Sister, Friend, or Threat?
How Men and Women Relate in the Church
Of all places, they met at a Bible study. Neither expected to find the other there, nor was either one of them even looking. But over the months, something happened. Through comments made and affirmed. Prayer requests heard and prayed for. A laugh at a well-timed joke and a glance of appreciation.
“One cannot possibly eliminate all avenues of lust without eliminating the world and one’s self.”
Personal connections followed. They were innocuous at first. A text as a follow-up to something personal shared in the group. And then, over time, affections grew. No one saw it coming, least of all them. They were each happy as they were — fulfilled, though not perfectly — but with each personal contact it became harder to resist the gravity of their connection. Until one day it seemed irresistible, and they ended up physically and emotionally intimate in ways that should have been reserved for their spouses.
It’s a horrifyingly familiar scene. The genesis of an affair.
The Other Ditch
Less well-known, but also problematic, are the hypervigilant among us. Always on keen alert for any situation that has even the slightest chance of creating temptation. To them, elevators are little more than sleazy affair factories. Offices are shelters for would-be philanderers. Extended coed interactions are tantamount to a salacious relationship.
How could such vigilance be problematic? Let me give you a real-world example. A female church member was distraught one Sunday morning. Her life seemed to be falling apart as both her marriage and her job had been taken from her recently. She was trying her best to make it to church, even though she felt like she was the one person in the congregation wearing a neon sign that said, “Stay clear! Sinner and emotional wreck here.”
As soon as the service was over, she began to tear up, and she knew that once the tears began to flow they would not cease easily. She saw a man she knew and trusted. Hoping to speak to him privately in order to seek assistance, she pulled him aside. He immediately rebuked her for seeking a private audience with a member of the opposite sex. Even though there were hundreds of people on campus, and the room she wanted to use had a window on the door, it didn’t matter. This poor and desperate woman felt nothing of the care and compassion of Christ at the time and place where she needed it most because a man had become hypervigilant about opposite-sex interactions.
Siblings and Adversaries
Male-female interactions are complicated. They have the potential to enrich our lives in innumerable ways, but they also are fraught with danger, especially if they are not handled appropriately. Two opposite positions have emerged about how to handle these cross-sex interactions: familial and adversarial.
“Two opposite positions have emerged about how to handle these cross-sex interactions: familial and adversarial.”
The familial camp is inhabited by those who think that our mutual identity in Christ, as Christian brothers and sisters, eliminates the need to be cautious about opposite-sex friendships. This would be the position of Aimee Byrd in her book Why Can’t We Be Friends? She writes, “I am going to argue that men and women in the church should not only be friends, but actually be more than friends. . . . Paul doesn’t give Timothy a bunch of details on how to treat a father or sister; we already know how to do that. It’s a respectful way to relate to one another — and, when we relate this way, we remove the possibility of sex” (14).
On the other side of this debate is the camp I’ve labeled adversarial. I use that word because I believe some who inhabit this camp have taken their righteous fight against sin and temptation and anchored it incorrectly. Instead of fighting against lust, they have become adversarial toward any situation or person that might trigger a lustful thought. While this sounds pious at first, the truth is that lust creeps around every corner. One cannot possibly eliminate all avenues of lust without eliminating the world and one’s self. In seeking to eliminate the possibility of lust, they also have ruled out the possibility of much ministry.
Some have come to associate this position with the “Billy Graham rule,” so called because of Graham’s commitment to avoid “even the appearance of compromise.” As he wrote in his autobiography,
We all [fellow evangelists traveling with Graham] knew of evangelists who had fallen into immorality while separated from their families by travel. We pledged among ourselves to avoid any situation that would have even the appearance of compromise or suspicion. From that day on, I did not travel, meet, or eat alone with a woman other than my wife. (Just as I Am, 128)
To be fair to Graham, he was a traveling evangelist, and the nature of being constantly on the road, and away from home, led him to sense that he needed a kind of vigilance that is unrealistic, and likely unnecessary, for most local-church pastors, especially those involved in counseling ministry. But some ministers and laymen today apply the rule, in Billy’s name, in a way that may be unloving in local-church contexts.
Neither Family nor Adversary
Whether we’re talking about Byrd’s position or an extreme exercise of the Graham rule, I believe the Bible disagrees with both. Consider first the familial camp. Byrd suggests that the sibling relationships in Christ provide a safeguard against sexual temptation. But Song of Solomon is the most sexually laden book of the Bible, and in the midst of one of its most explicit sections, the groom uses a certain term of endearment again and again (Song 4:9–10, 12; 5:1–2): “my sister, my bride.” Simply thinking of someone in familial language does not prevent sin-infected hearts from developing idolatrous desires. Nor, as seen here, does it “remove the possibility of sex.” The experience of many fallen Christians also testifies as much.
