Can Christian Men and Women Be Friends?

The question is a powder-keg. Those who immediately answer “yes” can hurl as many barrels of anecdotal evidence as those who scream “no.” Few treat this as a legitimate issue — opinions are given in a tone that implies that the very question violates common sense. Different answers are given. Different passages are cited. Different hills are constructed and died on.

So, can Christian women and men be friends?

To start, multiple kinds of male-female friendships deserve unique attention.

A single woman and a married man.
A married woman and a single man.
A married woman and a married man.
A single woman and a single man.

What do these friendships look like? Should they exist? Does God prohibit them, or are they vital to the body of Christ? Are they obviously inappropriate, or undeniably essential in healthy church community? It seems to me, after considering the biblical evidence, that male-female friendships lean even more heavily on a process that exists in all friendships:

  1. Weighing the risks of the relationship
  2. Implementing necessary and loving boundaries into the relationship
  3. Reaping unique Christ-exalting benefits from the relationship

We usually undergo this process subconsciously with each new relationship: evaluating whether the relationship will be detrimental to ourselves or disobedient to God, and if it is not, identifying healthy parameters to make the relationship as fruitful as possible, and finally enjoying the ongoing benefits of the relationship.

As we ask the question, “Can women and men be friends?” we must realize that each new possibility of a friendship between a woman and a man may require a “no” or “yes” in various circumstances, or at various stages of life.

Unavoidable Risks

Since any godly male-female friendship will be friendship between two disciples of Christ, the first step in building that friendship is to “count the cost, whether [you have] enough to complete it” (Luke 14:28). Enough information. Enough self-control. Enough community. Enough wisdom.

1. Male-female friendships risk unreciprocated feelings.

One person has completely innocent or friendly intentions, and the other falls in love. Between a married person and anyone other than their spouse, the friendship should end immediately.

But even between single people, the dangers are significant. Male-female friendship always brings the possibility for awkwardness, for conflict, for heartache. Someone’s thinking, “Is this going somewhere?” and someone isn’t. This is called “the friend zone,” and it’s very easy for tectonic plates of desire to create exciting and heated friendship when that heat is, in fact, caused by motivations moving in opposite directions.

Whether we’re the desiring or the desired, let’s be honest with ourselves: do we both really want the same thing from this friendship? If we don’t ask ourselves this question, someone will eventually pay the serious consequences.

2. Male-female friendships risk sexual temptation.

If we blindly wander into male-female friendships with the naïve notion that they are no different than same-gender friendships, we are blindly and dangerously mistaken. They are different. Tragic and heartbreaking trends in the church suggest affairs very often begin subtly or even innocently, and end in horrible destruction. Patterns of one-on-one intimacy between members of the opposite sex naturally cultivate the kind of intimacy that leads to romance.

Solomon writes, “A wicked man . . . with perverted heart devises evil, continually sowing discord; therefore calamity will come upon him suddenly; in a moment he will be broken beyond healing” (Proverbs 6:12, 14–15).

This is the wrong attitude: “We aren’t fooling around. There’s nothing to worry about. It’s not like that.” The calamity of fornication almost always occurs suddenly. It always surprises us. It always shows up at our door with an innocent smile. Or perhaps it leads us to someone else’s door. Someone’s couch.

The spark of sexual immorality may be the difference of an inch, a glance. The question we must honestly and consistently ask ourselves is: “Does the structure of our relationship look like kindling primed for a forest fire?” If your attitude about your intimacy is relaxed, it is likely set to blaze.

3. Male-female friendships risk undermining marriage.

It’s common for single people to be demonized as the “temptresses” or the “bait,” while the married folk are just the victims of preying mistresses (or misters). Yet, it seems that temptation often comes the other way, from the married person to the single: for example, Joseph and Potiphar’s wife (Genesis 39:11–18), or at least ambiguous, in the case of the church member and his father’s wife (1 Corinthians 5:1).

