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?"
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!