Thursday, September 18, 2014

the church needs men and women to be friends

Recently a friend started a discussion thread by asking the question, “Can men and women be friends?” She was asking, essentially, if sexual attraction is a deal-breaker when it comes to male-female friendships. Immediately the thread filled with horror stories about male-female relationships that started as friendships and ended as train wrecks.

I know these stories as well. I’ve had a front row seat to several of them - in the workplace, in the neighborhood, in churches - so I’m not insensitive to the cautionary tale they have to tell. They remind me, though, of the labor-and-delivery stories I heard when I was pregnant with my first child. As soon as the bump became visible, women began freely volunteering their uterovaginal horror stories, everyone from friends to total strangers in the grocery store. I’m sure these stories were true, but do you know what stories I never heard? The positive ones. My perception of the risk became skewed by my fear. Four positive delivery experiences later I viewed those stories differently.

red flags and risk

Part of the problem with asking the question, “Can men and women be friends?” is nailing down which men and which women (married? single?) and what kind of friendship is in view. The question often leads us to assume intimate friendship is what is being suggested – hanging out alone together, sharing your deepest hopes and fears. And no, that’s not a good idea. If you’re single it leads to a lot of weirdness about where the relationship is headed, and if you’re married, you should reserve intimate friendship for your spouse. But we need not rule out male-female friendship built on mutual respect and affinity, cultivated within appropriate boundaries. If we do, we set a course charted by fear rather than by trust.

Sexual attraction is a valid red flag to raise when we consider male-female friendships, and it should never be dismissed lightly. But it does not justify declaring all such friendships impossible. All relationships involve risk of hurt, loss or sin, but we still enter into them because we believe what will be gained is greater than what we might risk. 

Marriage is risky – your spouse might prove unfaithful or cruel.
Parenthood is risky – your child might grow up to hate you or harm others.
Same-gender friendship is risky – your friend might betray you or let you down.
Work relationships are risky – your subordinate might embezzle from the company.
Business relationships are risky – your auto mechanic might overcharge you.
Church relationships are risky – your pastor might turn out to be an abuser, or just a jerk.

Yet we still enter into these relationships. We do not remove them wholesale from the list of possibilities because they involve risk. We enter in because we believe the rewards of the relationship outweigh the risk. We decide to go with trust instead of fear.

serving side by side

Like labor and delivery stories, the lust and infidelity stories of men and women who crossed a friendship boundary play and replay in our consciousness. But we seldom hear repeated the stories of male-female friendships that worked. I don’t think that’s because they don’t exist. In the church, even telling someone that you have a friend of the other gender can raise eyebrows. We have grown positively phobic about friendship between men and women, and this is bad for the church. It implies that we can only see each other as potential sex partners rather than as people. But the consequences of this phobic thinking are the most tragic part: When we fear each other we will avoid interacting with one another. Discussions that desperately need the perspectives of both men and women cease to occur. (Hint: most discussions desperately need the perspectives of both men and women, particularly in the church.)

Yet almost no one in the church is bold enough to say these friendships matter. We fear the age-old problem of "If I say X, will I unintentionally encourage Y?" So in the church we rarely tell divorced parents that they can still be good parents because we're afraid we'll encourage divorce. We rarely tell young people that loss of sexual purity is something that can be overcome because we're afraid we'll encourage promiscuity. We rarely tell moms who work outside the home we value them because we're afraid we’ll communicate we don’t value the home. And so on. We are so concerned that people will misunderstand what we mean by “appropriate male-female friendships” that we do not speak of them at all.  Just as divorced parents and young people and working moms pay a price for our fearful silence, there is a price for our fearful silence on male-female friendships as well: The church is robbed of the beauty of men and women serving side by side as they were intended.

not can but must

What bothers me most about the question, “Can men and women be friends?” is that even if I answer it in the affirmative I have not done justice to the issue. Yes, they can be friends, but more than that, they must be friends. Appropriate forms of friendship – those in which we see each other as people rather than potential sex partners – must exist between men and women, especially in the church. How else can we truly refer to each other as brothers and sisters in Christ? Jesus extended deep, personal friendship to both men and women. We are not him, so following his example requires wisdom and discernment about our own propensity to sin as well as that of others. But his example is worth following, brothers and sisters, even if it involves risk.

"For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother." - Mark 3:35


  1. "Appropriate forms of friendship – those in which we see each other as people rather than potential sex partners – must exist between men and women, especially in the church. How else can we truly refer to each other as brothers and sisters in Christ? "
    Yes, yes, yes! you articulate this so well!

  2. Singles are told to "marry their best friends" and yet many don't have opposite sex friends because we need to "guard our hearts". Is it that we don't guard each other's hearts and the lines start to become blurred? That platonic relationships can't exist because we think the other person might be marriage material?

    Am I the only one who is confused and has so many questions about this?

