Manly Friendships – Part 1: Covenant Central (TBB)

The “TBB” in the name of this post means that it is part of The Big Box series. If you’re new to Scarlet Letters, read the introductory post to see what the Big Box is all about.

At long last, Lent and Holy Week are over, and that means Hester and the Big Box are back, this time with Manly Friendships by Doug Phillips. But before we get started on that, let’s have a “blast from the past” and review Phillips’ foundational material, which I first covered last March when I critiqued his lecture Manliness.

Phillips’ main concern in Manliness was, of course, the cultivation of manliness in Christian boys and men (in opposition the alleged “emasculation” of men by feminists). This “doctrine of manliness” was supposedly Biblical, and Phillips based it on three verses, two from the Old Testament and one from the New:

“I go the way of all the earth; be strong, therefore, and prove yourself a man.”
(1 Kings 2:2)

“Now prepare yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer
Me…” (Job 40:7)

Watch, stand fast in the faith, be brave, be strong. (1 Cor. 16:13)

I won’t review all the relevant material here (see my earlier post), but suffice it to say that Phillips failed to prove his case – two of the above verses are nothing more than figures of speech, and the third, if read in context, is actually applied to women as well as men. Moreover, this gendering difficulty in the third verse turned out to be a bit of a pattern. Over and over again, the virtues Phillips described as “masculine” or “manly” – self-sacrifice, courage, integrity, etc. – turned out to actually be universal virtues that any sensible parent would want to teach their daughters as well as their sons. Phillips, however, appeared to be unaware of this, and has now forged boldly ahead right into today’s lecture.

Vitally extraneous

The bulk of Manly Friendships was taken up with a discussion of friendship covenants, which I’ll examine at length below. First, however, I’d like to point out a curious tension at the heart of the lecture, in which gender seems to be simultaneously central and completely irrelevant to the topic at hand. Phillips opens the lecture by saying that though he’s talking about manly friendships, he could just as easily talk about “womanly” friendships, such as that between Ruth and Naomi; he then spends most of the rest of the lecture talking about David and Jonathan. The “most” in that last sentence, however, is extremely important, as occasionally Phillips not only inexplicably switches to talking about Ruth and Naomi again, but uses them as a direct illustration of “manly” friendship:

But it’s more than that, it’s more than sentimentality. It’s more than sitting around and having coffee, or a cookie. It’s more than even a feeling that you have toward somebody else. Feelings come and feelings go, but manly covenant friendships should last a lifetime. And when Ruth turns to Naomi and says, where you go I will go, and your people will be my people, and your God will be my God, this is an objective covenant that she’s making, do you understand that? She is saying before God and man, we are friends, end of discussion. I am following you, end of discussion. It’s not gonna change, end of discussion.

340px-Gender_symbols_side_by_side.svgGiven how stark Phillips generally likes his gender distinctions to be, you might find it strange that he would use a female friendship to make a point about relationships between men. I certainly did, especially since he took time to distinguish “manly” and “womanly” friendships almost immediately. One could almost be tempted to read this as a tacit (and probably unwitting) admission that gender really doesn’t matter that much after all.

But if gender doesn’t matter, why are we using the term “manly friendships” to begin with? How are they different from “womanly” friendships? And why does Phillips insist on making “manly” friendships the norm and the assumption, and dedicating an entire lecture to them? In other words, how can gender be so unimportant that we can use female friendship to illustrate male friendship, but also so vital that the two forms of friendship must be explicitly separated verbally (even though they have no discernible differences) and the male version given obvious preference?

If you can answer any of the above questions, you’re doing better than I am.

Bosom buddies

As I mentioned above, Phillips spent a lot of time talking about friendship covenants. If you’ve never heard of a friendship covenant, don’t feel bad. Phillips will explain everything:

And I’d like to suggest to you today that in deeply significant, mutually submissive and deferential relationships of men before God, it is right and appropriate that men would covenant one with another.

