Sunday Apr 03, 2016
Sunday Apr 03, 2016
Sunday Apr 03, 2016
Not long ago, some friends of the family told my wife and me that their elementary school kids would never be allowed to attend a party that included any children of the opposite gender. This policy against “boy/girl parties” included birthdays. It certainly covered the concept of play dates.
I do not know the reason why. The safe bet is the word “dates” and a clear animosity within the church about inter-sexual, or mixed gender, friendships. This was an after-church conversation. Several people had left the same church we left at roughly the same time. I document my family’s part of that process in the Walk The Earth podcast. I was left wondering if this other couple was going to struggle to find a gender-segregated youth group when their children got a bit older, or if I was just unaware of a new trend within mainline Protestant churches.
Remembering this makes me sad. I have a long history of being blessed by these kinds of friendships, using terms for most of my life like “sacred friendship” and “sacred history” to describe my mostly positive experiences of friendship across gender lines. I have shared some of those stories in Inappropriate Conversations podcasts. Perhaps I’ll use the comments section of this blog post to share a few links to specific episodes. We’ll see.
(A quick #IC list would be episodes: 44, 79, 80, 90, and 118, but there are more.)
Another point of sadness for me recently came from a book that I’m going to cautiously recommend. Forbidden Friendships: Retaking the Biblical Gift of Male-Female Friendship by Joshua D. Jones had its second edition released last August. Aimed at a Christian audience, I recommend the book to that target group. For others, I have reservations which I hope to explain well enough to expand the recommendation a bit further. Forbidden Friendships has much to commend within its short and direct page count.
Let me start
with one positive and a couple of negatives. First, I find it challenging to
critique an argument that I fully agree with. My style as a critic is, well,
critical. Rather than gush about something that pushes all of my buttons, in a
good way, I’d rather find even the most minor opportunity to improve. I am
fully on board with Jones’ argument. On the other hand, I found the appendices
at the end of the book disheartening. That also became my last impression, and
it led me to re-read parts of the book in an effort to wash away the
I’m probably being harsh. One appendix shared Facebook feedback that Jones sought for the question of whether male-female friendships are “real friendships” or not. By my subjective estimate, the responses were pretty much an even three-way split between No, Yes, and some Maybes (so highly qualified that Yes simply doesn’t apply). More people in this nowhere-near-random survey would tell me that my personal experience is false, if not impossible. Fully a third would endorse the presumptions made by our friends from our former church. Maybe it’s just me, but the people who share my perspective seemed to be drowned out by those who don’t.
The other appendix was called “On ‘Being Gay’ and ‘SSA’” and I still have no idea how that applied in any direct way to the topic of genuine friendships that cross society’s gender lines. Jones used this section to promote his website, where that subject matter does appear, and homosexuality was mentioned a few times in the body of the book as well. I found it distracting. Despite both Jones and I being committed Christians, we differ slightly in our views of scripture and what I might call the focus of Christ. It’s a difference that makes a difference. Most of my friends who fall outside the gender binary will find little value in Forbidden Friendships. Some, though not all, of my gay friends will find sections insulting and potentially harmful.
Consider this a warning. Jones does denounce the “just a choice” mentality while still recommending what I would call forced, involuntary celibacy on a significant number of people. Faced with that option, I’m quite sure most LGBTQI people would leave the church instead. Many already have. My faith tells me that Jesus isn’t mired in the same Either/Or fallacies that characterize far too much of the “religious right” in the United States and elsewhere. (America isn’t the only place where political and religious ideologies have become too anti-intellectual to support even a narrow, Gospel-based discourse.)
I do not lump Jones in with the anti-intellectuals. Forbidden Friendships is carefully considered, well reasoned, and succinct. In the context of heterosexual men and women befriending one another in a way that completely subverts concepts like “with benefits” and rising above “more than a friend” and its presumed limitations, Jones has delivered essential reading for Christians and valuable reading for non-Christians.
Referring to the work of psychologist Carl G. Jung on the phenomenology of the self, I have noted that it is very difficult to follow notions of anima and animus through whatever “the opposite sex” might mean for homosexuals. I’ll simply leave the question open, as I have in the past.
Suffice to say that I dwell on this for sincere, heartfelt reasons that Jones would surely understand. Early on, he makes the observation that congregations maintaining a strict gender divide and carefully monitoring for “inappropriate” male-female interactions between the unmarried cannot claim a solid track record when it comes to scandal. It is precisely past scandals that have reinforced this version of gender apartheid within those churches.
