Can’t we just be friends?

By Tom Harbour.  Tom is both a full time public school counsellor and Emmanuel’s Teaching and Counselling Pastor

I work in a high school. Every day I see students, female and male, interacting with each other as they grow in friendships and learn how to relate to each other. In this context, I have observed that not every interaction between the sexes leads to some kind of mating ritual or creates sexual tension. In fact, most don’t. While there’s a chance that some close relationships lead to deeper commitments of love and marriage, not all do. I’m sure many of us can think back with fondness to relationships we had with people of the opposite sex while growing up.

In the church we see and encourage this same diversity of friendships. However, something happens the moment someone gets engaged to be married. That’s when things change—other relationships with members of the opposite sex become suspect. An unspoken expectation appears that males and females should no longer be friends, unless it’s with their spouses. For good reason, we usually argue—Christian marriage is about faithfulness to one person when it comes to affection and attraction. Other cross-sex relationships potentially hinder the loyalty and focus between two spouses.

But this perspective is too simplistic, so has complications. Can no other cross-sex relationship shed light on life? Is it healthy for us to only focus on the marriage relationship to the detriment of other engagements? What affect does this have on our capacity to relate to others, regardless of gender? I believe a wholesale approach to dismissing cross-sex relationships when one gets married is potentially dangerous. Here’s why:

It seems the reason we don’t encourage friendships with members of the opposite sex is often based on fear that “something bad” will happen, usually implying an affair. It’s the idea that emotional connection with friends of the opposite sex can potentially lead to divided loyalties, whether sexual attraction is there or not.

The problem with this fear, however, is that it is unbalanced, or perhaps illogical. As believers who stake their spiritual identity on God’s redemptive grace, the biggest problem is that a fearful or cautious approach to friendship can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Cross-sex friends are now seen as threats to our immediate relationships rather than as friends and spiritual siblings, equally as loved by God.

If it is suddenly taboo for a cross-sex friendship to continue because of the stigma of affair, then a person could end up responding to friendship sexually. Why? Because an opportunity for learning about godly friendship has been severed rather than embraced and worked through. The very concept of a cross-sex relationship is simply categorized as “forbidden fruit” rather than being viewed with a more redemptive and broader theme of “walking alongside, together.”

The danger, ultimately, becomes skirting around the issue of cross-sex friendship rather than purposefully walking through it with agape love. Debra Hirsch, in Redeeming Sex: Naked Conversations About Sexuality and Spirituality, says that “When we are fearful as disciples or as a church, we begin thinking primarily about what we want to prevent and avoid rather than what we want to encourage and develop.” Though Paul wasn’t referring specifically to cross-sex friendship, his advice to the Philippians is appropriate here. Phil 4:8-9 says, “Summing it all up, friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse. Put into practice what you learned from me, what you heard and saw and realized. Do that, and God, who makes everything work together, will work you into his most excellent harmonies. (MSG)”

That’s not to say that people should be careless in cross-sex friendships; in fact, I’m saying the opposite. People need to be bounded or disciplined in all relationships, not setting themselves up for failure. The point is this: friendship doesn’t equate with moral failure. Rather, there are benefits of friendship with the opposite sex.

It’s healthy to be able to interact, or be friends, with other members of the opposite sex. Healthy and thoughtful cross-sex friendships help solidify perspectives, concerns, hopes and dreams that you have witnessed with your own spouse, allowing you to gain valuable knowledge to strengthen your own marriage. For example, a bunch of guys sitting around trying to “understand women” is probably far less effective in that quest than actually talking to women. So, too, when women try to dissect the mystery that is male.

Further, as few of us work in single gender environments, there are practical reasons for maintaining or developing appropriate friendships in order to know how best to relate to the opposite sex. At the risk of repetition, I’m not saying that there are no risks in developing friendships in the workplace as, sadly, many affairs do take place with co-workers. Instead, I’m suggesting that cross-sex work environments are a fact of life, and that there are healthy benefits to these relationships that are authentic, expressing care, respect, and love for others, with appropriate boundaries. To deny this is to diminish what it means to be human, and witnesses of the kingdom of God.

Hirsch agrees, saying “Artificial boundaries don’t exist in the real world, so how can we be authentic disciples, living examples of healthy humanity, while not being able to relate meaningfully to at least half of any given population? Are we really to be that fearful about the other? Is sexual temptation just too hard to resist? Is all this uptightness really what God intended?”

She goes on to draw in Jesus’ redefinition of relationships found in Mark 3:33-35, when his family came to see him. Jesus responded, “Who do you think are my mother and brothers?” Looking around, taking in everyone seated around him, he said, “Right here, right in front of you—my mother and my brothers. Obedience is thicker than blood. The person who obeys God’s will is my brother and sister and mother. (MSG)”

Thus, believers are family. Quoting Hirsch again, “we must not capitulate to Freudian ideas about sexuality, which “genitalize” all cross-­sex relationships, and if taken to their logical conclusion would just about eliminate friendship altogether.” In the early church, it was common to call believers “brother” or “sister.” This places the friendship in the proper context of family. Even if the language now seems quaint, the intent should be recaptured by the church of today. Somehow we need to come to terms with more redemptive ways of having life-giving cross-sex friendships that challenge us in our faith, build confidence in our marriage relationships, and teach us about caring for others, regardless of gender.

A final word comes from my role as a public school counsellor. A female co-worker and fellow believer, Carol, and I presented a workshop on resiliency for our tenth grade students. Resiliency is “the capacity to spring back, rebound, successfully adapt in the face of adversity, and develop social and academic competence despite exposure to severe stress.” One of the illustrations we developed for this presentation to 16-year olds had to do with driving—If a driver slides his car off the road, any driving instructor worth her salt will counsel the driver to focus on the road the driver wants to get back on, not the rock, tree, or fence that he is about to hit. Applied to resiliency, it means students can find health, and even flourish, if they keep focused on the direction they want to go. This illustration also sums up a healthy approach to cross-sex relationships: keep your focus on where you want to go, not where you’re afraid you might end up.

All references from The Message (Eugene Peterson), Redeeming Sex: Naked Conversations About Sexuality and Spirituality (Debra Hirsch), and Resiliency in Schools: Making It Happen for Students and Educators (Nan Henderson and Mike Milstein).