When it comes to same-sex relationships and the church, I’ve heard more and more people propose some sort of committed, same-sex, non-sexual romantic friendships for those who want to uphold the Christian sexual ethic.
This, they say, avoids the supposed loneliness of singleness while upholding biblical standards of sexual behavior.
Friendship versus Marriage
The trouble with this kind of suggestion is it assumes sex is the only thing that separates marriage from other kinds of close friendship. On this view, there is a sort of relational continuum, with regular friendship at one end and marriage at the other. Marriage is the most intense expression of relational intimacy, and friendship is a less intense expression. By this reckoning, there’s a point somewhere along the spectrum where two friends can enjoy romantic intimacy without transgressing into the sort of sexual intimacy reserved for marriage.
But this is to misunderstand both friendship and marriage. They aren’t merely less intense and more intense expressions of the same underlying reality, such that you can keep adding units of intimacy to friendship until it eventually becomes marriage. The architecture of both marriage and friendship are necessarily different.
Marriage isn’t just close friendship with added sex. Nor is close friendship marriage without sex. Marriage by definition and necessity must be exclusive. It is covenantal. If it isn’t exclusive, its very essence is violated. This isn’t the case with friendship. Friendship doesn’t require exclusivity. My friendship with even my closest friend isn’t threatened by the growth of a similar friendship with someone else. It’s not a zero-sum game.
Friendship Isn’t Exclusive
In fact, the opposite is often the case. A couple of years ago, a close friend and I were planning a hiking trip to Scotland. I was really looking forward to it: one of my favorite people in one of my favorite places doing one of my favorite activities. As the trip approached he suggested that another friend of his join us. I was initially disappointed, having been looking forward to some time with just my friend and me. But having his other friend with us added so much. They’d been college roommates together, and this friend knew a whole side to my friend that I didn’t, and brought out a whole side of him I hadn’t seen before. The trip was better than it would’ve been if it were just the two of us.
C. S. Lewis would not have been surprised:
In each of my friends there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out. By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets . . . . Hence true friendship is the least jealous of loves. (The Four Loves)
Friendship often flourishes precisely because it isn’t meant to be exclusive. So when we try to turn it into something exclusive, which is certainly the case when we conceive of it in romantic terms, we’re actually turning from friendship to something else. It becomes quasi-marital. That it might be non-sexual is beside the point: The moment it becomes romantic, we’re confusing two different categories of relationship, attempting to pursue friendship in a framework designed ultimately for something covenantal. The result (marriage without benefits?) becomes an unstable compound—something that will struggle to remain non-physical, or else won’t remain romantic and exclusive. Something will likely give.
But we mustn’t think that keeping things firmly in the category of friendship relegates the same-sex-attracted (SSA) to a life without intimacy. That a relationship is non-sexual and also non-romantic doesn’t mean it lacks healthy biblical intimacy. Scripture shows us that such friendships don’t need exclusivity or improper physicality in order to become genuine and deep. Jesus testifies to this in how he describes his disciples as his friends (John 15:15): They know what is really going on in his heart. Indeed, such friendship is the stuff of real life.