I recently read Dan Brennan’s Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions: Engaging the Mystery of Friendship Between Men and Women. It’s a challenging read, but potentially one of the most freeing ideas a Christian can embrace on the path of discipleship and life in community.
When I was an undergrad, I spent the first two years living in a co-ed dorm. Twenty young men and twenty young women managed to live in the same space, get along, and some of us became good friends. After college, I had three different female roommates in various apartments. In every case, we were friends, we got along, we had our interests, and the relationships were strictly platonic. As I was being discipled in an evangelical church context, the message was taught over and over that this kind of relationship was fraught with danger, and that men and women are too hard-wired to be paired off to develop and maintain any kind of closeness without letting sex enter the equation. If you were single, you were expected to be paired off with someone, and you dare not associate with married people of the opposite sex without their spouse around. While I agree with the caution against infidelity, there has been something about this kind of attitude that never sat right with me. And when I was a single man, there was always the impression that married people were something like a preferred caste in church life.
I have been in, and still maintain, relationships of prayer and accountability with Christian men, and consider it important to maintain healthy relationships with people, and fidelity to my wife. (Let me get it out there now: it’s not a challenge to be faithful to the woman who is my best friend.) For these reasons, I was interested to read Dan Brennan’s Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions: Engaging the Mystery of Friendship Between Men and Women. I was pleasantly surprised to find a book that spoke powerfully to my unease with the fortress mentality in evangelical teaching. Additionally, though it’s not the intention of the book, I believe it also speaks well in a pastoral context for those who seek to develop intimate communities of Christian disciples, providing a way to foster the kind of close communion seen in Acts 2 and Acts 4, and respecting both single and married people as necessary and healthy participants in God’s kingdom.
THE BOOK ITSELF
Brennan understands contemporary evangelical fears about non-married cross-gender friendships to be based more upon romantic mythology and Freudian psychology than on biblical teaching. The book sets out to prove this and look for an alternate way to approach cross-gender friendships, finding a useful comparison and metaphor in brother-sister relationships.
Brennan also explores union with God as a concept returning to evangelical thinking via Scot McKnight, Kevin Vanhoozer, and others (largely from examples of church history, drawing heavily on the Catholic tradition). Speaking against the idea that only married people can have a spiritual union, he contends it is for all believers, tied to our ministry of reconciliation. (2 Corinthians 5:18-20) Observing in all the body, family, and one another verses in scripture, nowhere do we find the idea of gender segregation that is advocated with such force today.
"In our fear of the fire in sexuality, we have erected false boundaries in the form of fixed roles and universal rules in marriage, friendship, and community – false boundaries for safety, romance, male-female intimacy, and even masculinity and femininity. However the bold, redemptive realities of kingdom sexuality speak of a radical oneness that is both broader and deeper than the Mars/Venus approach, or any other strident contemporary voices claiming on-size-fits-all solutions." (p. 80)
What is truly provocative is the idea that a broader and deeper view of friendship is the way to avoid the sexual scandals feared by so many in the evangelical tradition.
Brennan goes on to discuss an idea of closeness that, while reflecting what perhaps should be, is likely going to be difficult in today’s understanding of personal relationships. I have this kind of closeness with my wife. That’s easy. But for the few women I consider good enough friends to build closeness with trust that would not compromise my marriage, I have a hard time seeing this kind of intimacy developing without feeling quite awkward. That said, I believe it is a good challenge for men and women (and friends of the same gender, for that matter), to truly contemplate the kind of familial friendships that develop and to acknowledge that it is not just a lofty idea, but that it is indeed right – truly, profoundly, and biblically right – for Christians to be able to develop these kinds of friendships. I agree with Brennan’s assessment that Romanticism and Freud have more to do with the awkwardness felt and fear of scandal considering these kinds of bonds, and to that I would add our inherited Victorian sensibilities, even in the wake of the sexual revolution of the 60s (which as i consider it, i perceive it to be a corruption of what is discussed here).
As he considers various scriptures, Brennan acknowledges the common warnings to be learned from both David & Bathsheba and Joseph & Potiphar’s wife. But he also draws a unique conclusion from the example of the woman coming to anoint Jesus’ feet at the Pharisee’s house. That Jesus accepted the kind of attention she gave was not only a powerful testimony about forgiveness, it also speaks culturally to the acceptance of men and women in the New Covenant as brothers and sisters, capable of a level of love and closeness without becoming sexualized that runs counter to many of society’s warnings.
