Why Can’t We be Friends?
Old-school, fundamentalist Christians and avant-garde, progressive atheists don’t have much in common. These two groups tend to have divergent opinions on topics ranging from marriage to marijuana to metaphysics. But I’ve noticed one area of common ground – a lack of meaningful friendships between men and women. But why are these sorts of friendships so rare and difficult to come by? The answer is simple. Sex.
Endless case studies of the pastor running off with the church secretary loom large in the minds of Christian men. Painfully aware of their own sinful inclinations and with a misguided understanding of what it means to be “above reproach,” fundamentalist men often come to the conclusion (intentionally or otherwise) that close friendship with a woman is simply not worth the risk.
On the other hand, men in mainstream American culture frequently view friendship with women as a pathway to a sexual relationship. Befriending a woman is a necessary yet annoying step on the way to undressing her – as evidenced by the fact that in millennial male culture there is nothing quite so terrible as being relegated to a girl’s “friend zone.” These fellows often bail on a friendship with a woman as soon as they realize that it isn’t “going anywhere.”
Note: I mention men as the primary culprits here because that’s what I’ve observed most frequently. This is not to suggest that women are never the guilty party.
One group is trying to avoid sex. The other group is trying to get sex. Both result in distance, division, and disillusion between men and women, a divide the gospel intends to break down (Gal. 3:23-29).
A Better Way
Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity.
1 Timothy 5:1-2
Paul’s words to Timothy are compelling us to better, more mature, more gospel-shaped interpersonal relationships within the church. Here a mentor tells his young male apprentice how he ought to interact with different sorts of people. Notice how Paul prescribes Timothy’s relationships with men and women in nearly identical terms: Timothy is to regard older men as fathers, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters. Rather than a distinct set of rules for each gender, EVERY Christian relationship is to be governed by an intimate, familial, blood-bought bond (Eph. 4:1-16).
The way to deal with potential temptation is not to rebuild the wall of separation the gospel intends to tear down. Instead, the way of purity is the direct opposite – you honor God and demonstrate the glory of Christ when you increase your familial love, affection, and closeness with women!
Among Jesus’ closest friends and followers were women, poignantly demonstrated in the fact that women are the prominent figures who remained faithfully present through His crucifixion, death, burial, and resurrection (Matt. 27:56; Mk. 16:1; Lk. 24:10; Jn. 20:1). Indeed, several of Jesus’ most memorable words and works center around His relationships and encounters with women. The wedding at Cana (Jn. 2:1-12), the Samaritan woman at the well (Jn. 4:1-42), the woman caught in adultery (Jn. 8:1-11), the raising of Lazarus (Jn. 11:1-44), and the woman who anointed His feet (Lk. 7:36-50) all show Christ’s intimate care and concern for women. Certainly Jesus didn’t think it best to steer clear of ladies in order to be “above reproach” (Matt. 9:10-11).
What does “above reproach” mean, anyway?
A phrase I heard quite frequently as a young believer was that Christians should be “above reproach,” living in such a way that makes it impossible (or HIGHLY unlikely) for someone to be able to bring an accusation of sin against you. So, the thought went, a man should never be alone or have too close a friendship with a woman – you don’t want anyone to get the wrong idea!
But this obsession with the appearance of things over and against the disposition of the heart is one of the central problems with American Christianity. The biblical use of the term “above reproach” is found in the letters to Timothy and Titus’ list of pastoral prerequisites. A conspicuous observation about these lists is that they describe men of such noticeable Christlike character that you wouldn’t hesitate to entrust your wives or daughters to their gospel care. In fact, if you wouldn’t trust a man to be alone with or befriend your wife in an honorable way, that would be a strong indication he is NOT above reproach.
If being “above reproach” means living in such a way that someone wouldn’t accuse you of wrongdoing or foul play:
- Jesus and Paul both failed (Matt. 9:34; John 18:30; Acts 24:5-6).
- In an age of widespread homosexual behavior, this would also involve never being alone with a man.
Don’t misunderstand me. Christians MUST strive to be “above reproach.” But there’s a good chance that it doesn’t mean what you think it means. To live in this way is to have such deeply rooted and Spirit-wrought Christlikeness that you may pursue gospel influence in the lives of the people around you without them being concerned about your intentions or character.
Why it Matters
As image-bearers of the Triune God, we’re not meant to be in isolation and are intended to be in purposefully intimate friendships with all sorts of different people (Gen. 2:18). Particularly within the Body of Christ, fear of failure shouldn’t be the predominate motivation in our relational choices. Instead, a mutual respect, a pursuit of holiness, and a partnership in gospel proclamation ought to cause all sorts of unlikely bonds to be formed (Rom. 12:10). Among the people of God, Packer fans and Viking fans can cooperate. The rich and the poor can sit and dine together in harmony. Avid hunters and dyed-in-the-wool vegans can go on a mission trip together. And, (GASP!) men and women can have pure, intimate friendship.
The primary question between friends of the opposite sex is not,
“How do we avoid sin or the appearance of evil?”
“How do we honor Christ and each other in the context of our friendship?”
Each human encounter is a high stakes run-in with a complexly gifted and flawed individual of tremendous gifts, insights, experience, perspective, knowledge, and passions that are all at least somewhat different that yours (1 Cor. 12:4-11). Male or female, you’d better jump at the opportunity to befriend such a person. If they’re a believer, it is a chance to taste an appetizer of that time when the people of God will be His fully manifested dwelling place, when marriage and sexuality are gone but the wholly purified community of Christ remains (Matt. 22:30; Rev. 21:3 ). If they don’t know Christ, then your friendship’s purpose is to point them to the way that they might enter into perfectly restored friendship with God through the gospel (1 Cor. 9:19-23; 2 Cor. 5:20).
Is it really that simple?
Short answer – no.
It would be exceedingly unwise to apply the biblical principles mentioned above without taking into account the many ways the devil is seeking to destroy us (1 Pet. 5:8), not to mention the wayward desires of our own hearts (Jas. 1:14). Close and transparent companionship with women presents unique challenges at every phase of life – whether you’re both single, if one of you is single, or if you’re both married, there are variables you must consider. The great blessing to be gained through these friendships can be utterly devastated in a single moment of indiscretion, so this vital pursuit of life needs to be done intentionally and with great circumspection.
That’s what the next post will cover. I’ve been blessed with several close friendships with incredible women. So next time I’ll get into the changing dynamics of our relationships through the years – and how these friendships have been a crucial element to my own growth in Christ.