Part 1: Sacred Unions by Dan Brennan

Part 1: Sacred Unions by Dan Brennan March 14, 2011

My friend Dan Brennan recently wrote a book called Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions: Engaging the Friendship Between Men and Women. I thought this book worthwhile for a few reasons, and foremost of those is that many of the principles and thoughts are generalizable to what it means to be in faithful relationship (non-sexual friendship) with ‘the other’. In Dan’s case he explores that between men and women, and in this blog’s context it’s between same gender persons – whether LGBT or hetero. I asked Dan to write a few posts about some of his thoughts, and thus, he will have a 5 part series on sacred unions of friendship.

Part 1:

“It’s about friendship.

One of my first reactions to reading Andrew Marin’s Love is an Orientation was that he is calling Christians into friendship with those in the GLBT community. Although friendship has been overlooked in much contemporary evangelical spirituality, Andrew’s bold step to follow Christ offers a way of love through friendship that embodies a move past the fears that divide. 

In the history of Christian spirituality, friendship is a robust love beginning with Jesus’ declaration, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). This simple statement from Jesus is well known; yet it challenges our cultural notions of love and friendship. Jesus doesn’t say romantic love is the greatest love. Yet, romantic love is the “greater love” for many in our society. In our current world, romantic love, not friendship, and not even marital love, is most celebrated and valued.  

I began to explore friendship as a robust love a few years back when a couple of friendships with women started to move out of the detached, way of relating as friends and into more of a complex and committed love. There was one huge issue. I was a married man. There was a second issue. I resisted black-and-white, cut-and-dried evangelical answers that such friendships are inherently dangerous for both me and my friends. My refusal to settle for stereotypical responses led me deep into the mysteries of love, sexuality, spirituality, and friendship.

The meaning of friendship, of course, is so elastic. It can mean the barest of social contacts or it can mean the ultimate in human connection and relationship. Yes, the ultimate. This is what surprised me as I began to explore the meaning of friendship prior to Freud. In twenty five years in the evangelical community, I always heard about marriage and family life (i.e. “focus on the family”).  Friendship, whenever it was alluded to, was a relationship peripheral to God, spouse, family, and church. In the evangelical community, I absorbed the implicit message that romantic love (that is, marriage) was the greatest of all human loves.

My thinking on that began to change as I came across stories of friendship stories from the past. I was shocked to discover a deep spirituality of friendship among Christians from past centuries. Passion. Yearning. Happiness. Union. Commitment. Vows. Affection. Oneness. Safety. Trust. Warmth. There was evidence in these friendships for all of them! This was stunning to me. These stories of robust, passionate love in friendship, not exclusively about sex, challenged my previously held presuppositions of sexuality, spirituality, and friendship. I started to wonder why hadn’t I heard about any of this during my twenty five years in the evangelical community?  I heard that family values, faithful marital love, hearing the Bible preached, Bible study, and private prayer were essential to one’s spiritual journey. But these friends of earlier centuries communicated the most heartfelt language of bonding, loyalty, and passion one can have in human connectedness, relationship, and spirituality.”

Much love.

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  • I appreciate those thoughts, Dan. This statement in particular hit me in the gut because I just spent the last four days with a family member whose young marriage is in crisis because both she and her husband (especially him) got this confused:

    “I resisted black-and-white, cut-and-dried evangelical answers that such friendships are inherently dangerous for both me and my friends.”

    I also look to my own husband as an example of a man who does understand the dangers of crossing that line of demarcation in friendships. When he travels for business, he will not ride in an elevator or take a taxi ride alone with a woman. He won’t allow a woman associate to drop by his room to make a delivery, nor will he go near a woman’s room. He won’t have dinner alone with a female associate, even when she is someone I know and consider a mutual friend. He is well aware that, in his position, many eyes are upon him. He feels he must set an example for junior employees — for all employees in his company. He also knows he is as human as the next man, and temptation is always there.

    I am sure neither of us could begin to count the marriages that have been wrecked on the rocks of “innocent” friendships. This IS a black-and-white issue for a married person.

