A Sacrifice for a Friend

[March 13, 2015]

I recently received an email from a young man, an Orthodox catechumen, who is concerned about his best friend. This friend recently came out as gay and, after being scolded by family and church friends, has joined an “affirming” church that will endorse his choices.

The young man writing to me said he was encouraged by something in one of my podcasts. I had said that there is room in our faith for people of the same sex to form loving relationships. This kind of love is called “friendship.” It has always been held in honor, and appears in the Bible and throughout Church history. It can be found between two siblings, or between people who met as children, or as adults. Same-sex, non-sexual love is unlike romantic love in that it doesn’t include a sexual component, but it can be every bit as strong. It is to our loss that the concept of nonsexual friendship love has largely vanished. Those bonds between men and men, and between women and women, run strong and deep, and are foundational to society.

We can see life-long, same-sex friendships among many pairs of the saints, for example St. Sophronius (AD 560-638) and St. John Moschus (AD 550-619), whose feast was March 11. While still in their twenties these young men set out on pilgrimage through Egypt, Sinai, and Palestine. They wanted to see and hear the wise elders of the desert, and the book they wrote, The Spiritual Meadow, is a treasure of the early church. The two men were companions until death, and St. Sophronius fulfilled St. John’s final wish to be buried in Jerusalem.

The young man who wrote me said that this possibility of same-sex, nonsexual love gave him hope:

“It’s something that I’ve actually been thinking about for a while. If it would save him from himself, if it would help him come back to Christian faith, I would be willing to live a celibate life with him.  (Even though I want very much to be married.) We are best friends and roommates at present. We get along very well. Does the Church say anything about doing this? I can live without sex, and I love him more than my own life.”

It’s hard to think of a sacrifice more beautiful, more touching, than this offer to sacrifice love and marriage in order to stand by a friend. It deserves to be called heroic. My grandmotherly head can also see potential problems, especially if the friend is not, himself, ready to practice celibacy; also, the young writer of the email might yet fall in love one day, and find it harder in practice than in theory to give up having a wife and family. A young Orthodox catechumen obviously needs to bring the whole situation to his priest. Still, his desire to make such a sacrifice for his friend shows what Christian love can do—what Christ within us can do, when he gives us grace to love others the way he does.

(It’s worth noting, too, that the sacrifice this young man offers to make, to live a lifetime without sex and without a romantic partner, is what we traditional Christians are asking every gay person to do. It is no less heroic when they do it.)

About Frederica Matthewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service, Beliefnet.com, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.

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  1. Do you think it's possible that some of those examples you referenced, of life-long same-sex friendships among the Saints, were men who had a same-sex attraction and were fighting against it?

  2. We ask a Deacon or Priest who is widowed to remain celibate and often when a marriage isn't working out an Orthodox couple does not divorce but decides to separate and live apart as celibate single persons. I know people who have lived this way for many years.
    To imagine that only gay people must decide to live this way of life…to love without physical intercourse is not the way it really is. Truth be told, every Church has celibates! I'm one and very happy!

  3. It's when the discussion moves toward something beyond friendship is where I check out. I can accept that I'm in the wrong place if my position on this is unacceptable.

  4. Yes, Carol, I think that's quite possible. I recently read "Washed and Waiting" by Wesley Hill, a celibate young evangelical, and learned that Henry Nouwen had a lifelong struggle with same-sex desires. We all struggle with something.

  5. Jeff, I'm where you are. That's classic Christianity. I'm sorry that our culture has come to assume that strong same-sex love is always sexual. A loss, i think.

  6. Frederica…

    This is kind of a touchy subject for me, I struggled with a very deep and dark depression and when I finally got some real medical help, I discovered that I had an attraction to both men and women. But I've been happily, faithfully married to the same woman for 30 years, and I will never break that vow. But I stopped going to church because of the shame, there is so much vitriol around the subject that it's not even something I can discuss. My wife knows, because we are married and I couldn't keep it from her, and she loves me anyway. But I'm terrified of it ever getting out.

    Thank you for this, maybe there is hope after all…

  7. Pablo, you are in my prayers. How wonderful that you have a wife to share your joys and sorrows, and surround you with love.

  8. Hi Frederica. Great that you are back to this site now that your book is finished.

    My first reaction to this one, though, was to wonder what the gay friend made of it all. I assume he knew about the "sacrifice" and was happy about it? If not, then this whole scenario sounds pretty poisonous, actually. And if the gay friend did know about it, and was going along with it, what does that say about him?

