In our Spring 2018 issue of harvestusa magazine, guest writer Aimee Byrd, in light of the #MeToo movement, explores the tensions that exist in friendships between men and women, and then argues that the gospel radically transforms these relationships. When the gospel is lived out, friendships between men and women won’t fall into the abuse that the #MeToo movement rightly exposes, resulting in true intimacy and respect. (You can read the entire magazine issue online: Women, Sexuality, and the Church)
When we think about sin’s impact on sexuality, we usually think of things like pornography, broken marriages, rape, sex trafficking, and other abuses. But one category that we often neglect to recognize regarding sin’s impact on sexuality is the gift of friendship. When we over-sexualize men and women made in the image of God, we are unable to view one another holistically and fellowship platonically. And this has been a historical problem, even in the church.
Women Incapable of Friendship
I don’t know of anyone in our contemporary culture that would say women are incapable of the virtue of friendship. In fact, sociological studies reveal that men open up more about themselves when a woman is involved in the dialogue.¹ But ancient philosophers did not believe that women had the moral capacity for what they held as the highest virtue of communion — friendship. Echoing the same mindset taught by Cicero, Aristotle, and Plato in their treatises on friendship, even Augustine joined in this reductive thinking about a woman’s nature. One of our greatest theologians in church history, “although he knew that well-educated and cultured women existed,” and respected his own mother’s wisdom, wrote, “’If God had wanted Adam to have a partner in scintillating conversation he would have created another man.’”² While this kind of statement is a shock to our modern sensibilities, we can still be reductive about virtuous friendship between the sexes.
Men Incapable of Friendship with Women
Almost thirty years ago Billy Crystal uttered a line in the infamous movie When Harry Met Sally that still haunts us today: “Men and women can’t be friends because the sex part always gets in the way.” As the character Harry seemed to represent every man, and Sally, every woman, consumers lost sight of the fact that this is just a movie. Now the tables have turned, and instead of a woman’s nature being incapable of attaining relational moral perfection in friendship, it is the man who lacks virtue. Sally, representing all women, argues against this assertion. She sadly concludes that she really could have used a friend, as Harry is the only person she knew in New York.
It’s such a strong scene because in that argument and conclusion, women’s value, worth, and contribution are at stake. Man reduces woman to her capability of gratifying his uncontrollable sexual urges. But man is also reduced to his supposed animalistic impulses, even to the point where he cannot be a friend to someone in need.
Men and Women Can’t Even be Acquaintances
Under the good intentions of upholding purity and faithful marriages, the common teaching in evangelical circles is that men and women shouldn’t even share a meal, a car ride, or a text message without a chaperone. Considering that a number of prominent preachers have fallen into sexual immorality, wrecking their marriages, their ministry, and the faith of some of their followers, taking steps such as these seems prudent.
Many leaders and laity have since followed this example with the same godly intentions. Christian leaders should certainly model sexual integrity to us. But we need to see it displayed with mature spirituality and godly friendship, not with suspicion and fear. I’ve been in conversations with men afraid to give a woman a ride to the hospital, to share an elevator, or to send an email about work. Is this the message the church really wants to send about our design for communion—that women are threats to a man’s purity and that we are incapable of serving as an acquaintance in ordinary life, much less being an actual friend? Yes, take precautions, be accountable, examine your heart, but I wonder if our design and life as new creations in Christ can show us a better way?
A woman’s sexuality should not be a barrier to friendship, but it should call men to treat her with all purity, like he would a sister or a mother (1 Timothy 5:2).
Does a Woman’s Sexuality Hinder Her Capability of Friendship?
Since there will be no marrying and no sexual intercourse in eternity, we know that God’s plan for human sexuality is not ultimately expressed in the sexual intimacy of the bedroom. A greater understanding of what we are created for, who we are in Christ, and where we are headed will help shape the way we relate to one another. A woman’s sexuality should not be a barrier to friendship, but it should call men to treat her with all purity, like he would a sister or a mother (1 Timothy. 5:2). Christian men and women are co-laborers in the gospel, brothers and sisters in Christ, both given the same, affectionate “one another” exhortations in Scripture that teach us how to relate.
