No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her,
“Friends with benefits.” There are few phrases that so sum up the spirit of an age than this phrase. The way it is used, it is (a) a highly suggestive phrase that (b) so readily is a lie for what is really going on. While I am sure there may be some relationships between men and women that are at deep levels of trust that then become sexual without there being any further expectations being placed upon others, most of the time it is a marginalization of the meaning of friendship (much as it has been elsewhere been bereft of its deeper meaning like it has been with Facebook connections) that puts the real emphasis on sex.
Yet, I want to suggest the real, deep meaning of the phrase is not simply a nice idea, but I want to suggest “friends with benefits” should be the ideal we as Christians strive for in our romantic relationships… with a few clarifications on the meaning of “friends” and “benefits.”
First, what is friendship? There are many ways the word “friends” can be used, but it generally has been used to refer to people who have a bond of mutual affection and concern; one might call it a mutual attraction that is not centered upon a sexual attraction. While the concept has been cheapened in the present era of superficial friendships, most people implicitly understand the deepest meaning of a friend. Friendships are formed by the combination of deeply, shared values, pleasant social experiences, and actions that seek out the benefit of the other: shared values, good times, and seeking of the good of the other have a way of reaching to the deepest core of who we are when we are on the receiving end, drawing a deep attraction towards someone that does not have to be of sexual nature.
Too often, the sexual bond of marriage has been exalted as the highest form of love in the church. While friendship is good, you are not a complete, fulfilled person until you get married, so the thinking goes. Yet, this is not the testimony of the Scriptures. Read these words of King David in 2 Samuel 1.26 after the passing of his friend Jonathan:
I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan;
greatly beloved were you to me;
your love to me was wonderful,
passing the love of women.
My pastor preached about this last Sunday, commenting that such language would be downright uncomfortable with us today. The love of a man more wonderful than the love of woman? While some people want to eroticize this, largely to legitimate the idea of sexual intercourse people of the two gender, their need to eroticize cuts to the point of how people have treated sexual intercourse as the highest embodiment of relationships between two person. Consequently, men would feel uncomfortable with this, because our sense of identity as males is tied up with the fulfillment of our sexual libido, even if that fulfillment is considered by faithful Christians to be in the context of marriage. Yet, for David, the point of the language is to say that the friendship between him and Jonathan was something that goes beyond even the sexual, romantic love that a man and a woman might share. Friendship, not romance itself, is something greater and more wonderful.
Yet, for a Christian, it isn’t just that friendships is something good. It is part of the greatest love that one can have, but there is a specific way of seeking the benefit of the other in friendship. As Jesus says in John 15.13, friendship is part of the greatest type of life that people can have. Yet, this greatest love isn’t just typified as a friendship who make seek the benefit another, but there is one important addition to it: that one is willing to sacrifice oneself, particularly one’s life, for a friend. If you believed that someone was willing to give up everything for you if it was for your benefit, you would be drawn to them. Ask people who serve in the military about their bonds with their platoon mates and the friendship runs deep. Being willing to sacrifice oneself draws people together in a way which runs deeper than blood, which can be more attractive than sex. Yet, the purpose for which Jesus sacrifices goes deeper than that of platoon mates, because it goes beyond preserved people’s life but it is ultimately rooted in giving hope, life, and shalom to one’s friends.
It is this same sacrificial mentally that Jesus describes ultimately of himself that Paul tells husbands to have for their wives. Too often, the comparison of the husband to Christ in Ephesians 6 has been used implicitly with the idea that the husband is to be the authority over the wife as Jesus is of the Church. Yet, such fundamentally misunderstood the flow of power from Christ to the Church, where Jesus’ authority is His intimately tied up with His servanthood (and not simply a means to then acquiring authority, like is often mean by the phrase “servant leadership”). For Paul, the husband is to embrace this very same purpose towards his wife. In so doing, Paul runs against the ancient Roman form of masculinity that tied up the value of the husband and father with their authority over the family, but in a way where Paul doesn’t directly say it with the ancient equivalent of “stop embracing toxic forms of masculinity” and so can subtly redefine what it means to be a husband.
While Paul doesn’t use the phrase “friends” here, so much of his language would typify that of friends, telling them to love their wives as themselves. For instance, the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius addresses his friend Fronto in this way in one of his letters:
I knew that on everyone’s birthday his friends undertake vows for him whose birthday it is. I, however, since I love you as myself, wish to offer up on this day, which is your birthday, hearty prayers for myself.
