By Steven Wedgeworth
Later this summer a group of Christian writers will meet in St Louis for the Revoice Conference, an event that seeks to make a place for “gay, lesbian, same-sex attracted, and other LGBT Christians” in the conservative traditions of the Christian Church. These Christians all affirm the traditional teaching on the moral permissibility of same-sex sexual relationships and therefore remain celibate, but they very much want to continue to identify as gay. This desire has set off more than a few alarm bells among other members of those traditions.
Even though this conversation has been going on for about a decade, Revoice has dramatically raised its profile, and many participants are entering into it for the first time. Because Revoice is being hosted by a PCA church and has at least one seminary professor as a speaker, the notoriety surrounding it has forced Covenant Seminary to issue a statement affirming “the inerrancy of Scripture, the Westminster standards, and the sanctity of marriage as being between one man and one woman.” The conference has even caused some to speculate on whether or not there is a new trajectory towards progressive views of sexuality in denominations like the Presbyterian Church in America or the Southern Baptist Convention.
Some of what makes Revoice stand out is surely its branding. It embraces the language of “LGBT Christians” and even “sexual minorities.” Even its verbs have a certain ring to them: “supporting, encouraging, and empowering.” This is very modern language, the sort typically associated with progressive and liberation movements. In the descriptions of its various workshops, Revoice also uses the nomenclature of “LGBT+” and “LGBTQ,” implying an acceptance of a wide range of sexual orientations and identities. The fact that this presentation is also, at least on the surface, closely associated with a congregation in the Presbyterian Church in America and its denominational seminary only adds to the shock factor for many.
Though I think that Revoice’s branding is, at best, extremely imprudent, there is a much more important discussion to be had about the foundational assumptions behind the conference. Revoice’s basic philosophy comes from the loosely unified set of ideas commonly referred to as “Spiritual Friendship,” as advocated by Ron Belgau, Wesley Hill, Eve Tushnet, and others.
These account for the substance of what is generating the controversy, the basic thesis that there can be such a thing as a “gay Christian” who nevertheless upholds “the historic, Christian doctrine of marriage and sexuality.” In what follows, I would like to distinguish some of the key components of the Spiritual Friendship conversation, commend them for their virtues, but also highlight some of their features which do seem to conceal vice. In making these final criticisms, I do not suggest that the various writers and thinkers associated with Spiritual Friendship are being disingenuous. Quite the contrary, their pursuit seems particularly earnest. Nevertheless, their desires do not always appear to be consistently directed towards their proper ends, and I believe that there are some fundamental errors with their proposals.
What is “Spiritual Friendship”? While the name itself would merely suggest the classic notion of the love of friendship (philia) ordered towards God, in the context of “LGBT Christianity,” Spiritual Friendship now means more than that. It involves a set of ideas and assertions, all of which have some relationship to homoerotic feelings.
Among these are the following: 1) That while sexual activity between persons of the same sex is indeed sinful, the complex set of desires and psychological orientations which would otherwise lead to those actions are not sinful. 2) In fact, these are potentially good, as they are, at some basic point, a longing towards a true good, Because of this, 3) a “gay” identity can and should constitute something around which a “community” can be formed, so long as its members remain celibates. 4) The Church should recognize and welcome these communities, noting how it has actually harmed persons with same-sex attraction in the past, both by being malicious towards them but also by not properly recognizing them. 5) There is a difference between the “fulfillment” promised by romantic love and the physical sexual acts attached to it, the former of which can be approximated if not entirely realized through close friendship. Thus, one way in which these sorts of Gay Christians can avoid the loneliness which would otherwise come from renouncing their erotic desires is by forming close and even vowed or covenanted friendships with other Christians of the same sex. And 6) The renunciation of the sexual act can enable the “gay” Christian to live a particularly religious celibate life analogous to the counsels of perfection, as they sublimate the sexual desire towards a more perfect form of love.
