The perennial question of whether men and women can be just friends is finding new life among evangelical Christians. Evangelical author Aimee Byrd is promoting intimate friendships between opposite-sex Christians as a way to bond spiritually while modeling for the world that men and women can be close without having to worry about bad behavior and harassment claims.
Byrd has written a series of blog posts on the topic and promises to elaborate in her new book “Why Can’t We Be Friends? Avoidance Is Not Purity,” set to be released in late June. Not surprisingly, Byrd is no fan of the Mike Pence rule, which as practiced by the vice president means he won’t dine alone with a woman who is not his wife nor attend events serving alcohol unless she is with him. The rule is similar to practices the late evangelist Billy Graham, Christian pastors, business leaders, and others have used for years.
Echoing feminist critics of the rule, Byrd wrote in a recent article for First Things that the Pence rule has a “basis in fear” and “calls us to a kind of avoidance that will never comprehend purity.” Byrd’s article starts by detailing newly disclosed allegations of sexual abuse against megachurch pastor Bill Hybels.
But she doesn’t consider that abiding by the Pence rule may have spared Hybels from the trouble he’s in now. Instead, Byrd warns against “putting up fences” and tells men and women to practice Christian love. If you’re pure in heart and spiritually mature, you won’t go astray, her theory goes, ignoring the all-too-painful truth that those who fancy themselves above temptation are especially vulnerable to it.
Just Friend-Zone Everyone, and Then You’re Safe
Byrd believes love between opposite-sex Christians should mimic close relationships between biological siblings. For her, the biblical exhortation to love one another as brothers and sisters in Christ is not just metaphorical. Her unique interpretation has justifiably met with criticism. G. Shane Morris notes that the brother-sister metaphor is one of many in the Bible “meant to deepen our understanding of a single theological reality: our union with Christ and consequent union with one another in Him. To use them in ways not explicit (or at least implicit) in their context is to mishandle Scripture.”
Byrd has favorably compared spending time alone with her biological brother, which poses no threat to her marriage, to time opposite-sex Christian friends spend alone. Even though Byrd nuances her description by saying she doesn’t routinely meet alone with her brother, she misses the larger issue.
Biological siblings have a shared history and know each other’s likes and dislikes, their hopes and fears, and sometimes details of their brightest and darkest moments. For them, sex is never even potentially on the table. When platonic friends begin to build a history and share intimately, however, things can get dicey even if they don’t see each other daily, because as Harry and Sally showed us, the sex part gets in the way.
Emotional Intimacy Is Connected to Physical Intimacy
At the end of the classic movie “When Harry Met Sally,” the two singles end up happily married. But in real life, countless singles and marrieds have realized too late the pain that comes from oversharing emotionally and spiritually with someone they are not meant to be with. Has Byrd not heard of “emotional affairs”? Damaging in and of themselves, they can lead to inappropriate sexual relationships that further inflict pain on one’s self and others.
In my own life as a single, my intimate friendships with single men have ended amid confusion and heartache. But they needed to end, because without a commitment toward something greater, there was no room for the emotional and spiritual closeness to grow in a way that was truly satisfying. Marriage is about more than physical intimacy. It also is for emotional and spiritual intimacy, an intimacy that a platonic friendship can’t sustain.
We may not want sexual tension to be a feature of our lives as men and women, and we may think we can erase it by operating on a higher spiritual plane, but that’s not reality. God made us the way he did for a reason, and that means properly ordering our relationships. I’ve realized the necessity of limiting the amount of time I spend alone with single men if we aren’t dating, and I can’t fathom why I would call up or text a married man at church to see if he wants to hang out at the park to catch up on our lives. That’s what biological siblings do, not what opposite-sex metaphorical siblings in Christ should feel pressured to do.
This Doesn’t Mean No Friendship, Only Give It Parameters
Does this mean that I don’t have male friends, that I avoid men? Hardly. It’s not like there are only two choices here: intimate friendships or avoidance. Men and women can and do easily become friends primarily in group settings at church and elsewhere. There’s no need to become as emotionally close as a biological or adopted brother and sister to see these friendships as enriching.
Byrd writes, “The church has tried to be a godly voice in the midst of a world seduced by the sexual revolution. But often, the church has swung the pendulum too far to the opposite extreme, also over-sexualizing men and women, by imposing guidelines on not only friendship between the sexes, but even on acquaintanceship.”
While I can think of one or two cases of overreaction I’ve come across, and while I’ve read about stringent protocols in fringe fundamentalist groups, I hardly see this as a crisis in the mainstream. As a longtime regular churchgoer, and as someone who has lived in the Bible Belt for nearly 20 years, I’ve never known of serious problems between Christian men and women interacting in groups at church events, Bible studies, or out socially.
Some of the more extreme examples that Byrd strains to characterize as commonplace, such as admonitions against sharing an elevator with the opposite sex, I’m not familiar with at all. The problems I am aware of tend to be those that result from a lack of boundaries, not too many of them.
As for men who follow the Pence rule, it’s grossly unfair to portray them as having unreasonable hang-ups that cause them to want to avoid women. Setting guidelines for specific circumstances does not amount to carving the opposite sex out of your life completely. A follower of the Pence rule might decline lunch alone with a woman, but gladly catch up with her at a group event.
The Pence rule and similar boundaries aren’t about avoiding women entirely, they’re about avoiding situations that can put both men and women in awkward, potentially compromising situations. While I don’t follow a female version of the Pence rule to the letter, I wouldn’t be offended if a man—be he a co-worker, boss, or fellow church member—worked around meeting alone with me or invited a third person to lunch or dinner. If women want to be better friends with men, we need to show greater appreciation for where they’re coming from, and not be so quick to view the boundaries they set as a personal slight or a slight against women.
Safeguards Against Danger Are Simply Prudent
Byrd doesn’t seem to want to give men a say if their perspective contradicts hers, nor does she seem willing to give women who support measures like the Pence rule a fair hearing. Like secular feminists, she is adamant that such safeguards objectify women, reducing them to temptresses while reducing men to predators.
But scandals in Hollywood, Washington DC, and evangelical churches should tell us it’s wise to be on alert for those with less than pure motives, and to guard ourselves and others against temptations before we learn the hard way we or they can’t bear them. In addition, setting boundaries isn’t solely about preventing the worst-case scenarios that lead to adultery or land people in jail or plastered all over the news. It’s also about preventing intimacies with others that can tear at a marriage and leave singles feeling rudderless.
In her lofty theorizing, Byrd isn’t concerned enough about the real-life effects of what she’s proposing and the various ways it could go wrong. She writes, “Dealing with the sin in our own hearts, confessing temptations, offering them to God, and choosing obedience and holy, purifying love is much more difficult than avoiding people. Challenges should not be ignored. But they don’t mean we aren’t called to intimate sibling communion with one another. They just mean that we need to grow.”
In acknowledging the challenges, Byrd shared about a time she cautioned her husband about a woman she thought had more than friendship with him in mind. If only that would have inspired in Byrd a greater sensitivity toward tensions between men and women on a broader scale, and more circumspection before recommending intimate sibling communion for spiritual growth. Instead, we’re left mostly with feminist-like anger over common-sense boundaries that served many people well for ages but in more recent years have been coming undone.