“After David had finished talking with Saul, Jonathan became one in spirit with David, and he loved him as himself. From that day Saul kept David with him and did not let him return home to his family. And Jonathan made a covenant with David because he loved him as himself. Jonathan took off the robe he was wearing and gave it to David, along with his tunic, and even his sword, his bow and his belt.”
– 1 Samuel 18:1-4
“I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother; you were very dear to me. Your love for me was wonderful, more wonderful than that of women.”
– 2 Samuel 1:26
“My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.”
– John 15:12-15
“Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, “Woman, here is your son,” and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.”
– John 19:25-27
Friendship is a type of human relationship that has great significance from both secular and spiritual perspectives. Generally, friendship is a relationship of mutual affection between two or more people, and it is ideally characterized by features such as empathy, honesty, altruism, compassion, enjoyment, trust, vulnerability, and forgiveness. Developmentally, friendships follow parental bonding and precede pair bonding. The nature of friendships becomes deeper as a person’s internal and social capacities grow throughout childhood and beyond, though other factors can cause the depth of friendships to regress. In the first stage of development, friendships are focused on shared activities and geographic closeness. The depth of friendships grows progressively as the second stage is characterized by loyalty and commitment and the third stage is characterized by shared values, interests, and ideas. As people establish pair bonds, friendships become more limited as the pair bond and family responsibilities take preeminence. Additionally, vocational responsibilities limit the time available to maintain friendships during our working years. As these pressures ease in older age, friendships again become more significant in people’s lives. Friendship is in some sense the foundation of all positive human relationships, as healthy family relationships and romantic relationships have a core of friendship even as they have additional dimensions. The benefits of friendship are many, including psychological and biological health benefits. The positive psychological effects of friendship are familiar to most people, as the characteristics of the ideal friendship noted above all improve the sense of well-being, and psychiatric illnesses such as depression and anxiety are often exacerbated by lack of close friendships. Friendships have also been shown to improve physical well-being, as heart disease, infections, and cancer are all associated with loneliness and lack of friendships.
Despite the many benefits of friendships, there has been a decline in the quality of same sex friendships in the modern world. While several causative factors can be theorized, homophobia has been viewed as a significant contributor to this decline. Due to the fear of being associated with anything considered “gay”, men in particular have resisted increasing intimacy in their same sex friendships. As a result, men limit sharing of deep feelings and thoughts and limit physical contact to those that are superficial and stereotypically masculine. In place of intimate though non-sexual connection with other men, men tend to have shallower relationships based around shared activities and loyalty, which as noted above are from the earlier stages of development. Two of the most important factors for forming deep friendships are attraction and regular opportunities to meet and share ideas and feelings. As the modern Western man is unable to acknowledge attraction (non-sexual or sexual) towards another man and sharing feelings and the most intimate thoughts are considered emasculating, it is little surprise that these men lack friendships that have the ideal characteristics. Even when the occasional manifestations of greater same sex non-sexual intimacy arise, they are viewed with discomfort and amusement as seen in words such as “bromance” and “man-crush”. But this was not always the case in the Western world, and it is not the case in other parts of the world where male intimacy is not automatically associated with homosexuality. In these societies, men may give one another a holy kiss or hold hands without any sexual connotation, and men continue to serve as deeps emotional supports even as these men establish pair bonds with women.
The biblical understanding of friendship begins with Jesus, our ultimate friend. As quoted in the John 15 passage above, Jesus called us His friend. Jesus explained that we are no longer His servants, which we rightfully deserve to be, but are instead His friends as demonstrated by the fact that He has made known to us everything He learned from His Father. It is easy to skim over that verse without recognizing the full import of it. Jesus made known to us “everything”: this is complete honesty, trust, and vulnerability. He essentially revealed the most intimate part of His heart and mind to us because of the great love He has for us who did nothing to deserve His affection. Jesus instructed us in this passage (among many others) to love one another and that the greatest manifestation of this love is to lay down one’s life for a friend. Of course, Jesus demonstrated both of these precepts as our true friend in showing us incomparable affection and altruism on the cross. Jesus perfectly demonstrated every other characteristic of the ideal friend including empathy, honesty, compassion, enjoyment, and forgiveness. If this vision of friendship sounds rather foreign, it is indeed very different from the largely superficial relationships we have with friends today, especially friendships between men. Jesus’ relationship with apostle John is instructive in illuminating the depth of friendships. John was the “disciple whom Jesus loved”. The deep godly affection Jesus and John had for one another is evident in the many interactions recounted in John’s gospel, including how John reclined at Jesus’ side and leaned on Him at the Last Supper, showing great comfort with physical closeness. John 19 passage on the crucifixion shows the extent of the friendship bond between Jesus and John, as John essentially took the place of Jesus in taking care of Mary, showing that the friendship between them was essentially a family bond. Indeed, the friendship we have with Jesus is made full in the family relationship we have with Jesus as our true Brother. The intimate friendship also underlies the romantic relationship we have with Jesus as our Bridegroom. Hence, the friendship Jesus has with us, which we are expressly called to emulate, is a deeply intimate one that crosses over to a sense of family.
We see this type of a friendship in the beautiful story of David and Jonathan. Jonathan loved David as himself and became one with David in spirit, just as Jesus would teach a millenium later. Jonathan’s love for David was sacrificial from the outset, as he gave his princely vestments to his friend who would likely be a competitor to his royal status from the world’s perspective. And this friendship was not extemporaneous; rather, it was based on a solemn promise, a covenant, as Jonathan pledged to be David’s true friend, just as Jesus promises us His love and faithfulness. This affection was not unrequited, as the 2 Samuel passage quoted above shows us just how much affection David had for Jonathan. Jonathan was dear to David, and Jonathan’s love was more wonderful than the love of women. This is coming from David who had some prolific love affairs with women. The two men shared a kind of intimacy that went beyond even the intimacy of sexual intercourse. It is this kind of intimacy that the ideal friendship can and ought to have. Now, among some revisionist thinkers who advocate same sex sexual relationships, there is a theory that David and Jonathan were actually gay lovers. There is, of course, no evidence for this assertion other than the fact that they truly loved one another as friends and brothers. The popularity of this theory among some betrays the sad state of same sex friendships in today’s world, which are so shallow that the platonic intimacy between David and Jonathan seems impossible.
Not only is the kind of intimate friendship we see between Jesus & John and David & Jonathan possible, they are indeed the deepest longings of our hearts. They are the kind of relationships in which we know and are known with full clarity and love. They are the kind of relationships in which we can be the imperfect people that we are and be greeted with acceptance and graceful exhortation. They are the kind of relationships in which we can be affectionate with words, non-sexual physical touch, and other actions without being self-conscious or afraid. They are the kind of relationships in which friendship blends into true family in Christ. This kind of friendship is particularly necessary for people with same sex sexual attractions who do not have pair bonds because they seek to live faithfully to biblical teachings. The lack of a pair bond does not mean that one has to live without intimacy or family, both of which we all crave and need. So let us cast aside society’s and even the church’s aversion to intimate same sex chaste friendships and seek to cultivate the kind of friendships that God intends for every one of us to enjoy. Jesus is the ultimate friend who gives us this kind of friendship in perfection, but we can experience a genuine taste of this with fellow brothers and sisters in Christ as we refine our understanding of the biblical friendship.