The Great Friendship Debate

Sharon Friendships, Love 5 Comments

One of the issues Ike and I have struggled with ever since we’ve been together is the question of cross-gender friendships. By “struggle” I don’t mean that we’ve wrestled with jealousy or inappropriate intimacy with someone of the opposite sex. Instead, we’ve struggled with how to articulate cross-gender friendship in a manner that is both wise, honoring to God, honoring to one another, AND honoring to our friends.

While we can both affirm that certain levels of physical and emotional intimacy between cross-gender friends are both foolish and dishonorable (let me be VERY clear about that) we are also averse to the language of fear that permeates these discussions. We have long sought after an understanding of friendship that more closely reflects the Scriptural language of Christian unity. Given the love that we are called to show one another, a love so radical that the rest of the world will know us by it (John 13:35), we have been increasingly uncomfortable with the position that pits genders against one another as threats. In Christ, we must be more!

With this struggle as a backdrop, I was pleased when a colleague of mine, Enuma Okoro, engaged this topic on Her.meneutics this week. Her post titled “We’re Just Friends. No, Really” detailed the supportive Christian friendship she has with a male friend, Andrew, who also has a girlfriend, Kate. The post incited a tremendous amount of debate, ranging from outright condemnation to unhealthy reinterpretations of her words, extending her points to an extreme that neither Enuma nor I can affirm.

I love Enuma’s writing and her call to reclaim self-discipline as an aspect of Christian relationships is a necessary one. But what particularly grabbed me about this discussion was the eventual comment of her friend, Andrew. Much of his response provided me with the answers I’ve been looking for on this messy issue. Here are a few of my favorite excerpts:

“I wonder how ‘friendship’ and ‘freedom’ are not limited by our own Christian calculations of human ‘nature’, but are instead expanded into something even deeper when we enter friendship in and through the life of Jesus? Maybe Jesus came to make us into something different; something new in the midst of our vulnerability and brokenness. Maybe in the risk of friendship, and for Kate and I–the risk of romantic love–we can pray that Jesus would surround us and take us up into his own body, God’s unrelenting love for us, where he casts out our fears.”

“If Jesus is the incarnate God–if Jesus really does promise us life in and with God–then Jesus is also a promise to us that we – just maybe – will become a sign to each other of God’s presence. That is the kind of heavy lifting that Jesus does for us in our relationships, I hope, before we step into each other’s lives at all.”

“Regular time alone is not part of my friendship with Enuma. This decision is not based on fear of the ‘what ifs’ – and certainly does not rest on any ‘Doctrine of Inevitability’. Even though I think Jesus does transform us–makes us free–I don’t think Jesus wants to take away our limits. I think he wants to live there with us, and show us that our limits are good. We only have so much life to give, and so my limits demand me to make priorities for how and to whom my emotions are given, where intimacy is fostered–which I think is partly why we make different commitments, different covenants with each other. I have freely committed to give my deepest commitment among all my relationships to Kate, even though I know I will fail her at times. That means, in one way, that I have to cut back on the amount of time–and the kinds of time–I can give to others. But, in another way, in the context of our mutual love and commitment, Kate and I have hoped for the ways in which our relationship will actually open us up to love others, to be friend to others, even better. Whatever gifts we receive through our relationship that transforms us into more faithful people, we hope to share them, knowing there will be times when we will need/want those gifts of friendship from others.”

“All that to say, we do believe that following Jesus does mean different kinds of covenants with different kinds of people—and at the same time we think following Jesus means Jesus is Lord over those covenants—and he is Lord over long-held ideas that can turn into tools of control that stop trusting in Jesus.”

Oh there is so much truth in there! And it is all about the power of Jesus!!! Our language about friendship is so often dictated by the “Doctrine of Inevitability” that Andrew names, rather than being guided by self-control, generosity, self-giving love, and courage. I also appreciate his articulation of cross-gender relationships as a different type of “covenant,” as opposed to a boundary determined by danger. In doing so, he holds onto the obligation that we hold toward everyone in our Christian community.

1 John 4:18 tells us that perfect love casts out fear. Now, that is not an “anything goes” kind of statement; we still live in a broken world. What this verse does communicate, however, is that sin and fear are no longer the final determination of our actions. Only Christ’s victory over sin is the ultimate determiner of our lives.

In an overly sexualized culture that consistently objectifies women, the manner in which Christian brothers and sisters love one another is an opportunity to stand out, which is why it is essential that we discard the worldly obsession with sex that has all but defined cross-gender friendships (When Harry Met Sally, anyone?). Yes, be wise–YES!–but exercise Christian wisdom. That is to say, be wise in a manner that is both cognizant of sin in the world, but is also an outworking of the radical love of Jesus Christ. Our friendships are meant to look different, and that begins with how we view, and how we love, one another.

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Comments 5

  1. Tim

    “Christ’s victory over sin is the ultimate determiner of our lives.” What a great reminder, Sharon. And I love your closer as well: “Our friendships are meant to look different, and that begins with how we view, and how we love, one another.”

    This reminds me of John 13:34-35 (a passage I preached on in my very first sermon almost 25 years ago): “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” If we do love one another as Christ loves us, then our friendships – cross gender or not – will honor him at all times, won’t they?

    Tim

  2. Jenn Pappa

    oh my gosh I love love LOVE this post. Thank you so much for sharing these ideas and thanks to Andrew for stating them so eloquently!

    Jenn

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  4. Sarah

    Great post. You know what is kinda sad is that this cross-gender friendship debate thing is, IMO, limited to Americans and our, as you statedly so eloquently, over-sexualized culture. If you go on over to other first world countries, I doubt you will find the same kind of ‘debate’. Now I’m not talking about countries where there are clearly defined separations between genders (Muslim countries, etc. where friendships between genders are wayyyy more limited, women are oppressed), but I thinking about Europe and Australia, where people are, how shall I say, a whole lot calmer about the whole issue.

    I think (as a whole, not everybody!) Westernized Christianity is still so hung up on trying to follow all the rules and maintain an ‘us vs. them’ mentality that we get stuck on focusing on the wrong thing, and miss living in the glorious freedom of Christ. Not that this has so much to do with my first paragraph, but just that I am airing some thoughts.

    Thanks for providing a sounding board.

    Be blessed!

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