Red Flags and Risk
Part of the problem with asking the question, “Can men and women be friends?” is nailing down which men and which women (married? single?) and what kind of friendship is in view. The question often leads us to assume intimate friendship is being suggested—hanging out alone together, sharing your deepest hopes and fears. And no, that’s not a good idea. If you’re single it leads to a lot of weirdness about where the relationship is headed, and if you’re married, you should reserve intimate friendship for your spouse. But we need not rule out male-female friendship built on mutual respect and affinity, cultivated within appropriate boundaries. If we do, we set a course charted by fear rather than by trust.
Sexual attraction is a valid red flag to raise when we consider male-female friendships, and it should never be dismissed lightly. But it does not justify declaring all such friendships impossible. All relationships involve risk of hurt, loss, or sin, but we still enter into them because we believe what will be gained is greater than what we might risk. Consider the reality that:
- Marriage is risky—your spouse might prove unfaithful or cruel.
- Parenthood is risky—your child might grow up to hate you or harm others.
- Same-gender friendship is risky—your friend might betray you or let you down.
- Work relationships are risky—your subordinate might embezzle from the company.
- Business relationships are risky—your auto mechanic might overcharge you.
- Church relationships are risky—your pastor might turn out to be an abuser, or just a jerk.
Serving Side by Side
Like labor-and-delivery stories, the lust-and-infidelity stories of men and women who crossed a friendship boundary play and replay in our consciousness. But we seldom hear repeated the stories of male-female friendships that worked. I don’t think that’s because they don’t exist. In the church, even telling someone you have a friend of the other gender can raise eyebrows. We’ve grown positively phobic about friendship between men and women, and this is bad for the church. It implies we can only see each other as potential sex partners rather than as people. But the consequences of this phobic thinking are the most tragic part: When we fear each other we will avoid interacting with one another. Discussions that desperately need the perspectives of both men and women cease to occur. (Hint: most discussions desperately need the perspectives of both men and women, particularly in the church.)
Yet almost no one in the church is bold enough to say these friendships matter. We fear the age-old problem of “If I say X, will I unintentionally encourage Y?” So in the church we rarely tell divorced parents they can still be good parents because we’re afraid we’ll encourage divorce. We rarely tell young people that loss of sexual purity is something that can be overcome because we’re afraid we’ll encourage promiscuity. We rarely tell moms who work outside the home we value them because we’re afraid we’ll communicate we don’t value the home. And so on. We are so concerned that people will misunderstand what we mean by “appropriate male-female friendships” that we do not speak of them at all. Just as divorced parents and young people and working moms pay a price for our fearful silence, there is a price for our fearful silence on male-female friendships as well: The church is robbed of the beauty of men and women serving side by side as they were intended.
Not Can But Must
What bothers me most about the question, “Can men and women be friends?” is that even if I answer it in the affirmative, I have not done justice to the issue. Yes, they can be friends, but more than that, they must be friends. Appropriate forms of friendship—those in which we see each other as people rather than potential sex partners—must exist between men and women, especially in the church. How else can we truly refer to each other as brothers and sisters in Christ? Jesus extended deep, personal friendship to both men and women. We are not him, so following his example requires wisdom and discernment about our own propensity to sin as well as that of others. But his example is worth following, brothers and sisters, even if it involves risk.
“For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:35).