Friendship, particularly in its highest, most exalted form, was seen as treating the other person as if they were oneself. So, Paul’s exhortation to love their wives like they do their own body and self is not just a bare moral injunction, but it is an expression of the bonds of friendship. It was common that men would find their friendships with other men, in part because women were looked down upon as not being able to provide such friendship, but Paul is in effect telling husbands to regard their wives like they do a friend. In other words, Paul’s instruction to husbands is simply a reflection of what Jesus said about His love for His friends; Paul is functionally telling his husbands to have their wives as friends for whom they would give up their lives like Jesus. In so doing, the very definition of what it means to be a male and a husband in Greco-Roman society was being challenged in light of the revelation of Jesus Christ.
If, then, marriage is a species of friendship, that means that marriage is not the highest fulfillment of one’s social potential and life, but it is simply one way that friendship will be formed. Friendships can take on many different forms, with marriage being one way it can work itself out. That is to say that marriage is a type of friendship with specific benefits, highlighting the PLURAL nature of the word “benefits.” As the way “friends with benefits” is reguarly used, there is really only one, singular benefit that is given to each other: that of a sexual nature. Yet, marriage is the joining together of life in a way that ideally provides great benefits to both husband and wife. While sex is usually one of those “benefits,” others benefits include sharing of resources, availability of each other’s time for support, being a source of entertainment for each other, sharing of resources and chores, raising up children together, etc. Marriage in its highest form is the sharing of the various parts of one’s life together for mutual benefit, which essentially reaches into the essence of what it means to be a friend. While one can have a friendhip without some or all of the benefits that come from marriage, a true expression of the highest purposes of marriage according to the Scriptures can not be had without a deep friendship.
How much different would Christianity in America be if this was truly the attitude that was taken about marriage?
First, it would lift up friendship, not sexual relationships, as the highest fulfillment of our social lives, which would mean that gay and lesbian people who have little to no interest in a sexual relationship with a member of the opposite sex can still be shown that they can have a deep love with another person while at the same time being faithful in not sexualizing relationships with people of the same sex. Because the Church in the West and America has played a part of raising up sexual relationships as the highest form of a relationship while at the same time limiting sex to between a husband and wife (righteously so), it has had the effect of treating people who have (near)exclusive same-sex attractions as somehow less human and not showing them that the highest form of attraction and joy in love can be found without a sexualized relationship.
Second, it would prioritize the highest value for which men would be willing to take risks in the pursuit of a woman not for their own sexual and emotional gratification, but the value of the well-being of the woman that they deeply cherish and love. So much of the culture of dating and proving oneself as suitor is built around how much a man would take a risk for a woman. While risk-taking is indeed a usual part of the average masculine persona due to the influence of testosterone on the behavior of most males, when the risk-taking is done primarily in sexual pursuit, it has the way of reinforcing a culture of sexual harassment and abuse as such a pattern is self-oriented risk-taking, which is just a stone’s throw away from ignoring the risk that may come with ignoring the implicit and explicit no’s that someone else might give. Encouraging risk-taking on behalf of the well-being for another, which values the thoughts and feelings of that person, would promote a healthy masculinity that takes seriously the average male biology and psychology as something that can become a good thing, whereas risk-tasking for self-centered, sexual pursuit can actually foster a toxic form of masculinity that some segments of American Christianity have been complicit in creating.
Third, the more people understood and committed themselves to friendship with those who they marry, the more resistant those relationships would be to divorce. While even the best of friendships can sometimes erode, the more a person seeks the benefit of the spouse by sacrificing themselves for the other as a friend, the less likely they will be to be a source of animosity and bitterness that can lead to divorce. The more both partners embrace this attitude, the more resilient their marriage will be to divorce.
Fourth, it would be an end to the patriarchal norms that treat women and wives as somehow fundamentally different or less than men and husbands. When marriage is understood as a friendship, the norms of authority and status will pass away as true, deep friendship is about mutuality, not dominance.
Fifth, it would teach men in particular that deep bonds of affection and trust with other men is okay. If marriage is simply one form of friendship, there are other types of friendship that are not sexualized that can be a real source of joy to another. So often, many of us males are taught to cut off our desires for intimacy and of attraction to another male because we think of it in a sexual manner, so we learn to become satisfied with male “friendships” that are less than the close, emotional bonds of affection. While some men do not need or seek a deep emotional intimacy in a friendship, some men actually seek close bonds.
Sixth, beyond that, it would also say that it is okay for men and women to be friends with each other without it having to be of a sexual nature. The degree to which sexual relationships are considered the highest form of social relations is the degree to which men and women (over)sexualize and objectify each other. However, if the highest forms of friendship is the ideal of love, then marriage and sex will only enter the equation when there is a mutual desire and appropriateness for that sort of friendship. Less objectification and better relationships between women and men would be the fruit of that.
So, let Christian romance start teaching that it is best to seek (true) friends with (marital) benefits, so that we can exalt friendship, not marriage and sex, as the highest form of love and so more fully embrace and imitate the life of Jesus Christ.