There’s a lot to unpack in the above quote, some of which I’ll get to later, but for now let’s examine where Phillips gets this idea. You’ll recall that he spent a good portion of the lecture talking about David and Jonathan. Friendship covenants are the reason why:

Now when he had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul. Saul took him that day, and would not let him go home to his father’s house anymore. Then Jonathan and David made a covenant, because he loved him as his own soul. And Jonathan took off the robe that was on him and gave it to David, with his armor, even to his sword and his bow and his belt. (1 Samuel 18:1-4)

Gottfried_Bernhard_Göz_-_Jonathan_greeting_David_after_David_killed_GoliathAccording to Phillips, just as David and Jonathan made a covenant with each other, so also may modern Christian men make “friendship covenants.” Thus, as we should probably expect, Phillips gets extremely upset at claims that David and Jonathan were gay lovers:

In the chapter…in which David gives his lamentation over the death of Jonathan, he ends with the words, and I paraphrase, your love is sweeter to me than the love of women. The wicked, perverse men of this world, who have never experienced real manly relationships, who have never had them their whole lives, who don’t understand manhood, think that that’s homosexuality. Movies have been written, books have been written, trying to pervert the relationship of Jonathan and David into something twisted. You and I know that’s not true, but we are now with something inexplicable, a man who loves, hugs, kisses, swears by, covenants with, another man and says, I love you so much, it’s greater than any romantic love I’ve ever had with a woman, I love you so much, my heart is so knit to you.

I won’t discuss today all the problems with the theory that David and Jonathan were lovers (see here for a thorough debunking), but instead want to focus on the idea of anachronism. In the above quote, Phillips is understandably upset that modern notions of homosexuality have been imported into 1 Samuel. Fair enough; he should be. Anachronism is never a good way to interpret the Bible. However, Phillips seems to think that only other interpreters have this problem. In reality, he himself engages in anachronistic interpretation all the time; for a prime example, see his gymnastic eisegesis to find modern homeschooling in Deuteronomy 6.

Anachronism also goes in both directions, which brings us back to this whole notion of friendship covenants. Since Phillips never produces any evidence that David and Jonathan’s covenant is some kind of divine model for all friends everywhere, what he is essentially doing is dragging a descriptive passage forward in time and presenting it as universal prescriptive truth. In other words, his modern friendship covenants are really a reverse anachronism, because a non-binding cultural practice of the ancient world has been plucked from its context and plopped into 21st-century America with absolutely no justification. Thus, in the very act of pointing out his opponents’ anachronism, Phillips is committing the same sin himself.

But am I being too hard on Phillips? After all, his initial quote above about friendship covenants only said that they were “appropriate,” not commanded. To be honest, I thought this at first also, and assumed Phillips was merely proposing friendship covenants as a consideration or idea. However, as the lecture progressed, his language slowly transformed from suggestion to the implication of command, or at least superiority (emphasis mine):

But it’s more than that, it’s more than sentimentality. It’s more than sitting around and having coffee, or a cookie. It’s more than even a feeling that you have toward somebody else. Feelings come and feelings go, but manly covenant friendships should last a lifetime. And when Ruth turns to Naomi and says, where you go I will go, and your people will be my people, and your God will be my God, this is an objective covenant that she’s making, do you understand that? She is saying before God and man, we are friends, end of discussion. I am following you, end of discussion. It’s not gonna change, end of discussion. Our friendships are transient because they’re meaningless. They’re based on sentimentality and on cookies. They’re based on expediency. They’re based on happenstance. The friendships of our young men are based on the fact that their experiences are video game experiences. We play video games together and that’s the basis of our friendship. … Let me tell you something, friends. Your friendships will only be as noble and as meaningful as their births, as the nature of the conversations which make them, as the experiences that you share. And so most people are shocked when they discover how wimpy their friendships are, because they have not dared great things, dreamed great things, covenanted great things, meant great things, felt great things deeply, a man to another man.

I don’t know about you, but I find a strong implication in the above that if a friendship is not “covenanted,” it will be shallow, meaningless and temporary. Not only that, but Phillips has produced yet another alleged model for his practice (Ruth and Naomi), as well as upped the ante by claiming that friendship covenants are made “before God and man.” That’s serious business. So I can’t say for sure, just from this lecture, whether Phillips thinks friendship covenants are mandatory – but I think it’s at least possible that he does.

