With the hysteria of the Ashley Madison debacle slowly subsiding (although to my annoyance I still get pop-ups from emails despite anti-spam software) there remains a lingering question in the air.
Can men and women – especially Christians – just be friends?
I remember watching “When Harry Met Sally” for the first time a few years ago, long after its original release. I found the characters’ opinions to be quite cynical – albeit excellently acted – in their attitudes. The male opinion that sex always gets in the way almost inevitably was backed up in true Hollywood style, and to provide the necessary feel-good ending they end up married.
The answer seemed to be a firm “no”. These two tried for years to just be friends, but ended up in bed anyway.
My best friend happens to be female. In fact outside my family, my four closest friends are all women younger than me. To my knowledge this gender difference has never been a problem in any of these relationships. Two are non-Christians and two – including my very closest friend – are Born-Again.
I’m married, but my relationship with my wife is not simply a friendship. If it were then I think we’d be in real trouble. It goes so much deeper than a mere friendship and I can’t imagine having that bond with another person. I was engaged before I met my wife and the depth was never there strongly enough. When she gave back the ring and called off the engagement I was hurt, but I knew immediately it was the right thing and I had peace in my Spirit within an hour (although it took a bit longer in my head!)
At the age of 43 I’ve seen more than my share of life. Just the highlights for the purposes of this article are: 1981, my favourite aunt died in a house fire; 1985 my younger brother was killed in a road accident; by 1993 both my mother’s parents had died of cancer and my father had been treated for skin cancer; by 2000 both my dad’s parents had died from heart problems and my dad had died of a brain tumour. I’ll stop there because this isn’t a list of my problems, it’s a point I want to make: as a child from 1981 – 1990 my “friends” were predominantly superficial acquaintances (some of whom have resurfaced in my life through Facebook) who I never really got a lot of support from. They were also all my own gender. I left home in 1991 and the demographic began to change. I met new people when I left home and moved from a boys school into the wide world. I went to live with the girl I was dating at the time – which is not something I advise anyone to do based on our experience, and I’m sure she would say the same thing. I became friends with her fellow university students, a mix of young men and women, but developed particularly close friendships with two of them who both happened to be women.
Obviously friendships change from childhood to young adulthood, and that would account for some of the changes in support, but I found back then that it was more natural for me to have friendships with members of the opposite sex than with other guys. My best friends from childhood who had helped me through losing my brother had gone off on their own paths, and after 25 years since leaving school I’m no longer in touch with the people who were around me then.
My 20s saw much change in my life. My closest friends were a mix of both men and women and for the most part it was an even split. When my dad died in 1999 I isolated myself from all but the most stubborn of my friends who refused to let me cut them out completely.
After I met the lady I married I moved to Cape Town and my established friendship-base dried up completely. It was still before the Facebook and Skype era and international phone calls are expensive. While I still have contact with a few of the people who helped me through losing dad the depth of friendship is hard to maintain from opposite ends of the planet, even when there’s only an hour or two time difference. But the odd thing is the one person from back then who has maintained regular contact and tried to make it meaningful contact has been one of the younger women I was friends with.
The key issue is not the gender of our friends. The issue is the intimacy and the nature of the intimacy of the friendships we have. The World will try to make it about sex – and it does so with disturbing efficacy. Movies show us repeatedly that irrespective of chronological age, age difference or social status men and women just have to have sex as part of the equation and a platonic relationship is impossible.
It’s a lie.
Yes, we do need to be aware of the potential for sin in our friendships – especially sexual sin – but (disturbingly) these days even same-gender friends are potential sexual partners according to the World.
I have 2 close friends who are not only women, but Muslim as well. We talk about our lives, our troubles and our victories and they are people I pray for regularly in my quiet times because of the things they are going through. Somehow the people I’ve met who have become friends in the last ten years are predominantly women. It’s just how it happened.
So what are we supposed to do as Christians? What am I supposed to do as a man?
For me the answer is simple: keep Christ as my centre.
My wife has told me she is not threatened by my friendships. I am not threatened by her friendships with the men she is close to.
We keep Christ at the centre. (as much as possible)
The last few years have been a dark time for us as a couple, dogged by major health issues which have taxed our faith to the limit. My wife has definitely been shaken to the core as things have hit her harder than me for some reason on an emotional level. We’ve both been tempted to lose hope, which Hebrews 11:1 makes clear is what we draw Faith from. Without hope, faith is impossible – and in recent time hope has been scarce in her eyes. But still she tries to keep her eye on God.
The same events that have shaken her have pressed me into Christ because I can’t handle them in my own strength. The pain and heartbreak we as an extended family have experienced is more than anyone should bear, and the only refuge I’ve been able to find is the hope that spring follows winter. That lets me keep Christ as my core.
The people who have been there outside the family to help me maintain that focus have all been women of God.
We should not be afraid to have friends of the opposite gender, whether we are men or women. We should, however, be completely honest with ourselves, our spouse and our leaders about these friendships.
The key is accountability and it’s not optional.
But that accountability lets anyone be just good friends.