    The more I think about it, the odder it seems. Sorry.

    Because then I thought that it is not as though there was not a reasonable alternative course of action in hand. The friend had been going to go to an "affirming church", which seems to me to be a quite sensible outcome, actually. But of course I would say that, as I go to one of those, unless of course those places cannot be Christian. I am putting this in a somewhat pointed way to make the point that the whole "hero" thing is based on a core premise that he is saving his friend. Even if you do not consider an "affirming church" to be truly Christian, I reckon the option sounds pretty good all round : the friend gets to get used to talking about himself in an environment free of the vitriol and fear that it sounds like Pablo experienced, and presumably working on other aspects of his nature if he is still taking his religion seriously. And who knows, he might later decide to come back to Orthodoxy, but will know better who is at that time, and without having had to make a complete break with Things Church (even if it is not the True Church …), or worse, his faith which alas seems to be what many gay people seem to think they have to do. And it avoids creating a trap for the "hero" who won't be in the position later of feeling that he has both sacrificed his youth and trapped his friend in to sacrificing his, or even worse things like later guilt over having thinking he had behaved like an immature and patronising control freak. I would be fascinated to hear what advice his priest would give him about it!

    I think I come out thinking that I reckon heroism should be saved up for other things. But maybe it is because I have low stocks of it, and am not young and idealistic.

    I hope you don't mind this relatively vigorous reply which is intended in part to help think through an interesting story and scenario and its implications.

    Peace, Chris

  9. Stanley Hawerwas (Anglican theologian) talks about this very thing as well – how the loss of the idea and ideal of friendship negatively affects the healing gifts the Church can offer to homosexuals. And I want to add, to all of us not in sexual or romantic relationships as well! I agree with Photini 100%.

    What an inviting, positive prophetic stance this would be and counter to the negative, and often ugly and simply unloving attitude we often exhibit both officially and unofficially as the Church to those in a situation not of their choosing. We all want to be loved deeply and truly! We were made to be loved deeply and truly.

  10. "…what we traditional Christians are asking every gay person to do." I would have to disagree with this. Although this may be true for many people who are gay, it is not true for every gay person. The love of Christ can transcend and even heal the deepest of wounds and struggles. When I met first met my husband he identified as gay and had no attraction to women. He had had a same-sex attraction since he was a little boy and he truly believed he would have to live a celibate life as a Orthodox Christian and never marry or have a family. This never bothered me and we ended up falling in love in spite of it. There are certainly times now when the enemy uses this part of his past to attack him and cause him to stumble but he no longer identifies gay. Through love "covering a multitude of sins" and years of struggle he has been released from this. We have a beautiful little family and never forget all the things from which Christ has delivered us. We have friends in the Church who are gay and do struggle to live a celibate life. So many Orthodox who are gay never openly talk about it and feel incredibly isolated. I am so glad you wrote this and are talking about it.

  11. Dear Frederica,

    "there is room in our faith for people of the same sex to form loving relationships. This kind of love is called “friendship.” It has always been held in honor, and appears in the Bible and throughout Church history. It can be found between two siblings, or between people who met as children, or as adults. Same-sex, non-sexual love is unlike romantic love in that it doesn’t include a sexual component, but it can be every bit as strong. It is to our loss that the concept of nonsexual friendship love has largely vanished. Those bonds between men and men, and between women and women, run strong and deep, and are foundational to society."

    From my time in high school (I think) as an RC I remember a very useful distinction being made between sexual [pleasure was the specific word used in context] which was the birthright so to say of every lad and lass, and venereal, which was strictly reserved for use within marriage. Certainly they overlap, but a nice clean distinction gives you a very useful footing in both theory and practice. I beg leave to doubt whether any connection between persons worthy of the name of friendship will be found to be entirely disregarding of sex. But venery, or the inclination to it, is a much more circumscribed thing.

    Acknowledging that our embodiment and all that comes of it is thoroughly saturated with the fact of sex also allows us to contemplate deep permanent friendships without feeling forced to wonder <i> if there wasn't some special reason for it</i> which I find offensive from several directions. Special reasons certainly exist sometimes, but if not flaunted then we are simply digging our own pit by speculating.