Yet another complication emerges near the end of the lecture when Phillips say this (emphasis mine):

Do you know that you can have a relationship with someone at one point of your life and in a remarkable circumstance, and even though you rarely see that person again, that person can be dearer to you than a brother for the rest of your life, because that circumstance was so powerful, and what created that knit your hearts together, and because it wasn’t sentimentality, because it wasn’t just some fleety [sic] things, you’re in a state of friendship covenant with that person, which lasts for the rest of your life?

In the above quote, Phillips seems to say that all it takes to make a “friendship covenant” is a powerful connection, created between two people in an exceptional circumstance. No vows or promises are exchanged, nor any agreement or stipulations made. In other words, this “covenant” is apparently based on nothing but a strong emotional bond forged in the midst of a crisis. This, of course, bears absolutely no resemblance to a Biblical covenant whatsoever. In fact I’m not sure how Phillips can even use the word with a straight face. Covenant is a very old and enormously complex idea about which entire books have been written, and for Phillips to just blithely co-opt the term and slap it on his silly anachronistic idea, is simply dishonest. It may move his audience emotionally to think of themselves as being “in covenant” with their best friends, but without a valid connection to actual covenants, wouldn’t that be little more than – dare I say it – “sentimentality”?

Your gender hierarchy is showing

As we’ve come to expect, a Doug Phillips lecture just wouldn’t be complete without gender being dragged into the equation somewhere. Manly Friendships doesn’t disappoint, though its references are much more subtle than usual:

And I’d like to suggest to you today that in deeply significant, mutually submissive and deferential relationships of men before God, it is right and appropriate that men would covenant one with another.

Remember what I said earlier about unpacking this quote? Well, this is why. Notice first those interesting little words “mutually submissive.” I was surprised to hear Phillips use this phrase, as it’s usually associated with egalitarianism and widely maligned by complementarians and patriocentrists. Here, however, the context is different, because the friendship in question involves two men, not a man and a woman. Phillips also goes out of his way, both here and elsewhere, to praise deference in men, which was also a bit of a surprise – until I realized that what Phillips is in fact doing here, unwittingly or not, is giving us a look at the bureaucratic details of the gender hierarchy he promotes.

230px-Leiter_ladderLet me explain what I mean. In a covenant between two individuals of the same gender (friendship), both parties submit mutually because they are on equal footing – i.e., they are on the same rung of the hierarchy. In a covenant between two individuals of different genders (marriage), submission is one-sided (woman to man) because the individuals are on different rungs of the hierarchy – i.e., they are not equal.

Now I will grant Phillips that this arrangement is a tidy one. Neat, predictable, orderly, systematic – and disturbing. Patriocentrists can claim all day that they believe men and women are equal in ontological value, but the above covenant structure should cause us to question the honesty of that claim.

Another question posed by the above is whether men and women can ever be “covenanted” friends. We can probably hazard a guess already, since in previous lectures Phillips seemed to be opposed to male-female friendships on principle:

I’d like to suggest to you that God doesn’t really intend for guys to be buddies and pals with girls, but for the girls to be their sisters in the Lord. And there’s a huge difference, because when a girl is a sister in the Lord, you treat her with honor, you treat her with respect, you understand the principle of women and children first, she’s not your bud, your pal, she is a woman of God, and you treat her like a sister. In fact, you’re careful what you say around her. You use discretion. We’ve lost this concept today.[1]

I wondered, when I first read the above, what Phillips’ idea of friendship looked like. In other words, if men are supposed to honor, respect and protect women, and not be their “pals” (i.e., friends), how do they treat their male friends? Well, according to Manly Friendships, they should protect their reputation, be loyal to them, and be mutually deferential – which basically adds up to…drum roll, please…honor, respect and protection!

What, then, makes a platonic male-female friendship so unacceptable to Phillips? The only answer I can see lies in the covenant structure outlined above. A friendship covenant presumes that both parties are mutually submissive, because they are on the same rung of the hierarchy. This, however, cannot be true of a man and a woman in Phillips’ system, because they are on different rungs of the hierarchy. In fact, women must always be under the spiritual headship or “covering” of a male – even if it is their own young son for purposes of receiving communion. Thus, it appears that only one kind of covenant can be made between men and women: marriage.