    1. You're definitely not the only my late 30's, single, and have heard this over and over again. My only male friends are actually married ones, who I have become friends with by spending time in the family's home, with both the husband and wife. I've been ministered to and enjoyed mutual friendship, but sadly, when I look around I realize I have absolutely zero interaction beyond Sunday morning "hi, how are you?"'s with the single men in my church.

    2. Are there any activities at your church, Melissa, to get to know them more within a group setting? Outdoor activities like hiking especially now that the season is changing would be awesome (depending on where you live). But it still brings up this confusion that we're not going to church to specifically meet single men (or women) but where else are we going to meet them? I wonder if that's why so many people are turning to online dating. I really have no options at my church...the men are either way older or younger than me.

    3. I've heard that sort of thing so many times, Liv, in my 32 years of being unmarried! I actually think the "marry your best friend" thing is unrealistic -- it plays into the myth that your spouse should be everything to you, and all you need, which is nonsense. The whole idea that platonic relationships can't (or shouldn't) exist is so contrary to the gospel. Paul didn't tell Timothy to treat younger women "as a threat to you, with absolute purity" or "as potential mates, with absolute purity" or "as distant acquaintances at best, with absolute purity" but "AS SISTERS, with absolute purity." The whole ground of the purity in male-female relationships in the church is that familial love and affection that should characterize the whole church.

      So, so much bad advice out there!

  3. This is really timely, as I am thinking through the implications of this in raising two daughters! There are certainly boundaries to be considered, taught and applied. However, I do not want them to fear appropriate relationships with anyone! Thanks for sharing!

  4. Very interesting......what do you guys think of this video?

  5. This is a great piece. Thank you so much for speaking to what, for some, might be an obvious issue in the church, but for others might be less so and, therefore, never thought about or talked about. I think this is a great conversation for us to be having.

  6. Jesus had female followers and friends, so certainly there is that precedent. Good thoughts.

  7. No. No. No. Do not do it!!!!
    I am a godly woman, I have loved and served my Lord for over 40 years, and I speak from hard experience. Nothing happened (my husband was always there and encouraged the friendship). My 'friend' was a godly man I highly respected. But, when his wife decided she didn't want him to be friends with US anymore, I , in my femininity, became the scapegoat. My christian reputation was damaged, my heart was decimated, my mind is still confused. And he shut up and abandoned the friendship. He used to tell me he thought of me as "one of the guys". Then suddenly, without cause, I became "another woman", and that was the end. No explanations, no apologies, just a horrible, face-slapping, heart-wrenching SILENCE. As if I am not worthy of an explanation. I still acutely feel that rejection.

    This has nothing to do with affairs. It has everything to do with our culture and how people use it for their own ends. You cannot go against the tide--believe me, in my naïveté I thought I/we could. We could not.
    Don't do it, dear ones. Do NOT do it. You will be hurt, and it's just not worth it. There are others of your own gender who make fine friends. Find them.
    I have forgiven them, I am not bitter, but I will NEVER, EVER, EVER go down that road again.

    1. Sister. The pain in this post broke my heart. I am so sorry that you were hurt by such unloving, ungodly, unbrotherly actions on the part of your brother. And I'm sorry that that hurt was compounded by others questioning your motives.

      I believe that normalizing friendship between men and women actually PREVENTS situations like the one you unfortunately found yourself in. If your church and the other believers around you viewed familial affection between men and women in the body of Christ with approval rather than suspicion, they would have called out your former friend and his wife for their unkindness rather than blaming you.

      Christians have an obligation to be an example to the world of how men and women are to treat each other -- with absolute purity, AND as brothers and sisters. There is potential for hurt whenever we walk the path God has set before us. Marriages fall apart. Children walk away from the faith. Friendships end. But that doesn't mean we should end the institution of marriage, or stop having children, or live as hermits.

  8. I just stumbled across this post and think there are some good points here. I'm particularly interested in the statement:

    "Appropriate forms of friendship – those in which we see each other as people rather than potential sex partners – must exist between men and women, especially in the church."

    Could you give some practical examples of what this might look like? I've always been taught men and women can be friends in the sense that they relate to each other through their spouses, or a man might relate to his wife's female friend through his wife and in her presence, but anything other than this would be inappropriate. A man should never be alone with a woman - specifically in private, but also in terms of eating a meal together, having coffee, etc. - that is not a relative or his wife. He should also not show too much attention toward or make physical contact with a woman that is not also his wife or a relative.

    For example, would it be inappropriate for a man and a woman to have a conversation with one another if their spouses are not around? Can they ride in a car together? May they talk on the phone? My purpose is not to establish legalistic rules, but to think through what guidelines are spiritually and morally healthy and what are not.

    Practically, how can men and women be friends, respecting one another as brothers and sisters in Christ, while maintaining a healthy balance between treating each other as a sexual threat on one end of the spectrum or pursuing friendships with no concern for boundaries on the other end?