“I believe in integrity: A life based on honesty and consistency. But what is being practiced here in the name of integrity is a division of legalism, not a holiness of love. It is putting a wall between men and women within Christ’s body. These practices separate people whom God has joined together. They drink the same cup and eat the same bread, but they can’t use the same stair cases.” – Joshua Jones, Forbidden Friendships (180)
It has been my experience within the evangelical church that friendships between men and women are forbidden from fear of sexual misconduct. Coming from a fundamentalist background, I can honestly say that I’ve seen firsthand how this fear is dividing the Church in half and the division is devastatingly unhealthy. Women are being deprived of Christ-like agape intimacy with men who would otherwise relate to them as fathers and brothers. Men are being equally stripped of this same type of intimacy from mothers and sisters within the body of Christ. Far from establishing pure perspectives of one another from this safe distance, it has caused us to view and handle one another as sexual objects. When we forbid intimate friendships between brothers and sisters in Christ, we don’t snuff out a lust problem, we blow on its embers.
I stumbled across the book, Forbidden Friendships, by Joshua Jones, on Twitter. This book resonated with my own thoughts regarding male-female friendships, and I found myself cheering as I turned every page. I too, have been processing these same thoughts in regard to the church, and I was elated to find this shared perspective penned by a man. He does an incredible job of getting to the heart of this matter right off the bat by confronting our fear driven desire to segregate the church, pointing out that we’ve actually undermined the very good that God has established. In the garden, God created two genders, determining that woman would indeed be man’s first companion. This speaks volumes first and foremost to community and the loneliness that is alleviated by, as Joshua puts it, our “equality-in-difference.” He then moves into discussion about Christ’s reversal of the curse through death on the cross, making us neither male nor female within the body of Christ (Gal 3:28), but co-heirs together. He teases this theme throughout the book, calming our fears (How does it look? What could happen?) of befriending one another and inviting us to see the blessing of close friendship together.
In Timothy St. Paul writes, “Talk to younger men as you would your own brothers. Treat older women as you would your mother, and treat younger women with all purity as you would your own sisters.” This is a command. We are called to be a family. Trying to avoid sexual sin by distancing yourself from the other gender is not obedience to the call. Dare we put integrity in the sight of men before holiness in the sight of God?” (375)
Joshua takes the time and care to dissect our fears while also addressing our sinful tendencies/ difficulties within these relationships. He has a non-threatening, realistic approach to humans and how we operate, bringing understanding to the table — foregoing shame. His antidote to sexual temptation is not less, but actually more intimate friendships with the opposite gender. He says,
“In addition to same-gender needs, we also have legitimate opposite-gender needs. It may be a woman hungry for a father figure she never had. It may be a young man in need of nurture which an older, spiritual mother may be able to give. It may be a sense of sibling-like validation or affirmation which may strengthen and encourage you in a different way than if it came from a person of the same gender. When these needs are not met in healthy ways we are more prone to seek fulfillment in unhealthy ones.” (295)
This rings true in my own life, as I’ve no father. My experience with my birth father is first abandonment to be followed later in life by exploitation. With my step-father, acceptance was held just out of my reach. The only information that I was handed about my male counterparts from the only father figure available was simply: “Men are pigs and they only want one thing from you.” Always longing for intimacy with the opposite sex, yet never sure how to extract it, led me to hand them the only thing I understood them to be after. Ergo, my interpretation of intimacy with the opposite gender was predominantly sexual from the beginning. A shift began to occur as I made friends with guys my age who truly wanted friendship. This however, was quickly stripped from me as an adult the moment I stepped into the evangelical church. Because of a community stricken with fear of sexual sin, men once again became off-limit sexual objects to me.
“Many women have faced harsh rejection by men and many men from women. Expressing love, kindness and acceptance through relationship helps make the church the healing home it is called to be. I am fragile and broken. Stroke away.” (249)
Throughout the book, Joshua answers the rebuttals we often hear from believers about the dangers of such friendships with grace and understanding. He does not write from naivete, and he gives nod to the fact that we are sinners and therefore capable of taking that which is a good gift and ruining it. He challenges the notion of emotional affairs while giving wisdom for navigating “heterosociality” (mixed-gender friendships). He isn’t afraid to give freedom in having emotionally intimate friendships with the opposite gender, citing both church history and scripture. He discusses the possibility of single, married, or those in dating relationships developing romantic feelings for close friends and provides practical wisdom for how to handle that in each of these situations, if they occur.
I think the only critique I would feel compelled to offer with this book, is that women are far more sexually minded and driven than the author has been led to believe. I do not intend to fault him by this suggestion, as I believe that women’s sexuality has been one of the biggest kept secrets within the Church. As much as a man struggles with lust because of his lack of agape-type intimacy and great loneliness, so does his sister. I’m not saying that all women are created sexually equal in their drive and desire, just as men aren’t, but I am suggesting that both men and women were created sexual beings and the stereotypes we’ve been handed in this area are more damaging than helpful. As I read along, I found Joshua’s help for man’s gravitation towards lust apply to me as a woman in my own gravitation towards it: heterosociality.
As my Christian brothers and Father types press into me, offering healthy friendship and Christ-like intimacy, the less I desire to think of men in general as objects to satisfy sexual fantasies. I’m no longer living my life in order to obtain intimacy or acceptance that is beyond my reach. First and foremost, I have it in Christ (identity) and now, because of men walking into my life and handing over secure love, I have it in heterosociality (complete community). Of course, I still battle with my own sin nature — and when disbelief gives way to lust and I look to gain acceptance through fantasy — Christ bids me to come to Him. I’m free to confess, bringing darkness into the light, and every single time, I find Christ saying the same words to me as the adulterous woman in Luke 7: “Your sins are forgiven…Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”
Joshua’s discussion of the Day the “true dance will finally and forevermore begin”, (i.e. Wedding of the Lamb) is absolutely breathtaking and will draw you into a longing to be with Jesus. There is so much more that could be said about Forbidden Friendships, but I’ll simply end with one of my favorite quotes in the last section, and encourage everyone to read this book while seriously giving consideration to opening your heart to the other half of the body of Christ. Married or single, you will find this book encouraging, challenging, and thought provoking. Thank you, on behalf of the body of Christ, Joshua, for writing this book.
“There will be a day when we will be able to give and receive extravagant love with all our friends without any thought of boundaries or being misunderstood. Friendships in Christ will only continually get better- never worse- forever. They will be this way because Jesus — our very best friend — will be with us, walk with us, eat with us, and lead us for all Eternity. He brings us to Himself and in finding Him, we also find everything and everyone else (1754).”
You can find Forbidden Friendships here on Amazon.