“There is something wonderful and scriptural about the delicate balance of having opposite-sex associates.”
Simply calling a person “brother” or “sister” — or for that matter, trying to relate to them in a familial way — doesn’t remove the sort of personal chemistry that often creates affairs. According to Gary Neuman in his book The Truth About Cheating, about 94 percent of affairs happen between people who have known each other for more than six months. And what are the terms these people tend to use to describe each other before their infidelity? For men, the word is “friend,” and for women, “brother.” It’s why so often, spouses who have been cheated on will report that their husbands claimed, “She was just a friend,” and wives asserted, “He’s like a brother.”
What about the adversarial position? To limit all one-on-one opposite-sex interaction on the basis of 1 Thessalonians 5:22 is to lean on a poor translation of the King James Version (“Abstain from all appearance of evil”; modern translations, like the ESV, read, “Abstain from every form of evil”). More than that, our Lord and Savior, who was tried and tempted in every respect as we are (Hebrews 4:15), did not seem to balk at the idea of doing ministry with someone of the opposite sex, even in a one-on-one context. Even in a one-on-one context where the woman was of ill-repute (John 4:7–27)! Talk about not letting the possibility of temptation get in the way of ministry.
Four Levels of Intimacy
Where does all of this leave us? Are we in some hopeless morass as we try to discern when we are able to engage in one-on-one interactions with the opposite sex? I don’t think so. In an article titled “Toward Adult Cross-Sex Friendships,” professor Dennis Hiebert makes some helpful distinctions. He sees four separate categories of cross-sex relationships, each with an increasing level of intimacy: acquaintance, associate, friend, and spouse.
Acquaintances know basic facts about one another, such as each other’s names, vocations, marital statuses, and favorite sports teams. But that is the limit of their interaction and knowledge.
Associates have consistent interaction with one another, usually based around a person, place, or event. These interactions may be personal in nature — that is, there may be a disclosure of personal information — but the interactions occur only because of a common association, such as work, church, a mutual friend, or a regular social event.
“Opposite-sex relationships have the ability to shape our gospel witness, for good or for ill.”
Friends differ from associates because the relationship is based on the qualities of the person instead of the common association. In other words, the interactions morph from being based around a person, place, or event to being based on the personalities of the people in the relationship. Coworkers, for example, may begin as associates who talk about their lives at the watercooler, but then move on to friends who text each other regularly to share jokes or even discuss what is in each other’s hearts.
Drawing the Right Lines
With those categories in mind, I suggest that men and women should desire opposite-sex associates, but not opposite-sex friends. Both the familial and adversarial camps may have objections at this point. Someone in the familial camp may ask, “Why not be friends? So what if someone sends some interpersonal texts, sharing some humorous thoughts, life frustrations, or felt needs?” Or someone holding the adversarial position may ask, “Why not stay acquaintances? Wouldn’t a guy be wise to protect his marriage from any possibility of an untoward encounter?” The answer to both these questions is that opposite-sex relationships have the ability to shape our gospel witness, for good or for ill.
Concerning the first objection, when people see cross-sex friends out in public without any clear indication as to why they might be in each other’s presence, many presume that something romantic is happening. When we see someone in an intimate interaction (not physically) with someone other than his or her significant other, we become uncomfortable, nervous, suspicious, and perhaps even angry.
To be sure, one’s intuition is not the determiner of truth. Further, sometimes genuine gospel ministry brings about some of the same feelings in onlookers. But this isn’t that. These negative reactions have been measured in nearly everyone, believer or unbeliever, and across all generations. Having intimate friendships with those of the opposite sex likely will tarnish one’s reputation and inhibit the ability to represent Christ with integrity. Hence, Paul adds the little phrase “in all purity” when he tells Timothy how he should relate to younger women (1 Timothy 5:2). Paul appends this phrase only to his instruction about “sisters” because he knows cross-sex interactions give opportunity for adversaries to defame the gospel.
At the same time, it’s important that we not use overly simplistic rules — like never being alone with a member of the opposite sex, no matter what — to prevent us from ministering to others or being ministered to by others. The wounded woman I described above happened to be a woman I was counseling at a church that I respect. She loved that church, including its preaching and leaders. She would say that she learned more of Christ there than anywhere else she had ever been. And it was out of that love that she was seeking guidance from an office-bearer of the church. She was struggling through the guilt and shame of a lost marriage and job. Unsure how she was going to make ends meet, she needed a quick conversation about if or when it would be wise to alert the deacons to her needs. Instead, she got rebuked, and harshly. The gospel she had heard proclaimed so well became overshadowed by the fearful response of a hypervigilant man.
