We bought the tickets, secured the hotel, and were excited to be on our way to California with our youth group. Our youth leadership team of John, Mary, and myself had worked hard to pull the trip together to attend this large conference. A few days before we left, our pastor pulled me aside and said, “Katie, I don’t think you should go. You’re a married woman, and with John going, well, something could happen. It’s not a good situation.”
I was taken aback. “You’re kidding me, right? John is a friend, a real brother to me. What would make you say this? Has there been something to give you the impression of anything more than a brotherly relationship between us?”
“No,” he replied, “It’s just that it’s a temptation, you know.”
To him and to a lot of people, close cross-gender friendship isn’t worth it; the risk is too great. As a result, marriage becomes the only means for intimate cross-gender friendship. But this isn’t the picture of Christian community that God wants.
Jesus prayed in John 17:20–23:
My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
What can produce the kind of unity that Jesus prayed for? Is it something spiritually abstract, mysterious, and unattainable? Is this oneness possible only within marriage? Is it limited to same-gender groups lest it be corrupted by sexual temptation, or is oneness possible across gender lines?
I believe that for the body of Christ to achieve the oneness of purpose that Jesus prayed for in John 17, we need rich and significant relationships that are not segregated by gender or marital status.
Jesus gives his followers the opportunity to share true intimacy, not only with the Godhead, but also with each other through a shared commitment to him. Jesus wants oneness for all believers who make up the body of Christ. What should this look like?
Scripture describes relationships within the body of Christ with words like “brother,” “sister,” “mother,” “father,” “son,” and “daughter.” We often use these words superficially, but we should try to live out their true essence in our Christian communities. A church should resemble a healthy family, in which all relationships—regardless of gender or marital status—are deeply valued.
Growing up I was what you would call both a tomboy and a “girly girl.” One day I’d be out building forts, playing army, baseball, or hunting the fields and ponds for snakes, frogs, and salamanders with the neighborhood boys. The next day I’d pull out my dolls, maybe have a tea party, or play dress-up with the girls. I was completely comfortable in both worlds, and was best friends with both girls and boys. I also had unique and powerful relationships with my father and uncles, who encouraged important parts of my personality and taught me powerful lessons about life. My freedom to have male and female friends and role models strengthened and encouraged me as I grew up.
When I reached early adulthood, I began to feel pressure from well-meaning Christians, both male and female, not to have close friendships with men because they weren’t safe or healthy for me as a Christian woman. I was told they were simply “too risky,” and may give the impression of impropriety. I was advised to limit my relationships with men other than my husband and instead to find fulfillment in the traditional roles of wife and mother.
I optimistically attended women’s retreats hoping to find some encouragement and support for my life and ministry. Sadly, I left these events with neither encouragement nor support in anything other than my roles as wife and mother. The craft projects and the manicures were intended for fun and were supposed to affirm my womanhood, but they left me longing for something with spiritual depth. Like many who attended these events, I was a wife, mother, and even homeschooled my children, but I needed relationships that affirmed me in more than these roles.
Often, I have found this affirmation in my friendships with men (not that women can’t or don’t also provide this—just that I had to go outside the stereotypical “women’s events”). Single and married men, younger and older, encouraged and supported me in non-traditional roles. I found conversations and interests that went beyond children, family, and the walls of my home and stretched further out into the world, to the lost, and to the overall mission and purpose of the body of Christ.
In my experience, when we limit relationships to the same gender or make our fellowship marriage-focused, we limit our community and ourselves. When we embrace relationships across divisions of gender or marital status, we more fully experience the oneness Jesus wants for his followers.
What about Temptation?
But what about temptation? I used to be part of a denomination whose leader told the male leaders under him to “make sure they hire an old and unattractive woman” to be their secretary (to avoid the supposedly inevitable sexual temptation that would result from a man working closely with an attractive woman).
There is Scripture to support the practice of running from sin and its temptation, and we do need to be wise—certainly sexual sin, manipulation, and abuse have taken place. People often say to avoid the issue altogether and spare ourselves the struggle. But when we avoid the issue, are we really walking in freedom and maturity?
To segregate our fellowship by gender in order to control the flesh is to say that we don’t believe God’s power is sufficient to overcome our weaknesses. It is the Christian version of the burqa worn by some Muslim women to hide their bodies so as not to tempt men. But this strategy keeps us from maturing and experiencing the power of Christ to overcome our weakness. We will also miss out on the richness that can come from cross-gender relationships. We will be spiritually stunted as individuals and as the body of Christ.
A New Relationship Paradigm
I believe in order to have the kind of unity Christ prayed for we need a whole new paradigm of understanding Christian fellowship and relationship. We need relationships as deep and abiding as those that Jesus had with the women around him, or those that the apostle Paul had with the co-workers he references with deep affection in his letters. We need to consider each other family.
Like those between a brother and sister, cross-gender relationships should not be based on fear, but on trust, honesty, and the true agenda of preferring one another above ourselves. We shouldn’t be suspicious, but should encourage maturity and wisdom when navigating these relationships.
Jesus enables and calls us to enter into relationships with all, regardless of gender, marital status, class, ethnicity, or any other division. These relationships highlight the fullness of Christ in each of us, and together we function as a healthy family that reflects our loving God.