The point isn’t to condemn or idolize any one marital status as more protected than the other. The point is to recognize the common human element that makes possible the subversion of the marriage covenant if one (or both) persons are married. A few diagnostic questions are:

  • Are we spending time alone together?
  • Are our meetings (especially locations) increasingly private?
  • Are we complaining about our marriages (or love life) to each other?
  • Are we texting each other privately?
  • Do I find myself thinking about them, or fantasizing about a life with them?
  • Do I find myself excusing intimacy that would be otherwise inappropriate?

Potential Rewards

Once the risks of a male-female friendship have been considered and weighed, we can ask the question, “Can these risks be mitigated?” Can humility and honesty, community and accountability, protect us from the looming consequences, and allow us to enjoy the good that can come from these friendships?

1. God rewards appropriate boundaries.

Every relationship — all intimacy — flourishes with the right kind of boundaries. And the sort of relationship dictates what boundaries it needs to flourish. “The path of life leads upward for the prudent, that he may turn away from Sheol beneath” (Proverbs 15:24). So what is the appropriate path for female-male friendships?

The answer is, of course, different for each kind of relationship. But the point is boundaries should exist. Some examples would be:

  • No private text messages (always include a spouse, or another godly friend).
  • No private or secret meetings (the right person or people always know).
  • No detailed discussion of marriages or love lives.

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.

2. God rewards clear communication.

Put the opposite way, sin thrives in the laziness of ambiguity. Let’s be honest about our own intentions: why are we really compelled to build and invest in this friendship? Is it because we like the attention we get from the other person that we can’t get from a spouse or from prospective spouses? Is it because we are subtly aroused by flirting with the boundaries of something that feels off-limits?

God rewards a thoughtful answer that honestly reflects the state of our hearts. And we need to be careful, in the context of rigorous community, that we’re not fooling ourselves about our own intentions.

Once we have been honest about our own intentions, we must articulate them clearly. Are we friends for the sake of the church, for the sake of a project, for the sake of enjoying a mutual hobby, for the sake of serving the church? Let’s have an answer, and let interactions that veer away from that agreed upon purpose remain off-limits.

3. God rewards strong community.

It’s easy for the church to split itself into men’s ministries, women’s ministries, and couples’ ministries. The singles become the wild card, often throwing what might have been an easy system of purity out of sync. But 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), especially as we draw others into those friendships as safeguards.

All the effort we put into boundaries and clarity both honors and enacts this gift — a gift that shouldn’t be prohibited in principle among God’s people. But they should only be allowed when there are appropriate lines of sight with people informed and involved enough to protect both parties.

Why Can’t We Be Friends?

“‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things are helpful” (1 Corinthians 10:23). What is good for some is not profitable for all — and may be harmful. What may be a beautiful and holy male-female friendship in one instance may not be translatable to every male and female, and certainly cannot be absolutized to every male and female. To do so would simply be unwise and unsafe.

But when the risks have been weighed and the rewarding structures have been established, we can, with a clear conscience, come before God and ask him to bless our friendships with the opposite sex. This confidence is earned through a mature and godly track record: “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap” (Galatians 6:7). But it is available. And it is beautiful. And like all beautiful things, it requires patient investment, open-handed humility, ruthless selflessness and self-awareness, and self-control.

Paul encourages us, “Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality” (Romans 13:13). It’s interesting that Paul contrasts “sexual immorality” with “walk properly as in the daytime.” When our texts aren’t private, our meetings aren’t sneaky, our intimacy not shrouded and smirking, we can participate in the kind of pure intimacy in male-female friendships that is public and commendable, filled with grace and truth.

“Love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:18). No pharisaical command about male-female relationships should inhibit this command. Neither should a libertarian free-for-all subtly subvert it. God delights in male-female friendships, but only when they say something true and good about him to the world (John 13:35). Men and women, let’s be diligent in wisdom, relentlessly above reproach, and let’s be friends in Christ.

is a Ph.D. student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and philosophy professor at Moody Bible Institute.