Homophobia is a term used in recent years to describe an intense fear of homosexuality. The homophobic person is so revolted by the notion that persons of the same sex might relate to one another sexually that he constantly seeks to reassure himself that no such tendencies exist in himself or in his children. At the same time, he is suspicious of any behavior that bears the remotest resemblance to his personal concepts of homosexuality, and he is ready to apply the label “perversion” to anything and everything from nonconformity to gender-role stereotypes to a deep friendship between two men or two women.
In view of the Bible’s admonitions to love one another, it seems especially regrettable that so much homophobia exists among evangelicals. Some Christians consider any close friendship between members of the same sex to be suspect. And there are Christians who are afraid to enter relationships of deep caring and sharing, who carefully avoid words or gestures of affection, and who therefore bind themselves to an emotional poverty. This is not to say, of course, that a fear of homosexuality is the only reason that many people don’t relate to others. But it is often a factor in evangelical circles. And it is something that is seldom discussed, even though an open discussion of the fear could relieve a great deal of anxiety and clear up some misconceptions.
C. S. Lewis spoke of the problem in The Four Loves. In his discussion on friendship, Lewis said he regretted the need to engage first in “a very tiresome bit of demolition.” He went on to explain: “It has actually become necessary in our time to rebut the theory that every firm and serious friendship is really homosexual.” By using the word really, said Lewis, suspicious persons are implying a hidden, unconscious homosexuality even if it is unknown to the two friends. Such self-appointed judges say they are not surprised at the absence of outward evidence; it is only to be expected that evidence should be concealed. However, Lewis points out, such an argument is like saying that if an invisible cat were in a chair, we wouldn’t be able to see it, and since the chair looks empty, we may safely conclude an invisible cat must be in it! He goes on to say that people who can’t view friendship as a substantive love in itself but see it only as a disguise for Eros tell us a great deal about themselves—most notably that they don’t understand what friendship is and that they have never had a friend.
Often the fear of homosexuality has been fed by faulty definitions and warnings addressed to Christian young people. Books, articles, and Sunday-school papers have given the impression that any love or affection for someone of the same sex spells homosexuality. Otherwise helpful articles on singleness, for example, have sometimes stirred up unnecessary fears by telling readers to steer clear of “too close” same-sex relationships.
A few years ago, a magazine addressed to college students carried an article written out of one woman’s unfortunate experience—a homosexual encounter that had evidently so frightened and disturbed her that she never quite got over it. In reaction, she was admonishing her readers to be extremely wary of having “too close” friendships. She warned of the dangers of spending too much time with one person and even said that Christians must beware of “being too caught up in the emotional and spiritual problems of another person.” The article went on to call for great caution about showing affection toward persons of one’s own sex. Single persons were warned that they were especially vulnerable to unwholesome relationships because of loneliness and longing for the mate not yet available and that they must determine before God to settle for nothing less than marriage. The author said that to substitute a “too-close relationship” with someone of one’s own sex would ruin the chances of someday having a happy marriage. (Such warnings could have disastrous effects on the adolescent for whom a best-friend relationship is not only normal and desirable but is also excellent preparation for future experiences of marriage and family living, since it affords opportunities for self-revelation and sharing in another person’s life—including hopes, dreams, fears, triumphs, problems, sorrows, and joys.)
Christian colleges have sometimes fanned the flames of homophobia by excessive precautions against problems of homosexuality. The article cited above suggested that individuals or groups of students report to the deans any cases that they considered suspect. Innocent persons have been hurt deeply by such witch-hunting. One woman was called before the dean because during room inspection a housemother had noticed a letter in which the woman had written the words “I love you” to a dear Christian friend. In two other cases, women were called into deans’ offices and told that their close friendships seemed “unnatural.” In one case, the young woman and her friend had been close friends since early childhood. Stunned that such unwarranted conclusions had been drawn, they demanded (and received) a retraction before the student council. In another case, the suspicion evidently grew because one young woman was spending time in prayer and counsel with another girl whose mother had died recently.
Christian students at state universities aren’t immune to the effects of such fears and suspicions, either. A Christian physician at one major university says that often Christian young men come to the student health center to seek reassurance that they are not homosexual. Hearing their colleagues boast of sexual exploits with girls, these students have become worried because they haven’t wanted to take part in this promiscuous behavior. “Do you think this means I have homosexual orientation?” they ask. Sometimes such men may conclude that the only way to prove to themselves and others that they are not homosexual is to engage in sexual conquests, treating women as sex objects and using them as “things” to be conquered instead of relating to them as persons. Somehow they sense that fellow Christians are less uptight about this kind of behavior than about any hint (no matter how erroneous) of anything resembling homosexuality.