  • Jennifer


    You remind me of my favorite poem by Madeleine L’Engle

    “Lovers Apart”

    In what, love, does fidelity consist?
    I will be true to you, of course.
    My body’s needs I can resist,
    Come back to you without remorse;
    And you, behind the footlight’s lure,
    Kissing an actress on the stage,
    Will leave her presence there, I’m sure,
    As I my people on the page
    And yet-I love you, darling, yet I sat with someone at a table
    And gloried in our minds that met
    As sometimes strangers’ minds are able
    To leap the bounds of times and spaces
    And find, in sharing wine and bread
    And light in one another’s faces
    And in the words that each has said,
    An intercourse so intimate
    It shook me deeply, to the core,
    I said good-night, for it was late; We parted at my hotel door
    And I went in, turned down the bed
    And took my bath and thought of you
    Leaving the theater with light tread
    And going off, as you should do
    To rest, relax, and eat and talk
    And I lie there and wonder who
    Will wander with you as you walk
    And what you both will say and do . . .
    We may not love in emptiness; We married in a peopled place
    The vows we made enrich and bless
    The smile on every stranger’s face.
    And all the years that we have spent
    Give me the joy that makes me able
    To love and laugh with sacrament
    Across a strange and distant table.
    No matter where I am, you are,
    We two are one and bread is broken
    And laughter shared both near and far
    Deepens the promises once spoken
    And strengthens our fidelity
    Although I cannot tell you how,
    But I rejoice in mystery
    And rest upon our marriage vow.

  • Debbie, I’m deeply sorry for your family member’s crisis. I hope they will find healing and restoration within their marriage. I also greatly respect your husband’s boundaries and his desire to honor you and be faithful to your marriage. I would definitely agree with you and your husband that self-awareness is an important aspect in our discipleship. We all have vulnerabilities. I appreciate his desire to model integrity.

    It is important too, that we understand ourselves as humans as you observed. I would take that to mean to just just be aware of our vulnerabilities, but also the fullness of what Christ calls us to be as humans. I don’t see Jesus leading us into fear regarding men and women in the Gospels. It is rather quite astonishing, given the cultural setting of fear between sexes and the wisdom of the Proverbs concerning the adulteress, that Jesus himself gets very close to women. He even meets Mary Magdalene with no one else around at the most pivotal point of the Gospels (John 20:-1-10) in a garden. This is quite amazing given the fact that he knows Mary quite well. She was traveling with him for at least a couple of years at this point. It is quite illuminating how many stories between Jesus and women in the Gospels do not teach us that men and women should fear the other when they are in close proximity.

  • “It is quite illuminating how many stories between Jesus and women in the Gospels do not teach us that men and women should fear the other when they are in close proximity.”

    Not fear, but respect is what I think is invoked by holding proper social boundaries. As to the Gospel account of Jesus meeting Mary Magdalene alone, you are referring to the resurrected Christ. Now He is fully God again. No comparison with the human nature, part of him that has passed away. God meets us all alone and fully “naked” spiritually, emotionally and physically.

  • Jennifer


    Aren’t there other times when he’s alone with women before he is resurrected – the woman at the well? And he is in some very intimate situations with others, even if they are not alone – the woman who washes his feet.

    I think its possible to respect proper boundaries, and still be in the same room together.

    • The context of those two passages are unique in history: Christ demonstrating before his disciples that cultural barriers are crossable and giving that beautiful illustration of himself as living water; allowing Mary of Bethany to demonstrate worshipful love for her savior, our savior. He is Lord in those moments. The only one who can claim that.

      • Jennifer

        Is he not a man in those moments too? A man who was able to control himself?

        I think we disrespect both men and women when we assume that sex is so overwhelming that it can never be resisted.

        • If we wish to also view Jesus as a man in those moments, we can do that. He is, in that light, setting an example for others to follow. A good thing, as there are many other examples of falling to sexual temptation in the Bible.

