An Uncommon and Relatable Testimony
An article by Sean Doherty from Living Out, a ministry for same-sex attracted Christians, was written as a response to an email from a same-sex couple seeking counsel on how to raise their child and live a celibate life together after converting to Christianity. Sean makes an important observation in this rare case:
And it makes excellent sense for two friends to live together and share their lives in this way. It would be very natural for friends who were living together to share the parenting of any children who are there too. Of course, the couple will need to think and pray carefully about whether the history of a shared sexual relationship will be too much of a temptation if they continue to live together. But that is a matter for discernment, not a matter of right and wrong.
My story is quite different from this couple. Their relationship began sexually active and transitioned into a celibate way of life; my relationship began celibate and remains that way. Still, there is a lot of inspiration I can take from their testimony.
As you can imagine, there were some who were not pleased with this piece.
Sam Allberry, the founder of Living Out, published an article this morning titled “Can SSA Christians Have Non-Sexual Romantic Relationships?” as a clarification to his ministry’s initial piece. Allberry’s thesis is that romance is not an appropriate quality for same-sex attracted Christians to possess within their friendships.
As someone in a committed partnership that could be understood as “romantic”, it’s crucial that I evaluate Allberry’s arguments in a charitable fashion.
Introduction and Common Ground
Allberry starts by introducing the reader to the current discourse of two people of the same sex in a non-sexual relationship:
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.
I have been interested in the conversation on celibate partnerships for several years, and I can’t say I have seen many advocate for romanticism as a defining characteristic for non-sexual relationships. The closest idea was a reflection I wrote almost a year ago and it was, if anything, asking for an exercise of caution when using the word “romantic” in our critiques of celibate partnerships. If Allberry means advocacy for celibate partnerships has increased in general, then perhaps. But celibate partnerships are not necessarily understood as romantic in nature.
This, they say, avoids the supposed loneliness of singleness while upholding biblical standards of sexual behavior.
I agree with Allberry that partnerships or committed friendships cannot solve loneliness. Plenty of married people experience loneliness even though they are happily in love with their spouses. I experience loneliness too, even though I have a committed partner and plenty of close friends. No one, to my knowledge, is advocating for celibate partnerships as a cure for loneliness. There are some of us who believe partnerships are vocations that can offer unique support for some in meeting their needs and circumstances.
Intimacy in Friendship and Marriage
Allberry goes on to describe how the supposed confusion of marriage and friendship has developed within this conversation:
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.
I agree with Allberry that marriage and friendship aren’t on a relational continuum where marriage is the most intimate area of the spectrum. In fact, I am saying the opposite. No amount of relational intimacy will make my relationship a marriage.
Some friendships can be more intimate than some marriages, but that doesn’t mean those friendships are always increasing in degrees of eroticism. Scripture describes David and Jonathan’s souls as being “knit together” (1 Samuel 18:1) which seems to be the closest kind of intimacy possible, but I see no reason to believe they were in a sexual relationship. People in celibate partnerships are simply saying that married people aren’t the only ones who can experience deep longing and emotional attachment to people they love.
He continues that a romantic element within a same-sex friendship is imitating the essence of marital union:
“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.
I agree with Allberry that marriage isn’t merely close friendship with added sex. Nor is close friendship a marriage minus sex. But it is unclear how he is teasing out the difference. He says that marriage should be exclusive, but not friendship. I have mentioned before that I do not consider my partnership as defined by exclusivity. We base our relationship on priority.
I made this clear in my previous reflection on exclusivity:
Priority is a necessary, healthy concept. We prioritize people all the time. It would be impossible to commit to every person the same way. Even Christ had particular endearment for his friend Lazarus, for whom he wept. You’re going to have traditions with family and friends, but not acquaintances. You are going to call one person over another if you get news of a serious illness. In my own life, I financially support a friend through college, something I wouldn’t do for just anyone; I do that for family.