    I also have a private opinion that (no reference to anything here) it is not useful, in fact harmful, to take up the matter of any sort of qualititative comparison between homosex and any other form of unchastity. People to whom it is not a personal matter have IMO little or no benefit and much possible harm to self or others from pawing over the matter; and nor do people to whom it's intensely personal have anything to gain. There is a very clear and well-defined place at the corner of Chaste Ave and Unchaste Way, and that is where our attention is needed. The rest is, IMO, much too close an analogy to masturbation to avoid the acknowledging the term.

  12. Waldo, someone, perhaps Ambrose Bierce, defined "perversion" as "a sexual practice I myself do not enjoy". I don't offer it as absolute truth, but certainly as an acknowledgement that practically anything involved with copulatory behaviors will seem either incomprehensible or icky to someone without parallel inclinations.

    You say that you're honorably and happily married and have discovered that oh by the way, you're also wired for men. Excellent, you're richer by that knowledge, and it won't be catching you unaware in the future. That's something not for shame but for compliments. And the fact of having that particular bit of wiring is simply that, a fact. You may earn shame by indulging it or crowns by not. And among your many things to be grateful for, you already have the use of this faculty in its proper way and place. So understand that wiring and how it might make you vulnerable; and then put it in your figurative attic and forget about it. It's there, you don't indulge it, all done. Don't flirt with it or stress about it or recoil in horror — be bored with it.

    I have a powerful suspicion that hardly anyone's wiring is as straightforward and simple as many like to believe (mine certainly isn't. And like yours there are parts that I will happily indulge under the right circumstances, and other parts that I will not. No biggie).

    As to the vitriol, it's been demonstrated that people who withhold certain types of knowledge about themselves from their own awareness tend to be somewhat more successful in the world than those who see themselves more clearly. And I clearly remember a high school classmate of mine from many years ago who reacted violently when someone who picked him up hitchhiking made advances. He was asked why his reaction had been so fierce, and he thought for a minute and said "I think it's because I was afraid I would like it." I thought, and still think, that it was a piercingly honest understanding and reply. And you can have charity toward the vitriolic and also decline to take on loads of shame that have to do with their struggle and not yours.

    I strongly suspect that you're very uncomfortable with this knowledge (and indeed there are aspects of myself that I was not best pleased to learn about, and would be very cross with myself if I indulged). Listen, please: if you're truly a grownup you know very well that you're capable of saintly behavior, truly despicable behavior, and everything in between. And out of that hodgepodge of possibilities you're a decent guy and try however modestly to be a better one. Well, you're still that man, but today you know yourself a little better. Carry on smartly, as my wife's mother used to say. Get comfortable with being who you've been along, and then go back to church. The acid-throwers will only know about what's none of their business if you tell them, so don't; but if it does come up somehow, for you it's a no-big-deal matter not worth discussing, bored now sorry.


  13. Thanks Frederica. Wesley Hill's book is very helpful and I understand that he is writing a book on Christian Friendship. Bishop Kalistos also affirmed this way of thinking (nonsexualized intimacy in friendship.) I believe a question that is not asked often enough in the discussion of caring for Christians with ssa who want to pursue discipleship is: "How do we help one another pursue Chastity?" Chastity is the aim for all Christians, no matter what our 'state.'

  14. This is an excellent letter to us all. It is sad in today's world that when either two men, or two women are close friends, others automatically think they must be gay.

  15. I'm perplexed that my website structure apparently does not allow me to respond to specific comments one at a time–I can only create a new general comment. Eye roll.

    But, Irene, WOW, that's wonderful. God is good. Yes, I had totally skipped over that possibility of change and healing, even though I've known of other examples like yours. For something that we are always told is impossible, it sure does seem to happen anyway. With some beautiful results.

    I guess I would still say that the Church *asks* a gay person to be willing to undertake, or attempt, life-long celibacy–there's a daunting moment when a gay person will recognize that that's what's being asked. It's a big thing to ask, and we should acknowledge that it's a calling of very grave difficulty, every bit as difficult as it would be for a straight person.

    But we should add a postscript that sometimes this calling turns out not to be so life-long after all! By God's grace, sometimes a person who knows him or herself to be gay falls in love with someone of the opposite sex. My understanding is that when this happens it's unsually not like the person becomes universally heterosexual. It's that they fall in love with one person, who happens to be of the opposite sex. Those two can create a marriage and family filled with love. It's sometimes difficult, but every marriage is sometimes difficult. Thanks for the reminder that this can happen! God is good, and this is cause for joy.

