if you’ve been reading here for a while you know i am extremely passionate about cross-gender friendships and men and women learning how to be with each other, side by side, as friends– leading, loving, learning, growing, giving, practicing, sharing, connecting as equals. we have terrible models for this, not only “in the church” but also in wider society. sexualization & fear & power issues have really kept men and women from loving each other as friends. we perpetuate the divide by keeping men in men’s groups and women in women’s groups, by assuming that if we’re married, we can never have a close and authentic relationship with a member of the opposite sex, and through buying into the false idea that “men and women just can’t be friends.”
Jesus’ call to love is a radical call. it’s not for the fainthearted. it’s not for those who want the easy road. it’s not for those who are satisfied with the status quo. love hurts. and love heals. we need to figure out ways to cross this great divide between men & women and learn to be true friends.
through these relationships, i believe so much can heal for both sexes. dignity can be restored, deep wounds can be healed, distorted images of God can be replaced with more balanced and whole ones. i truly believe we need mothers & fathers & sisters & brothers & daughters & sons and need to be those for other people as well.
my friend dan brennan has taken the topic of cross-gender friendship seriously. engaged in these relationships on a personal level, he also writes extensively about it in his book, sacred unions, sacred passions, and does whatever he can to advocate for people to consider exploring the idea and hopefully the practice of cross-gender friendships as part of a deepened spiritual journey. i am so thankful for his voice, his passion, his example. he has been a good & faithful friend to me from afar & helps remind me that some of what i long to see infiltrated into the kingdom of God can indeed happen.
if i could interview him at my kitchen table on video, i would, but because he’s in chicago and i’m in denver, this will have to do. enjoy!
- when and how did you first begin exploring the whole idea of cross-gender friendships?
In some sense, I’ve always had cross-gender friendships throughout my adult life. But they were characteristic of typical friendships that were limited to group or couples-only interaction. The ironic turn in my story is when I began to form friendships with women through an online theology discussion group back in 2002. They started out with me praying for them either on the phone or AOL IM chat (remember that?) over some issues they were struggling with. Originally they were prayer appointments, but over time they gradually began to evolve into deeper, mutual relationships. As they continued to deepen, I started to explore the subject with a growing resolve not to settle for simple cookie cutter answers.
- the whole topic of cross-gender friendships is very rarely talked about by many church systems. in fact, there is a great resistance to cross-gender mixing and much more emphasis placed on keeping the sexes segregated. where do you think this resistance comes from?
There is a great sexual fear between men and women. There are two stories about men and women in many church systems: 1) the sexual romantic story, and 2) the danger story for all those who don’t have romantic trajectory possibilities. There is a huge shame-based culture embedded in our sexuality where we segregate men and women into particular roles, relationships, and groups. When only these two stories are told, there is deep fear for men and women to be alone, unless they have a romantic path open. These stories profoundly shape the way communities view men and women. Even as communities recognize women as pastors/leaders, if these two stories are their most prominent communal narratives, men and women will not experience the fullness of what Jesus is calling us to.
I believe a much larger cultural issue shapes these two stories. I call it the romantic myth. This narrative soaked with on-the-street Freudianism weds romantic ideology with sexual compulsiveness. In popular versions of Freud amongst Christians, any desire to be close to someone of the opposite sex always has an unconscious undercurrent capable of springing up at any moment regardless of history. This obviously affects our views of men and women nurturing a growing friendship.
- what are some of the typical push-back you get when you start stirring up the importance of cross-gender friendships?
“There’s no way this can work.”
“There is too much sexual brokenness in the world.”
“Our culture is too sexualized in order for men and women to be friends or get close to each other.”
“Marriages already have too much stress in them.”
“Adultery is a huge problem in the church.”
These are a few of the most typical responses.
- what are you learning personally through the cross-gender friendships you are in?