Human beings need priority. When I say Kyle is my priority, I do not mean he exclusively meets all of my spiritual, physical, and emotional needs. I do not mean he is the only one I am called to love; rather, he is my partner, my best friend, and my advisor. I mean that if he became sick or unemployed, I’d stick my neck out for him in ways I can’t do for everyone. I mean that together, we can encourage and hold one another accountable; to invite others to share in the table of Christ’s fellowship. That’s priority, and it’s hardly exclusive.
Allberry mentions his friend inviting another person on a hiking trip to Scotland as an example of friendship’s characteristic inclusivity. He quotes C.S. Lewis that friendship is the “least jealous of loves”. I agree that our friendships should seek to include others and shouldn’t be jealous. Yet, I don’t see how this addresses the practical reality of prioritization and the witness of covenantal friendship within Scripture.
Exclusivity is a very odd term to bring up in the context of relationship because it doesn’t seem to be used by anyone actually participating in a celibate same-sex partnership (If you don’t believe me, look at the available blogs on the subject). Exclusivity makes a lot of sense when discussing sexual fidelity within marriage, but it’s confusing when brought into this discussion. I don’t see how it follows that because I have made commitments to one person in regard to finances, lodging, mutual support, and priority, I can’t make commitments with people in other areas of my life. Folks like myself in these kinds of relationships need to know what is sinful about prioritizing particular people for particular purposes, and Allberry fails to do that here.
Perhaps Allberry’s concern isn’t with the degree of priority, but the covenantal nature of partnerships and spiritual friendships. It’s not clear from his writing here, but his view might be that marriage is the only licit covenant two human beings can make with one another. But this proves too much. Scripturally, we have a clear example of Jonathan “ma[king] a covenant with David because he loved him as himself” (1 Samuel 18:3). Ruth also makes a promise to Naomi: “Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you live, I will live. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God” (Ruth 1:16).
The covenantal argument fails to account for the Church history of adelphopoiesis (the brother-making rite) which was practiced between people of the same sex, while being completely understood as a non-marital relationship. I am not saying these unions were romantic relationships between two gay men; I am saying it’s possible to have covenants that look “exclusive” in their vows to God and one another without being misunderstood as marriages.
Allberry describes three relational aspects that are restricted to marriage: exclusive, covenantal, and romantic. This last concept, romance, is the most unclear.
The moment [friendship] 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.
I agree with Allberry that if you are in a celibate same-sex partnership while experiencing constant longing for the relationship to turn into something “more”, then you are going to have problems down the road. Resentment will start building if you have physical and emotional longings for the relationship to have an essence that it currently “lacks” (e.g. sex , marriage, etc.). If you don’t see your partnership as a vocation manifesting the Kingdom of God through radical hospitality, service, and community, but merely as a loophole to go on dates, then I don’t think it is going to serve you or your partner well in happiness or faithfulness.
There are legitimate concerns which Allberry brings up, such as physical boundaries. I’m thankful he is concerned and willing to bring it to the forefront. However, just because some romantic relationships have unhealthy relational dynamics, it doesn’t follow that romance is to blame. It’s important for him to explore how romance is intrinsically linked to codependency, temptation, and fornication in the way he asserts here.
Notice that Allberry never gives a definition for what romance is. He says that “the moment” a friendship becomes romantic, we become confused. How do I recognize this “moment” of transition from the platonic to the romantic when I haven’t been told what I’m looking for? A few possible suggestions could be: holding hands, a squeeze on the arm, buying dinner, giving flowers, remembering anniversaries, among other acts I do in my friendships. These actions seem culturally “romantic” to most of us, but I fail to see why they’re necessarily sinful.
If we are going to use the word “romance” at all, then I’ll be the first in this dialogue to offer a definition. I appreciated Fr. Mac Stewart’s definition of romance in the area of friendship:
All of this suggests to me that there is a whole wonderful realm of relational intimacy that our culture misses out on by loading all of its human-closeness eggs in the basket of specifically sexual intimacy. We tend to refer to these latter relationships as “romantic,” and yet perhaps our sense of romance here is a bit impoverished. Perhaps there is room for a kind of romance with our beloved friends: doing for one another the little deeds of affection that we often associate with a lover wooing his or her espoused, things like writing letters that affirm the beloved’s virtues and beauty, attending carefully to the things that delight their soul and spontaneously and gratuitously fulfilling them, forbearing with their irritating eccentricities while dwelling on their excellences, overcoming their occasional coldness with a deeper kindness.That we have a hard time imagining romance outside of relations of closeness that are consummated in sexual intercourse may simply be a mark of how far we have fallen from our created glory. Was not the whole created order supposed to be the scene of one great big love story, one cosmic romance?
