Why Can't We Be Friends?
April 7, 2017
Twitter is an easy venue for statements to be taken out of context. It’s like a bulletin board of thoughts, links, questions, and declarations. There is no context. It’s also an easy venue to set up carefully crafted propaganda, hashtag movements, and false dichotomies. So I have been engaging less and less in twitter “conversations.” That’s not always easy to do because there’s a lot of click bait out there. Much is being “discussed” about relationships between men and women this week and I was tagged on Twitter with this question:
“What types of situations would it be beneficial for a married person to have a friendship with the opposite gender? Genuinely interested.”
I couldn’t possibly respond well on Twitter. So I was left with the choice to ignore it or maybe write something longer on my blog. It’s a question that I’ve seen frequently. And it is related to a topic that I plan on writing much more extensively on: a theology of brother and sister relationships in God’s household.
There are many answers to the above question: work situations, neighborly situations, community outreach situations, parenting situations…but there should already be a foundational level established in how to relate as friends that comes from our household situations. One of the first questions we wrestle with in infancy is “Who am I?” Right away, we receive signals in our personal household. For example, my son would immediately learn, “You are a Byrd,” “You are a son,” “You are a brother,” and “You are loved.”
But ultimately, this question can only be fully answered by his Creator. And in God’s household, his church, all God’s people reflect these answers as well. What do my son and daughters learn about who they are in this household community?
Unfortunately, as eager as the conservative church is to speak out against the sexual revolution and gender identity, she often appears just as reductive as the culture surrounding her when it comes to how our communion with God is represented in our communion with one another. We have lost the beauty of brother and sisterhood, distinction without reduction.
No, gender is not a social construct. There is more to being a woman than my physical body. After God made man and woman in his image he pronounced his creation “very good.” Dr. Kelly Kapic’s excellent chapter on theological anthropology in Christian Dogmatics teaches that this declaration on mankind as “good” was not merely a static state, but a “dynamic or relational view of the human person….Just as God planted the garden to grow, he planted Adam in the midst of that garden---to grow. Humankind could and would change, either growing in beautiful communion with God and the rest of creation, being fruitful and multiplying, or turning from Yahweh and thus compromising their intended human telos” (181). And through four thesis statements, Kapic explains what matters in Christian anthropology.
The whole person matters:
Our minds matter. Our bodies matter. Our wills, our emotions, and our souls matter. All of these faculties that make us human beings made in the image of God need to be rightly ordered toward God in communion with him. Creation reveals this design, and a Christian’s expectation is for glorification where this will be perfected. As we are being transformed into the likeness of the Son, we look forward to intimate communion with him, in new resurrected bodies, on the new heavens and the new earth.
Agency and purpose matters:
We were not designed to be isolated worshipers of God, but “for communion with God, neighbor, and the earth” (177). This changes the way that we think about our whole being. “Love and communion theologically reorient how we understand and evaluate our bodies and their faculties: we see them relationally rather than reductively” (178). Christians look to both our protological history and to our eschatological expectation. While the first Adam’s sin affected the entire world, so Jesus’ life-giving reality, which has overcome death itself, now promises to affect the entire cosmos (Rom. 5:15-21)” (180).
Relational growth matters:
God’s original declaration of goodness on mankind communicates to us that humanity was “rightly ordered and properly placed within the structure of God’s overall creation. Such goodness consisted in their loving communion with the Creator, a relationship that would foster human flourishing and joy” (182). I love what Kapic includes from many different statements of faith in his chapter, but this one from the United Church of Christ in the Philippines really stood out to me:
“We believe that persons are created in the image of God and destined to live in community with God, and with other persons, and with all creations.” (183)
How can we grow relationally if we separated ourselves from friendships with our brothers and sisters? I do understand the intentions and concern in the warnings against such coed friendships, which leads to the next point:
Sin moved humanity from joyful communion with God to being cut off from God and subject to his righteous condemnation. But in Christ, those who were not a people are now God’s people. And so, “just as no part of the human creature escapes the distortions of sin, so no part of human nature (body, will, mind, will, affections, etc.) is unassumed by the Son…the Son’s full and true incarnation as well as the Spirit’s holistic work of sanctification are both necessary” (187).
