This past year I enjoyed two extended visits with an old high school friend who had a profound spiritual influence on my life. This friend taught me tremendous lessons about intimacy, asking deep questions, listening, being aware of others’ needs, and forgiveness. She’s also female, and we dated at one point in high school.
During our visits together (one in Australia where she now lives with her Australian husband and one in England where we enjoyed time together as couples), my friend made a number of references to thinking of me as a brother. I too now think of her as the sister I never had but needed in my life (I always tell my wife that it is good we married when I was 29, since—not having had sisters—I needed a bit more character sharpening from female sisters in Christ).
As anyone who follows such things knows, the matter of female-male friendships/relationships has been all over social media the past year. Can Christian married men be friends with women who are not their wives? I saw this declaration on Twitter, “Men, you simply cannot have close friendships with women who are not your wife.” On the opposite side, were those who dismiss such concerns and laud the value of male-female friendships, such as the one I have with my friend from high school. Despite no shortage of opinions, I find most responses to this debate unsatisfying with very, very few exceptions.
The reasons for my dissatisfaction are three-fold. First, the responses often fail to set forth a positive ethic for male-female relationships grounded in the larger Christian story that recognizes males and females are made in God’s image, have experienced gender alienation through sin, and must seek redemption and gender reconciliation. Second, the responses fail to address how male-female relationships are fallen in unique ways. Third, the responses often want to talk in redemptive identity terms using only friendship language, which is often a bit vague, when I think the complexity of these relationships requires adding four other types of creation and redemption-based identity languages.
The Limits of Rules
As I mentioned in my last column, rules are for beginners. Just as someone who obeys all the rules of tennis is not an excellent tennis player, a husband or wife who does not commit adultery is not automatically thereby an excellent husband or wife. That’s the major problem with the Billy Graham rule or any other similar rule including my own (don’t be a creep). It fails to offer a positive vision for flourishing in an identity area. That is especially true of secondary rules designed to help one avoid breaking a key rule (what the Pharisees did by creating their additional rules beyond Jewish law and what the Billy Graham rule or “don’t be a creep” rule are).
Thus, to form a more sophisticated and robust Christian ethic we need to move beyond rules (without forgetting them). Instead, we need to think about the positive vision for gender relationships in the Christian story according to three important identities.
1. Creation: Being Professional
When I was engaged to my wife, I joked with her about my realization that she had already seen plenty of naked men—she was working as a nurse at that time. She then made a simple comment about her perspective when dealing with that situation, “As long as you remain professional, it’s not a problem.” In those simple words, she described an identity established by humans working out the created order that helps with our relationships. When we focus on our common professional ends and the virtues, practices, and wisdom needed to achieve those professional ends, we focus on wonderful creation-based ideals for healthy male-female relationships that anyone (and not just Christians) discover.
2. More than a Professional: Image Bearer of God
Of course, the best professional colleagues also recognize each other’s common humanity as image bearers of God. They do not simply relate as professionals but will ask questions that demonstrate a care for the colleague’s whole being. These are simply matters of being a caring human being that should be practiced in any work setting. As my colleague Margaret Diddams wrote me when I asked her to read this essay, “While women can clearly be harmed by creepiness, they can also be harmed by moving too far the other way—not recognizing the imago Dei in everyone. Everyone wants to be more than their title or e-mail address. We are human beings not human doings.” We must find the middle between these extremes—that is what leads to the complexity of this issue—but finding the middle is to what we are called.
We also must recognize one more important aspect related to creation and the fall. Males and females are created for mutual attraction and sexual relations. What was initially a good aspect of the creation became an additional dimension of difficulty thanks to the fall—one I do not have with my male friends, even those who are same-sex attracted. Heterosexual men will be aware of a female’s beauty, body, clothing, etc. when meeting to talk about professional work in a way that we simply are not with another man. Additionally, cultivating emotional intimacy with a woman meets needs that are different than emotional intimacy with a man. We cannot get around that reality. It is how we are made.
Thus, to focus on the positive vision and avoid fallen expressions of our male identity, men must take different steps when relating with female colleagues. For example, men must realize that certain comments or conversations about dress, romantic relationships, or emotionally vulnerable topics, and/or particular types of joking or bantering that might seem normal to share with a male colleague may make female colleagues feel that we are crossing a creep line (more on this in Part 3 tomorrow). In addition, male professionals need to take special caution when teaching academic subjects (e.g., the hook-up culture on college campuses) that could easily approach or cross the creep line if not handled with wisdom and care (e.g. be careful of your desire to use humor to diffuse awkwardness and/perhaps invite a female colleague or your wife into the classroom when you do discuss these topics). This issue may be particularly important when working with non-Christian women who—in my experience—have different ideas about what is appropriate and inappropriate to discuss in those moments.
Yet, as a Christian professor who cares for my female colleagues as more than simply professionals, I want to welcome conversations that move beyond professional matters or common concerns (e.g., family, general well-being) but that plumb the depths of Christian faith. This reality leads to a third, redemptive identity we need to consider beyond professional and human identities.
3. Redemptive Identities: Being a Brother to a Sister in Christ
I find it important that familial identities provide the terms used to frame male and female relationships in the context of “professional pastoral” relationships within the church. Timothy is told to treat “older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity” (I Tim. 5:2). Interestingly, Timothy/we do not have to be told in great detail what those healthy son-mother and brother-sister relationships are. It is assumed Timothy/we will know what is healthy in these relationships from personal experience, conscience, and the reference to purity (which for Timothy would bring to mind Jewish ritual purity law).
As someone who writes extensively about identity, I think this framing, the same framing used by my sister in Christ this past year, should be a third key identity used to frame Christian male-female professional relationships outside marriage for a number of reasons.
First, it acknowledges the core identity change that is vital for all Christian relationships. We are all brothers and sisters in Christ (mentioned over 100 times in the epistles alone). This change flattens the often hierarchical nature of our relationships with other believers so that class, gender, ethnicity, citizenship, race, professional status, etc. do not create status boundaries. Second, despite this flatness, this identity paradigm still produces clear relational categories and boundaries (reinforced in OT laws such as Lev. 18:9-13). Brothers and sisters have unique and specific boundaries.
In contrast, friendship is often a more ambiguous identity. Indeed, unless we have visited different cultures, we often do not understand the broad way we use the English word friendship. For example, Russians find the broad American use frustrating and odd. They use друг (translated friend) to refer only to their two or three closest friends (others were знакомый which is usually translated acquaintance) for these relationships. Interestingly, the 170 times the English word friend is used for translation in the Bible, it is never used specifically about different sex friendships (except in Song of Songs to the beloved, 5:16, God to his beloved chosen people—Isaiah 41:8; Jer. 3:4; Luke 12:4; John 15:15, and the disciples to God’s chosen people, Romans 12:9, Phil. 2:12; 4:1). For diverse cultures within the body of Christ, the brother-sister identity language is much clearer in practice and the one used biblically (please note I am not dismissing the use of friendship identity language–just suggesting we need to add to it when considering the complexity of male-female relationships).
The brother-sister redemptive language helps us conceptualize our thinking, affections, and behavior with professional female Christian colleagues with whom we grow closer than a simple professional relationship, especially those that are young and single. Thinking of the various women at Baylor as my sisters in Christ means I gladly engage with them spiritually, intellectually, and emotionally in wholistic ways that I hope foster their growth as persons (as well as my own), in the same way I would hope to do with a sister.
Yet, while I think these three identities are key for conceptualizing male and female relationships, I also think we need to consider a fourth moral identity when dealing with power dynamics in undergraduate, graduate, and lower-level staff and faculty or professional relationships (more on this in my next post).