Wow, much. Good, respectful, deep intimacy is possible with the opposite sex over a course of lengthy time even if one is married. It’s not only possible, it’s beautiful! We’ve nurtured a deep transparency between us. My closest cross-gender friendships have significant insight into my weaknesses, my vulnerabilities, my anxieties, my dreams, and my hopes. Knowing theirs transforms me, too. I’ve also learned the great beauty of resting in my wife’s love and support as well as my CGF’s love and support. They are not rivals but complimentary.
- what are you learning about God through cross-gender friendships?
I’m not in control. I used to have God in a box (I would have never thought that) and I’ve had to give up a lot of culturally shaped spirituality. In so many church systems, friendship is the last place to experience God—especially cross-gender friendship. You are taught to experience God in your isolated “quiet times”, in private, isolated prayer, or in word-centered preaching and teaching with your notebooks in hand.
In the community of friends, God loves me deeply, lavishly, abundantly, and freely. My friends have forgiven me, freely, on more than one occasion when I’ve blown it or said something I shouldn’t have said. As friends of course, especially in our culture of superficiality, they could have walked out on me. But in freedom they have chosen to forgive me when I have needed to ask forgiveness. They have extended it and generously love me. This is what God is like.
I am learning that God is a God of deep beauty. I don’t know how else to describe the ongoing sense of relaxation, shalom, trust, and life-giving in my marriage and my friendships with other women. In Christmas of 2005, my wife joyfully gave me a gift: 2 tickets to see U2 with my single friend, Jennifer. In Christmas of 2009, my adult son joyfully gave me a gift: 2 tickets to see U2 with Jennifer. There is a deep grace and beauty I continue to marvel at.
- what are the most common concerns that get expressed to you about the potential dangers of cross-gender friendships?
When you’re married, concerns are emotional adultery, physical adultery, triangles, and then broader gender themes of dysfunction. Singles have a different challenge of navigating the “sex part,” and saving themselves for their “soul mate”.
- how do you respond to these concerns?
These are all genuine and appropriate concerns. There are potential dangers in all kinds of male-female relationships. Many Christians still encourage marriage even though domestic abuse, incest, emotional abuse, and dysfunctionality continue to occur in marriages and families. The stories are there. But there are also stories of fruitful, flourishing, healthy, enduring marriages.
Jesus has called us to love one another as He has loved us…not just love our spouses and then segregate deep love into male groups and female groups. Jesus doesn’t love anyone with a detached, platonic, kind of niceness that keeps us at an arm’s length distance.
This may sound counterintuitive to some in our romanticized culture, but it seems to me that nurturing and cultivating friendship with one’s spouse creates a healthy home (metaphorically and literally) to welcome cross-gender friends in a flourishing community of respect, reverence, and love for each other and their respective vocations (i.e. marriage or singleness). Marital friendship is a special, unique friendship. A healthy friendship between spouses avoids clinging (possessiveness) and an unhealthy, romanticized absorption which undermines so many contemporary marriages. As long as churches only offer to men and women sex-segregated paths of intimacy apart from marriage, we will reinforce stereotypes and avoidant, unhealthy attachments.
- in your experience, what are the greatest fallacies about CGF’s that perpetuate the great divide between men and women?
First, deep reconciliation between sexes is not possible this side of heaven. Clearly, you cannot have reconciliation between sexes without cultivating and nurturing friendships between the sexes. You can’t have one without the other. As long as churches hold to this eschatological fallacy, churches will only go so far. Churches may embrace women leaders but they won’t allow them to nurture deep friendships with the opposite sex when they embrace that fallacy.
Second, that men and women don’t need each other in friendship for advancing equality, justice, and freedom for women. The radical feminist form of this is that women don’t need men and need to bond together in political friendship alliances. In the popular media, there is this same message out there. In churches of course, this fallacy is advanced where supposedly women only need friendships with women but not with men, and the whole sex-segregated message is perpetuated. But, justice, freedom, and equality will flourish when friendship-love replaces abstract political agendas (even good ones). I think this is at the heart of the message of Jesus for men and women who long for shalom in their communities, cities, and nation.
