The Limitations of Covenant Friendship


I love the examples of covenant friendships in the Bible, namely between David and Jonathan and Ruth and Naomi. I also admire Sarah and Lindsey who identify as “a celibate, LGBT, Christian couple.” In general, I think that Spiritual Friendship is great and I can especially identify with the Celtic concept of “Anam Cara” (a “soul friend”) explained so eloquently by John O’Donohue:

“With the anam cara you could share your innermost self, your mind and your heart. This friendship was an act of recognition and belonging. When you had an anam cara, your friendship cut across all convention, morality, and category. […] In this love, you are understood as you are without mask or pretension. The superficial and functional lies and half-truths of social acquaintance fall away, you can be as you really are. Love allows understanding to dawn, and understanding is precious. Where you are understood, you are at home. Understanding nourishes belonging.”

Even as I appreciate all of these versions of covenant friendship, I disagree with those who assert that it is a way for LGBT people to have the same shot at intimacy as their straight counterparts.

My first reservation has to do with the fact that for an LGBT person in a covenant friendship, it is nearly impossible to prevent emotional intimacy from developing into romance. In Spiritual Friendship, Wesley Hill agrees saying, “You can’t very well commit yourself to pursuing chaste same-sex friendship as a gay Christian and expect that romantic, erotic feelings won’t somehow, be involved in that pursuit.” Some might argue for drawing a “clear” boundary at physical sexual acts, but if physical same-sex relationships are not God’s will, it would logically follow that romance isn’t ok either. Another approach is to learn to recognize red flags to help identify when the thin line between emotional intimacy and romance is in danger of becoming blurred. As an example (but speaking in the context of straight opposite-sex friendships), Jonalyn Fincher shares in this video, “the words ‘isolation’ and ‘privacy’ quickly trigger romantic ideas to me.” But if a covenant friendship is between two men or two women (as is modeled in the biblical examples of David and Jonathan and Ruth and Naomi), both isolation and privacy are a given. Hill continues, explaining that it is not a question of whether or not these close friendships will involve romantic attraction, rather, “The question is […] how my friends and I will choose to respond to or negotiate that reality when it appears.” He explains that this obviously complicates the relationship because “Not only did I have to be circumspect and make sure I maintained appropriate boundaries and safeguards in my pursuit of intimacy, but I also had to find male friends who wouldn’t mind the challenges that come when a friend like me is attracted to them.” A priest friend of his added, “we need Christians who won’t freak out when their gay friends develop crushes on them.” Unfortunately, we have a long, long way to go before that becomes a reality.

In Spiritual Friendship, Hill first explains the view that friendship is unique and treasured because we can choose to end it at any time; it is entirely voluntary and unencumbered by any sense of duty. But he then inquires as to “whether [or not] friendship should be so free and unconstrained” and asks, “Should we begin to imagine friendship as more stable, permanent, and binding than we often do?” “Yes,” he concludes, and suggests that we use the familial language of “brother” and “sister” to signify permanence, longevity, and indestructibility. Ultimately, Hill asks, “What would it mean if we made promises to each other, precisely as friends?” I think to myself realistically (and admittedly cynically), Those promises would be broken. When we speak of covenant friendships, it is my understanding that we are not necessarily saying that both of these friends will refrain from getting married to another person. In this poignant article, Carrie English articulates the bittersweet occasion of such circumstances noting that “weddings change friendships forever. Priorities have been declared in public. She’ll be there for him in sickness and in health, till death do they part. She’ll be there for you on your birthday or when he has to work late.” But perhaps Justin Lee best articulates the most basic objections to the “solution” of covenant friendships in his book Torn when he writes, “seeing that Adam was alone, God did not simply say, ‘I am sufficient for you’; nor did God expect Adam to meet those needs with a friend.” We know it is not good for man to be alone. We know that it is better for someone to marry than to burn with desire. So, why doesn’t that apply to LGBT people? (If your answer to this is “because the Bible says so” you can find a brief explanation of both traditional and progressive biblical interpretations here).

For the most part, I can identify with Hill who writes, “I find myself wondering which is the greater danger – the ever-present possibility of codependency, sexual transgression, emotional smothering (and other temptations that come with close friendship) or else the burden, not to mention the attendant temptations, of isolation and solitude created by the absence of human closeness?” His priest reminds him encouragingly, “when have Christians ever believed in playing it safe?” So of course developing close friendships is best. As Lord Tennyson famously penned, “‘Tis better to have loved and lost/Than never to have loved at all.” Unfortunately though, because of the complexities and limitations of covenant friendships, they cannot provide the same shot at intimacy for LGBT people that marriage provides for straight people.