Originally published July 13, 2018
Any time an issue regarding the roles and relationships between Christian men and women comes up, there’s bound to be an airing of opinions. Strong opinions. And the social media opinions du jour are about friendships between Christian men and women. What’s appropriate? What’s not? Can Christian men and women have genuinely platonic friendships? Twitter is currently all a-chirp over Aimee Byrd’s new book Why Can’t We Be Friends? which addresses…
…the way to stand against culture is not by allowing it to drive us apart—it is by seeking the brother-and-sister closeness we are privileged to have as Christians. Here is a plan for true, godly friendship between the sexes that embraces the family we truly are in Christ and serves as the exact witness the watching world needs.
P&R Publishing, About: Why Can’t We Be Friends by Aimee Byrd
I guess it’s just the way my brain is wired, but when I first heard about Aimee’s book, my initial reaction was along the lines of, “Oh. OK. Sounds interesting…Why do we need a book about this?”. It was the same kind of reaction I’d have if somebody came out with a book about humans needing to breathe air or fire being hot. Yeah. That’s a given. Brothers and sisters in Christ have been friends for upwards of 2000 years now. I don’t understand what else there is to say about that.
But the more I thought about it – the way people have lost their ever lovin’ minds about how to properly relate to, even talk to, one another – the more I thought maybe this book was a good idea. In a world where a man can’t even stand next to Beth Moore and be taller than her without being accused of misogyny, perhaps a remedial course on the most basic of human relationships is in order.
I haven’t read Aimee’s book, so this isn’t a critique or review of it (you can read a detailed review by Amy Mantravadi here), but I did listen to her interview about Why Can’t We Be Friends on Theology Gals, and I didn’t hear anything problematic in Aimee’s description of her perspective on the subject. From what I’ve heard and read, I probably wouldn’t agree with Aimee about every single thing in the book, but I have no reason to believe she is advancing any unbiblical ideas, and that Why Can’t We Be Friends will likely prove a helpful biblical resource for many. My advice: If you want to know what Aimee thinks and whether or not it’s biblical, read the book and compare it to rightly handled Scripture.
But as I continued to think about and read discussions about the issue – especially in light of words like “misogyny”, “sexism”, and “abuse” being bandied about in evangelicalism like so many badminton birdies – I started seeing some aspects of this topic I wanted to address. Why can’t Christian men and women be friends? How can we be friends? Are there any potential problems we need to anticipate? Here are four practical and biblical things to take into consideration as we contemplate friendships between the sexes.
Defining Our Terms
One of the first whiffs of controversy I caught about Aimee’s book was a Christian gentleman’s emphatic no to the question of whether or not men and women could be friends. His reasoning? Co-ed friendships would inevitably lead to adultery. As the conversation progressed, comments were made by more than one man suggesting that the only female friend a man should have is his wife. Why? Because these gentlemen were defining friendship as a deeply emotionally intimate relationship- the kind of spiritually bonded relationship you should only have with your spouse.
Well, OK, if that’s the way you define friendship, you’re right. You shouldn’t have that kind of relationship with anyone of the opposite sex. Or the same sex either. That “oneness” kind of friendship is restricted to one person on the planet- your spouse. Defining friendship this way essentially restricts you to no friends until you get married, and one friend thereafter.
The thing is, that’s not how 99.999% of people define the word “friendship.” That’s how people define the word “spouse.” That’s why we have two different words – friend and spouse – because they denote two different types of relationships. Your spouse should certainly be your friend, but your friend doesn’t have to be your spouse.
The concept of friendship is much more fluid, and generally, more broadly defined than unhelpfully equating “friend” with “spouse”. There is a spectrum of intimacy with others that ranges from “I just met this person” on one end to “I’ve been blissfully married to this person for 80 years” on the other end, and all kinds of levels of affinity in between.
There’s the “hello at the mailbox, can I borrow your rake” neighbor whose last name you might not even know, casual acquaintances like store clerks and stylists whom you see occasionally and make perfunctory small talk with, regular acquaintances like co-workers and people you’re friendly with at church but don’t socialize with outside that venue, couples you and your spouse are friends with and spend time with, “shared interest” friends (Civil War buff buddies, gardening buddies, etc.), social media friends, good friends who share a very emotionally close, personal relationship, and then there’s your spouse.
All of those people can be classified, at one level or another, as “friends”. Maybe the question shouldn’t be “Can Christian men and women be friends?” but “Which levels of friendship are biblically appropriate for Christian men and women to engage in?”