The other side effect is homophobia. Jones says, “The result of these scandals and cultural shifts has also resulted in men being anxious of loving friendships with other men lest they appear ‘gay’. Adults also shy away from affectionate interaction with children for fear of pedophilia accusations. Greater distance isn’t just growing across the gender divide, it’s growing everywhere.”
So, let’s just say that I know I have been called to speak on behalf of sacred friendship, as I describe it. I use the word “called” intentionally, as a reference to answered prayer. I also believe I have been called to denounce homophobia.
Given the concerns I’ve already shared, I held my breath a bit on my first reference to the Notes pages. Names like Mark Driscoll and Focus On The Family appear there. Without exception, Jones cites them in order to refute their views. He, like me, disagrees with their narrow, harmful perspectives on inter-sexual relationships. One name I didn’t see that I think of often on topics like relationships and The Sexual Revolution was David R. Mace. That’s a shame. David and Vera Mace contributed valuable insight into marriage during their lives, and Jones’ work here would fit well on the topic of non-marital relationships.
Since there are Inappropriate Conversations podcasts that tell my stories in varying degrees of detail, I won’t dwell on my experiences in this review. Jones is also not particularly specific about his personal stories. The biographical section focuses elsewhere. Jones is pastor in the United Kingdom. He was born in America, married a Danish woman, and has lived in several places. His blog is at JoshuaDJones.com.
Forbidden Friendships is not addressing a side issue of marginal importance. Jones makes an argument that we aren’t just falling short of the vision Jesus described for the new heaven and new earth. Worse, many within the church seem to be regulating against the standard and example set by Jesus. In his First Word segment, Jones writes, “There has been a growing relational chasm within the church that seeks to keep men and women from engaging in genuine friendship. This separation has been parading under the banner of integrity and it has become unhealthy.”
By the end of this review, I might come close to describing that separation as blasphemy. Jesus said that in the afterlife there won’t be marriage (Mark 12: 18-27) with the implication that there will be something far greater. Greater than sex. Greater than marriage. Probably greater than the notion of friendship that Jones and I concur about, too, although perhaps of its type. The phrase that comes to mind is “through a glass, darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12) which suggests that we will eventually comprehend love completely.
Like me, Jones does not view this sort of friendship as merely a preference. He shares a list of benefits with some supporting explanation:
Healing, joy and growth. God puts the right people in our path, regardless of gender.
To help us resist temptation. I’ve learned more about integrity from female friends than I ever could claim if “integrity” merely meant not having any connection with women other than my wife.
To strengthen our marriages. I’ve told this story online before, but the first person to tell me – as if she was seeing the future – “you are going to marry Sheryl” was a female friend. I cannot even imagine a male friend at that time using those words.
Because we are commanded to be. Among other things, we are commanded by Christ to be the Family Of God, and that includes relationships between brothers and sisters, regardless the heredity or biology.
To share the power of the cross. I believe God told me, “’Tis far better to say something that should not be said, than not to say something that should be said.” Those words were shared in the context of a male-female friendship, and they were meant to be spoken through other inter-sexual friends and into the entire notion of sacred friendship.
And, Release of ministry.
What about sex, though? Jones looks at modern sexuality through the work of Sigmund Freud. Perhaps Freud has been so influential that most of us take at least a few of his concepts for granted. My focus has always leaned toward Jung. While those two psychologists were roughly contemporary and even worked together for a time, Jung has more to say about interpersonal connections.
I’ve asked before in past blog posts, one in particular about the sexual orientation of potential leaders within youth Scouting programs, if we understand the concept of sexualization.
During one of the Boy Scouts Of America controversies in recent years, I asked some older church friends in a small group meeting how they understood the phrase “openly gay” in the context of kids who weren’t yet sexually active. They didn’t understand the question. To them, “openly gay” meant having sex. To me, it meant coming to terms with same-sex attraction as the reality for those potential Scouts. Just as the boys attracted to girls weren’t getting help earning a “hit it before you quit it” badge from their leaders, so the “openly gay” teens would also be learning about leadership and other skills while delaying sexual experimentation until a later stage of life.
It is possible, in other words, to refrain from sleeping with someone you are attracted to. Perhaps the most monstrous ideas I hear from opponents of my experience and perspective is that this is somehow impossible. If you love someone of the opposite gender and you are heterosexual, the logic goes, you therefore are inevitably mired in lust (whether you are aware of it or not).
The first time I made a trip to visit a female friend after marrying my wife, the reaction of some within my family (not my wife, thankfully) was reprehensible. “What does he think he’s up to?!” was, I’m told, the response. It earned both the question and exclamation marks. The assumption was that I was being lustful and deceptive, perhaps even violating my vows. Irony abounds! The real deceptions here were accusations made behind my back and to my wife but never to me. As for breaking vows, if those false assumptions were true, I would have been breaking vows not only to my wife but also to my friend.
