Thinking Deeply about Christian Love: Same-Sex Attraction, Sin, and Spiritual Friendship

 
 

The Spiritual Friendship project is not primarily about sexual desire. Rather, it is an attempt to think deeply about Christian love.

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In a recent response to my Public Discourse article defending Spiritual Friendship and Revoice, Denny Burk and Rosaria Butterfield argued that our disagreements stem from the difference between the Protestant and Catholic views of sin. While acknowledging that Roman Catholics do not regard involuntary desire for sin (concupiscence) to be sinful, they claimed that Reformed Protestants do. 

Thus, they asserted that I only denied that same-sex temptation is itself sinful because I am Catholic. This is a puzzling assertion, because Butterfield herself has denied that all temptations associated with same-sex attraction are sinful. In Openness Unhindered: Further Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert on Sexual Identity and Union with Christ, she wrote: “Although temptation is not sin itself, it is also not good.” She also wrote of needing to repent “when feelings cross from temptation to sin.” 

Many other Protestants have made similar distinctions. Few pastors in America today have more claim to be standard-bearers of Reformed theology than John Piper. Piper also co-founded the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, which Burk currently serves as president. In a sermon on same-sex marriage, Piper’s approach in many ways echoed that of the Catechism of the Catholic Church: 

This is a call for careful distinctions lest you hurt people — or yourself — unnecessarily. All our disorders — all our brokenness — is rooted in sin — original sin and our sinful nature. It would be right to say that same-sex desires are sinful in the sense that they are disordered by sin and exist contrary to God’s revealed will. But to be caused by sin and rooted in sin does not make a sinful desire equal to sinning. 

I do not deny that there are real differences between the Catholic and Reformed traditions on concupiscence and sin. Yet the disparate conclusions that Burk, Butterfield, and I draw cannot be reduced to neat divisions between Catholic and Protestant theology.  

Theological and Pastoral Differences, But Not Along Neat Denominational Lines 

Spiritual Friendship is an ecumenical project, and differences on these questions have come up from time to time as a source of tension between writers. But the tensions do not necessarily fall out along denominational lines. My views of desire, temptation, and sin probably come closer to those of Jeremy Erickson and Nick Roen (both Reformed) than to those of Eve Tushnet or Chris Damian (both Catholic). And Wesley Hill—the Protestant half of our co-founding team—probably lines up more closely with Tushnet and Damian than he does with me, Roen, or Erickson.  

I mention these differences not to highlight the conflicts that exist within the Spiritual Friendship project, but rather to point out that we make room for some diversity of viewpoint under the umbrella of an uncompromising commitment to the biblical teaching on homosexuality.  

After reading Burk and Butterfield’s article, readers might understandably conclude that there is substantial agreement among contemporary Reformed thinkers about the moral status of same-sex attraction and the idea that treating temptation as sin is an important point of orthodoxy. Yet many Reformed Protestants with whom Burk works closely—including Sam Allberry and Christopher Yuan, as well as Butterfield herself—take a more nuanced view that, if not identical to mine, at least draws the distinction I draw between homosexual temptation and sin.  

In an exchange between Burk and Sam Allberry, who is a same-sex attracted pastor, on stage at Boyce College, Allberry not only distinguished between temptation and sin but, like Piper, also warned Burk that calling same-sex attraction sin could “crush” the faith of young Christians striving to obey biblical teaching and “tip them over the edge pastorally.” Blurring the line between temptation and sin not only risks crushing faith; it also undermines the motivation to resist temptation. This approach, under the guise of defending the Gospel, offers same-sex attracted Christians a temptation to despair. 

In my initial Public Discourse article, I wrote: 

Augustine recognized that even good men will struggle with temptation throughout life, at some times more intensely, at others less so. He did not teach that we can destroy all evil desire [malam concupiscentiam], “but can only refuse consent to it, as God gives us ability.” He also recognized that “however valorously we resist our vices, and however successful we are in overcoming them, yet as long as we are in this body we have always reason to say to God, ‘forgive us our debts.’” 