          Consider the story of David and Bathsheba for a moment. David wasn’t unable to resist that temptation. He chose to sin. And yet he was restored in his relationship with God after he repented. So, his example is useful, too.

  • Hi Debbie,

    Good, we connect on the goal to respect rather than fear. I think Jesus compels us to respect “the other” (in marriage and in friendship). Some, including me, call this deeper respect, reverence.

    I think this is what the conversation is about on non-sexual friendships (heterosexual or gay). Jesus himself passionately, relentlessly loved others in the Gospels (both men and women) and did not lead us into a cut-and-dried fear-distance dynamic in the presence of the other.

  • Hi Andrew–I recently discovered your blog thanks to Dan. I so appreciate what you have to say on the topic of love and sexual orientation, etc. I’m glad you are having Dan guest post on sacred friendships. Thank you!

    Debbie’s expression of fear–fear of connecting with those of the opposite gender–is probably the MOST common objection to male-female friendships out there. It’s born out of the lie that affairs happen “by accident” and that we humans are unable to make healthy choices in our relationships. I have found that the deeper my friendships are with the men in my life, the more strongly I do NOT want to hurt them or ruin our relationship by making bad choices or behaving inappropriately.

    I blogged about this just this evening in more detail, referencing this post and Debbie’s comments:

    But I also wanted to say here that if we follow Debbie’s logic–and not just hers, but this very prevalent fear-based reasoning–then we also MUST distance ourselves from all deep friendships with anyone that is not our spouse–even people of the same gender. If temptation is always there, it would be hetero-normatively foolish to assume that no one would ever experience attraction to a same-gender friend.

    Take that a step further–and we should say that no gay or lesbian people should be friends with same-gender people. And anyone who is bi-sexual…well, they’re out of luck entirely, I suppose. No friends at all for them.

    Fear-based logic results in a lack of connection. It results in division and isolation. To me, that is a far more dangerous situation–if our goal is to avoid giving into temptation–than having life-giving, meaningful friendships where there is something greater at stake than our libidos.

  • Claire

    I have noticed that the comments that say that the fear/distance dynamic creates more problems than it prevents have mostly come from women (Jennifer, Meredith Efken). It may be the case that a typical woman’s romance and sexuality differ from a typical man’s, and I was wondering what the men’s take on the issue is.

    • Jason

      This is my first time commenting, so thank you for reading. I can give you my point of view as a man to this issue. Many men have this fear of cross-gendered relationships. There are many reasons for this fear but for many men I know it was taught to them (through various avenues). This keeps men from even attempting a cross-gender friendship. Fear is not static. I have seen this cross-gender fear grow so that is includes other friendships. It becomes debilitating so a man has no deep friendships and feels completely isolated.

      So I agree with Meredith and Jennifer that this fear causes many more problems than it helps. Both men and women are social, community beings and need deep meaningful fearless friendships.


  • Hi Claire–I would be very hesitant to make any sweeping generalizations about male-female differences based on two comments on a blog post. 🙂 From my experience, it seems the majority of both women AND men tend to side with fear-based reasoning when it comes to cross-gender friendships. Jennifer and I and Dan are in the minority, at this point, from what I can tell. But that is due to our beliefs, our experiences, and our choices–not any differences in our romantic views or sexuality!

    However, considering that both Jennifer and I speak from the personal experience of having deep cross-gender friendships, it only stands to reason that there are also men out there who share our view of it. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have those friendships. I can list at least 6 men I know of personally who would also say that the fear/distance dynamic is unhelpful and unhealthy. I don’t know if any of them will post on this blog, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t around.