Which brings me around, finally, to the numerous parallels in Phillips’ thought between friendship and marriage. Not only are both covenants, but both are apparently lifelong when all Biblical commands are followed (emphasis mine):

But it’s more than that, it’s more than sentimentality. It’s more than sitting around and having coffee, or a cookie. It’s more than even a feeling that you have toward somebody else. Feelings come and feelings go, but manly covenant friendships should last a lifetime.

Do you know that you can have a relationship with someone at one point of your life and in a remarkable circumstance, and even though you rarely see that person again, that person can be dearer to you than a brother for the rest of your life, because that circumstance was so powerful, and what created that knit your hearts together, and because it wasn’t sentimentality, because it wasn’t just some fleety [sic] things, you’re in a state of friendship covenant with that person, which lasts for the rest of your life?

Just as there are qualifications for acceptable suitors, there are also qualifications for acceptable “covenanted” friends – and just like suitors, they must first and foremost be Christians:

And so I want to tell you that while you can be friends with different people, including unbelievers, the rich, deep, manly relationships which we’re speaking of today will not happen with those that do not share your love of Christ. That’s the bottom line. They should not happen in that sense, the deepest, the richest, the most manly, the most Christ-exalting, cannot happen in that sense. Unbelievers are slaves to sin, Christians are slaves to God.

If you thought we were done, we’re not, because there’s even a parallel to divorce. Citing Proverbs 18:24, Phillips talks a lot about not abandoning friends in times of trouble, and what a terrible thing it is to betray a friend. He’s not necessarily wrong about any of that, but as we listen we must keep in mind that he is not talking about a garden variety friendship. He is talking about a friendship which has been “covenanted” in the sight of God Himself. Thus, there is substantially more at stake here than just courtesy, loyalty and emotional support. In fact, the overall impression given is that a Christian may be unjustly abandoned by their friends, but must never be the one to voluntarily terminate a friendship.

Now keep that last sentence in the front of your mind as we revisit a previous lecture, Defending the Fatherless, to get Phillips’ view of women who have voluntarily divorced their husbands:

But even more to the point, in 1 Timothy chapter five, I think a careful study would lead us to conclude that someone who is a “widow indeed” is someone who is acting in the capacity of a widow. They have no husband through no fault of their own. Now if you find yourself in a situation with a woman who has no husband and is raising a fatherless child, and the reason why he has no husband is she has facilitated or encouraged a separation or divorce, the answer there is for her to get right with God and to return to her husband. But if you have a situation where that woman has been abandoned, where she’s been wrongfully divorced, I believe the clear intent of Scripture is that we are to help such a person.[2]

The parallels are exact here. Christian women can be abandoned by their husbands, but cannot willingly initiate divorce (even in cases of abuse). Christians can be abandoned by their friends, but cannot willingly leave them – even when the evidence is mounting that they may have made a bad, or maybe even criminal, selection:

What happens when it’s tough? What happens when it’s really really hard to stand with that guy? That’s when you know. That’s the only time you really know. That’s the test. What happens when it is tough, tough, tough, tough? You don’t have all the facts, things are looking bad. Do you run for the hills? Do you try to caution your words so you seem reasonable, and not to really be on anybody’s side? Is that what you do, because you’re a follower of Jesus, not of men? Or are you born for adversity? Do you sticketh [sic] closer than a brother?

I’ll wait to examine this final quote next week, when I discuss Phillips’ notion of loyalty and how far we can and should take the idea of “stand by your man,” as well as other concerns I have with Manly Friendships. For now, I’ll just close with my opinion that Phillips is adding a great deal of unnecessary pressure and rules to something that should be natural and organic. I also don’t think it will solve the problem he bemoans (shallow transitory friendships). In fact, if widely accepted, it could actually work to prevent friendships, as people get “cold feet” about entering into, and subsequently “screwing up,” a covenant made in the eyes of God.

Then again, perhaps I should thank Phillips, for once again handing me even more evidence that he doesn’t seem to believe in the equality of men and women after all…

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One comment on “Manly Friendships – Part 1: Covenant Central (TBB)

  1. Suzy's Mamma says:

    How convenient to make sure your friends know that they are biblically obligated to stick by you no matter what. Even in the face of something like, you know, a sex scandal, presumably.

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