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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  • Longing to know and connect
  • Hope to get and give attention, to be seen
  • Bubbling excitement for time together
  • Curiosity about what he or she is doing
  • Hope to not offend or mess things up
  • Hunger to serve
  • Eagerness to share whatever drew us together
  • Desire to make him or her laugh out loud.

Whether or not this list characterizes a typical sibling relationship, it clearly describes a more face-to-face than side-by-side rapport. (And frankly, it reminds me far more of how I feel toward men I'd like to date than my sister or brothers.)

Rather than the sense of attraction that underlies Fincher's description, I would suggest that most sibling relationships are distinguished by:

  • Deep loyalty rooted in a shared, unchangeable identity;
  • Freedom to be ourselves without fear of rejection (for better or worse);
  • Rich shared history, often including a deep understanding of each other's sense of humor and similar, though perhaps unspoken, expectations of relational norms;
  • Concern for their well-being, including relationships and achievement of their God-given potential;
  • Commitment to maintaining a relationship, no matter the roadblocks that schedules, geography, or personal change may throw in the way

That last quality may constitute the most important feature of sibling relationships. It may also explain why so many male-female "friendships" tend to become a form of emotional dating.

We each have friends we see in groups, but fewer whom we seek out one-on-one. Partly that's due to the practical constraints of time and energy. In intimate friendship, though, people also tend to want to give themselves deeply to each other. In other words, we tend instinctively toward emotional monogamy in our deepest, most intimate — albeit platonic — relationships. Thus, perhaps, the rise of the term "best friend." Lacking a formal commitment, emotional intimacy can powerfully bind two people together, at least for the short term.

I first began pondering the nature of male-female friendship almost a decade ago, when an emotionally intimate friendship I hoped would become more did not. (I've had several of those in almost two decades as a single adult.) Looking back, I realize that more than romance, marriage, or even sex, I wanted to be in community with those men. I liked interacting with them. I liked who they sometimes enabled me to be. I didn't want to lose that.

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Fincher says both male-female friendship (of the mainly one-on-one sort, it seems) and marriage entail risks. Since the riskiness of marriage doesn't stop us getting married, she argues risk shouldn't stop us from forming somewhat intimate male-female friendships either.

But no one takes risks for the sake of recklessness. You risk because of what you hope to gain. In marriage, Christians risk disappointment, exposure, and betrayal not only because God blessed and appointed such whole-self commitment between two people, but also because we hope to gain the intimacy, unity, joy, and security the healthiest such bonds foster. What potential fruit of intimate, one-on-one male-female friendship justifies the risk, especially when one or both of those friends has married someone else? And what would the presence of other friends threaten?

In a recent conversation about this with two friends who've been married almost a decade, they noted that marriage fosters an expectation of being completely known and understood by another person. Because marriage imperfectly satisfies our desire for such relationship, my friends said it often sets you up for disappointment. But in friendship, you don't tend to expect as much, so you're disappointed less.

Too often, I fear, we enter ambiguous, intimate male-female friendships unconsciously hoping to get many of the benefits of a committed relationship without the deep hurt that marriage and siblings alike can cause. But that's a false kind of community.

True community involves living out the for-better, for-worse part of marriage vows. It requires the loyalty of siblings who may not like each other, but recognize that their lives are irrevocably bound up with each other's. And true community means the openness to others that defines Christian marriage and characterizes our triune God. As Tim Keller writes in The Meaning of Marriage:

To be loved but not known is comforting but superficial. To be known and not loved is our greatest fear. But to be fully known and truly loved is, well, a lot like being loved by God. It is what we need more than anything. It liberates us from pretense, humbles us out of our self-righteousness, and fortifies us for any difficulty life can throw at us.

For much of my life, I thought only marriage could provide the sort of committed relationship I've always longed for. But recently I've realized that the local church also involves committed relationships. In fact, it may be the very best source of community because it's sustained not just by each individual's commitment to God, but ultimately by God's commitment to us.

And in the church God gives us not just sibling-type male-female relationships, but spiritual uncles, nephews, grandfathers and sons, too — in fact, the whole universe of male-female relationships. What could be better than that?

Some parts of this article originally appeared in a blog post on emotional chastity.