One of my dear friends is a divorced mom of two. When I was planning a trip to California last year, she invited me to stay with her family to save on hotel costs. I was super excited to spend time with them — catching up on life, staying up late, not being jolted awake by the evil knock of a housekeeper the next morning. Unfortunately, her pastor had other plans, because he worried what other people might think about a man staying with a woman. Despite having no doubts about our integrity, despite my being attracted to men, and despite the fact that I’d actually be staying with a FAMILY (not a woman), he asked me to stay at his house instead. Not because it really made sense, but because it met the rules and expectations Christians have invented to “protect” male-female friendships from sexual immorality, or in this case, the mere appearance of it.
In his book, Forbidden Friendships, Joshua D. Jones explores these issues, confronting the Church’s fear of opposite-sex friendships and showing us what the Bible actually says about them.
In the past century or so, Christians have been conditioned to avoid meaningful relationships with the opposite sex out of fear they could lead to lust, fornication, or adultery. Jones notes Freud’s influence in causing us to believe all male-female relationships are somehow sexual in nature. As a result, we’ve “tried to pursue sexual purity via gender segregation” and set outrageous extra-biblical boundaries between men and women. He notes one Christian college that prohibits physical contact between the sexes, and where men and women are required to use separate staircases! Jones says these boundaries have harmed rather than helped the Church in achieving sexual purity and obeying our call to love one another as the family of God.
What’s more, these rules are new to Church history. Jones says modern-day Christians are far more leery of opposite-sex friendships than our spiritual ancestors were. From missionaries to revolutionaries, history proves that mixed friendships flourished when rooted in mutual love for God. When it comes to the Bible, the Apostle Paul seems to have had many close female friends, mentioning Nympha by name in his letter to the Colossians. John’s second epistle, or letter, is written to a woman whom he loved dearly. Jesus himself kept company with women, often breaking social taboos regarding male-female relationships (ex. his encounter with the woman at the well). The Bible gives us freedom to pursue mixed friendships and be a witness to the world of how men and women can relate to each other as new creations in Christ.
Of course, we can’t be naive to the very real temptations and sins that can arise in relationships with both men and women. We are, after all, still sinners. Jones admits we need to guard our hearts, especially in a hyper-sexualized culture. But like everything else in this world, mixed friendships need to be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2). Rather than react in fear, we ought to obey in love — learning what it means to see friends as brothers, sisters, mothers, and fathers in Christ.
It’s easy to tell when I’ve enjoyed a book because the margins are filled with hearts and smiley faces, and Forbidden Friendships has my graffiti all over it. This is a message churches need to hear — although, I must admit, the flow of his arguments felt a bit sloppy to me. But you know what I love about Jones? He has a bright view of singleness and celibacy. This, of course, endears him to me. He understands it’s possible to be happy without sex, but that we can’t thrive without intimate relationships with both men and women. He believes the disappearance of mixed friendships is a result of a bigger problem: the devaluation of friendship in general. And he knows this has ramifications for single and same-sex attracted Christians, where friendship within the family of God is essential to living and loving fully.
So, should I have been able to stay with my lady friend and her family? Honestly, I’m thankful for the pastor who welcomed me into his home; he and his wife were kind and hospitable and I enjoyed getting to know them. But I don’t think it accomplished what he was aiming for. One day I ended up alone with the pastor’s wife for the entire morning. (And, of course, that was OK!) I think Jones would encourage us to let love and wisdom dictate these decisions, and that one’s personal boundaries don’t necessarily apply to everyone else in every situation. The bottom line is this: if we’re serious about being the family of God, then we’re free to pursue male-female friendships that center on Christ. As Jones says, the cross bridges the divide between the sexes.
For more, check out the author’s interview with my friends at The Rugged Marriage.