Created for Holy Communion
Christians, we were created for the high calling of joyful communion with the Triune God and one another. We get to participate in the Father’s great love for the Son, through his Spirit. God has revealed himself to us in the Son so that he can make friends with us. Is this what we represent in the way we relate to others? Does the world see us exemplifying God’s love for mankind in Christ? Do we treat one another as men and women made in the image of God? If the church cannot model virtuous friendship between the sexes, why would the world take us seriously when we say we are being sanctified even now as we look to our glorification as brothers and sisters serving together in the new heavens and the new earth?
Christian men and women are co-laborers in the gospel, brothers and sisters in Christ, both given the same, affectionate “one another” exhortations in Scripture that teach us how to relate.
The world should look to the church and see a household of fellowship between siblings in Christ that overflows into the way we relate to everyone.
What does that look like on this side of the resurrection, as we all still struggle with idolatrous tendencies, sexual brokenness, and over-sexualized messages regarding men and women? Scripture tells us, “Let love be without hypocrisy. Detest evil; cling to what is good. Love one another deeply as brothers and sisters” (Romans 12: 9-10, CSB).
To love our brothers and sisters well, we are called to be wise at separating good from evil. We pursue godly relationships and we warn against sin. This means we will have to be honest in self-evaluation regarding our own maturity and emotions and open to the counsel of our brothers and sisters in Christ, as honesty is achieved in community. We are God’s own possession, so we are to “abstain from fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul” (1 Peter 2:11).
Here are some common areas we miss in self-evaluation:
Confusing attraction with sexual temptation.
Let’s not fool ourselves by saying we will never be attracted to anyone but our spouses. What do you do when you discover you are attracted to someone? We are to offer every part of ourselves—body, mind, and soul—to God. It’s easy to misread appropriate feelings that could be a godly attraction and reduce our feelings to romantic or sexual attraction since we hear so many over-sexualized messages. Let’s learn to recognize the difference and properly handle them so that we don’t miss out on the proper affection we could experience as brothers and sisters.
Assuming we won’t be tempted.
Self-evaluation will also help us recognize when we are weak in this distinction or with a particular person. Perhaps we perceive a weakness in someone else. In this case, we should not put ourselves in situations that would feed a temptation to sin or cause anyone to stumble. This is when proactive measures are called for, such as seeking accountability from someone we trust and establishing clear boundaries. If we understand the sin within our own hearts, we should exercise proper discretion, never assuming that we couldn’t be tempted.
Expecting marriage to fulfill all of our relational needs.
Looking to a spouse to fulfill all of our emotional, intellectual, and spiritual needs puts an unbearable burden on one person. This unhealthy dynamic can contribute to temptation that leads to affairs. When a wife or husband can’t measure up to these expectations, it is easy to romanticize a quality in someone else that we see lacking in our spouse.
Not valuing a spouse’s insight.
If you are married, it is dishonoring to your spouse to pursue a friendship with anyone he or she feels uncomfortable about. Also, our spouses often have insight into a situation where we may have a blind spot. Are you open with your spouse about your interactions and friendships with the opposite sex? Do your friends promote your marriage? A spouse may notice that someone has harmful intentions or manipulative ways. I have shared advice with my husband when I thought a woman had more romantic intentions in her friendship with him. He didn’t notice that until I pointed it out. My husband has given me insight about some of my friends being competitive with me in a destructive manner. We should always give heed to our spouse’s wisdom.
What is God calling us to in friendship? He is calling us to image the love he has for us in Christ. He is calling us to look at one another holistically, because along with our bodies, we have minds, souls, and emotions that matter. He is calling us to uphold distinction between the sexes, without reduction. He is calling us to growth, maturity, and a love for obedience that is greater than our fears. He is calling us to wisdom and discernment, not blanket extra-biblical rules that stereotype and hinder growth. He is calling us to a biblical understanding of purity that rightly orients all of our affections to God, as a proper response to understanding that by the help of his Spirit our purity is from Christ, through Christ, and to Christ in grateful offering (Rom. 11:36). He is calling us to promote one another’s holiness and to condemn sin.
We do this by being a friend, because friendship is something you do. Friends pursue a common mission, and the church is the ambassador of the gospel in the great commission God has given us. These relationships with our brothers and sisters in the faith will benefit us as we are sent out into the world to be good neighbors to all creation.
¹For example, see Dee Brestin, The Friendships of Women (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1988), 16.
²Translated by Henry Chadwick, St. Augustine, Confessions (NY: Oxford University Press, 1991), in Chadwick’s Introduction, xviii. Quoted from St. Augustine, Literal Commentary on Genesis.