I also wrote, “By holding that desire and temptation are just as sinful as overtly sinful acts, Burk (as well as many similar critics) obscures the one thing Augustine thinks we must do: rely on God’s strength, and refuse consent to evil desires.” Rather than nuancing their position to take this criticism into account, Burk and Butterfield’s article just doubled down on the view that this form of temptation is sin. Again, though it may seem paradoxical, this focus undermines the motivation to resist temptation, and it can lead to despair.  

Rightly Ordering Our Loves: Friendship and Marriage 

There is, however, a more fundamental way in which Burk and Butterfield’s critique of Spiritual Friendship misunderstands St. Augustine. In a recent defense of Spiritual Friendship and Revoice published in First Things, Dale M. Coulter wrote: 

For Augustine, love is the most basic appetite of the soul. It is the soul’s movement outward in union with all that is good, whether temporal or eternal. This outward movement is a form of ecstasy, a reflection of God’s internal ecstatic movement from the Father through the Son in the Spirit. 

By focusing on sinful desire, rather than love, Burk and Butterfield miss a fundamental dimension of Augustine’s thought. In the Confessions, he introduces his struggles with sex in Carthage by saying: 

The single desire that dominated my search for delight was simply to love and to be loved. But no restraint was imposed by the exchange of mind with mind, which marks the brightly lit pathway of friendship. Clouds of muddy carnal concupiscence filled the air. [Emphasis added.] 

For fallen human beings, the desire to love and be loved easily becomes disordered by carnal concupiscence. Augustine, however, recognizes that his fundamental problem was disordered love, not just a desire for sinful sex. This means that the answer is rightly ordered love. Marriage is one way in which love can be rightly ordered, though not the only way. Friendship is another important expression of love. In What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense, Sherif Girgis, Ryan Anderson, and Robert George argued: 

A critical point here is that marriage and ordinary friendship do not simply offer different degrees of the same type of human good, like two checks written in different amounts. Nor are they simply varieties of the same good, like the enjoyment of a Matisse and the enjoyment of a Van Gogh. Each is its own kind of good, a way of thriving that is different in kind from the other. Hence, while spouses should be friends, what it takes to be a good friend is not just the same as what it takes to be a good spouse. 

As Girgis, Anderson, and George point out, the revisionist view of marriage ultimately entails a collapsing of relational categories into each other, romantic love subsuming friendship such that the difference between them is merely a matter of the degree of intensity. You marry your “best friend.” As they write: 

The state will have defined marriage mainly by degree or intensity—as offering the most of what makes any relationship valuable: shared emotion and experience. It will thus become less acceptable to seek (and harder to find) emotional and spiritual intimacy in nonmarital friendships. These will come to be seen not as different from marriage (and thus distinctively appealing), but simply as less.  

This collapsing of relational categories, and the elevation of romantic love and marriage as the only love that matters, have been embraced just as much by ostensibly orthodox Christians as by the larger culture. It’s impossible to overstate how, week after week, Christians are told, at least implicitly, that marriage is the only relationship that provides meaning and fulfillment. Or how marriage has become a prerequisite for service in many evangelical churches, an indication of spiritual maturity. 

As Wesley Hill wrote in First Things after the Obergefell decision: 

In countless sermons, songs, Bible studies, and informal pew conversations, I heard that message like the peal of a gong: singleness equals alienation, marriage means home. (It’s no wonder, given this theology, that whole ministries sprang up to try to rescue gay people from promiscuity and point them to ‘traditional’ heterosexual marriage). Until the church turns away from such heterodoxy and begins to embody afresh a lesson from the life of its celibate Lord—that the truest, deepest human love is available outside of marriage as well as inside it, in spiritual friendships, in intentional communities, in vowed brother and sisterhood, in devoted service, and in a hundred other beautiful and honorable callings and vocations—the Jonathan Rauches of the world will continue to want the only end to their loneliness they’ve ever heard the church and the world agree on. 

An important aspect of the Spiritual Friendship project, therefore, is a recovery of what is theologically distinctive about Christian friendship in a culture that idolizes romance and marriage. Friendship, in both the Bible and the Christian tradition, is an important image of God’s love for us and our love for God. It is also an important expression of human love in its own right.  