- what has surprised you the most about your cross-gender friendships?
They challenged me to change my views about women in ministry. This wasn’t a direct challenge from my friends. It came when I was learning to see them for who they are, their gifts, and possibilities for them. It challenged me to re-read Scripture and think more deeply about hermeneutics. I began these friendships as a complementarian and emerged into an egalitarian. Friendship summons us in marriage and community to an authentic process of a mutual give and take that recognizes the dignity, beauty, and freedom of one another.
Another huge surprise was that my cross-gender friendships made me a better husband—they helped deepen my love and friendship with Sheila. By learning to listen to my friends and seeing their unique beauty, I learned to listen to Sheila better and see her distinctive beauty. At the same time, my cross gender friends love me, my marriage, and Sheila. They’ve given me great support for my marriage.
- one of the things i’ve experienced is that many people have a deep longing for these kinds of friendships but because don’t have very good models for them and because we only hear about the dangers, we don’t even know where to start. where and how do you start?
In faith communities, perhaps start with some authentic group conversation about where men and women are in their views of sexuality, marriage, and friendship. If you are able to nurture the conversation rather than yield to the urge to fix it, this could open to some deep healing conversations of authenticity, fears, concerns, hopes, etc. Perhaps use my book as a starting point. I’ve heard from couples (unmarried and married) who have read my book together and it really opened up deep conversations. From there, men and women should explore more possibilities of social connecting with others who share the same likes, interests, etc. or possibly, yes, even pairs when there is freedom and understanding.
I think it’s important to keep aware of the pace at the start in paired relationships. There is no formula for friendship. Allow it to develop naturally. If the pacing develops rapidly, it is vulnerable to misunderstanding or a premature intensity that could destroy the relationship. That’s not to say healthy intensity can’t arise, it is just wise to be aware of the pace. Because of possible misunderstandings, it may be fruitful and wise to have a nonromantic “define the relationship” talk about the way the friendship is shaping and going and even step back if need be.
- you are involved in a new project called “the sacred friendship project” in 2011. what is this exactly and how can those who want to participate?
I am so excited about this! We’re taking a posture of listening and learning. Jim Henderson, John Armstrong, Elaine Jones Hansen, Jennifer Roach, Susan Matheson and I have come together to create what we are calling the “sacred friendship project.” We want to create a space for stories of friendship, especially deep friendships. We think many church systems have virtually ignored friendships in their vision of spirituality and community. The romantic myth discourages deep friendship unions between genders or same gender.
We are launching a sacred friendship project blog at the beginning of March. We would love to hear stories of friendships. We would like to hear about cross-gender friendships, same gender friendships, friendships in the gay community, friendships among Catholics, Orthodox, friendships among minority groups, etc. There is a sense in which the contemporary church has blown it when it comes to friendship-love and we want to say, “Yes, we have blown it, but we want to see friendships flourish in communities.” We want to begin developing a culture of friendship. Interested people can participate by sharing their own stories on the blog and participating. We hope the interest goes beyond the blog but it will start there.
- what’s your hope for “the church” as in the wider body of Christ when it comes to cross-gender friendships?
My hope is Jesus’ prayer for all men and women (not just those who are married to each other): “That they may be one”.
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thank you, dan, for your heart and time. we look forward to hearing more about the sacred friendship project as it unfolds & i hope some readers here will submit some of their stories. i am personally so grateful for all i continue to learn through my friendships with men. it has strengthened my faith, my sense-of-self, my marriage, and brought a healing and balance to my life that was long lacking and so desperately needed.
i do hope this discussion will linger. that those who are afraid will consider what a step toward this might look like. for those of you who want to talk more about it, you will gather a few people and take the time to listen to each other. for those of you who are learning a lot through your relationships with the opposite sex, that you’d share your stories out loud and remind others it’s possible. may God give us continued courage in this important aspect of life together.
i’d love to hear some of your thoughts…
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ps: a great organization dedicated to biblical equality worth checking out if you haven’t already is christians for biblical equality.