While we are still susceptible to sin in this age, and are called and equipped to fight sin, Christians know that sin will never be normal. It is an evil that works against our image bearing. “To employ classical language, sin and its consequences are accidental rather than essential to being human, a point that Scripture reinforces both in terms of the goodness of the original creation and the promise of glorification” (184). Sin does matter. And brothers and sisters in God’s household are called to promote one another’s holiness (Heb. 12:15).
Representation and solidarity matter:
“In Scripture we are presented with a radical portrait of divine generosity, with humanity given special place of privilege to embody and extend divine goodness and grace. This portrayal also has as radical democratizing effect, which cuts against ethnic, social, economic, and other differences that so separate humanity from one another and also pit persons against the earth. Human creatures were made as interconnected beings, linked to the earth and one another, even as they represented Yahweh to the rest of creation
“Accordingly, humans were created to live not as isolated, autonomous individuals but in community with one another and in life-giving connection with the material world as the environment for communion with God” (188).
So, why does it matter that these things things matter when talking about women and men being friends?
All mankind has dignity as we are created in God’s image. How do we represent God’s love for mankind in Christ? And, given the concerns over sin, what responsibilities do we have? Well, first we need to view our sisters and brothers holistically, not just physically. What does it mean to look at a person as a holistic relational being? It means that we are not going to reduce them to their bodies, specifically to their genitalia and sexual urges. My gender is more than my genitalia. Is our zealousness to avoid sin inadvertently training Christians to view women reductively as sexual temptresses and men reductively by animalistic impulses?
We were designed for communion with God and one another. How does our communion with God affect our communion with our neighbors? Does it cause us to exclude the opposite sex from our friendships? Do we express our love for one another by not being friends? Is that how we promote one another’s holiness?
The very definition of a friendship is platonic---“intimate and affectionate, but not sexual.” So this question, “would it be beneficial for a friendship with the opposite gender,” is really asking if coed friendship is even possible. Is our representation to one another in God’s household and also to the watching world that “No, on this side of the resurrection it is not possible”?
And what does purity look like in coed friendships? Avoidance? Paul calls Timothy to treat “the older women as mothers, and the younger women as sisters, in all purity” (1 Tim. 5:2). We know how to do this! We know how to promote holiness in brother and sisterly relationships. I have a close relationship with my brother. When we married, things did change a little. Our spouses get the main focus of our attention and time. We uphold that for one another. We don’t seek a bunch of opportunities for just the two of us to meet together. But when we do happen to be alone together, it’s not a threat to our marriages. Our friendship benefits our marriages; it does not subvert them.
In His book, Strangers in a Strange Land, Archbishop Charles Chaput uses similar language as Kapic when describing that we must not be reductive when it comes to purity, while also warning to being preemptive against temptation to sin:
Purity is about wholeness or integrity, it means that the body, mind, heart and soul are rightly ordered toward God. Every element of who we are is doing its part to bring us to union with God, which is our ultimate happiness. Given the strength of the sexual desires we all feel, rightly acting on those desires is a key part to maintaining purity. For single people and celibates…it means offering those desires up to God, and seeking to channel them in our love and service to others. (180)
Christians, remember who we are. We are God’s people. We were created for joyful communion with him and one another. The Father has shared his love for the Son with us, through his Spirit. Wow!
“The faithful love of God was so great that he restored the true relationship with his mankind again in Jesus Christ, the true and genuine man” (189)*
We point one another to the Incarnate Christ, as “we are never more like God than when we love his Son through his Spirit” (166). And even now, we enjoy fellowship together in his household as brothers and sisters. Let’s encourage and exhort one another to be rightly ordered toward God, with all our faculties, and not reduce one another in our friendships. These relationships will benefit us as we are sent out into the world to be good neighbors to all creation.
*From The Confession of the Church of Toraja, Indonesia