A few of these points are self-evident by the simple existence of the Revoice Conference and the topics of its workshops. I won’t belabor them. However, it is important to see how the Spiritual Friendship writers define “gay,” as that seems to generate the vast majority of the controversy.
First, Wes Hill defines his sexuality as an “orientation” which guides his preferences and overall lifestyle choices:
Being gay is, for me, as much a sensibility as anything else: a heightened sensitivity to and passion for same-sex beauty that helps determine the kind of conversations I have, which people I’m drawn to spend time with, what novels and poems and films I enjoy, the particular visual art I appreciate, and also, I think, the kind of friendships I pursue and try to strengthen. (Spiritual Friendship, pg. 33)
When I, for instance, form close friendships with men, I often attribute my original impulse to do so, and my continuing efforts to maintain those friendships, to my sexuality. (That paradigm seems to make sense of my experience: as I once said in an email to a friend, “A sexual orientation is such a complex and, in most cases, it seems, intractable thing; I for one cannot imagine what ‘healing’ from my orientation would look like, given that it seems to manifest itself not only in physical attraction to male bodies but also in a preference for male company, with all that it entails,” such as conversation and emotional intimacy.) (“Is Being Gay Sanctifiable?”)
For his part, Ron Belgau insists that he does not accept the modern categories of “sexual identity,” and he denies that “sexual attractions are a defining or constitutive element in our identity” (“What is Gay?”). This becomes more complicated, however, when he explains that he believes that there is a common source to both his sexual attractions and his other desires, a source that makes them both what they are. Speaking of one particularly strong intimate friendship in his past, Belgau writes:
…The first thing to assert here is that sexual desires were neither the defining nor the constitutive element of this relationship. It would also be unhelpful to deny that sexual desire was present and colored the relationship. (“What is Gay?”)
A little later in the same essay Belgau writes:
Not long after Wes and I met, he was talking about embracing being “gay” as something broader than just “the desire to sleep with men,” something connected with intimacy and joy in chaste same-sex friendships…
Belgau then argues that this “intimacy and joy” which can lead to gay sexual desires is really a more basic thing, simply the older “true” friendship, and yet there is nevertheless a peculiar distortion of this true friendship which exists as a “burden” that a great many people must bear, a nascent form of true friendship which always tends towards homoerotic desires.
When Belgau, in another place, gives a more detailed description of his “gay” desires, he includes many features of a stereotypical 20th century marriage: conversation and “understanding,” buying a house and even decorating it together, adopting children, holding hands, and even kissing goodbye. This particular form of friendship clearly has an “erotic” component to it, even if it is more emotional and sentimental than physically copulative, and this is what constitutes the “gay Christian” experience.
Because of the fact of these experiences, the Spiritual Friendship writers believe the Church need to recognize and welcome celibate LGBT Christians, and that goal is set front and center for the Revoice Conference. The Spiritual Friendship writers also suggest particular “spiritual friendships,” close bonds between persons of the same sex, even perhaps held together by vows or covenants, as a means of realizing the goal of true friendship, the goal which they believe the more immature forms of homoeroticism are aspiring towards in a disordered manner. Ron Belgau writes, “Our argument is that properly ordered desire for same-sex love is ordered to friendship, not sex.” Thus this friendship can be an appropriate “vocation” for the celibate gay Christian, in an analogous way that marriage is for the straight Christian laity and that the priesthood or monastic orders are for Catholics following the religious life. Wesley Hill even points to adelphopoiesis as one concrete way that these particular friendships can exist (Spiritual Friendship, pg. 119; Hill quotes Pavel Florensky explicitly likening this bond to marriage or a monastic vow.)
When laid out in this way, it becomes obvious that Spiritual Friendship is much more complicated than simply persons with same-sex attraction simply choosing to renounce such desires in order to obey the teaching of the Scriptures. If that were all that it was, it would be hard to imagine the controversy, at least among conservative Christians. Instead, Spiritual Friendship presumes a specific anthropology and hamartiology (that is, a doctrine of sin; I will explain this point more below) in order to then argue for a specific outlook on the doctrine of vocation and to offer a specific strategy on evangelism and ecclesiology in the wake of the LGBT-rights movement.
