Monday, July 11, 2011

Gender and Friendship

I have run across several interesting blog posts on this topic lately and it is definitely a topic of interest for me. Christians have a tendency to avoid opposite gender friendships for reasons such as "Temptation is always there" and this sense that sex or affairs just accidentally happen. I've always been troubled by the way that this is handled and let me tell you why it bothers me so much. 

Men in our churches are raised thinking that they are to fear their hypersexuality, and women are raised thinking that they are a temptation. Not to mention that women are often represented as passive participants in sex in general. 

Women in church leadership is also a matter close to my heart and this is one huge obstacle I see between women truly being free to follow a call to ministry in many denominations. If men have been taught that they can't trust themselves to be in close proximity to a woman, and that woman is thought of as the temptress  then how can men in leadership risk letting women into these leadership circles? 

There is such a big gender barrier in the church (I know this does not apply to every denomination or expression of the church, but living in a conservative town, it is quite relevant).

I also feel that these boundaries seem to ignore single people. How cruel to permit the deepest intimacy to married couples alone? I'm not talking about intercourse, I'm talking about intimacy. Singles in our churches get the short end of the stick already, and so much of this is because intimacy is kept for the institution of marriage. Intimacy in the church is rather lacking already, and we are called to a very high standard of intimacy if you ask me. Love 1 Corinthians 13 style is not just for married people, this is the church's standard. 

Are there risks in intimacy? Sure there are. But this is where I think we've lost a bit of the vision of what intimacy in the church is like and how it could function.

I am finishing my master's in marriage and family therapy and one of the things we discuss in supervision and classes is the reality of attraction. We acknowledge that attraction WILL happen, that we as therapists/humans/men/women are not immune or above attraction. And yet, this empowers us to be able to enter into intimate relationship with men and women, eyes open, and most importantly encourages us to have a supportive community to turn to when (not if) the situation arises. It is risky. Sure. But, I'm thinking about the church as an intimate community of accountability, one where we don't have secrets, one that "always protects". It is absolutely necessary to have our eyes open to the fact that attraction happens, but that in itself is 1) natural, 2) not the sin. It's the next action you take that matters.  I am thinking about challenging marriages to rise to the challenge. Why limit intimacy outside of marriage and keep marriage at the level it is at? Why not enrich and strengthen your marriage as the safeguard instead? Don’t put yourself in a position where you are handling the inevitable on your own.  Don't avoid intimacy keeping your marriage the same, instead bolster your marriage, open communication and intimacy with your church and if applicable, your spouse. Singles, you are worthy of intimacy. Being brothers and sisters in Christ is a deep intimacy. This is a challenge to the type of spiritual community the church should be. We’ve got to get past the taboo that sexual attraction doesn’t happen to real Christians. We are sexual beings. Attraction happens. Being married doesn’t make you go blind. Being married does not make you unattractive either.
What matters is having an intimate community that is living out love for each other. None of us should place ourselves in any situation thinking we can handle it on our own. The church is a community, and our faith is way too individualized in our society.  If you don’t have a community that you could be so vulnerable with as to admit attraction for the sake of support and protection, maybe it is too risky. We western Christians try to do way too much on our own.

If I ever feel like harboring a secret, that's a pretty good sign that I should bring my spiritual community in on this. Secrecy is a very powerful thing. Have the conversation with your spouse about attraction being a reality. Have the conversation with your church about intimacy and attraction. 

So much is lost in the segregation of gender in the church. Is it worth the challenge of 1 Corinthians 13?

A couple of blogs on the topic:


Amie said...

Hey Liz,

I think you hit the nail right on the head with that last bit. The issue comes when those cross-gender friendships become secrets. I have no problem with having male friends, but I am aware of the potential problems and I take one very specific safeguard: my friendships with men are never secretive. I am very intentional about being "above reproach" as you often hear in this neck of the woods.

For example, if I go to lunch with a male classmate (something that happens when you spend so many hours at campus) I tell my husband about it. I try my best to make sure that no question about the "correctness" of my friendships could be raised, and if that ever happens, I can stand my ground and know that I have done nothing wrong.

This was something that I really had to work on in youth ministry. I think there's a difficult balance to be maintained, but I think that intimate cross-gender friendships can be had, and that they can be a great asset to us personally, maritally, and as a church.

Just some additional thoughts, maybe just rambling...

Elizabeth Chapin said...

Not sure how I stumbled upon this blog, but I was just talking about attraction with my 17 year old daughter. Some of her friends told her she should not be attracted to other guys when she is dating someone. I argued that is an unrealistic view of attraction. Glad to know I am not the only one who thinks this way. Attraction happens, when we declare that it shouldn't happen that's when we get into trouble. Such thinking leads to shaming and covering, and like you say, secrecy is a powerful thing.

Elizabeth Gregory Brown said...

I love hearing that you and your daughter are having this conversation! It's worth the challenge.
Friendship in our culture is sadly missed out on for the same reasons. Why do kids have to date to get to know each other? (I am biased, I'll admit. I didn't date in high school)
What if we taught our children about friendship? Taught them how to be friends?
Thanks for the comment!