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If you are groggy from being up late watching the returns last night and are looking for a completely different subject to take your mind off the state of the world I hope you will take a gander at the long article I wrote for the Christian Research Journal on Spiritual Friendship, and listen to the podcast I recorded with Melanie Cogdill.

I started reading about this subject all the way back in February of this year and drafted the article before we went off on all our sabbatical-esque travels. When I got home, I wasn’t particularly satisfied with what I’d written, and overhauled it not twice, but three times. Like the work I did on Revoice in the early part of the year, there was a lot of editing and fact-checking and making sure that what I said is true and fair that shaped the final product. This isn’t just my labor, but the careful and critical eye of CRJ’s excellent editorial team. I’m so grateful to them for all their work on this.

As I say in the piece, my sympathies are on the side of those who are lonely and even disenchanted with the state of the Church. We aren’t meant to live alone, isolated from each other, and this is true no matter what sort of attractions your feel. Spiritual Friendship as a movement, however, is not the answer. I hope you find the article and podcast helpful. Here is a taste, but I hope you will read the whole thing over at CRJ:

Spiritual Friendship: Temptation or Belonging?

Perhaps celibate gay and lesbian Christians, precisely in and out of their celibacy, are called to express, rather than simply renounce and deny, same-sex love. And perhaps this is where, for all the potential trials and temptations that come with this way of thinking, same-sex friendship represents one way for gay Christians who wish to be celibate to say: “I am embracing a positive calling. I am, along with every other Christian, called to love and be loved.”1

This question, posed by Wesley Hill in his book, Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian, is the central, pressing concern of the Spiritual Friendship movement.2 How same-sex attracted Christians order their relationships increasingly touches on today’s fluid assumptions about identity, acceptance, and belonging. The issues underscored by Hill deserve to be studied and understood. Their answers carry immense spiritual and practical implications for Christian doctrine, worship, and community life.

While I am sorely sympathetic to the desires of same-sex attracted Christians and their need for family and belonging, I believe that the proponents of modern-day spiritual friendship disorder the precious mystery of friendship. In collapsing the good desire for home and belonging with the wrong one for familial and even romantic intimacy with the same sex, the Spiritual Friendship movement, relying as it does on categories derived from the Sexual Revolution and postmodernism, devalues the institution of marriage and wanders into self-defeating contradiction.


What is friendship and why is it so necessary? In the short twelfth-century book, On Spiritual Friendship, the foundational text of the Spiritual Friendship movement, Aelred of Riveaulx, citing Cicero, wrote, “Friendship is agreement in things human and divine, with good will and charity.”3 Furthermore, love “is an attachment of the rational soul. Through love, the soul seeks and yearns with longing to enjoy an object. Through love, the soul also enjoys that object with interior sweetness and embraces and cherishes it once it is acquired.”4 What, then, distinguishes spiritual friendship from the ordinary kind? Aelred explained it this way: “So spiritual friendship is begotten among the righteous by likeness of life, habits, and interests, that is, by agreement in things human and divine, with good will and charity.”5 True friendship is grounded in the love of Christ. A friend, he said, quoting Jesus, “loves at all times”6 and “lays down his life for his friend.”7 It is only possible for two souls knit together in Christ to experience a wholly affectionate and understanding bond.

The book has a surprisingly modern feel. Aelred, writing in the 1160s, lived at a time when sexuality wasn’t, yet, the telos of human identity. Love was still contextualized by self-sacrifice. What should we make, then, of his description of the “kiss of the flesh”? Aelred writes:

Let us consider the characteristics of this kiss of the flesh, that from what is of the flesh we may rise to the spirit, from what is human to the divine. Life is sustained by two sources of nourishment, food and air. Without food one can survive for some time, but without air not even an hour. Through our lips, then, for survival we inhale and exhale. What is inhaled or exhaled has received the name breath or spirit. In a kiss, therefore, two spirits meet, blend, and unite. Begotten from these two spirits, a sweetness of mind awakens and engages the affection of those who exchange a kiss.8

Hill, believing that Aelred was obedient to the church when he entered his monastic vocation, offers this explanation:

By the time he wrote On Spiritual Friendship, he had bound himself to the teachings of the church and foresworn sexual liaisons. The man who could describe a friend as one “to whom you so join and unite yourself that you mix soul with soul” and one whom you could embrace “in the kiss of unity, with the sweetness of the Holy Spirit flowing over you” had apparently given up gay sex. What Aelred called “spiritual friendship” was a form of same-sex intimacy that sublimated or transmuted erotic passion rather than sanctioning its genital expression.9

Hill is pushing back on a growing appeal to Aelred for justification for same-sex erotic expression.10 One wonders whether Aelred, were he to know that two men were sexually attracted to one another, would commend a kiss as a means of sublimated erotic passion. It is not clear that Aelred had erotic desire in mind.

The modern reader should be careful to remember that Aelred is not a twenty-first-century westerner. Aelred, for example, in discussing love, appears to articulate one of the central tenets of modern pop-theology: “If you do not love yourself, how can you love another?”11 What no longer bears weight for many today is that love of self was understood through Christian history as the involuntary protective care one has for oneself. Taken together, whatever Aelred intended to say, these “kiss of the flesh” and “love yourself” passages sound to the modern ear like a defense of many iterations of “love” by the LGBTQ acronym.


In the time of Aelred, the western world had yet to be turned upside down by the Sexual Revolution and deconstructed gender identities. What constitutes an identity in Christ? Is it possible to map current gender ideology over not only Aelred’s writings but over the kind of love Scripture says that Christ has for His church? Many insist it is crucial to do so.12 Nate Collins, rapidly detailing “A Brief History of Theorizing Gender” in his book, All but Invisible: Exploring Identity Questions at the Intersection of Faith, Gender and Sexuality, believes that “Christians need to learn to recognize ways that gender is socialized in their own faith communities.” This will be difficult for churches with “predominantly — or perhaps entirely — male leadership” because “some faith communities, often without realizing it, socialize gender in ways that devalue these [intersectional gender difference] perspectives.”13

Collins discusses what he calls “unitive intimacy.” “Physical union,” he says, “is ordered according to the creational pattern to take place between a man and a woman in the context of marriage. But this physical unitive intimacy constitutes a physical kinship unit whose ultimate purpose is to point to kinship on a spiritual plane. And if physical kinship is forged through physical unitive intimacy, then we should not be surprised when we encounter unitive language that is nonphysical, perhaps even spiritual in nature.”14 Turning to the relationship of David and Jonathan, Collins insists that, “As important as the male-female union is as an expression of the creative intent behind physical unitive intimacy, it does not hold a monopoly on passionate expressions of love and intimacy.”15 By this he intimates that two friends may well share an intimacy as deep or even deeper than that between married partners.

Collins doesn’t point out that “unitive intimacy” is a term used by the Roman Catholic Church to describe procreative sexual relations.16 The term, rightly employed, is useful for those bewildered by the unitive purpose of sex in marriage. The sexual act unites two unlike people, making them one. It is not possible to attain “unitive intimacy” in a same-sex sexual relationship because such a relationship cannot be procreative and idolatry lies at its heart.17 Though it may feel “spiritual,” the two people sin against their own bodies and the Lord. The spiritual plane to which people of the same sex go in the sexual act is not that of the Spirit of God. It is a descent rather than an ascent. But even without the sin of the same-sex sexual act, whatever sort of bond is established in same-sex friendship, it is not unitive intimacy. To suggest that David and Jonathan shared an emotional romantic love says something that the Scriptures don’t say, however much the modern ear may desire to hear it….Read the rest here!

Photo by Ricardas Brogys on Unsplash

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