Book Review: “Spiritual Friendship” by Wesley Hill

Wesley Hill is a same-sex attracted (“SSA”) Christian who is committed to celibacy. In this fine book, he makes many good points in an odd way. Reading his book is like speaking to someone who learned English abroad; he’s fluent but he’s not a native! Hill challenges the reader to re-imagine real Christian friendship. Unfortunately, despite his best efforts, one cannot help but suspect Hill wants friendship as a substitute for a romantic relationship.[1]

He denigrates marriage by claiming it cannot fulfill all its promises. Hill asks us to imagine what friendship could be like if it ceased to be “casual,” and became committed.[2] Unfortunately, Hill struggles to marshal Scripture to support his theology of robust friendship; certainly not at the expense of marriage. The passages he does cite are rarely didactically about friendship at all (Prov 17:17, 18:24; Ruth 1; David and Jonathan; Jn 11:3, 15:13), or are otherwise desperate (Lk 23:26). His best discussion is Mk 3:32-35 and the implications of Christian brotherhood and sisterhood. However, it is doubtful Mk 3 can bear all the freight Hill wishes it to.

  • He cites multiple examples of deep friendship (“sworn brotherhood”) from multiple eras, but this by itself proves nothing.  
  • Hill endorses a monastic vision of “spiritual friendship” that’s “a form of same-sex intimacy that sublimated or transmuted erotic passion rather than sanctioning its genital expression.”[3] It is difficult to find this sentiment in Jesus’ words.
  • “We are eager for our friends to say to us, ‘I love you because you’re mine,’ without leaving themselves an escape clause.”[4]
  • “In the New Testament, as we’ve seen, familial language far outweighs the language of friendship when it comes to describing Christian community. Believers are one another’s ‘brothers and sisters in Christ,’ not (primarily) one another’s ‘friends.’”[5]

In short, Hill is inescapably and unbearably lonely. “My question, at root, is how I can steward and sanctify my homosexual orientation in such a way that it can be a doorway to blessing and grace.”[6] He chooses to embrace “gayness” as a badge of self-identity.[7] To Hill, his homosexuality is a call to a vocation of male friendship. “My being gay and saying no to gay sex may lead me to be more of a friend to men, not less.”[8]

To him, spiritual friendship involves a covenant commitment just as deep as that of marriage.[9] Hill is introspective enough to suspect he’s looking to fill a romantic void by sanctifying friendship.[10] His last chapter is full of excellent advice on fostering real friendships in the church.

Hill’s book challenges the reader. It forces you to think beyond the casual relationships we often call “friendship” in our congregations. Speaking practically, his vision is perhaps utopian in its scope and there is only so much an overworked elder team can do in a congregation. However, Hill’s brute honesty makes it an invaluable resource for SSA Christians and a summons to the church to cultivate meaningful community. Its strengths far outweigh its weaknesses.

[1] “As someone trying to reconcile his Christian faith with his homosexuality, I have become increasingly drawn to that notion: that there exists, for someone like me, a location for my love. That, by rediscovering ancient, and not-so-ancient, forms and exemplars of friendship, I might be able to rewrite the lonely future I feared would be my lot as a celibate gay Christian. That I too am called to nurture, deepen, and sanctify my love,” (pgs. 21-22).  

[2] “Should we consider friendship as always freshly chosen but never incurring any substantial obligations or entailing any unbreakable bonds? Or should we instead—pursuing a rather different line of thought—consider friendship more along the lines of how we think of marriage? Should we begin to imagine friendship as more stable, permanent, and binding than we often do? Should we, in short, think of our friends more like the siblings we’re stuck with, like it or not, than like our acquaintances? Should we begin to consider at least some of our friends as, in large measure, tantamount to family? And if so, what needs to change about the way we approach it and seek to maintain it?” (KL 115-131).  

[3] Pg. 33.  

[4] Pg. 42. To Hill, this “escape clause” is the possibility of marriage and the resulting shift of relationship dynamics.

[5] Pg. 60.

[6] Pg. 79.  

[7] Pgs. 79-80.  

[8] Pg. 81.  

[9] Pg. 90.  

[10] “The danger is that I’ll idealize friendship as a quick fix for loneliness and relational burdens rather than as something requiring substantial burden-bearing itself. Insofar as there is an answer to this problem, I suspect it lies in the recognition that friendship involves just as much of an ascetic struggle as marriage or parenting or monastic vows or any other form of Christian love,” (pgs. 98-99).