Strengths of Spiritual Friendship
Most of this essay will be heavily critical of Spiritual Friendship, but before going straight to the criticism, I do think that the writers deserve praise on several fronts. They have been rather badly misunderstood by some critics for quite a long time and yet they continue to persevere with an irenic disposition. The Spiritual Friendship writers do not condone same-sex intercourse. They have been very clear about this. They have also been clear that they reject same-sex intercourse as sinful because of the teachings of Scripture, which they hold to be absolutely authoritative. For this reason, they argue that they and others should renounce the objects of those desires and live a life of either appropriately chaste sexual activity within heterosexual marriage or celibacy.
The Spiritual Friendship writers have also called us to more honestly reckon with the complications of defining one’s desires and how they relate to sexuality. They have demonstrated a much more sophisticated theological and philosophical framework than many of their critics. They have argued that their interest in sanctifying aspects of their gay identity is precisely in locating the original good aspects which reflect the image of God and in finding out how best to use those attributes to honor and serve Him.
Additionally, the Spiritual Friendship writers are correct in their argument that the category of true friendship has been almost entirely lost in our modern day, eclipsed by the hegemony of the erotic or the distractions of frivolity and consumption. They are correct to argue that the Church has the resources to properly display friendship, indeed friendship as a true love, and that this would be a powerful alternative to the modern sexual landscape and an attractive outlet for many otherwise lonely and confused young people. Quite apart from the particular discussion of homosexuality, “spiritual friendship” is a concept that all Christians would do well to recover.
The Question of Concupiscence
The most basic problem anyone addressing the concept of “gay Christianity” will encounter is the status of concupiscence. Augustine, I believe rightly, maintained that concupiscence was itself sinful, while the later medieval tradition largely disagreed. The Protestant Reformers returned to the Augustinian notion of concupiscence, whereas the Roman Catholic response was to double down in its opposition to this position. This explains, at least in part, why Spiritual Friendship writers like Ron Belgau have had trouble being understood when they speak of the sinfulness of sexual temptation. Belgau does not only argue that temptation in the abstract need not always be sinful. He argues that particular temptations, namely sexual desires, can be “not morally neutral” but also not “sinful.”
For instance, Belgau has recently tweeted, “not only [is] gay sex… sin, but also that the desire for gay sex is part of our fallen world and must—like all desire that would lead to sin—be resisted.” Thus “the desire for gay sex” is “fallen” and “must be resisted.” But is it sin? For Belgau, no. He has elsewhere written, “I believe that gay sex is sinful, and that the desire for gay sex, though not itself sinful, is a temptation that cannot be regarded as morally neutral.” Thus, the desire for gay sex is an immoral temptation but not sin.
Belgau is essentially arguing that gay desire is like concupiscence. If left to its own, it would terminate in sin. It is a particular sort of lower appetite. But, importantly, it is not sin until it is acted upon by the will. The Spiritual Friendship argument appears to deviate even from the typical Roman Catholic view on this point, however, as Roman Catholicism has never argued that a disordered concupiscence can be ordered. The dilemma would never occur to Magisterial Protestants, however, as they would confess the concupiscence as species of lust in need of repentance.
So when the Spiritual Friendship writers say that gay desires are not “morally neutral” they do not necessarily concede that the desires are sinful. They may well become sin, but they are not automatically sin, even as they exist in an identifiably erotic way. This may be possible on Roman Catholic grounds, but it is not possible on Protestant ones, and this will be a point of impasse to all who are attentive to the doctrines of anthropology and hamartiology.
The Status of Sexual Orientation
Following from this, the Spiritual Friendship writers do basically accept the concept of “sexual orientation.” They typically appeal to the fact of their experience, but they also insist that their same-sex attraction is not merely a conscious desire or act of the will but rather a disposition of their being. Hill says that it is a “sensibility” which permeates all of his life (Spiritual Friendship, pg. 33). Jeremy Erickson explains that he can have intense “physical but not genital” affections. These then excite him towards certain actions and social interactions.
Thus the “orientation” is not necessarily oriented towards the act of sexual intercourse. It can exist quite apart from that act, apparently. It can even exist when that act is renounced entirely. The problem is that this quickly becomes nonsensical. As Aristotle taught, the last in action is the first in intention. Thus any kind of freely-willed orientation would be defined by its telos. Without the oriented sexual activity, even if only potentially, there is no “sexual orientation.”
In the case of the Spiritual Friendship writers, what we are dealing with is a disposition that is prior to the will and which the will is called to interact with and transform. This is not really the same thing as the “sexual orientation” of secular LGBT thinkers. It’s much closer to what the older writers would call a habitus. But this too presents a problem. For a virtuous habit ought not, of itself, produce vice. Neither should a properly ordered habit lead to disorder. Vices are not accidental expressions of a virtue. A disorder is a problem, a want of conformity to the order. Disorders are not capable of being ordered without thereby ceasing to be disordered. Thus, if the habit is good, then the sinful distortion should not be identified with the habit but rather distinguished and removed from it.
It is at this very point that we should also question whether the “T,” the “Q” and the “+” are actually the same sorts of things as the “L” and the “G.” After all, transgender persons and queer or questioning persons are not merely struggling with the objects of their desires. They are making radical claims about their basic constitution. They claim that they are not, in fact, the gender or sex that their physical body would otherwise suggest. However much it might help them to enjoy companionship and affection, friendship would not really address this basic dispute one way or the other. Are the Spiritual Friendship writers incorporating these elements simply because that is how the contemporary LGBT movement organizes itself politically? If so, is this really fair to either side of the debate? Again, the nomenclature is tilted towards a certain philosophy, and it is not a historically Christian one.
Conflating Different Types of Love
A third major problem with the Spiritual Friendship project is its blending of philia and eros. While it is true that our modern culture often conflates all of the loves into one and then assumes that the truest form simply is eros (see C S Lewis’ argument in The Four Loves), classically the loves really were different kinds of things.
Philia is the love of friendship. Eros is romantic love. These are not different modes of the same love but loves with different objects. Philia is created between individuals who share a common outside love–a love of some task, pursuit, of duty. This shared love of the object is what then brings them together. Eros, however, is a love of the person as themself an object of desire. These loves are different kinds of things. Distinguishing them makes it clear that a “heterosexual Christian” is every bit as capable of having a “spiritual friendship” with someone of the same sex as is a “gay Christian.” There is also no obvious reason to think that a new philia will satisfy the erotic desire of the “gay Christian.” The tendency of SF writers to point to adelphopoiesis as a sort of combination of erotic love and philial love, especially when they use the work of John Boswell, is particularly troubling. Spiritual brotherhood in Christian antiquity was strongly opposed to eroticism.
In an attempt to argue against making “eros” the primary desire, Ron Belgau argues that it is really friendship which is the most basic pursuit:
For Aelred, then, friendship can, in its degenerate forms, give rise to sinful sexual acts, but in its perfected form, it can be a source of greater joy than in either of its degenerate forms, and a great encouragement and help to salvation.
It is not surprising, given the gradual decay of friendship in western culture in the last few hundred years, combined with the rise of the Freudian assumptions about sex, that most of us would be more likely to have first identified what we were feeling as “gay” or “homosexual,” and only later, by swimming very much against the current, begun to articulate the value of chaste friendship.
But it’s not clear to me why, given a traditionally Christian understanding of human sexuality, we would want to make homosexuality primary and friendship part of a larger category that is somehow connected to it.