The Purpose of Spiritual Friendship 

In the dialogues on Spiritual Friendship that gave our blog its name, Aelred of Rievaulx began his Prologue with an echo of Augustine: 

While I was still a boy at school, the charm of my companions gave me the greatest pleasure. Among the usual faults that often endanger youth, my mind surrendered wholly to affection and became devoted to love. Nothing seemed sweeter to me, nothing more pleasant, nothing more valuable than to be loved and to love. 

Like Augustine, Aelred recognized that the desire to be loved and to love could lead to sin, including sexual sin. But also like Augustine, he recognized that the solution to this was to rightly order love. And the dialogues explore how to avoid friendships focused on the things of the flesh, and to cultivate virtuous friendships centered in Christ 

Burk and Butterfield have caricatured the Spiritual Friendship project as an attempt to base friendships on sinful desire. This, however, demonstrates a failure to engage with what we have said about the Christian tradition of virtue in friendship, the framework that animates our rehabilitation of a uniquely Christian anthropology. We have consistently pointed out that friendships based on sinful desire are what Aelred called “carnal” friendships, arguing with Aelred that true friendships should be oriented around shared love of Christ.  

Moreover, while same-sex orientation has been the starting point for our attempt to rehabilitate Christian friendship—in no small part because romantic and marital love is off the table for most of us—we recognize that this project extends far beyond our particular life circumstances. As many have noted in recent years, as our relational categories have collapsed, we have found ourselves in the midst of a loneliness epidemic. The isolation and loneliness that mark our current circumstances point to the need to rehabilitate our notions of community.  

In this vein, Wesley Hill has often written movingly about the ways married and celibate vocations intersect in building Christian community, and he has described how married couples and unmarried adults can open their lives to each other in friendship. This thickening of relational bonds is important for all Christians. As our world secularizes, many more Christian young people will be unable to find Christian spouses. Like gay Christians, they will need to form deep platonic relationships where they can love and be loved. Burk and Butterfield miss the point of the Spiritual Friendship project by viewing it as primarily about sexual desire rather than as an attempt to think deeply about Christian love. 

Vocation, Sexuality, and Rightly Ordered Love 

In my original Public Discourse article, I cited C.S. Lewis’s claim that “in homosexuality, as in every other tribulation,” God’s works can be made manifest. That is, “every disability conceals a vocation, if only we can find it, which will ‘turn the necessity to glorious gain.’”  

“Should I get married?” is a fundamentally vocational question that is obviously affected by sexual attractions. So is “should I become a priest or enter religious life?”  

As I noted above, marriage is the only picture of a flourishing Christian life offered in many Christian communities. The ex-gay movement promised that, through faith, orientation change and heterosexual marriage was possible. However, several of the most prominent ex-gay leaders who made those promises have since left their wives, denied that they experienced the changed attractions they once claimed, and now live a gay life. 

In the Catholic Church, celibacy is held up as a holy calling. But it is undeniable that there is a significant homosexual subculture in the priesthood and episcopate. Sadly, and at great cost to the Church’s credibility, we have learned that even some priests and bishops who fully support Catholic sexual teaching in public have a private double life.  

In both of these cases, hiding behind pious rhetoric about “finding our identity in Christ” can be a way of “cleaning the outside of the cup and plate” while hiding interior disorders that can do lasting damage both to families and to the Church. 

Whether we are called to marriage, vowed celibacy, or single life in the world, all vocations involve learning to rightly order our loves. For many of us, this has meant coming to terms with unchosen celibacy, a subject that Christ addresses in Matthew 19, but that has received far less attention from either Catholic or Protestant exegetes. Yet this is not merely a burden to be suffered. We have learned from experience that chaste, Christ-centered friendships can be a school of virtue, and that living God’s design for human love is more desirable than our fallen desires.  

Ron Belgau is the cofounder, with Wesley Hill, of the Spiritual Friendship blog (spiritualfriendship.org). He studied philosophy at St. Louis University, where he also taught ethics, medical ethics, and philosophy of religion. He was invited to speak at the 2015 World Meeting of Families during Pope Francis’s visit to Philadelphia, and has spoken throughout the United States, as well as in Canada and the Great Britain. In addition to Spiritual Friendship, he has been published in New Oxford Review, Notre Dame Magazine, First Things, and Ethika Politika, and he contributed a chapter to Venus and Virtue. 

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