Talk About It
If you’re married, especially if there have ever been issues of infidelity or insecurity for either of you, it’s wise to talk out what you’re both comfortable with when it comes to friendships outside the marriage.
It should be a no-brainer that neither of you should have any friendships that even come close to the emotional intimacy, affection, energy, and time you expend with each other. That’s not usually much of a problem for men, but, ladies, what about that close relationship you have with your mother, your sister, or your dearest girl friend? When you get phenomenal news – or devastating news – who is the first person you want to run to and share it with? If it’s anybody other than your husband, that’s a signal that you’re probably too close to that friend and not close enough to your husband.
But beyond being first in each others’ lives, what would be helpful and godly in your marriage regarding opposite sex (or even same sex) friendships? How much time is too much time to spend with a friend? What about going places together, talking on the phone, exchanging e-mails or private messages on social media? Which of the aforementioned “levels” of friendship should be restricted to members of the same sex? Discuss what each of you are OK with and not OK with, and why, avoiding the appearance of evil, and be sure to discuss practical safeguards you can each take against temptation.
If you’re single, these things are just as important to consider. Pray about them, discern how God would have you prioritize your friendships, and the time and emotional intimacy He would have you invest in them. And in the same way you reserve sexual intimacy for marriage, determine to reserve your deepest emotional intimacy for marriage, should that be God’s plan for you, as well.
Different Ways to Be Friends
I think one thing that people who give a staunch and unwavering “no” to friendships between men and women might not be taking into consideration is that a proper, biblical, platonic friendship between a man and a woman isn’t going to look like a proper, biblical, platonic friendship between two women or two men.
My good friend, Darlene, and I text back and forth all the time, private message each other on Facebook, go out to lunch, and spend hours talking one on one. We even went to a conference earlier this year, driving several hundred miles back and forth and rooming together once we got there.
I am also friends with Darlene’s husband. Do I spend as much time with him? Do I spend time with him the same way I spend time with Darlene? Of course not. I talk to him at church, at fellowships, when the four of us spend time together as couples, sometimes (publicly) on social media, and the once in a blue moon informational-type e-mail. The dynamic is totally different. First of all, I’m on a lower level of “friendship intimacy” with him than I am with Darlene. Second of all, it would appear – and would be – inappropriate for me to spend time with him in the same ways I do with Darlene. And, finally, I wouldn’t want to make Darlene or my own husband uncomfortable.
I’m friends with both Darlene and her husband, but I’m friends with each of them on different levels of intimacy and I’m friends with each of them in different ways. To maintain biblical decorum, and to guard our hearts against temptation, friendships between men and women are necessarily going to look different from same gender friendships in the ways we spend time together and how much time we spend together.
Can You Handle It?
An interesting dynamic about this back and forth over whether or not men and women can be friends is that, at least in the conversations I observed, men were more likely to say no, and women were more likely to be the ones promoting the idea of friendship between the sexes and not seeing a problem with it.
Ladies, we don’t get to make the across-the-board pronouncement that co-ed friendships between Christians are fine just because it wouldn’t be problematic for us. Furthermore it should give us pause that good, godly men are saying, “No. There are concerning issues here.” We need to sit down and actually listen to what they’re saying as a group and as individuals.
God created men and women differently. We are wired for relationships differently. That doesn’t mean women are wired right and men are wired wrong and they just need to get over it. It means we approach relationships differently. God created those different approaches and they are both good.
And when our brothers in Christ are saying, “We can’t handle this kind of relationship with you the way you want us to,” we need to respect and value that input into the conversation as much as we respect and value the input from our side of the aisle.
When it comes to individual friendships between a particular man and woman, that same respect and value for what another person can or can’t handle also has to hold sway. Every person is different. There are men you could put into a room full of naked women and they’d be obliviously critiquing the way the painter spackled the walls. There are other men for whom lust is such a temptation that they would have difficulty carrying on a five-minute conversation with a moderately attractive woman. Women are the same way. We all have varying levels of temptation to physical or emotional lust.
Through study of the Word, prayer, and, if you’re married, a healthy relationship with your husband, know your own limitations. Walk circumspectly, wisely, and obediently to Christ. Respect your male friends and acquaintances, and give them the space they need. They are probably trying to walk obediently, too.
Can men and women be friends? Of course. It’s how to be friends with one another that we need to pursue with wisdom, love, respect, holiness, purity of heart, and biblical propriety.