The scandal of evangelical Christian friendship

Christians more than anyone else ought to have the most robust and healthiest understanding of friendship, including, or especially, those between men and women.

Friends in the mountains. Photo by Buono Del Tesoro/Pixabay - Creative Commons

(RNS) — A few years ago, at the end of a conference, I was asked to get my ride to the small regional airport a few minutes away about six hours before my flight.

Another female presenter had to be at the airport then, and the young man assigned to drive guests to the airport wasn’t allowed to drive alone with a woman. As a seminary student he was required to adhere to the Billy Graham Rule, which meant not being alone with a woman who is not his wife.

This rule was a practice developed by Billy Graham in his travels as a world-renowned revivalist. This rule has been widely adopted among evangelicals, most famously by former Vice President Mike Pence, but with varying interpretations and applications.

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I think of him now and then, this brother in the Lord, (whose request I honored). I hope at some point in his training he received discipleship that would help him relate to his siblings in Christ in ways that are more biblical than Victorian, more Pauline than pornified and more Christ-like than cultural.

The other woman going to the airport that day was old enough to be the seminarian’s grandmother. I was old enough to be his mother. Both of us, according to Scripture, ought to have been treated as his sisters in Christ.

Even so, I understand the complexities and the competing concerns. Like all matters of Christian life and belief, getting this question right requires achievement of a delicate balance.

On the one hand, Christians believe in and celebrate the createdness and goodness of our sexed bodies (and all that is inherent in being created male or female). To ignore this physical aspect of our being is to deny reality and slip toward Gnosticism.

On the other hand, Scripture instructs believers who are not married to each other to treat one another as brothers and sisters. This is a weighty command with serious moral implications: to treat a brother or sister as a potential sexual partner is, after all, to indulge a rather disordered desire.

Despite the challenge of this tension — that we are sexual beings who are also called as Christians to live as family members — Christians more than anyone else ought to have the most robust and healthiest understanding of friendship, including, or especially, those between men and women.

Indeed, the Bible models various kinds of close friendships between men and women. Jesus shared an intimate friendship with Mary and Martha, even staying with the sisters in their home and raising their brother Lazarus from the dead. Another Mary, Mary Magdalene, was so close to Jesus that she was there as a witness to his trial, his crucifixion and his resurrection. Later in church history, Priscilla and Aquila risked their lives for their dear friend and co-laborer for the gospel, Paul.

These are examples of friendship forged in the context of serving in ministry together. Such friendships are also repeatedly among those at the center of controversy and debate in recent days. Men and women serve together in the church in a variety of ways. Sometimes friendships naturally develop. The Bible makes clear that this is good and right.

Yet when friendships between men and women in the church are discouraged or viewed automatically with suspicion, this attitude, paradoxically, creates situations riper for sin and abuse. Cloaking what might otherwise be a normal, healthy, even casual friendship in the language of “ministry” saddles the relationship with baggage and incurs the risk of spiritual abuse. If people can’t just be friends, after all, then they have to define the relationship some other way.

Someone recently observed that maybe evangelicals have so much trouble with friendship between men and women because our view of marriage today is focused too much on sex and not enough on friendship.

I would suggest the opposite: The modern companionate model of marriage so emphasizes friendship that when a spouse inevitably fails to fulfill all of our friendship needs, and we seek fulfillment of those needs elsewhere, the resulting friendships are conflated with sexual relationship.

In other words, perhaps because we have overlapped marriage with friendship so much, we don’t know how to have opposite-sex friendships that aren’t inherently sexual. A spouse ought to be a friend, to be sure. But “friend” — even “best friend” — is a demotion from “husband” or “wife.”

Wide, varied friendships of varying depths and lifespans are healthy and good — and biblical. I have book friends, movie friends, theology friends, author friends, news junkie friends, funny meme sharing friends, childhood friends, social media friends, dog friends, “Wordle” friends and work friends, to name a few.

Some of these friends are men. Some are women. None of my friends share all of these interests. My husband shares some but not all of these interests.

All friendships require limits of various kinds, even same-sex friendships.

The Billy Graham rule is no help to those whose sin occurs in a homosexual liaison, after all. And while I’m at it, it doesn’t always take two to tango: How many strict advocates of the rule watch porn? Technology has introduced increasingly intimate forms of connection: text messages, Facebook Messenger and Instagram DMs. These complications have been the source of recent controversies about contacts between men and women that make the Billy Graham Rule’s ban on sharing airspace somewhat moot.

Opposite-sex friendships have particular calls for wisdom and guardrails. But so, too, familial relationships need healthy boundaries. This is true of all relationships, of which friendships are just one kind.

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I appreciate my male colleagues who don’t refuse to discuss work or catch up over lunch or coffee because I’m a woman. I treasure the male friend who texts me nonstop book recommendations. I’m thankful for the ministry leader I met in the green room of a conference event who engaged me in extended conversation and didn’t end abruptly simply because everyone else had drifted out of the room. Rather he honored and respected me as a fellow human being.

I am grateful for the men who will pick me up or return me to the airport during a professional event without requiring a chaperone or initiating an awkward conversation about such normal circumstances.

Even apart from abiding friendship, men and women must live, work, worship and be together in many other ways. Thus, one-size-fits-all manmade rules cannot replace biblical wisdom, the common humanity God gave us or the scriptural injunction to treat one another as brothers and sisters.

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