Strenuous concern to avoid any suspicion of homosexuality may even affect the ways we read the Bible. Perhaps this is why David’s goodbye to his friend Jonathan (“They kissed one another and wept one with the other,” KJV) has been paraphrased in the Living Bible to read: “They sadly shook hands, tears running down their cheeks …” (1 Sam. 20:41).
Compounding the problem in recent years have been attempts by persons associated with gay liberation to work out a theology of homosexuality, seeking a biblical justification for homosexual practices. One tactic has been to suggest that many relationships in the Bible were homosexual—including the friendship of David and Jonathan. Other examples sometimes cited are Ruth and Naomi, Paul and Timothy, and even Jesus and John. To Christians who are already uptight about homosexuality, such suggestions are extremely upsetting.
Dealing With The Confusion
There is really no need to be upset—if we can learn to distinguish between friendship and homosexuality. By calling our attention to these biblical examples, gay liberationists may actually be performing a commendable service by reminding us that the Scriptures contain many illustrations of deep feelings and warm relationships. Persons of the same sex can, did, and do love each other.
But where gay theology errs is in suggesting that such relationships must necessarily be sexual. Where there is deep friendship-love between persons of the same sex, but no sexual behavior or sexual attraction between them, the relationship is not homosexual. That’s why it is crucial to have in mind an accurate definition of homosexuality. When the Scriptures condemn homosexual practices, the focus is on specific acts—not on a special nature, condition, orientation, or personality. (Applying reasoning similar to Jesus’ warning about adultery in the heart and thought-life, we might also rule out homosexual fantasies as well as overt acts.)
Dr. Paul Gebhard, director of Indiana University’s Institute for Sex Research, suggests the most workable and practical definition of homosexual behavior to be “physical contact between two individuals of the same gender which both recognize as being sexual in nature and which ordinarily results in sexual arousal. Psychological homosexual response may be defined as the desire for such physical contact and/or conscious sexual arousal from thinking of or seeing persons of the same gender.” In a similar vein, psychoanalyst Clara M. Thompson has written that “it seems unfortunate that, in developing his theory of bisexuality, Freud chose to use the word homosexual to characterize relationships with one’s own sex whenever there was any degree of friendship or intimacy.” She suggests that only situations with overt genital activity should be labeled homosexual.
In an effort to make the distinction even clearer from a biblical perspective, I have tried in my book Sex Is a Parent Affair to differentiate between a one-soul relationship and a one-flesh relationship. The Bible speaks of the souls of David and Jonathan as being knit together in love and loyalty (1 Sam. 18:1–4; 20:17). In such a one-soul friendship, there is a union of minds, hearts, and spirits, but not a union of bodies. Such a relationship was described in ancient Rome by Cicero in his essay on “The Value and Nature of Friendship.” Cicero considered friendship the greatest gift ever given to humankind, with the possible exception of wisdom. Reasoning in the manner of the second great commandment’s admonition to love one’s neighbor as oneself, Cicero wrote that each person is dear to himself and that “if the same thing is not transferred into friendship, a true friend will never be found. For a friend is, so to speak, a second self. A person loves himself and looks for the other whose soul thus mixes with his own to make one out of two. What is in fact sweeter than to have him with whom you dare to speak as with yourself?” Such is a one-soul relationship.
A one-flesh relationship, on the other hand, is what takes place in marriage (Gen. 2:24; Matt. 19:5; Eph. 5:31). Ideally, it includes all that is involved in a one-soul relationship (husbands and wives should be best friends as well as lovers); but in addition, there is added the physical or sexual element. Marriage means a union of bodies as well as of souls.
An additional factor about the relationship of David and Jonathan might be mentioned at this point. Some persons have jumped to the conclusion that a homosexual element existed in their friendship because of David’s lament upon hearing of Jonathan’s death in battle. “I am distressed for you, my brother, Jonathan,” cried the heartbroken David. “Very pleasant have you been to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women” (2 Sam. 1:26).
However, there is no reason to assume sexual love was meant here. Evidently, in all his marriages, David never knew the joy of true partnership, deep communication, soul-sharing, and warm companionship that is possible between a husband and wife; but these were treasured characteristics of his relationship with Jonathan. This has been a problem throughout history because societies have so often insisted on a kind of sexual apartheid, stressing artificial differences between the sexes and insisting on narrow and rigid gender roles, thereby keeping men and women apart rather than helping them see how much they have in common as human beings alike made in the image of God. Male-female friendship, whether in or out of marriage, has often been difficult to build. But that is another subject.
