Some have recently argued that David and Jonathan must have been gay because (so they say) the biblical descriptions of their relationship could only be understood in sexually explicit ways. For example, 1 Samuel 18:1 says that the soul of Jonathan was “knit” to the soul of David. And in 2 Samuel 1:26 David says that Jonathan’s love for him was “more wonderful than that of women.”
The only way this argument gets any traction in today’s world is because we are the products of a very sexualized American pop culture. The concept of deep and meaningful love relationships has become so equated with sexual intercourse, it has become difficult for us to conceive of or understand what real friendship actually looks like.
We have confused sexual love with genuine love between friends, and so we cannot imagine how Jonathan and David could consider their love for one another to be better than the presumably sexual love they had experienced with women.
Part of the problem stems from the fact that in English we use the word, “love” both broadly and flippantly for all kinds of attitudes and actions toward people and things. We say we love chocolate, our children, God, our dog, and our local sports team all in the same breath without seeing any need to provide clarification concerning what we really mean by each use of the word.
The love between friends is a different kind of love than mere erotic interest. This is why the Greeks had several words that we translate into English as “love.” Erotic love was described in the Greek as “eros,” while affectionate love between friends was described by the word “phileo.” It was not sexual, but deeply meaningful and important nonetheless. It still is, but I fear Americans have lost their ability to discern the difference between having sex and loving another in a non-sexual way.
Men in India hold hands with one another and there is nothing sexual about it. It is simply a way to be together with another man and express appreciation for being a trusted friend. And it’s a beautiful thing to see. It’s nothing but a tragedy that men seen holding hands in western culture are immediately assumed to be homosexuals because that kind of benevolent physical touch is associated so strongly with purely sexual advances.
There are cultural nuances here, of course, but there is also something deeper. By buying into the sexual narrative of our time, we have severely diminished our capacity for deep and abiding friendship. We have become obsessed with sexual passions that have little or nothing to do with deep affection. We do not understand anymore how we can truly love someone without turning him or her into a sexual object for our personal gratification.
On the face of it, the bald act of sexual intercourse requires very little time or effort. This is why prostitution has always been a thriving worldwide industry. Total strangers who have never met and might never meet again can “make a transaction” in five to ten minutes if the conditions are right. What makes sex meaningful over the long haul is having it in the God-ordained context of a committed covenantal marriage relationship where deep friendship can grow and blossom alongside the simpler act of sex. Having sex is relatively easy. Becoming friends is not. It takes time and effort—a lot of it.
And even in marriage, and contrary to the conventional wisdom of today, the most important aspect of a genuinely meaningful relationship is not the sex itself. What makes our lives truly momentous and significant are the lasting friendships we have. Deep and enduring friendships have elements of richness and meaning that sex simply cannot provide.
On page 91 of The Four Loves, C. S. Lewis puts it this way: “Those who cannot conceive Friendship as a substantive love but only as a disguise or elaboration of Eros betray the fact that they have never had a Friend.” This is perhaps one of the reasons that gay men have so many sexual partners during their lifetime. They are looking for the joy of real friendship, but have been deceived into thinking they will find it in nothing more than sex.
David and Jonathan were not gay. They were friends, and possessed a depth of emotional intimacy that is rare indeed. When Jesus called His disciples “friends” and spoke of a love so great that He would lay down His life for them, He meant it literally. He laid down His life to atone for sin—theirs and ours, yours and mine. Sex was never in the equation. Only genuine love was.