Can men and women be friends? Jen Wilkin recently addressed this question in an article posted here, answering that “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.”
I have tremendous regard for Jen, and her writings are a welcome and much-needed addition to the pool of resources for Christian women who are serious about their faith. For that reason, I wish she’d gone even deeper than she did in qualifying what she means by “appropriate forms of friendship.”
My approach to the issue, based on both experience and a few decades of observation, seems to be somewhat different from Jen’s—not right, necessarily, but different. Perhaps it simply comes down to the way we definefriendship.
Jen points to Jesus as one who engaged in godly inter-gender friendship: “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.”
She is right in urging caution, given that we, unlike him, are far from sinless. Yet I think before we can consider Jesus as our example, it would be wise to set down a few qualifiers. First, we don’t know the exact nature of Jesus’s relationships with his female disciples. There is little doubt that he listened to their confidences and deep, dark personal secrets; however, we have no evidence that this was reciprocated in kind beyond what he offered to Peter, James, and John (his close male friends).
Second, we do well to consider that Jesus’s relationships with women might better be seen as close fellowshiprather than close friendship. True Christian fellowship isn’t really about a group of Christians gathered around a casserole and a cup of coffee, which is how we so often think of that term today. Fellowship is about Christians gathered together for the purpose of spiritual growth and kingdom building.
As for friendship, well, commonalities make for friendship, so certainly those who fellowship together become friends. However, there are all levels of friendship. There is the camaraderie of shared labor, whether in work or in ministry—that’s one kind of friendship. Another kind is the bond that forms from shared experiences, often difficult ones. And there is the deepest kind—the one in which trust is built as the result of sharing confidences and accepting those of the other, making oneself vulnerable to rejection in the process, yet sticking together through the beautiful and the ugly.
So I agree with Jen if she is talking about true fellowship or camaraderie. But anything deeper is, in my view, not only unwise but largely impossible. All through Scripture we find references to male-female relationships, and these include husband-wife, mother-father, brother-sister, and ministry partnership (fellowship). We do not see deep friendship outside of those contexts. As for the natural—and presumed—friendships that occur within those contexts, we aren’t told anything about the depth of them.
Jen’s concern is that given the risk of sexual attraction between men and women, Christians have become phobic about inter-gender friendships, and, she says, that is harmful to the church. But is phobic really the right word? It must be that Jen and I have been in very different church cultures, because I’ve never witnessed such phobia. Could what some think of as phobic really be simple caution? Phobic is indeed the right word if churches make rules limiting adult male and female interaction (actually, legalism is the best word in such cases). Notwithstanding, sexual attraction is, as we all know, very powerful, and it cannot always be contained by mere willpower; hence Paul’s admonition to flee rather than fight sinful temptations of this type (1 Cor. 6:18).
But the potential for sexual attraction is really only one issue that makes close inter-gender friendship unwise.
Consider that close friends share and bare their souls. If one or both is married to someone else, such sharing is wrong. It intrudes upon sacred marital territory. Some will argue, “My spouse is totally okay with it!” However, given the ever deepening bond in close friendship, and given the ups and downs in every marriage, there may come a point when the bond in the friendship is detrimental to the marriage, and the friendship must be dissolved.
If both are single, what happens when one moves on to marry? Must the friendship diminish then? If deep intimacies have been shared, then yes. It must.
If one does develop an attraction to the other, can the friendship continue as it always has? I have yet to see a case where this is possible. The one attracted tries to maintain the “just friends” status. The attractor begins to feel uncomfortable and guilty. Thus, the friendship is no longer possible. Are there ever exceptions? Certainly. But they are rare and usually occur much later in life when the whole man-woman pull is much less compelling.
I just don’t see biblical precedent for close inter-gender friendships. Fellowship, yes. Close friendship, no. Proverbs 4:23 cautions, “Keep your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life”–and the health of the church.