Cross-Gender Friendships: What's Appropriate for Married People?
Before I got married I was single for 28 years, and I learned a lot during that time. One lesson? That it can be horribly lonely as a single person in the church, especially given the popular teachings about marital boundaries.
Although I respect every married couple's right to define boundaries in their own way, these boundaries can be painful. As a single woman I often felt like a sexual object to be handled like fire. I grieved the loss of male friends who, rather than invite me into friendship with their wives, ended our friendship altogether.
Because of these experiences, I wanted my marriage to be different. After we became engaged, my then-fiancfamp;copy; and I thought long and hard about how to do friendship Christianly. I never wanted another woman to feel the way I had, and I wanted our marriage to be marked by hospitality. Rather than stifle friendship, I hoped that our marriage would be life-giving to the relationships around us.
I believe my husband and I have succeeded in our goal, but it hasn't been easy. As we have searched for examples, we have found that the married person's approach to cross-gender friendship tends to err in one of two ways, neither of which we wanted to replicate.
The first error is a model of friendship heavily shaped by the doctrine of sin. In other words, cross-gender friendships are treated primarily as sources of temptation. Women tend to bear the brunt of this negative approach, although men do not fare well either. According to this approach, men must be honest about their fallen sexual desires and act appropriately. To avoid even a hint of evil, these men refuse to engage in all one-on-one contact with women. No being in a room alone together, and no riding alone in a car together.
I am sympathetic to this perspective to an extent. Some of the men who teach this philosophy are visible leaders with vibrant ministries. Marital infidelity (even an accusation of such) would not only destroy a marriage but devastate thousands of church members as well. When a leader has that much influence, he is sure to be the target of spiritual attacks, so it is right to take sin seriously.
Nevertheless, the language of this approach is sometimes difficult to square with the doctrine of imago dei, or even a healthy ecclesiology. Rather than treat women as sisters in Christ—emphasis on sisters—they are reduced to objects of sexual desire.
It is because of this popular approach to male-female relationships that an alternative approach to friendship has arisen. In contrast with the prior model, this second one is primarily shaped by the doctrines of grace and redemption.
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