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Let's Be Friends
I might have created my Twitter account a decade ago, but it has only been in the last 18 months that I’ve found myself brave (or foolish?) enough to start venturing into its wilds. During that time I’ve come to understand that (at least amongst those who our algorithmic overlords have determined should populate my feed) there are:
Some topics that are endlessly up for discussion - “Are we ever not talking about this?!”
Some topics that are regularly up for discussion - “Are we still talking about this?”
Some topics that are cyclically up for discussion - “Apparently it’s time for us to talk about this again”
One of the topics in that last category seems to be the matter of friendship. Specifically, the matter of friendship between men and women. Even more specifically, the matter of friendship between men and women when one (or perhaps both) of those individuals are married.
A few weeks ago someone kicked off the cycle all over again. Happily, I can’t remember who it was. I also can’t remember exactly what they said. But the essential gist of it was:
Friendship between a man and woman = basically a recipe for disaster.
Friendship between a man and woman, at least one of whom is married to someone else = CODE RED! Danger Will Robinson! Danger! Everyone evacuate the building immediately!
Of course, whoever set off the latest round of Twitter angst was not the voice of one calling from the wilderness. The *whoop whoop* alarm they sounded about opposite-sex friendships between men and women who are not married to each other is par of the course for contemporary evangelical discourse. As I write in my upcoming book:
“A similar level of misgiving is often applied to the friendship between a married and an unmarried individual, and especially if they are of the opposite sex. As a 2008 Focus on the Family article observes, before an individual was married, they “may have had lots of friends of the opposite sex. But once you’ve said ‘I do,’ your relationship with your spouse must now take priority over every other relationship, and it must be protected against any threat.” The article goes on to argue that any close platonic friendship with someone of the opposite sex might gradually, yet almost inexorably, draw the married person “into an emotional affair that can rip a marriage to shreds even though the relationship never becomes physical.” The married Christian who develops a close friendship with someone of the opposite sex is in danger of committing nothing less than “emotional adultery.”
Playing It Safe?
Of course male/female friendships have the potential to be complicated, compromising or unhealthy. Sadly, all human relationships have this potential. Why? Because they are relationships between sinful humans.
Friendship is no exception. And of course, close male/female friendships between two people who are not married to each other have the potential to develop into something ungodly and unloving. None of us should be complacent about the way that sin crouches at the door to our hearts, minds and relationships, eagerly chomping at the bit to master and control us. (More on the implications of that later).
However, that a particular friendship has the mere potential to become sinful is not a reason to automatically avoid, prevent or flee from the very possibility of that friendship. After all, for those who have been united to Christ, whose hearts have been renewed, who are in-dwelt by the sanctifying Holy Spirit, the potential for sin does not inexorably lead to the inevitability of sin.
Think about it for a moment. Could you imagine if we applied the same logic to marriage or parenting?
“Well, in marriage there is always the potential for one (or both) spouses to be unfaithful to the other, whether in thought or action. And so, because the potential for such sin exists, well really we should just avoid marriage altogether. Better not to risk it, right?”
“Well, being a parent is really, really tough. There is always the potential to be impatient and unkind. To get angry at your kids. To be regularly frustrated in your relationship with them. And so, because the potential for such sin exists, well wouldn’t it be wiser to just not have kids at all? Better not to risk it, right?”
Imagine all the joys, blessings, comforts and delights we’d miss if we brought that attitude to the relationships of marriage and parenthood. Think about all the opportunities for personal spiritual growth, for loving others, for glorifying God that we’d be forsaking.
None of us apply that approach to marriage and parenting, do we? So why then would we use it as our starting framework for thinking about opposite-sex friendships? To that which characterises Jesus’ own relationship with his disciples (Lk 12:4, Jn 15:14-15) and so, it seems, will outlast marriage itself?
Why? Well, to quote the article I cited above, its because we believe that “once you’ve said “I do,” your relationship with your spouse must now take priority over every other relationship”.
Complements. Not Competitors.
But friends (see what I did there?), marriage & friendship are not in competition with each other. They are not rivals. They are not threats to each other. They are both wonderful, different and unique relationships created by God for us to enjoy according to their own wonderful, different & unique ends. In other words, to recognise the importance and dignity of friendship—including opposite-sex friendship— is not to diminish the importance and dignity of marriage.
What is more, both types of relationships can actually strengthen and signify the importance of the other. For example, your friendships are able to provide you with a unique relational intimacy, confidence and security that is able to actually strengthen your marriage, and highlight its unique importance in your life! To put it another way, our marriages actually need our friends. Likewise, our friendships can be enriched by our marriages.
Furthermore, when you promised to “forsake all others” in your marriage vows, you were not pledging to forsake all other relationships, period. Rather, you were promising to forsake having a spousal relationship with anyone other than the spouse you just wed. You were promising not to treat another person as you would your husband or wife. You were promising not to have another relationship that would mimic the covenanted relationship you were entering into with this other person for life. What you were not promising was to just cut off or do away with the need for any other human relationship the moment you had a ring on your finger.
