I recently heard a story about some seminary professors who were discussing whether it is appropriate to hug students. One male professor felt it was perfectly fine for the faculty to hug their adult students, in response to which another professor asked, “What if it’s a pretty girl?” The first professor promptly replied, “Pretty girls need hugs too!”
I share this story today because it raises an important issue that I have occasionally discussed on this blog: How should married people relate to others of the opposite sex? As I have said before, I completely agree with married couples who place boundaries on their marriages. There is wisdom in that decision, and my husband and I make a practice of it ourselves. In a culture where lasting marriages are becoming the exception, we need to fight back. Boundaries are a strategy to that end.
I do not, however, see this as a plainly black and white issue. There are some men, for instance, who take a DEFCON approach to women, assuming a constant state of readiness and defense. As a result of this posture, men sometimes respond to other women with a surprising callousness. In fact, I’ve met numerous female seminary students who, upon trying to engage a male classmate in friendly conversation, were quickly cut off with the words, “I’m married.”
That is not wisdom. That is fear. Stories like that raise a red flag that we have strayed from the realm of godly discernment into a realm defined by fear. When men are so terrified of the “threat” posed by single women that they cannot even engage them as colleagues in a professional environment or public place, then our relationships are no longer marked by the confidence, peace or trust we are meant to have in Christ.
In addition to the fact that these rules are often fear-based (and thus dangerously close to legalism), this behavior also fails to serve wounded women the way the church should. Evangelicalism frequently bemoans the number of broken marriages and absent fathers in the American family, but how are we caring for the wounded daughters that this epidemic has produced? How are Christian men filling this gap by caring for their sisters in Christ? Sadly, these questions sometimes go unanswered. Rather than contributing to healing, Christian men and women can create even greater woundedness by treating single women as if they have the plague.
Let me conclude with one final caution. In addition to being unfair, one might also consider it a little naive to see single women as the greatest threat to your marriage. Married men may assume that if a woman is married, she is somehow “safer” than a single woman, but my personal experience is quite the opposite. I know a good number of married women who have strayed outside their marriages, but I don’t know any Christian singles who would ever consider a married man. They are only interested in other single men. Instead, couples that are friends with other couples can pose the greatest temptations to a marriage, perhaps because their guard is down. It therefore saddens me that single women, who already feel vulnerable and somewhat isolated, receive the brunt of this over-compensation.
Again, I am not advocating for a complete and total absence of boundaries. My husband and I have our own boundaries, beginning with open, honest, and constant communication. But it is also important that we have a hospitable marriage, that our marriage is a source of healing and life for those around us, not greater brokenness.
So as we think through what it means to guard our marriages in an age of rampant infidelity and divorce, yet also foster communities of healing and whole relationships in which women are not feared as threats but are instead treated as sisters in Christ, I thought I would close with some insightful verses from 1 John. In particular, I encourage men (especially those seeking to pastor churches that will be populated by women) to bear these verses in mind as you seek to love the women in your life. This also places a burden on those of us who are wives to encourage our husbands toward gentleness and a hospitable spirit, which not only requires the same practices of us, but a degree of trust and confidence in Christ as well.
There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. We love because he first loved us.
– John 4:18-19