This has profound implications for relationships in Christian community, especially for single people. Brennan says,
"While marriage is certainly a relationship in which profound intimacy may happen, in friendship singles are able to experience profound depths of beauty, goodness, and truth if they open themselves to the risk of embodied personal intimacy with the other sex. Many leaders in the evangelical subculture, however, discourage singles from this risk in intimacy and thereby set up singles to relate in terms of impersonal categories, inevitably creating a social dichotomy between singles and married." (p. 141)
This resonates strongly with my own experience as one who was single until I was nearly 30, as well as singles I speak with now. One in particular has related how present leadership and thinking tends to leave her feeling like a second-class citizen of the church, for no other reason than being single and female. Looking again to the new life inaugurated by Christ, Brennan adds,
"Christ came not just to reduce the old disorder of lust, violence, and oppression between men and women, but to usher us into a new world of embodied communion with each other." (p. 146)
Deep cross-gender friendships are a provocative concept, and Brennan acknowledges the inherent dangers in embracing true Christian love and freedom.
"The ideas in this book are dangerous. Friendship is dangerous." (p. 152)
He addresses the reality of most of my own fears and the fears of others, not treating the topic as cavalier, and not flippantly dismissing the cautions commonly held in evangelical circles.
A final thought that resonated with me considers singles again. Being single as long as I was before I married, this spoke powerfully to me.
"The way of Christ is not to call singles into the principal’s office or place a 911 call to the spiritual police in our faith communities if they open themselves up to delight in friendship with a married individual." (p. 159)
Whatever cautions may be justified, we who are married must not forget the unspoken rejection of our single friends whenever we deny them the opportunity for deep friendships with the entire body of Christ. By segregating them, the unspoken implication is that single people are incapable of reigning in their hormones, making them tempters and temptresses of the married class. This is, of course, not justified.
Speaking as a married man preparing to pursue a pastoral vocation, I would like to see the idea of sibling relationships among believers applied to both same and cross-gender friendships for both married and single people as a matter of Christian maturity and discipleship. It would also be interesting to see these ideas explored in the larger realm of human sexuality and relationships in the Christian context.
Exploring the idea of Christian relationships in general as sibling relationships is biblically consistent as I observe it. In that context, the opportunity exists to promote a positive view of chastity (as opposed to the negative view of abstinence), where marriages are seen as a particular blessing to the married (and as Paul says, a safe place for one who would otherwise give in to lust). I believe this elevates the sacredness of both single and married relationships, and puts them on equal footing before Christ, rather than setting up a false caste system in the church.
When taken with the wider idea of Christians being in community (Acts 2, 4), I wonder how might this impact the formation of misisonal church communities, and speak prophetically and counterculturally to our society by providing a positive vision of Christian relationships instead of a negative vision of culture. In other words, leave behind the "don’t do X" of culture wars, and replace them with a view of positive relationships lived and acted as Christian brothers and sisters as a lived testimony. This action should draw people to question how we can maintain holy lives, for which we must give an answer of hope. (1 Peter 3:15)
Though I am largely in agreement with Brennan, there is room for critique. While at one level I appreciate the use of Jesus as an example, and especially as he calls us to imitate him, I will risk sticking with my evangelical background just enough to remind everyone that we live in the already/not-yet of the kingdom of God. (The kingdom is already here, but not yet perfectly manifest as we await Christ’s return.) To that end, we imitate Christ, but we fail where he did not, so my caution is not to Brennan’s ideas as an excuse to chase after relationships that might make you stumble. In any relationship, one must exercise good judgment. Note that he didn’t have deep friendships with many women, only a very few. In the same way for you and I, considering both our same or cross-gendered friendships, choose your deepest friendships wisely, based on whether or not they are also committed to Christian discipleship, striving after the ideal of what it means to be friends, brothers, and sisters in Christ.
There is another caution if you choose to read the book. Reading the descriptions of friendships in the middle ages, they use language that by conditioning will simply make many of us uncomfortable. I don’t think we need to feel compelled to define our friendships in those terms, especially if it results in tensions with one’s spouse, but that does not minimize what I believe is a proper focus on a kind of deep, familial intimacy that Christians ought to be able to share without fear. One may develop a friendship that is deep on that level, but we live in a different time and culture, and our language will be different. Brennan also speaks of the concept of human sexuality in technical terms without adequately drawing out the nuances for a wide audience. It is possible at times to think he is speaking of interpersonal relations in sexual terms, in spite of his repeated assertions to the contrary. What is important to understand is that he is speaking with the understanding that we were created as sexual beings in the sense that we are male and female. (Genesis 1:27)
There is finally something Brennan did not discuss that is an absolute must: To grow in a relationship of the kind of intimacy described here requires maturity. Someone who is not emotionally mature, self-aware, responsible, and a committed disciple of Jesus, while able to develop intimate closeness, could easily stumble or make a mess of things without a necessary degree of maturity. This maturity is also required to answer others with wisdom who do not have the language to discuss this kind of relational depth. I greatly appreciate the use of sibling language in this regard. Used earnestly, it helps one truly view another as family, moving deeper than an off-hand "he/she’s like a brother/sister to me."