  • Maybe because i did not spend much time in mixed gender environments before I was an adult, (we still have some single-sex public schools here in Australia), maybe because the evangelicalism I grew up with was a little less fear-based than its American counterpart, I somehow missed out on the message that I was supposed to be scared friendships with men or that they were a threat to my marriage. by the time I started hearing that message, i had enough life-experience to be, honestly, puzzled by it. I never had real male friends before I was married,but once I was (at age 22), as far as I was concerned that was that part of my life settled and everyone else in the world was just a brother or a sister. Sex doesn’t come into the equation if you refuse to see the opposite gender as sex objects of any kind, and have already resolved that, whateveryou’re feeling/needing, a sexualised relationship with someone else will only make the situation worse. I have never believed that we are helpless creatures unable to control our sexual passions that just happened to us — my husband and I spent hours alone together before we were married, in situations where we could have eagerly indulged ourselves, but we were both still virgins on our wedding night by choice — we chose a boundary and stuck to it..

    Just my experience …

  • Hi Andrew

    First time commenter, but I’ve been reading here in the past from time to time, and I’m reading your book for the second time now. I have always avoided discussions about this topic with both Christians and non-Christians (I live in Belgium, very secular post-catholic place) because I’m totally unqualified to say anything, as being both ‘straighty straighterson’ totally out of touch with gays and their world, but very uncomfortable how easily those issues lead to judgment while we ignore serious problems of injustice, destruction of creation, etc… so your book, even if the situation over here is different from the USA, has been very helpful to me…

    I’m also a man (straight and married now) and I’ve always been the kind of guy who hung out with girls more than with guys, and who tends to like one on one situations with friends more than groups and lots of people. So I always had female friends, and I’ve been alone with some girls a lot, even though I’ve been single and had never even kissed a girl until I was 22 and got together with the girl that’s my wife now.

    I’ve never understood those scare tactics (and they feel quite alien to me) and everytime this subject comes up I’m surprised that this even is an issue for Christians. I have known some men who only saw women as sex objects, who seriously were not able to see women as persons, and some working class envirments seem to cultivate such a way of thinking. But how itis compatible with following Christ, and loving our neigbor and calling each other brother and sister is beyond my comprehension….

    Loving somebody as a person is the best antidote to reducing her to a tempting sex object…

    and the existence of gay people ridiculises such rules totally, should they only have relationships with (lesbian) women, lest they not be tempted to lust after a man (or tempt a woman)? And bisexual people should be without friends. What utter nonsense…

    Jesus sitting with the woman at the well, or having Mary and Martha sitting at his feet, or letting the sinful woman anoint his feet are the examples of christlike subversion of the distance between the sexes. Those stories were much more revolutionary as we think… If Jesus didn’t care about his reputation while sitting there with the woman at the well, we shouldn’t either let ourselves be slaved by this kind of scare tactics…

    We should as man look at woman as if whe was our sister, mother or daughter with the love of Christ.



    ps to Dan: great opening post, I’m looking forward to the rest of these series.

    • “We should as man look at woman as if she was our sister, mother or daughter with the love of Christ.”

      I quite agree. That is what Christ intends.

    • Brambonius – Thanks for your comment and love! And because you’re engaging you are always qualified to speak. Too often, the old paradigm was: “If you’re not a part of either community who passionately dislikes the other community, you don’t belong.” I don’t believe that to be true. We all belong in this. And I’m humbled that this bridge building message is flowing in Belgium as well. I would also love to hear the differences in Belgium than in the United States! If you want, you can email me I’m fascinated by the differences in cultures and how certain topics are held and treated. I’ll let Dan get to the rest of your comment/question. But thanks again for writing! Much love!

      • please call me Bram, the latinised version is a nick I once started using at the internet and now some people think it’s my real name…

        The difference between Belgium and the US is big, but since I’ve never been to the US nor know much about the gay community here I can only paint broad strokes.

        The big difference is that Belgium has been dechristianising from since the world wars, and is mainly secular. The catholic church has lost a lot of influence, even a lot of catholics don’t care about the popes doctrines, and a lot of people are not aware that other christians do exist… Some people think religion is something of the dumb past, others are interested in spirituality but know nothing about christianity.