This is where men especially must be careful not to send the wrong signals to our sisters. If we look at the women in our church as nothing more than potential affairs and do not give them the sort of respect and care that an image-bearer deserves, we again damage our gospel witness. Maybe not as publicly, but perhaps more deeply.
Why We Need Acquaintances
All of that said, it’s important to note that believers of the opposite sex help us make it through this fallen world well. Women often help men to be more relational. And not just spouses, but all of a man’s female relationships. When men regularly interact with women, they often find that women get them to stop focusing on doing and start focusing on being. There is an old adage that men do relationships shoulder to shoulder and women do relationships face to face. Men need to develop face-to-face skills — for themselves, their spouses, and their children.
“We need to be able to both minister to our siblings in Christ and protect against our own lustful temptations.”
Oppositely, men often help women get out of emotional ruts. The male tendency to move from disclosure to solution nearly instantaneously can be maddening, but it can also be exactly what a woman needs. No more recycling conversations of emotional intensity, but simple action steps that a sister needs to begin to move forward.
Again, not all men need the emotional education of the female variety, and not all women need the solution-focused determinism of your average guy, but there is something wonderful and scriptural about the delicate balance of having opposite-sex associates — consistent, connected, interested, burden-bearing associates — in our lives.
Finding the Balance
If you’re convinced, as I am, that opposite-sex interactions are important in growing us into Christlikeness, as well as giving us opportunities to minister to others, but you want to stay away from giving opponents the opportunity to defame the gospel and allowing your heart the leeway to develop inappropriate affections, how do you find that balance?
First, know the boundaries. Unless you are a sex addict, and any personal interaction with a member of the opposite sex causes intense and immediate temptation, then “no one-on-one ever” is probably too strict. But “I’ll know it when I run into it” isn’t strict enough and sets you up for failure from the jump. Wise rules include the following:
- Don’t spend any extended one-on-one time in a room without windows.
- When meeting with someone of the opposite sex, someone else needs to be aware.
- Personal information is shared in the context of at least one other person or couple.
- Direct communications — such as texts, direct messages, phone calls, and emails — need to be related to a person, place, or event, not to one another.
- Never arrange one-on-one time outside of the person, place, or event that ties you together.
This list is not exhaustive but representative. I’m sure there are other wise guidelines we could add.
Second, watch for signs in your own heart. People have a lot of misconceptions about how affairs start, and who starts them. Affairs begin overnight only in exceedingly rare situations. As noted above, the two people have known each other for longer than six months about 94 percent of the time. In addition, survey data suggests that people rarely initiate affairs with those who are “more attractive” than the current spouse. Paradoxically, affairs often occur with people who are rated “less attractive.” Last, though men cheat more often than women, roughly 70 percent of women report being significantly attracted to someone other than their spouse. All of this to say, you can’t rely on stereotypes to keep you safe. The best safeguard is to know the warning signs in your own heart.
Third, give people permission to speak into your life. This goes both ways. If you are giving off a vibe that says, “Stay away from me, you den of temptation!” someone needs to be able to check you about it. Or if the person you talk to by the coffee pot before Sunday school most weeks starts coming on to you, you need someone who can pull you aside and tell you like it is. These are people you trust to be honest, but to do so in love, building you up in Christ (Ephesians 4:15–16).
Fourth, have someone check in on this issue regularly. Accountability partners have become more and more common over the past couple of decades, especially to combat pornography use. People in accountability may consider adding a few questions to the arsenal:
- Who are the people in your life that you really look forward to seeing?
- Is anyone in your life a regular source of temptation?
- Are you connecting appropriately with both men and women in your communities?
- Have you allowed yourself to break any boundaries since the last time we talked?
Again, this list is not exhaustive, just representative.
A Way Forward
Would keeping to a system like this one preclude all possible affairs? Absolutely not. They will still happen. And in fact, they will happen during work trips or other activities that are ostensibly part of the associate category. Will these guidelines make the hypervigilant finally reach out in kindness to their opposite-sex siblings in Christ? Not necessarily. They may still find loopholes and manufacture rules to keep all perceived threats at bay.
But in a sin-sick world, where we need to be able to both minister to our siblings in Christ and protect against our own lustful temptations, this framework seems to be a positive way forward — a way that takes seriously our call to bear one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2) and bless one another as Christian siblings (1 Timothy 5:1–2), while also heeding Christ’s call to flee from temptation (1 Corinthians 6:18) and be holy as God is holy (1 Peter 1:16).