SCRIPTURES AND ANCIENT TEXTS
I offer these here without comment. Consider them as you will, asking how they may apply to your own marriages and friendships.
From the scriptures:
Galatians 3:28 "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."
Matthew 22:30 "For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven."
Acts 2:42-47 "And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belonging and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved."
(Also see Acts 4:32ff. These two passages do not speak directly to Brennan’s thesis, but to the fact that how we interact in community as God’s people is different than the surrounding culture.)
Genesis 1:27 "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them."
John 13:34 "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another."
(All quotes here from the ESV)
From an apocryphal text. (Brennan quotes another author’s use of this text, and it is mistakenly attributed to Ecclesiates. The actual quote comes from Sirach, but is worthy of contemplation on a non-scriptural level.)
Sirach 6.14-17 "Faithful friends are a sturdy shelter, whoever has found one has has found a treasure. Faithful friends are beyond price. No amount can balance their worth. Faithful friends are the elixir of life, and those who fear the Lord will find them. Whoever fears the Lord will make true friends, for as people are themselves, so are their friends also." (Taken from Brennan, p. 159)
A primary application to derive from this book is an extension of what any Christian may derive from belonging to Jesus: reject moralistic teaching based on fear and choose to live in holiness according to the freedom that comes from Christ. Applied specifically from the book, I choose simply to enjoy and nurture the friendships I have. This happens first and foremost with my wife, then my friends, family, coworkers, etc. This can – yes, really – without regard to whether a person is male or female.
As a married man, because of the bond I share with my wife and as a result of our marriage covenant, I respect and love her, and defer to her feelings on the subject. This does not reject, but lies at the heart of Brennan’s ideas. Paula is my marriage partner and as such holds the privileged place of the deepest human bond with me, second only to the Lord. I defer not out of concession, but willingly out of love. This is consistent with what Christian marriage is: a visible demonstration to the world in a human relationship of the union of God and humanity.
To live in the freedom Brennan suggests necessitates the corollary action of no double standards. As I embrace the command of Christ to love others as he has loved me, I support and encourage that among other disciples of Jesus. In the context of marriage, this presupposes that the marriage is strong and mature, supported by other friends (especially cross-gender friends to both of us), and built on trust founded in our mutual faith and deepening only with those who understand and accept the implications of Christian community. To live this way according to Brennan’s ideas would take much discussion, as this is a somewhat shocking message in our present culture.
What about current relationships? I have female friends in our church. Some are married. Some are not. I would not say they have developed the kind of closeness Brennan describes, but I consider them to be close enough friends to my wife and I that I have no fear interacting with them without my wife present, and there is enough trust to have no fear of compromise or accusation. They are my sisters in Christ. Period. Would these cross-gender relationships deepen? Only the Holy Spirit will answer that. I choose to appreciate them for who they are as sisters in the Lord, and friends of both my wife and myself.
There is also a small number of men with whom I have become close enough in deep friendship that I can consider them as close as brothers. For the women I know and respect, that kind of closeness has not developed for the very reasons Brennan suggests. I am not opposed to that kind of friendship, but given our culture and values, such a development would necessarily take much longer. As a personal choice, the number of people, male and female, with whom I would choose to develop deep trust, is very small. If reading Brennan will teach nothing else, it’s that the deepest friendships are rare, and they require effort and care to nurture.
Though outside the scope of the book, this has important pastoral implications for me as well. I am exploring the very real possibility of planting a missional church community with an organic form of organization (I refer you to Neil Cole’s work to define that). This requires a certain level of trust and closeness among the members that I believe runs deeper than a typical church. My prayer for that group would be to embody a bold witness for Christ in our context and a countercultural way of life that lives within our culture, but at the same time draws people toward reconciliation to the Father through Christ. The development of closeness and trust is necessary to build a fellowship of this nature, especially in its early stages. Time will tell, but I believe this book may provide a springboard for discussion to those who become a part of the community, as well as those who seek to understand who we are and partner with us.
What about you, dear reader? What do you think? What are your concerns? I’d love to know what both married and single readers think. Let’s work it out together…