I was delighted Saturday morning to see an article on the Desiring God website entitled ‘Can Christian Men and Women be Friends.’ I had a book published under this title (Here) that was later republished under the name ‘Forbidden Friendships.’
Admittedly, I was also nervous. Having dialogued extensively on the issue of cross-gender friendships (CGFs), I know what a controversial subject this is. People can take extreme views on both sides of the issue and the debate can be explosive. Fortunately, the author of the article, Paul Maxwell, displayed not only courage in taking on this taboo subject but a recognition of both the complexities involved as well as the type of balance that is needed. I’ve since been in touch with Maxwell who had not heard of my book, but who was kind enough to request an e-copy for review.
I want to highlight viewpoints in the article that I think deserve recognition as well as where I wished there could’ve been space for more nuance. Maxwell's original article can be found Here. I'm posting this article with his permission and with him having read it.
First of all, Maxwell roots male-female friendships in the cross of Christ. I'm so grateful that he's does this. He writes, ‘Friendships between men and women in the church are one holy expression of the hard-fought intimacy God has earned for us in Christ (Galatians 3:28)’. I was especially excited to read this as it’s the cornerstone of all I’ve taught on the subject over the last few years. In Forbidden Friendships, I remark ‘We were strangers. We are now brothers and sisters. Christ’s work transforms the full spectrum of human relationships be they between race, class, age or gender. (Galatians3.28)’
Jesus prayed that his followers would be ‘one’. There’s no sub-clause that says ‘except men and women’. We should be displaying the type of relationships that aren’t possible in the world. We should be displaying meaningful relationships across the races, across the generations, and across the gender divide. When done right, this glorifies Christ.
No Rose Coloured Spectacles
Secondly, Maxwell does not see male-female friendships in a naïve way. He acknowledges that there are real pitfalls and he is cautious about them – strongly so. He wisely writes, ‘Wisdom requires some no’s in order to maintain the safety and integrity that leads to life, and not the carelessness or liberty that leads to sin’.
Sin seeks to pervert good things. For that reason, some people teach that we should not even engage in meaningful male-female friendships. Fortunately, Maxwell doesn’t take that stance. Just because something good can be perverted, doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t value or seek that thing out. Parenthood and spiritual leadership can become toxic. But we still keep parents and pastors – even if abuse in both roles is regular. Friendships with the same gender can also be distorted by sin – not just CGFs.
Maxwell cites some examples of boundaries that some people set in order to help keep CGFs from becoming corrupted. The examples that he cites are stricter than the ones my wife and I personally have adopted. But I find that Americans often have tighter boundaries on certain things (alcohol, music, etc) than we do on this side of the pond. It may be that some couples need those sorts of strict boundaries – there should be freedom and flexibility for married couples to set their own guidelines.
The Romantic ‘Other’
The last thing I want to praise about Maxwell’s article is that he acknowledges dynamics change depending on whether the people in the CGF are single, dating, or married. Since it is a blog – and not a book – he does not have space to fully unpack the significance of these relationships, but I am grateful that he acknowledged them within the limited word count he was given.
If you or your friend have a romantic ‘other’ it will affect that friendship. But this does not have to be bad – it’s just different. I have consulted female friends on gifts to get my wife. I’ve given female friends advice on how to make their husbands feel honoured. Your friend having a romantic other doesn’t have to kill your friendship – but it can complicate it. And it can bring insecurities to the surface from any number of directions.
Once again, he Maxwell didn’t have the space to unpack all this, but making clear that these were factors right at the beginning of the article was wise of him.
Secret v. Private
If there was one thing that I thought could’ve been done to improve the article, it would’ve been to make more of a distinction between private and secret activities in the context of a CGF. This could include meeting or texting.
Now in my discussion with Maxwell, he acknowledged that Desiring God’s word limit kept him from nuancing as much as he would’ve liked. I do wish this one point would’ve been clarified because it has significant practical implications.
For example, one of my wife’s CGFs is a single man. He is very shy to speak of his romantic relationships with me, or other men, or most people. But for some reason, he feels safe asking my wife for perspective and advice. When they talk, those are private conversations. They are not secret – just private. I know they are happening. I know where and when my wife speaks with him. But I do not press my wife for all the details of how he had his heart broken. If he knew that I knew those details, he would be embarrassed. Now I could demand that my wife tell me – and she would – but that would be unhealthy and hurt her friendship with him. So I don’t.
The reverse is true with me and some close female friends. We talk privately – not secretly. This is the difference between someone who if a friendly acquaintance – and someone who is a true friend. In the course of any friendship, there is a unique connection between two individuals – and we are able to speak one on one about things that matter to the both of us. It’s like when one has to use the toilet: it’s not a secret that it happens - but it’s still a private experience. So though I know how to check my wife’s text messages (we have no secret passwords) - I don’t. That wouldn’t be healthy for her friendships or our marriage.
All in all, I thought this was a well written and balanced article. I appreciate that a man committed to scripture is willing to publically engage the issue and I look forward to engaging with him more in the future.