Fear Of Feelings
There are various ways that the fear of homosexuality (or of giving the impression of homosexuality) manifests itself in the evangelical community. First, there is the general area of feelings. Some persons hold back their emotions because they are frightened of them. To feel warmly toward someone else, to care deeply about that person so that his or her welfare matters as much to one as one’s own, to enjoy being with that person, to share one’s innermost thoughts and to receive such self-disclosure from the other person, can seem overwhelming.
Reasons for fear of such deep relationships vary. For example, some fear being hurt by a severing of the relationship, whether by a falling-out or by geographical separation (a very real possibility in our mobile society). Others hesitate to build intimate friendships because the cost of involvement seems too great. They are unwilling to spend the time and emotional energy required to build a friendship.
However, some people fear deep relationships with members of their own sex simply because they associate such friendships with homosexuality. What happens then is that Christians can actually become afraid to fulfill all the New Testament commandments to love one another, to have our hearts knit together in love, to be kindly (or tenderly) affectioned toward one another. This expression from Romans 12:10 expresses, in the Greek, the mutual and tender love that should mark husbands and wives and parents and children. Paul used this most intimate, affectionate term to describe the way Christians are to relate to one another. Christians are to look upon one another as brothers and sisters in Christ, members of God’s family. And the world is to recognize us by how much we love one another—not by how well we succeed in holding back love because we’re afraid of it!
Fear Of Words
If many Christians are afraid of feelings, many more seem afraid of the verbal expression of these feelings. We might hang on our walls plaques that say, “If you love somebody, tell him!” or “I like not only to be loved, but to be told that I am loved; the realm of silence is large enough beyond the grave.” But how ready are we to do it? Why are we so afraid that to say “I love you” is the same as saying “I want you sexually”? It need not mean any such thing.
One of the most meaningful communion experiences I can remember occurred one evening in the small group with whom my husband and I were meeting in a home. As we sat in a circle and passed the elements of the Lord’s Supper, each of us would address the person next to us by name and say, “This is the Lord’s body, broken for you,” or something similar. That evening the young woman beside me departed from the usual practice and said simply, “The Lord loves you, Letha; and I love you, too.” Somehow the love of Christ and the concept of Christian sisterhood and brotherhood took on new meaning at that moment. Truly we were “one in the Spirit and one in the Lord.”
Another friend of ours told recently of a meaningful visit with his closest friend who had come to our city on a one-day business trip. The men, both happily married and devoted fathers, had missed each other immensely since the one had moved away. Phone calls and letters weren’t adequate substitutes for the camaraderie they had formerly enjoyed. That day as they ate lunch in a restaurant before going their separate ways once more, they commented on how much they had enjoyed their brief time together that morning. Suddenly, the one man said, “You know something? I love you.” Our friend said tears came to his eyes when he heard those words. The words were true and fitting, not at all wrong or out of place. These men love each other as brothers.
Fear Of Touch
If we have hangups about our feelings toward friends, and even more difficulties with the verbal expressions of such feelings, the greatest inhibitions of all are in the realm of physical demonstrations of affection—the warm hug, the squeeze of a hand, the pat on the head, the comforting cry on a shoulder. Perhaps one reason for the popularity of encounter groups and sensitivity training in recent years has been the longing people have to be free from the taboos against physical contact. There seem to be longings in human beings to experience the warm closeness and touch of another human being. Persons in families usually (though not always) have these “hug needs” fulfilled, but people alone complain of missing such expressions. Increasingly, Christian groups seem to be growing aware of this and doing something about it. Holding hands during prayer or embracing before, or after certain kinds of religious services is no longer considered unusual—any more than the holy kiss mentioned in First Corinthians 16:20 was unusual among the early Christians.
The Bible talks a great deal about touch. In that culture, there wasn’t the fear and holding back that characterizes ours. Jesus often touched those to whom he brought healing. He didn’t hesitate to let the apostle John rest his head on His bosom nor shake him away out of fear of what people might think. He ignored the taunts of the self-righteous Simon, who couldn’t bear the thought that any real prophet of God would permit a street-walker to cover his feet with her slobbering kisses and salty tears and then have the audacity to use her hair to wipe them dry. Paul, too, followed Christ’s example in a warm openness toward human touch. He spoke of being “affectionately desirous” of the Thessalonian Christians and of relating to them as a gentle mother and loving father. And when he left Ephesus, the elders unashamedly “wept and embraced Paul and kissed him” (Acts 20:37).
