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Brotherly Love: Christians and Male-Female Friendships

May 16 2014
We relate to the opposite sex in the best source of community we know, the church.

Male-female relationships constitute one of the oldest social riddles. From Much Ado About Nothing to Adam's Rib and When Harry Met Sally, countless stories have memorably explored this complex dynamic. But shifting mores have brought further confusion, especially around the question of friendship between men and women.

Wary of how these friendships can turn into romances and affairs, plenty of evangelicals advise against them. At a recent Southern Baptist conference on sexuality, pastor Kie Bowman suggested men not "get in a car (alone) with woman who is not your wife unless she's your mother's age." On the other end of the spectrum, Christian writers like Dan Brennan and Jonalyn Fincher argue that "cross-sex friendships" are worth the risk, even if one or both of the friends are married.

If 1 and 2 Samuel had recounted David's friendship with Jonatha instead of Jonathan, or if God had included an 11th commandment on friendship, we might have clearer guidance on how these kinds of relationships should work. Instead, Christians must sort these matters out as wisely as we can, while echoing Paul's humble disclaimer, "I, not the Lord," advise this or that.

What do we mean when we talk about male-female or cross-sex friendships? In The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis says that friendship has to be about something — that it's a posture of two or more people standing side by side, discussing a truth they see in common. Lovers, by contrast, stand face to face and focus more on each other.

As even this simple word picture conveys, a lover-type, face-to-face relationship doesn't leave much room for others. But a side-by-side friendship easily expands from two to several people. In fact, small groups of friends often share richer conversations than only two could.

Each person plays a key role in the larger whole, Lewis says. "In each of my friends there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out. By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity… Now that Charles is dead, I shall never again see Ronald's reaction to a specifically Caroline joke. Far from having more of Ronald, having him 'to myself' now that Charles is away, I have less of Ronald."

Arguments over male-female friendship rarely involve such a dynamic, however. In her post on the risk such friendships can entail, Fincher compares them to brother-sister relationships. She argues that such sibling relationships – and, by extension, male-female friendships – typically include:

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