        So I guess the distance between christianity and the gay communion is a lot bigger. Gays are (at least for people my age and younger) seen as a logical part of society, that cannot at all be questioned. Seeing homosexuality as a sin would be as strange as keeping a Martian as a pet in lots of circles… (though some other circles can be pretty homophobic) But I’m no expert… But it’s something to think about…


    • Bram, Thanks for your comments. I have greatly benefited in my research from those in the LGBT community. I believe we all have been impacted by the idealized romantic myth but inasmuch as I have been able to ascertain (I don’t live within an LGBT community or culture) their friendships are much more passionate than heterosexual friendships.

      I like your observation about “christlike subversion of the distance between the sexes.” I know I am subject to criticism of bias, but I do see Jesus in deep relational, non-romantic nearness with women.

  • It is worth noting that some in this discussion are pointing to an ideal that, in reality, does not play out as you think it should. Ought we be able to have non-sexual intercourse with opposite-sex friends while remaining above the danger of falling in love with them? A lovely thought. But look around you. Office romances between married people have become legendarily common. And they have broken up many a marriage.

    Read Romans 7. Paul goes on and on about our dual human nature and how difficult it is to avoid doing what we know we should not. The spirit is willing but flesh is flesh. And the physical realm is the area where every human is most vulnerable to temptation. I think some people need to lose their fear of the word fear. There are boundaries meant to be respected in this life. Yes, some people can maintain more intimate friendships with those Dan is referring to as “the other” without having romantic sparks fly. Or they can see the danger approaching before it is too late. But why walk on that precipice and invite temptation?

    I am not opposed to opposite-sex or “other”-directed friendships. I am not afraid of having male friends. I have them. My husband has female friends. But nearly all of these are mutual friendships — his friends are mine and vice versa. That’s a healthy way of maintaining such friends. Are there men I can connect with intellectually in ways I may not be able to with my husband? Sure. But I know where the boundaries are. There have been times when I have felt myself slipping and I have had to pull back. I have no illusions about being superhuman in that regard.

    • Jennifer

      Debbie – I wonder if you think this is only a lovely thought because, like most people, you havent seen many examples of men and women being close, without it turning to sex. But those examples are out there – thats part of what Dan’s book is about (and today’s post, I think). You can look in history and see holy examples of men and women who are close, but not in bed. There are several personal examples in this discussion too.

      As for “couple friends” I’m all for it…I really enjoy when there is a couple my husband and I both really connect with. However, it is rare. And sometimes circumstances mean it just cant happen. When that is the case, I love knowing that I have my husband’s trust, and he doesnt need to be there as a supervisor or babysitter while I spend time with a friend.

      • If that works for you and your husband, go for it, Jennifer. Of course there are examples of people who can maintain a certain opposite-sex closeness without falling to temptation. We are spiritual creatures who are capable of that when we develop that discipline. That we are also base creatures is why we need the Holy Spirit to strengthen us and instruct us lest we fall.

        I agree it is a good thing to encourage proper friendship models and to teach others how to have those friendships. Just be sure to give them the whole story.

  • Teresa

    I think Dan’s mention of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Neuman and Ambrose St. John is worth noting. Today, our culture is so sexualized, it’s permeated our thought processes. My opinion only, but this is really part-and-parcel of the Puritan, Calvinist thinking … a backlash so-to-speak.

    Same-gender friendships for gay people doesn’t have to be based on sex; and, often isn’t. Deep friendships, supporting one another through life, is not improper. As witness, Newman and Ambrose St. John, who were together for over 30-years … and when Newman died, requested to be buried by Ambrose St. John.

    Who are we to taint, and see scandal, where none exist?

    I love this series, you’re sharing with us all, Dan and Andrew.

    • Teresa, Yes, I am very grateful to Andrew for hosting this and opening a conversation about nonsexual friendships. I love the passion and intimacy between Newmann and Ambrose St. John. As you point out, it lasted much longer than many contemporary marriages. 30 years!

  • Dan Brennan

    Jason, thank you for commenting. I think this is why I was so drawn to Andrew’s book. Andrew’s initial experience after learning about his friends was a standard reaction of fear. I think he and I share some common experiences in that we both have had to face questions about what it means to love the other in the face of fear-based rules.