Can men and women be friends?

At a recent conference, while lecturing through God’s teaching on friendship in Proverbs, I made a passing comment about the reality, danger and limits of friendships with the opposite sex. (Reality: yes, men and women are friends. Danger: such friendships, if not purposeful and careful, will often result in confusion if not pain. Limits: aside from marriage, our closest friendships must be with members of the same sex.) As I later realized, I had opened a can of worms without being fully prepared to deal with the slimy things. Later in the weekend, I was able to gather some clearer thoughts on the subject and in hopes that they might be helpful, here they are. (Some of what follows is written particularly to you men, but the opposite will bear out for the ladies as well.)

To start with what should be obvious: Christian men and women can be true friends who help each other in the Lord. Though some of my relationally-challenged brothers find it easier to simply not relate at all to their Christian sisters, they do so at the neglect of Paul’s instruction to Timothy to “treat…younger women like sisters.” (1 Tim. 5:2) Conversely, others of my wisdom-challenged brothers find it easy to relate to Christian women without much thought given to the weight of their words and attention.

The issues at hand, therefore, are not of the “whether?” but the “how?” variety. Wisdom leads us to two areas where limits must be discerned and guarded: content and closeness.

Content There are some areas of discussion, some areas of our life and heart, that must be off-limits with anyone of the opposite sex save our spouse. Issues of deep accountability, the sharing of certain personal struggles–these are things that open our heart wide open in front of someone else. And our Creator’s design was that when our hearts are wide open to Christian women that we will become more attached and attracted to them-and often they to us.

The principle here is that our hearts follow our actions: Jesus said that where our money goes, our heart will go with it. The early church quickly realized that if we want to believe or feel differently, we make the difference first in our actions and watch those actions impact our feelings and belief (they called it lex orandi, lex credendi, the law of prayer is the law of faith–the way you pray impacts what and how you believe). More simply, what you do changes how you feel. Open yourself up inappropriately to a women, you will find yourself drawn to her.

This emotional intimacy works wonders in marriage (and in engagement, to a lesser extent), but creates confusion and often hurt otherwise. My encouragement is to simply evaluate your opposite-sex friendships: “What do we talk about? Do we need to shift our conversations?”

Closeness Perhaps the issue of closeness requires even more wisdom than content. While it can be entirely appropriate to have great conversations about important, spiritual, Biblical topics with all sorts of friends, just as important is the frequency of those conversations with particular folks. If I share my personal insights from daily Bible reading in a group, great. If I share those insights with a friend who happens to be a lady, cool–in the right circumstance, that can be appropriate and helpful. But if I find myself sharing my Bible reading with one or two particular ladies on a regular basis, somewhere the line has been crossed. Even if my insights are benign and not of the closet-sin variety, my particular attention toward that lady is communicating something unhelpful.

Over time, my focus on her, regardless of our conversational depth, is one of the ways hearts are tied together. If you recognize the importance of maintaining physical purity on the way to marriage, add the importance of emotional intimacy into the mix. Again, the way attention builds attraction is very helpful in marriage, engagement and pursuing your future wife. But not so helpful in other circumstances. Perhaps you could ask, “Will this friendship be appropriate when I marry someone else?” Or “Could I see one of my elders having this type of friendship with another lady in the church?”

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If our recent conference is an indication, there are many young people seeking God’s wisdom on these types of relationships, and probably a few young people who simply disagree. If you find yourself working through these issues, let me offer this encourgement:

  • First, prepare yourself to follow God’s wisdom in this area rather than the world’s.
  • Second, thank God for your capacity for friendship and purpose to use it for Christ’s kingdom.
  • Third, look forward to marriage (and pray for it!)–this is God’s plan for fulfilling those desires you may be dangerously pursuing in other relationships.
  • Fourth, brothers, take the lead in treating your Christian sisters like sisters. Don’t ignore them. And don’t lead them on. Don’t be superficial with them. And don’t make them your confidants. Yes, it’s a difficult line to walk. Welcome to manhood.
  • Finally, while you figure out how best to relate to Chrisitan sisters, make sure that you are pursuing and building great friendships with other men. These are the friendships that can carry any weight and can last our whole life long.

I would be happy to interact, either in the comments section or otherwise, about these things. They are worth figuring out!

