Cross-gender friendships in the example of Jesus

Cross-gender friendships in the example of Jesus

In an earlier blog post, I called this A (potentially transformative) Teachable Moment in the life of our church. A number of AMBS faculty offered ideas about conversations we should be having throughout the church—and are having at places like AMBS. This is a guest post by Rachel Miller Jacobs, assistant professor of congregational formation, in response to her own great questions: “What would a positive theology of friendship between women and men entail? How do we make space for friendships between persons who deeply respect each other and communities where we so genuinely love each other as beloved children of God that we wouldn't think of crossing boundaries?”

In the process of working on this blog post about friendship between men and women, I’ve actually written (and deleted) it about six or seven times. I’m aware I’m venturing into tricky territory: the received truth is that married Christians don’t have cross-gender friendships. I don’t mean that they aren’t friendly with the people whose paths they cross at work or church, or that they don’t do things in mixed-gender groups. But eyebrows rise when we talk about consciously cultivating a friendship with a person of the opposite sex—about being actual friends rather than simply people whom circumstance has thrown together. I know this firsthand because in the couple of cross-gender friendships I’ve had as an adult, I’ve had to wrestle with my own (and others’) discomfort, confusion, jealousy, guilt, and shame.

You’d think from that list of “discomforts” that I was having an affair. I wasn’t. As a young adult, I’d had close guy friends when I was in college, about thirty years ago, and not all of those cross-gender friendships turned into dating relationships. Yet both then and since, I’ve had little experience with, and few examples of, a never-going-to-be-romantic friendship with a man.

The common wisdom is that’s exactly as it should be, because there’s no such thing as a never-romantic friendship between a man and a woman. Right?

Dan Brennan (Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions: Engaging the Mystery of Friendship Between Men and Women) writes that both church and culture have two main stories about intimacy between men and women. The first is the “romantic story”: man meets woman, they date, they commit, or they break up and start all over again with another partner. The second is what Brennan calls the “danger story”: man and woman become friends, but don’t have the romantic trajectory open to them because one or both are married, so slide into emotional or physical adultery, triangles, or some other dysfunction.

If that’s true—that there are only two possible stories about intimacy between men and women—why would we become friends with someone of the opposite sex, and actually cultivate that friendship?

One reason is that we’ve exhausted what the “deterrence” approach has to offer us. The “no intimate relationships between men and women who aren’t married to each other” may have prevented some (though not all) sexual misconduct, affairs, or divorces. But it hasn’t helped us do the individual and communal work of genuinely seeing and respecting each other as beloved children of God. It hasn’t helped us take the next steps in dismantling patriarchy. It hasn’t broken down the dividing wall of hostility between men and women. The “deterrence” approach said an important “no” but hasn’t gone on to say an equally important “yes.”

Credit: Fred Bchx, Wikimedia CommonsWe get hints about what this “yes” might look like from the life of Jesus. The Gospels depict him as a man who isn’t afraid of relationships with women (the woman at the well, the woman at Simon’s house, Mary and Martha, Mary Magdalene, other women disciples). In a social and cultural context that defined women as property, Jesus treated them as human beings worthy of intimacy, respect, and care.

If we pursue cross-gender friendships with colleagues or others in the example of Jesus, we will do many of the same things as we do to cultivate any healthy friendship. But in the overly sexualized context in which we live, a few additional specifics are also worth noting. Here’s my advice, culled from reading, experience, and listening to people as a spiritual director and pastor:

  1. Not every possible cross-gender friendship is a wise one. Especially since this is new territory for many of us, be discerning about the people with whom you pursue cross-gender friendships, paying close attention to issues of power and emotional maturity.
  2. Recognize that attraction is the basis of all friendship: we’re friends with people who are attractive to us, with whom we have things in common! Yet because the romantic and danger stories are such a strong default, it’s wise to explicitly commit yourself to the following with your friend of the opposite gender: this is not now, nor will it ever be, a romantic and/or sexual relationship.
  3. Having settled this, there’s nothing to be gained by continuing to analyze the nature of your relationship with your friend of the opposite gender. That kind of discussion tends to feed the romantic and danger stories.
  4. And yet. . .because most of us have so few categories for thinking about men and women, we need companions on the way, and help in interpreting the feelings cross-gender friendships may surface in us or in others. Having people (spiritual friends, spiritual directors, pastors) with whom to be transparent will help sort out the truth from the lies. These companions can also help you know what needs to be said to your spouse (if you’re married) and what’s your own agenda.
  5. Regardless of what your feelings are, a feeling is information, not an imperative. You don’t have to act on it. See 2, above.
  6. If you’re married, the best gift you can give yourself and your friend of the opposite gender is to cultivate your relationship with your spouse. It is also the job of friends of the opposite gender, like other friends, to champion each other’s commitments, including marital ones.

Cross-gender friendships have much to offer us in broadening and nuancing our understanding of the opposite sex. In addition, since men’s and women’s spiritual journeys differ in some significant ways, a cross-gender friendship can spur us to further growth in ways that same gendered friends who are traveling the same path cannot.

Corporately, public conversation about and practice in cross-gender friendship can help us tell a more hopeful story than the ones that have previously been available to us. While there are never any guarantees in human relationships, much is lost when we don't take the risk to create communities where transparency, self-awareness, and commitment to the well-being of all will safeguard the wholeness of both men and women, whether single or married.