  16. Drat! Someone just told me comments were disabled for this piece, and I checked it and she was right. I have no idea how that happened. So sorry if you came here and weren't able to post. Hope you will try again.

  17. I find the timeliness of your post quite extraordinary in that a friend referred me to your site today, as a general resource for Orthodoxy, not necessarily on a commentary for same-sex issues.

    My wife and I, at my leading, are actively engaging the Orthodox Church. We've been evangelical Protestant all our lives and have some rather unique challenges in our marriage, one of which is my sexuality. My struggle was known before we got married. For the most part I thought I would live a celibate life, until I found my wife. However, my desire for intimacy with men has been around all my life – sexual or nonsexual. Sadly, since getting married, I have suffered a signficant drought of quality, male, Christian friends (which is actually one of the reasons I am drawn to Orthodoxy because of the depth of community and the lack thereof in the Western Church). That isolation I have experienced over the years has exasperated my burden and makes me extremely vulnerable to my carnal nature.

    I appreciate our Fr's comments of my burden being just that – a burden. I am continually surprised at the "commonality" of sin that I find in Orthodoxy. Whereas in the Western Church, there are many "unsaid values" to certain sins over another – as in one is worse and one is not as bad. Of course, anything other than heterosexuality is considered "worse than" from my experience, which is very unfair and depressing.

    As one who struggles, I firmly agree with your affirmation of healthy, same-sex friendships as a soothing balm to the burn of this burden. Sadly though, as one who struggles, I know how precarious the tightrope of this type of desire is, and it is so difficult in this day-and-age to "be bored with it" – as a previous commentor mentioned. (With all due respect to that person, it truly is not that simple.) For me, it's really not about sex with a man at the end of the day – it's about intimacy. Those two should never be confused for the other – heterosexual or otherwise.

    I hope and pray this need can be fulfilled in a way that honors God, myself, and my wife. After 30+ years of fighting though, hope can seem as real as the Emerald City at this point (no stereotypical pun intended). Though, I will say that your comment have provided me comfort and your prayers for wisdom and illumination on the subject would be sincerely appreciated.

  18. Frederica, thank you for this piece. Beautiful.

    I believe our world at large is thirsty for visible manifestations of sacrificial love as offered by the young man who emailed you. "Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends" (Jn 15:13). It is noteworthy, I think, that Jesus did not refer to spousal love here, particularly since he is the Bridegroom who lays down his life for his Bride. I believe it was C.S. Lewis who suggested that it is the very fact that friendship is not sealed with a lifelong vow that makes it a medium where love can be more profoundly manifested. I'm still wrestling with my own thoughts about this, but when I read this young man's willingness to go to such lengths for friendship, I'm with you that it warrants the word 'heroic'. (As an aside, I wonder sometimes if the idealism of youth is needed in the body of Christ to temper the practical wisdom of age just as much as wisdom that comes with age is needed to temper the idealistic zeal of youth.)

    I direct a para-church ministry called Regeneration that, for 36 years, has been about walking alongside men and women seeking to align their sexuality with their Christian faith (rather than the other way around), including men and women who struggle with homosexuality. For most, developing deep, abiding friendships with others of the same gender is such a vital part of living chastely, coming to know themselves as men or women, and over time experiencing a decrease in the power of same-sex sexual temptations. Loneliness, on the other hand, is one of the most often cited reasons I hear when someone sheds the traditional teachings of the church and dives into gay affirming communities.

    Again, thank you for your article.

  19. Anthony, may God strengthen and protect you. May he give hope and joy to your wife.

    I wanted to give you this email address:

    email hidden; JavaScript is required

    Andrew Williams was in seminary when my son was (Holy Cross Orthodox Seminary in Brookline, MA) and so I learned about his project. He developed a program to be used in parishes called "Freedom to Live," designed to help people with sexual temptations. Here's a link to a podcast interview with him and the prof who directed his thesis. It is my hope that you will find this project useful and healing. Feel free to contact Andrew. He knows first hand what these struggles are like. God bless you!


  20. Josh, as someone who lives in Baltimore, I've known about and admired Regeneration for many years. I've saved many of the essays / newsletters by Alan Medinger because they showed such a deep grasp of spiritual struggle–in many ways, they echoed the ancient voices of Orthodox spiritual direction. You have inherited a very wise mantle. God bless and inspire you!

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