9 Comments

  1. Graham February 2, 2011 at 5:21 pm #

    This is all very good for static situations, but what do you propose for those silly individuals who are (heaven forbid) looking for a wife? Certainly some level of emotional intimacy is required for a protracted dating situation in this day, age and culture. I’ll admit that it’s all together possible to have arranged marriages, they work for most of the 3rd world and have worked for hundreds if not thousands of generations into the past (not trying to raise the old/young earth debate). In theory it’s also possible to date based simply on one’s attraction to a woman, but I’m opposed to the principal of the thing.

    In Biblical times, arranged marriages was the way it was done. I’m not advocating for it, I’m simply noticing that there really isn’t much dating protocol included in scripture. How do you suggest going from single to engaged without advocating any sort of emotional intimacy?

    • Jared Olivetti February 2, 2011 at 6:46 pm #

      As I mentioned in the post (maybe not too clearly), there is certainly a place for wisely and carefully fostering closer relationships on the path toward marriage. What I’d like to see, though, is honesty and intentionality in those relationships ( i.e, showing a gal particular attention because you’re thinking and praying toward marriage, not just in case something develops later). It’s the principle of fostering closeness without romantic intent that is dangerous and dishonest.

      Sent from my iPod

  2. Dan Brennan February 2, 2011 at 7:51 pm #

    Jared, Thank you for your thoughtful perspective. But I wonder about emotional intimacy in our hyperromanticized, hypersexualized culture. Prior to our romantic culture and prior to Freud, emotional intimacy was not *exclusive* between men and women in marriage among Christians. In Christ’s time male-female siblings had deep emotional intimacy between each other that carried on into any marital relationship without any “emotional incest” charges. I think the romantic myth and Freud have colored and shaped the way we view friendships. Up until Freud, Christian siblings enjoyed emotional depth even if they were married.

    No doubt men in our culture have been socialized to equate emotional intimacy with physical intimacy but this is not a given for any deep biblical understanding of brothers and sisters in Christ. With perhaps maybe one or two exceptions in the Pastoral Epistles, all of the “one another” commands in the New Testament have no transcultural, gender-separated principles within them. Pray for one another, encourage one another, be kind to one another, bear one another burdens, etc. are texts that invite and welcome emotional intimacy with no sex-segregated warnings or commands.

    I would suggest Freud does not have the last word on this. I would suggest there is much in Scripture and tradition to reconsider friendship between men and women.

    • Jared Olivetti February 3, 2011 at 2:30 pm #

      Hi Dan,

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment. Though I have never studied Freud particularly, I can agree that we live in a culture that is being shaped by many, many factors (and that a blog post is generally insufficient to consider all those factors). I also agree that the “one another” passages in Scripture can and should be interpreted broadly within the church.

      But what I’m hopeful readers will consider is that our God-given design (far preceding Freud) is that our heart follows our actions. And as I am to be given to one woman, I must take care not to take any actions that would lead my heart away from her (before or after our wedding day) or to develop relationships that have the potential of pulling another woman’s heart away from her husband, present or future.

      I don’t believe that men have been “socialized to equate emotional intimacy with physical intimacy”; rather, I think most unmarried men never consider emotional intimacy at all. I think most Christian men know to protect the physical purity of their Christian sisters but don’t consider how tying their hearts together is a dangerous thing.

      Again, I’m not arguing for superficial relationships between Christian men and women. Rather, we need wise relationships. Wise relationships can be valuable, can fulfill the “one another”s of the Scriptures, and still be appropriate, never encroaching on the marriage relationship or tying hearts together inappropriately.

      I hope this helps clarify my thoughts. Thanks again.

      • Dan Brennan February 3, 2011 at 11:19 pm #

        Hi Jared,

        Thank you for your kind response. For a shameless plug, I have written a book on the subject, called Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions: Engaging the Mystery of Friendship Between Men and Women. Its available at Amazon.http://www.amazon.com/Sacred-Unions-Passions-Engaging-Friendship/dp/0982580703

        I agree with you about our need to follow God’s design. But what I encounter in some circles is that design is perceived as pretty narrow regarding hearts and actions when it comes to opposite-sex friendships. I am happily married to my wife Sheila (29 going on 30 years) and for the past nine years have developed some intimate friendships with other women ( a couple of single women, as well as a married woman). These relationships have significant emotional depth, transparency, and vulnerability in them. Yet, there is no confusion as to who is my wife is and who my close friends are.