Northern European and Northern American societies are the most reserved about touch, it seems. Most of us are acquainted with photographs of men in Arab societies walking hand in hand as a sign of friendship, or Russian diplomats greeting each other with a warm hug and a kiss on each cheek. Latin culture also encourages demonstrations of affection. But in our country, such demonstrations among men are rare, except in connection with sports events. Signs of affection between women seem more readily accepted. Some of the men’s liberation groups are suggesting that men ought to be able to relate to one another openly just as women do. Among some Christians, this is already happening.
Sometimes, people are so touch-hungry that they become frightened when they at last experience some kind of physical contact. One student told me of an experience during his undergraduate days when he was extremely lonely. He had gone to a barber shop, and as the barber prepared to cut his hair, the student was startled by the warm feeling that came over him when the barber’s hand touched his neck. “Could I possibly have homosexual inclinations?” he wondered, scared and surprised. Then it occurred to him that he had not experienced human touch for weeks and had nearly forgotten what it felt like.
Actually, if we are at home with our sexuality, aware of God’s standards, and determined to follow them, we needn’t become panicky if feelings that might in some sense be called sexual arise unbidden. Mothers who are nursing infants at their breasts have known such experiences. So have fathers as they hug their college-bound daughters goodbye. This doesn’t mean such people are evil; it simply means they are human with normal human feelings. The problem (and the sin) comes only if we act out feelings that could lead to wrong behavior. But if we recognize such sudden, momentary feelings for what they are and determine not to act upon them, what is there to worry about? There is no reason to be frightened, or to despise and condemn ourselves.
The Longing For Friendship
There are many evidences today of an intense hunger for deep, warm interpersonal relations. In other words, there is a longing for friendship. Amid the change, insecurity, mobility, and fast pace of modern society, people need to learn anew what it means to know one another, care about one another, love one another. A renewed emphasis on cultivating friendship not only requires ridding ourselves of fears that hinder it; it also requires a vision of what friendship can be.
The ancient world had its legend of Damon and Pythias. When Pythias was condemned to death for rebelling against the king, Damon offered his own life as a pledge so that Pythias could return to his hometown to put his affairs in order and say goodbye to his relatives. As the execution date grew near and there was no sign of Pythias, the tyrant taunted the loyal friend, telling Damon he was an utter fool to think friendship could ever be so great that a person would forgo an opportunity to save his own neck by betraying the friendship. The ruler made it clear that if Damon had any understanding at all of the ways of human nature, he’d know that Pythias would surely take advantage of the opportunity to escape. Damon, however, clung to his belief that his friend would return. On the day of the execution, as Damon was being led out to die, Pythias ran up, trembling and breathless, afraid that an unexpected delay had caused him to arrive too late. With deep affection, the friends greeted each other and prepared to say their final farewell. The king, however, was so deeply moved that he pardoned Pythias. With a shaky voice he said, “I would gladly give up my kingdom to have such a friendship as this.”
In more recent times, we have the example of the close relationship between Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Eberhard Bethge. Mary Bosanquet in her excellent biography The Life and Death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer refers to the early years when Bonhoeffer “in his deepest experiences remained alone” and then goes on to tell how this changed years later when “he was to receive the gift of a friendship through which the deepest springs of his creative energy were to be set free.” Ms. Bosanquet mentions the comment of a colleague of these men who spoke of their relationship as one of the great friendships of history.
These two outstanding men complemented each other, “Bethge’s spirit … quickened by Bonhoeffer’s fire,” and Bonhoeffer’s dynamic nature finding rest and stability in Bethge’s quiet steadfastness. In those tension-filled days of Hitler’s rise to power and with the churches of Germany beset with struggles, these friends drew both spiritual strength and intellectual stimulation from each other. Mary Bosanquet writes:
As the years went on, and the strains of living increased to a point which might have weakened and disintegrated the humanity of lesser men, these two grew in stature together, while their friendship was strengthened and intensified by the stresses of the years through which it passed. Continually enriched by the sharing of multifarious joys, tempered by the challenge of disappointments, difficulties and finally of mortal danger, it was fulfilled at last in separation, and out of it the great last letters were born [The Life and Death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Harper & Row, 1968, pp. 197, 198],
Surely such a friendship was in the mind of the writer of Proverbs 27:17—“Iron sharpeneth iron; so a man sharpeneth the countenance of his friend.” All of us need such friends; they can enrich our lives beyond measure. It is well worth our while to heed the advice of Ecclesiastes 6:14–17, which in the New English version reads:
A faithful friend is a secure shelter;
whoever finds one has found a treasure.
A faithful friend is beyond price;
his worth is more than money can buy.
A faithful friend is an elixir of life,
found only by those who fear the Lord.
The man who fears the Lord keeps his friendships in
repair, for he treats his neighbour as himself.
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