I’ve used the expression “sacred friendship” in the context of those friendships, as often as not. The words carry powerful meaning for me. It isn’t about sex, and certainly not about lust, and that’s what makes the friendship work. Or, would those who oppose the views expressed by Jones suggest that the only female friends of mine who are “genuinely friends” are those who identify as lesbian? There are some, and the differences in perspective Jones and I have about homosexuality make me wonder what he might do with that question.
No, what’s at stake here is intimacy, not sexuality. Jones shares a quote that he attributes to Alfred, Lord Tennyson. We all know the one about it being better to have loved and lost. What is perceived today as a romantic notion, Jones notes, was actually written for a close male friend of Tennyson who had died. We aren’t good at intimacy these days. Homophobia is one reason. Disregard for male-female friendship is surely another. There are more: presumptions of sexual intent, the false notion that love is a progression that inevitably leads to “more than a friend” concepts that exalt sexuality above all expressions of intimacy, etc.
“But in heaven,” Jones writes, “unity and intimacy with both the Lord and with others will be perfected beyond our wildest imaginings. In this world we get small tastes of what this will be like as we learn about a love that’s based upon naked souls instead of naked bodies.”
I read this book again, following my unhappy emotional response to the appendices, to recapture the beauty of that paragraph and the next two sentences. “Humans can live without sex. We can’t live without intimacy.”
Forbidden Friendships is worth reading to experience those words in context. There are many traditional, even old-fashioned, assumptions about sex and marriage from a Christian perspective in the book. It strikes me that there is a purpose beyond merely speaking to a churchgoing audience.
What I call sacred friendship, Jones describes as “soul friends” in the central chapters of the book. Anamchara is the Gaelic word for this. Funny, I started reading this book while visiting Ireland. Examples included St. Patrick and St. Brigid, along with St. Francis and St. Clare. There are many Protestant examples as well, like John Wesley and John Knox and their friendships with women Jones does not name.
St. Teresa of Avila was also cited as an example. I’m familiar with her from this hauntingly beautiful quote:
no body now on earth but yours,
no hands but yours,
no feet but yours,
Yours are the eyes through which to look out
Christ's compassion to the world
Yours are the feet with which he is to go about
Yours are the hands with which he is to bless men now.”
How many people would refuse to answer this call if their hands and feet needed to serve side-by-side, without a chaperone, with a person of the opposite gender who wasn’t their spouse?
One of those central chapters looked at examples of these friendships within Christian history. The other looked at the issue within scripture, finding no Biblical prohibitions. I’ll share just a couple of the many examples.
Galatians 3:28 says, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” I honestly don’t know if Jones would agree with me, but I would certainly emphasize that there is no gay or straight at the foot of the cross either, if only because James teaches in his letter that there are no “special sins” that make one person more unworthy of grace than another.
Genesis 2:18 says, “It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him.” According to Hebrew Scripture, human sexual reproductive practices have not yet entered the story. The concept of marriage is non sequitur at this point, too. What sense does it make to speak of vowing fidelity “to you and none other” when there are no others? Jones goes into more detail, drawing this wise conclusion from the Genesis passage: “[God] gave Adam an opposite gender friend.”
Breaking my heart as I was reading, once again, Jones makes this reference to Romans 16:16a: “Greet one another with a holy kiss.” His conclusion, sadly, “Instead of replacing the ‘forbidden kiss’ with a ‘holy kiss’ we’ve opted for ‘no kiss’.”
Finally, Forbidden Friendships invests necessary time on the modern concept of “emotional adultery” which has been used to justify most of the segregation that Jones rightly describes as an apartheid. He starts the chapter with a brilliant use of a famous quote from The Princess Bride. “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
From a Biblical perspective, certainly not. Adultery is something both the Old and New Testaments take seriously, and it always refers to sexual infidelity. It is a reckless, potentially blasphemous, mistake to pour a broader meaning into a concept that was used in ancient days as a cause for brutal capital punishment.
Among the biggest mistakes the church makes today is trying to specifically re-forbid what is already forbidden, or trying to re-codify as allowed what is already so clearly Biblical. We don’t need a new set of rules, a new legalism. Jesus said he was going to fulfill all of The Law and he did so dramatically and sufficiently on the cross (and after). By the way, conservative Americans are making the same mistake politically, with state after state passing laws that at best only restate the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and at worst violating the Bill Of Rights by misrepresenting it. (We don’t need another law forbidding the government from either establishing a state religion or forcing pastors and priests to subvert their doctrine.)