        I think there are significant arguments (both biblical and historical) that highlight the wisdom of deep friendships between sexes and yes, “transmarital” friendships. I think as Christians there is a path of deep love that doesn’t sexualize the relationship or threaten the marriage. This would be a robust chastity honoring marriage as well as honoring one’s cross-gender friend.

        The model of course for this emotional depth, is something you have already mentioned: how deep, emotionally attached, sibling relationships have coexisted through history while either one of the siblings or both have been married. These sibling relationships (before Freud and even after Freud) give us much to think about how brothers and sisters in Christ are to relate in the community, in my opinion.

  3. Steve D February 2, 2011 at 9:44 pm #

    I’m a little confused. You say “Don’t be superficial” then the next statement is “Don’t make them confidants”. Any relationship that isn’t superficial will involve some level of intimacy. Friendship by it’s very nature will involve intimacy. Yes, you can create a superficial relationship, however, it will not be a friendship.

    Another statement that you make make sure that you are pursuing and building great friendships with other men. These are the friendships that can carry any weight and can last our whole life long.
    Friendships with women can carry weight as well, they can last whole lifetimes, grow and adapt even to marriage of one of the friends.

    • Jared Olivetti February 3, 2011 at 2:37 pm #

      Hi Steve,

      I appreciate your comment–the fact that the two statements you quote are almost paradoxical shows that the heart of this matter isn’t one of rules, but one of wisdom. There aren’t two types of relationships (superficial and intimate) but many types of relationships that range from superficial to intimate. What I’m hoping my Christian family will see is that we need to exercise prayerful, discerning wisdom to make sure our non-superficial relationships don’t build inappropriate intimacy between members of the opposite sex. Perhaps it would also help to define confidant: I see a confidant as someone with whom I can share all of my struggles and dreams (not just someone I talk to about deep things).

      And while I agree that relationships between men and women can be helpful and sometimes last many years, I would simply argue that my relationships with my Christian brothers can carry more weight with less danger than my relationships with Christian women (other than my wife, of course). So while we can rejoice in all the friends that God gives us, the friendships we ought to be most pursuing and investing in are (1) our friendship with our wives and (2) our friendship with other Christian men.

      • Steve D February 3, 2011 at 9:26 pm #

        Hi Jared
        Thanks for your response. I agree that there are many degrees of relationships from superficial to intimate. I have always tried to be discerning in all of my relationships be they with a male or female. Intimacy always involves transparency. Obviously, the more intimate, the more transparent., the more risk in any given relationship. For example: a man can be a gossip, being discerning would mean that I would be careful what I told a gossip. Discernment is important in any relationship.

        I agree that my wife should be my most important relationship. However, I my friendships include both men and women. I treasure and invest in both relationships equally. I don’t discriminate between men and women in my friendships. There are times when my closest confidant (aside from my wife) has been another woman. I am afraid that having a female confidant will lead to an affair, not really. I am not looking for an affair, I respect the woman who is my confidant, and she respects me. I can almost hear you saying “You’re playing with fire.” Allow me to explain a little deeper. If i have a close friendship with someone (male or female) I care about them as a person, what is best from them and consequently, their families. Therefore with my female friend (whom I view as the sister I never had) I would never even consider having an affair with her since it would do more damage and absolutely no good.

        Finally, in your reply to Dan you stated:
        “I don’t believe that men have been “socialized to equate emotional intimacy with physical intimacy”; rather, I think most unmarried men never consider emotional intimacy at all. I think most Christian men know to protect the physical purity of their Christian sisters but don’t consider how tying their hearts together is a dangerous thing.

        I would like to suggest that “tying their hearts together” is not a dangerous thing. I would like to suggest that teaching young men and women how to be intimate is a good thing. Friendship and intimacy are not things to be avoided. Rather they are things to be celebrated.

  4. Jared Olivetti February 4, 2011 at 7:33 am #

    Steve & Dan,

    Thanks again for your replies. It’s good to be heard and to hear! I think we’ve gotten to the heart of our disagreements and are can’t help but think that it’s wisest to leave the discussion here. I do hope those reading the post & comments will consider carefully these relationships. Though I haven’t mentioned it before, I have seen (personally and pastorally) the great danger and hurt that happens when these relationships aren’t guarded well. To all, please be careful and take care of each other!

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