Friendship is not and should not be viewed as in competition with marriage. Neither should marriage be viewed as in competition with friendship. They are, instead, complements to each other.
What’s Sex Got To Do With It?
But, what about that potential we spoke of? I mean it does exist, after all? Friendship between men and women can still become, well, something else. Something… sexual.
Yes, it can. In fact, it always is. Friendship is sexual because every single human relationship is sexual. Every one of them involves one sexed human creature relating to another sexed human creature. Men relating to men is a sexual act. Women relating to women is a sexual act. Men and women relating to each other is a sexual act. All of our relationships are sexual acts. Why? Because our sexual nature is about much more than just what we do or want to do with our genitals. It’s about being men and women who relate to each other in a myriad of different ways, across the diversity of the relational spectrum.
Here’s something to consider. In the new creation, we will continue relating as embodied men and women. That is, my created sexual nature will continue as an aspect of my personal continuity—of what it means for me to still be the woman God created me to be, both in this age and the resurrection age. But in that age to come, we will relate as sexually embodied human beings outside the context of both marriage & sex (Mt 22:30).
What this means is that being sexual—having a sexual nature—must be about more than just having sex itself! It means that just because a relationship is “sexual” doesn’t mean it is or has to be sexualised (in the erotic sense of that word).
Think about it. Brothers and sisters relate to each other as sexed beings, don’t they? As do fathers & daughters. So too, mothers & sons. All of these are “sexual” relationships. The sexual nature of each participant in them helps to inform what that relationship can and should be. Indeed, in many ways, sexuality signifies the importance and character of those unique opposite-sex relationships. It provides content and context to them. Sexuality is integral in our understanding of what it means for a (male) father to appropriately relate in love to his (female) daughter. And sexuality is integral in our understanding of how that father/daughter relationship can be evilly and tragically twisted, distorted and corrupted for tragic, evil, twisted, distorted and corrupt sexual ends.
To put it another way, the appropriate understanding and loving expression of sexuality in relationships between men and women who are not married to one another shows how truly wrong and destructive it is for that relationship to become sinfully eroticised. It is in knowing how a man ought to rightly relate to a woman in the context of their unique relationship that we are very alert to how he must not relate to her in the context of that relationship.
What is true for fathers and daughters, mothers and sons, brothers and sisters is also true for our opposite-sex friendships. That sexuality has an important role to play in opposite-sex friendships does not make those relationships problematic. It makes them important and necessary.
The Boundaries of Love
Yes, when we speak of marriage and friendship, boundaries are essential. In fact, boundaries are essential for all human relationships. None of us enter (or ought to enter) into any relationship without the knowledge that there will be some level of boundary building necessary. And yes, that applies even to marriage.
How and when those boundaries are built, strengthened, renovated, and moved will depend on the specific relationship itself. What is more, the nature and character of some relationships will rightly and necessarily require us to build boundaries in our other relationships.
Marriage and friendship are important examples of this. Because of our marriages and/or the marriages of others, it is right for us to establish certain boundaries in our friendships. Sometimes those boundaries might need to be higher and taller. At other times they might be lower and less intrusive. Sometimes they might shift dynamically. At other times they might be need to reinforced. Sometimes those boundaries will be the same, regardless of the sex of our friend. At other times they will be quite different.
When we speak about friendships between men and women when one or both of those friends are also married, then wisdom, honesty, accountability, intentionality and transparency must be carefully and consistently enacted. But what must ultimately prevail is love. Yes, love for your spouse or your friend’s spouse. But so also love for your friends.
After all, marriage is not the only human relationship which needs “protecting”, or perhaps to put it more positively, “fostering”, is it? Friendship is also valuable and significant and important to us as humans. In fact, dare I say it, we need friends in a way that we don’t actually need marriage.
Now, that doesn’t mean that we should prioritise our relationships with our friends over the relationship with our spouse. It doesn’t mean that we should compromise love for our spouse because of our friends. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t establish loving, kind, thoughtful boundaries in our friendships (and our marriages). It doesn’t even mean that there may not be times when we really need to take a step back from certain friendships out of love and honour for our spouse. (Though when and if that is necessary, can I please beg you to also love and honour your friend in the way you go about doing that).
But, it does mean that if we are avoiding friendships (with those of either sex) because we’re worried such friendships pose an inherent risk to our marriage, then we’ve misunderstood the dignity and telos of both marriage and friendship. It means that we are denying ourselves, our spouse and our would-be friends the rich diversity of relational abundance that God has provided for us in this creation, as we look towards the next.
After all, as our Saviour both said and demonstrated, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his… friends.” - John 15:13
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