Jones rightly identifies this as creating a new non-Biblical standard when we already have clear direction in scripture. It is wrong to covet, lust, or lie. These are already specifically denounced. All the while, loving others and helping them carry their burdens is specifically allowed, without any regard for age, race, nationality, or gender. (You may as well all sexual orientation to that list, from my perspective.)
There is one key exception where the notion of “emotional affair” isn’t fully covered by commands against the temptation to covet, lust, or lie. What about a situation where someone who isn’t coveting another’s possessions or relationship and avoiding lust is also quite openly exalting the relationship with an opposite-gender friend above their spouse and at the expense of the marriage? If my wife has ever shared a worry over friendships in my life, past or present, I suspect that this would be the concern.
Jones calls this a problem within that marriage regardless of the friendship(s), and he is right. I am thankful that I can confidently say I do not have this problem within my marriage. I have, though, always struggled with the terminology we use, with society’s obsession with “best friends” as a concept. I can certainly see how the implied ranking in that expression could be hurtful, either to a spouse or to other friends.
I mentioned our society’s persistent use of Either/Or logical fallacies, and it applies here as well. We just don’t know what to do with people like me. I’m not just one thing, not liberal or conservative across the board, not strictly traditional or progressive in church circles, and I refuse to play the “name your best friend” game either.
To restate, love is not a scale where anything is singularly best. We don’t move from acquaintance to friend to “more than a friend” (aka, lover) to spouses. Jesus would describe the progression very differently, with “no such thing as marriage because heaven is so much more” as the pinnacle. Even that notion presumes a progression of sorts that Jesus said nothing about and, in all likelihood, would dismiss with a smirk. “Slow of heart” is the expression he used in Luke 24:25 with followers who seemingly couldn’t comprehend things that seemed obvious to Jesus in the scriptures.
The takeaway from Jones’ chapter on “emotional adultery” is two-fold. He easily dismissed the claim that this concept is even valid, calling it little more than a repackaging of admonishments against lying or behaving with lustful or covetous intentions. This sort of repackaging could generously be called unnecessary. Too often, though, it is more of an evil effort – however benign – to mix man-made rules in with the commandments Jesus gave us to follow. If, for example, we fail to love our neighbors as we love ourselves because we are afraid of whatever “emotional adultery” heaps above guidelines about treating others with dignity and respect, then this concept becomes an abomination.
Jones also dealt with the most valid cause for concern head on. I appreciate the honesty in dealing with situations where a marriage might be so broken that any loving relationship could be perceived as a threat.
Make no mistake, though. The term “emotional adultery” borders on blasphemy. The Bible is clear that adultery is a sexual act. It would be a deception to prevent people from loving their neighbors as the Holy Spirit leads due to some confusion about the difference between brotherhood/sisterhood and what might be called “friends with benefits” or something similar. It may well be evil because, as a deception, we must account for the fact that Jesus referred to Satan as “the father of all lies” (John 8:44).
Forbidden Friendships: Retaking the Biblical Gift of Male-Female Friendship by Joshua D. Jones has inspired some strong words from me. This book taps directly into some of the most important spiritual experiences of my life, providing historical and scriptural support in clear and simple arguments. I’ll restate, though, that Jones does not have any more answers than Jung (or me) on how to apply these concepts outside of the traditional gender binary. I do not recommend this book for insight on homosexual friendships or marital relationships. Of course, I also don’t believe those topics fall within his thesis, and those distractions play too much of a role in certain sections.
“There will be a day when we will be able to give and receive extravagant love with all our friends without any thought of boundaries or of being misunderstood,” Jones concludes in a section I won’t quote in much more detail because I don’t want to spoil a beautiful conclusion to a book written for Christians. Instead, I’ll give C.S. Lewis, quoted within these pages by Jones, the final challenging word.
“Those who cannot conceive Friendship as a substantive love but only as a disguise or elaboration of Eros betray the fact that they have never had a Friend. The rest of us know that though we can have erotic love and friendship for the same person yet in some ways nothing is less like a Friendship than a love-affair. Lovers are always talking to one another about their love; Friends hardly ever about their Friendship. Lovers are normally face to face, absorbed in each other; Friends, side by side, absorbed in some common interest. Above all, Eros (while it lasts) is necessarily between two only. But two, far from being the necessary number for Friendship, is not even the best. And the reason for this is important. ... In each of my friends there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out. By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets ...” (The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis).