. As a challenge to our idolatrous exaltation of sex, this call to pure friendship is the teaching we must proclaim and exemplify if we are to save both ourselves and our hearers.
Peter Brain, formerly Bishop of Armidale, is now the rector of Rockingham in the Diocese of Perth