Closer than a brother; Biblical insight into same sex friendships

“Stand by the ways and see and ask for the ancient paths, Where the good way is and walk in it; And you will find rest for your souls” Jeremiah 6:16

As part of our Engage! topics in March and April 2016 we raised the issue of “ways of knowing” and the necessity for truth claims to inform our worldview.  Put simply, we looked at how our senses inform the what of our environment and revelation informs the why. Finding and applying “why” principles are crucial to building a consistent world view.

How then do we apply revelation to the changing norms of our culture?  While revelation can come from many sources, we have argued that Biblical revelation provides the most comprehensive and consistent source of truth when critiqued in light of its fruits.  Biblical revelation provides timeless principles that can be applied to questions of fluid cultural morality.  CS Lewis calls the existence of these principles the Tao, namely that “thing” which underlies our experience and holds intrinsic truth and value irrespective of contemporary opinion.

If one does not accept the Bible as revelational Tao, consider the following. Before rejecting the Bible’s guidance on same sex friendships, at least consider the approach of seeking principle above cultural pressure as valid in clarifying this important issue. A debate centered on first principles has the potential to more fruitfully further understanding rather than appealing to popular opinion or the “inevitable progression of society”.

That being said, the words that follow are an attempt at clarifying in a small way biblical principles underlying same sex friendships.  As much as the following clarifies the true biblical position, we submit our volition to it.  If we are validly shown that the biblical position is somehow different or other than we have stated, we will submit our volition to that.  We have no other reason to form a position in any particular direction and in that, we hope you see this essay as a vehicle for sharing biblical opinion and not any other bias.

The best example for exploring a biblical same sex loving friendship is that between David and Jonathan.  Remember that while description of an activity in scripture does not necessarily mean that the Bible is prescribing that activity, when taken in context the love between David and Jonathan described in the following verses is clearly approved of.  The hebrew word for love (a’chav, Septuagint agape) is used in this context in 1 Samuel 18:1,3,  1 Samuel 20:17 and 2 Samuel 1:26.  In the first two of these passages Jonathan is said to have loved David, but this love is clearly contextualized as a selfless love (loved “as himself”, “as his own life”).  The “pleasantness” of David’s friendship with  Jonathan found in the third passage is described by the hebrew word na’am (QP2ms) which is used 8 times in the OT.  Five of the 8 uses describe the Lord, knowledge, words, food and rebuke as pleasant and are without physical connotation.  In Song of Solomon (7:6), na’am is used to describe romantic longing and in Ezekial 32:19, feminine beauty.  Both of the latter two uses are described however of mans relationship with or perception of women.  The eighth use of na’am is our verse under consideration here (2 Sam 1:26) and in light of the above, illustrates a deep appreciative companionship connection between men but does not include physicality or romance.

2 Samuel 1:26 also describes David’s love for Jonathan as “more wonderful than the love of women (NASB)”.  The hebrew word for wonderful (pa’lah, NP3fs) is found 81 times in the OT.  It is used to adjectify God, the Lord, miracles, vows, works, judgements, buildings and lovingkindness.  In 2 Samuel 13:2 it is used in the context of a physical relationship, namely Amnon’s sexual desire for Tamar as “difficult (pa’lah) to obtain”, but is focused heterosexually.  Additionally the immediate context (“more wonderful than the love of women”) speaks of something other than or beyond or different from romantic love or physical sexuality.  Thus, while profound and intimate,  there appears to be no evidence that David and Jonathan’s love was physically sexual in nature.  In fact, their friendship seems to be deeper than and beyond simple hormonal and physical intimacy.  This point is often lost in our current cultural debate where both sides of the issue assume that physicality is a (or the) necessary part of an ongoing relationship of this depth.  On the contrary, these verses imply that David’s and Jonathan’s intimate love friendship was deeper than the need to satisfy a hormonal or physically self centered sex drive.  It is this “deeper than platonic” love that is rarely experienced in our modern friendships and most likely why this type of friendship is often misunderstood as necessarily needing to be fulfilled physically.

In Proverbs 18:24, a’chav (used here as a Qal masculine singular participle) is used in the context of same sex love between a man and a friend described as love that “sticks closer” (NASB).  This Hebrew word dabeq (used here as an adjective modifying a’chav) is used 3 times in the OT, here, in Deuteronomy 4:4 (“holding fast” to the Lord) and 2 Chronicles 3:12 (a Cherub’s wing was “attached to”  another cherub).   Another way to render Proverbs 18:24 would be to say “the one loving (a’chav) is holding fast [to another] more than [he would even to] a brother.  Here we see another example of a “deeper than platonic” love friendship without physical connotation.

On the negative side, there is a powerful Old Testament prohibition against same sex physical intimacy.  Before one sighs the argument that “we are no longer under OT law (unless one keeps it all)”, there is a powerful linguistic clue that sets this command apart as universal and acultural.  In Leviticus 18:22 we are told “you shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female” (NASB).  Literally “you ( QI2ms) shall not lie as a male [as upon] a bed of a woman”.  The Septuagint translates the phrase male and bed as “arsenos… koiten”.  The Septuagint, which is an important though not God-breathed Greek translation of the OT, is used by Paul in 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10 to create the compound word “arsenokoites” translated by the NASB as “homosexual” and thus imports the prohibition of same sex physical intimacy from the old covenant into the new covenant in a God-breathed fashion.  Additionally, in the book How to Read the Bible for all Its Worth (Fee and Stuart, see chapter 4), solid hermeneutical principles show why these 2 NT passages are not culturally relative.

In applying these principles then,  Scripture gives its blessing to “deeper than platonic” non physical friendships (same and (by application) opposite sex friendships) while prohibiting same sex physicality and romance.  Furthermore Scripture ordains marriage as the special subset of  relationship that involves opposite sex “deeper than platonic” relationship AND monogamous opposite sex physical and romantic relationship (Hebrews 13:4, Matthew 19:4-6).  Marriage is thus uniquely defined.  Even if maintained in purity, a”deeper than platonic” friendship is not marriage.  Call it something else and have it set up for all the “secular benefits” of marriage, but do not call it marriage.

The individual challenge then to those involved in same sex “deeper than platonic” friendships is to maintain physical purity and to realize that this is distinctly different from marriage.  In same sex friendships there should be no physicality or romance. These same sex friendships should never preclude a partner from entering a marriage relationship with a friend of the opposite sex but selflessly see it as another aspect of personal growth in relationship.  The same sex friendship may or may not need to be sacrificed to allow the marriage relationship. While to our minds this may seem like a sacrifice, putting our lives in subject to biblical wisdom brings blessing, protection and joy (Psalm 119).

The corporate challenge then is for the church to show love and acceptance to those in “deeper than platonic” friendships.  A church community can and should supplant a “gay community” with a call to biblical relationship through faith and then maturation to purity within that faith’s sanctification process.  The call of our community is to faith in Jesus Christ and the call of our community is to sanctification, growth and change as in the promise of Titus 3:5-6.





2 Comments Add yours

  1. Kyle says:

    This is a very lucid and Biblical response to-I like how you phrase it-“fluid cultural morality.” I especially appreciate emphasis given the fact that the New Testament endorses the prohibition of homosexuality as shown by Paul’s choice of words; it far more than just a holdover from Old Testament law.

    Something worth warranting further study, I feel, is exactly why scripture so ardently prohibits homosexual relationships. Marriage is a true type that serves as a symbol for the Church’s relationship to Christ. To distort that earthly symbol given to us is not merely a violation of some antiquated statute, but a direct affront to the believer’s relationship to Jesus himself which is the very same relationship that He worked to fully restore through no less than brutal torture, public humiliation and a slow agonizing death. It is, in essence, an insult to Jesus’ sacrifice of the highest order and is why, in addition, adultery and all other sexual sins are condemned with equal fervor throughout both the Old and New Testaments.

    One point of contention is the implication that in our contemporary society at large, extending committed homosexuals the same practical benefits (e.g. tax breaks), without the official label of marriage cannot hold water. While I appreciate and respect the logic of maintaining the discussion on first principles alone, the first principles must work themselves out into the practicalities. Marriage is also a social institution. “No man is an island;” no spousal couple is either. Of course marriage is between two individuals, but their marriage also plays a role in forming the fabric of society. While I do not wish to stretch the point further than I ought, I do think it fair to say that healthy marriages contribute directly to healthy communities. Without belaboring the point, homosexual couples cannot meet the demands and responsibilities placed upon any normative marriage by definition and therefore cannot contribute to the health of the society. As such, the concept of marriage from first principles must be given special standing in society in order to incentivize only that which contributes to healthy communities. Granting the same privileges in an all-but-name manner to homosexual couples nullifies the exclusivity of normative marriages and entirely defangs the original intent of those privileges. Since homosexual couples are intrinsically unable to contribute to the health of the community, those privileges are undeserved. For one to be privileged, someone else must also be de-privileged by definition. To say that something is good, one must also say that something is bad. To say that a given thesis and its antithesis are simultaneously true is fallacious and results in total moral impotence. A government that holds to such a notion is a castrated government.

    1. point well taken. I was trying to defuse the secular argument in order to focus on the theological argument. The idea that the theological must become practical in order for it to have import is right but how we minister that application is an important issue if the church community is to be able to engage the culture.

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