Thus Belgau wants “friendship” to be the primary category, with homosexuality being a secondary one. In a recent tweet, Belgau makes this clear: “Our argument is that properly ordered desire for same-sex love is ordered to friendship, not sex. We are not saying that sexual desire can just remain unmodified, though with Augustine we realize this is a lifelong struggle.”
This statement on its own would, I think, naturally lend itself to the argument that peculiarly “gay” desire is a disorder of the properly-ordered same-sex love of friendship, the kind of same-sex love that many straight people have. In other words, the gay love is mistakenly acted out as “carnal friendship” but it really ought to find its fulfillment in worldly friendship, which, over time, can be fully absorbed into spiritual friendship, the chief end of all loves. The problem with this is, again, that eros is not simply a lower form of philia, but is instead a distinct kind of love, with a distinct object.
In fact, as we read more of their explanations, it does not appear that the sort of friendship that the Spiritual Friendship writers are after is the ordinary kind of intense friendship experienced by straight men and women. When Wesley Hill writes about one of his “spiritual friendships,” it has the quality of a romance, and when it ends, he refers to it as a breakup. And as we mentioned above, when Ron Belgau describes one of his desired friendships, it sounds like a marriage: a man who understands him, who he can love more than any other, who he can introduce to mom & dad, who he can dance with, buy a house with, adopt kids with… Again, this really doesn’t sound like philia, not even a very intense form of it. It sounds like the establishment of a home. Belgau’s “friend” sounds like a helpmeet.
Why aren’t the Spiritual Friendship writers attempting to form a spiritual friendship with persons of the opposite sex? It’s rather obvious that it is the particular kind of “attraction” that they have towards members of the same sex that leads them to their same-sex friendships, otherwise the special friendships they propose would be indifferent to sex, and they would be friends with opposite sex persons in the same way as with same sex persons–but that’s not what’s being proposed. And if they did form an avowedly celibate same sex friendship of the kind that they are describing, then they wouldn’t really be engaging in adelphopoiesis so much as in a same-sex version of syneisaktism, a movement ultimately condemned by the church.
And is there good reason to suppose that homoeros is, at its core, simply looking for homophilia? Wouldn’t many gay men strongly reject the assertion that what they are “really looking for” in erotic love is philia? There is a large amount of gay literature which argues strongly against presuming to define the gay experience by heteronormative categories (see for example here, here, and here; Justin Raimondo’s argument that gay marriage is anti-gay also goes right to the main points). Many LGBT persons do not believe that they are “really looking for” something else. If Michael Hobbes’ harrowing description of unfulfilled gay life is even partly true, there are significant numbers of gay men who would disdain the descriptions of gay love offered by Hill and Belgau as representative only of one sector of gay men.
When pressed on the question of whether spiritual friendship really can fulfill erotic desires, Wes Hill says that he is actually not sure. At the end of the day, he has to “take this on faith.” What this means is that even the Spiritual Friendship writers will find themselves in a combative relationship with the contemporary LGBT movement. They must also ask many gay men to redefine their desires and felt-experiences in order to conform to an outside standard of love and behavior.
Putting all this together, one has to ask–just how different is this from gay conversion therapy? The person is still gay, and it still looks like they want a homoerotic fulfillment, but over time they will see that what they really want is a homophiliac fulfillment? Instead of praying the gay away, they pray the eros into philia?
The Danger of Malakia
Finally, we should talk about the danger of malakia. Defending the potential virtue of gay friendship Ron Belgau writes:
I want to be clear that I am not saying that my relationship with Jason was wise, or that I would promote the same sort of relationship now. But it was far from the most foolish of the foolish things teenagers do as they try to sort out their sexual and romantic feelings. It embodied a lot of misunderstandings about Christian love, friendship, and sexuality. It could be a source of temptation. But the relationship did not make us arsenokoitai, any more than an unmarried man and a woman who hold hands or cuddle while watching a movie are pornoi.
