Having close friendships with members of the opposite gender is healthy, biblical and important for spiritual growth. Sadly, in the name of integrity, some churches construct walls that keep us from meaningful brother-sister friendships. These divisions are neither biblical nor in line with church history at its best. And contrary to their promise of safety, adhering to them actually puts us at greater risk of sexual immorality, not less.
Many churches employ the terms “brother” and “sister”—but they are often empty of any real meaning. Some now teach that men and women should never be close friends, believing that mixed friendships will lead into sexual sin or “emotional” affairs. Others may admit that men and women can share friendship—but then they let it die the death of a thousand qualifications. One well-known church website boasts of how none of the church staff ever “has lunch with someone of the opposite sex” or “rides alone in the car with someone of the opposite sex.” Boundaries abound. Sadly, though these rules have become commonplace over the last 20 years, adhering to them does not appear to have made us any purer.
God designed us male and female. We need each other. Marriage and family are not the only places this need should be expressed. If that were the case, single people would be helplessly cut off from the love and fellowship mixed friendship brings. And let’s be honest: we often don’t know what to do with the singles in our midst. In other centuries, Christian celibacy was viewed as a gift and a symbol of the coming kingdom of God. Jesus was single. Paul was both single and thankful for it. Now we pray for single people in hopes they find the magical one and only - giving them advice that is more Hollywood than Holy Word.
In response to the sexual revolution of the 1960s, various high-profile scandals – and the recent changes in marriage laws – many Christians have gotten defensive about marriage. It is right for us to defend the Biblical doctrines of marriage. But in doing so we have exalted the relationship to a godlike status – promising it can fulfil every social and emotional need. In the process, friendship – an institution that was once sacred to Christians – has taken a far back seat to marriage, out of fear that a friend might compete with a spouse. Friendships with the same gender are often neglected, and mixed friendships are seen as taboo.
My wife cannot fulfil the role of all of the sister/mother relationships that my soul needs. Neither can I replace all of the brother/father relationships that God may have for my wife in the church. We are not called to be a gathering of tightly defined families for God. We are called to be THE Family of God. It’s true that we must avoid putting ourselves in situations that bring about strong temptation – with either gender. And, yes, cross sex friendships can have pitfalls that we must be wise to avoid. We are naïve if we pretend that our fallen nature always makes this easy. But the possibility of something good being abused or misused is not a valid excuse for avoiding the good thing altogether.
Our new integrity rules are counterproductive because we have genuine needs for healthy male-female relationships. If we don’t get those needs met in healthy ways, we make ourselves vulnerable to seeking them out in unhealthy ways. The man who receives holy female affirmation from sisters in Christ is less likely to search for unholy female affirmation on a computer screen or and improper relationships. The woman who has godly fathers and brothers in the church caring for and encouraging her is less likely to be looking for ungodly masculine love through erotica and illicit interactions. By separating ourselves from healthy interaction with the opposite sex, we are not farther from sin but more open to it.
Contrary to what Freud taught, we can live happily without sex. But we can’t live happily without intimacy. Paul instructs Timothy, “Talk to younger men as you would to your own brothers. Treat older women as you would your mother, and treat younger women with all purity as you would your own sisters” (1 Tim. 5.2). The church is to be a place where father, mother, sister, brother, aunt and uncle relationships can flourish – across biological, generational, and gender lines.