Fr. Mac offers a helpful, intuitive definition of “romance” as relational closeness while Allberry doesn’t offer any. If we’re going to bring up romanticism, then I’m going to reference this definition until I receive a better one.
I’m not saying all forms of romance are morally licit, but I am saying romance is a social construct that is almost impossible to ground theologically. Most people in church history did not experience romance within their marriages due to family arrangements and social alliances, and yet Christ was present in their union and producing saints out of it. Romance is not what the authors of Scripture, the Church Fathers, or the ecumenical councils had in mind when they discussed the theology of marriage. They were concerned with a union that typified Christ and His Church; a one-flesh union of husband and wife that allowed them to be co-creators with the Holy Trinity.
Allberry rightly argues that marriage isn’t “just sex”, but then makes the mistake of reducing its ontological reality to subjective feelings. This is because sexual exclusivity is an objective reality, while romance is a culturally changing, subjective understanding of tenderness and infatuation. It comes and goes within marriages and in friendships; it’s perceived differently between individuals and couples. To ask that same-sex attracted Christians not have particular feelings in their close relationships is to “tie up heavy, cumbersome loads” and place them on gay people’s shoulders (Matthew 23:4).
The Adultery Objection
People ask, “If it’s morally licit for a same-sex attracted Christian to have a romantic non-sexual relationship, then do you think a married man should be able to have a romantic non-sexual relationship with a woman who is not his wife?”
Allberry didn’t address this in his piece, but it is a response I have seen on social media. To this question, I would first have to ask, as I did earlier, “What do you mean by romance?” Critics cannot call every emotional behavior they find problematic “romantic” and believe that is a valid argument. If we are not referencing Fr. Mac Stewart’s definition, but instead referring to an emotional affair, then no. Men and women make marriage vows to one another as a one-flesh union. A husband should not be engaging in deception, which affects himself, his wife, and his children. That doesn’t mean men can’t have tenderness and relational intimacy with women who they are not married to; it means that spouses should be involved in who is speaking into the family’s well-being.
Married people make vows of sexual exclusivity. If celibate partners make vows, those vows are to support one another in their vocation to celibacy. Critics shouldn’t use the word “romance” for celibate partnerships when they mean “tenderness” and then go on to use the same word to mean “adultery”. It’s a conflation of terms; a comparison of apples to oranges. I’m not saying Allberry did that here, but it is an objection that needs to be addressed.
Ultimately, I am writing this response not because I am determined to call my partnership a “romantic relationship”. I do not desire a relationship that looks like marriage. I am responding because the concept of romance is rooted in cultural connotations that are not necessarily Scriptural. It is not a reliable basis for sexual ethics. My concern is that even if a close same-sex friendship is chaste, many conservative Christians will still label it “romantically sinful” when it challenges our cultural assumptions about intimacy. Romance is a moving target; it will be the go-to term when same-sex attracted people make Christians uncomfortable in the way they demonstrate affection to one another.
We can spend all day parsing out the difference between romantic and platonic; friendship and marriage, etc. My contention is simply that deep, intimate, and abiding relationships between people of the same sex have a place in the Kingdom of God, even between two gay people who feel tenderness and warmth for one another. St. Gregory the Theologian described his friendship with St. Basil the Great in this way:
We seemed to be two bodies with a single spirit. Though we cannot believe those who claim that everything is contained in everything, yet you must believe that in our case each of us was in the other and with the other.
Can I describe my friendship with my partner in this way? Is it too romantic? Is it too covenantal? Too exclusive? I don’t think those are the most helpful questions. The primary question is, “Is it holy?” And I think it can be.