I would agree that, since he and Jason never “went all the way,” they were not arsenokoitai. But it is not so obvious that at least one of them wasn’t malakoi. Commentators argue over the specific meaning of “effeminacy” in 1 Cor. 6:9, in particular whether it is restricted to a specific kind of homosexual action or whether it has a broader range of meanings indicating moral and social “softness” (See respectively, Robert Gagnon and Dale Martin; Martin is particularly interesting here, as he is an advocate for gay Christianity yet demonstrates the comprehensive implications of malakia in Christian antiquity).
What isn’t in doubt is that the catholic Christian tradition has understood effeminacy, in the broader sense, to be a vice. In his comments on 1 Cor. 6:9, John Calvin explains effeminacy as those who “do not openly abandon themselves to impurity, discover, nevertheless, their unchastity by blandishments of speech, by lightness of gesture and apparel, and other allurements.” In other words, a great deal of what goes by “gay culture” would be considered effeminate. A man conforming himself to roles or activities characteristic of a woman would certainly qualify. This is a point so unfashionable as to almost be unintelligible to modern readers, but the historical record is clear. Given our amnesia, it is important to explain that “effeminacy” is not simply a synonym for feminine. It takes that form in men because effeminacy has to do with abandoning one’s duty or declining to conform to a proper standard or role. Femininity in women is actually entirely proper and no vice. So women ought to be feminine but never effeminate.
Additionally, a great many “manly men” would qualify as effeminate, classically understood, whenever they gave in to luxury, fell in to intemperance, or allowed themselves to be ruled by their passions. Thomas Aquinas defines effeminacy in a more focused way when he defines the effeminate man as “one who withdraws from good on account of sorrow caused by lack of pleasure, yielding as it were to a weak motion.” Thus while I don’t think we have much reason to doubt whether Thomas would condemn two men cuddling on the couch watching Netflix, the main point of his criticism is not the soft action but the soft motion of the mind or will. And it isn’t merely the positive pursuit of the pleasure that is the problem. The chief problem is the abandoning of a good when a specific pleasure is not realized. This is a profound analysis, and a widely applicable one. “Conservative” writers who rush to write emotionally intemperate hot takes on moral issues would fall under Aquinas’ iron condemnation here just as much as the more outwardly “soft” man would.
At this point many might object that the Spiritual Friendship writers are actually employing a heroic exertion of willpower. They are calling on people to do hard work, the hard work of reimagining categories and emotions which are highly charged, the hard work of mastering a desire and redirecting it towards another goal, and the hard work of remaining in a religious community which does not always provide understanding or acceptance. And I think that Ron Belgau, Wes Hill, and others should indeed be applauded for their manly resolve in this regard.
But, it still seems that their project is grounded on what Aquinas and Calvin would consider an effeminate conviction: that “gay Christians” should reject the married estate not simply because they are called to a higher good of contemplation but because it does not and perhaps cannot provide the appropriate erotic fulfilment that corresponds to their orientation, and, further, that a substitute should be engaged in, a special kind of intimate friendship based on same sex attraction. In addition to this, they also argue that if this substitute fulfillment is not offered, many gay people will, and, on their account, perhaps justifiably, reject the Good because of the sorrow that comes from their being denied a certain kind of pleasure. Indeed, a significant part of the forcefulness of their argument is the claim that without intense and particular gay-but-celibate loving relationships, many people will withdraw from Christian perseverance. The problem that the Spiritual Friendship writers are really wrestling with is the sin of effeminacy.
The Spiritual Friendship writers are wrestling with matters of great difficulty for them and for others in the church. But at the end of the day, the project itself is still deeply confused on the foundational issues. Disorders just aren’t the kinds of things that can be ordered. Original sin and its effects are actually sin and need to be repented of. Philia and eros are different loves.
For the Spiritual Friendship project to really work on its own terms, it needs to call on Christians identifying as LGBTQ to realize that their desires need to find a new object entirely. And when the desires find their true object, they will find themselves to be new desires indeed.
Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.