Can Men and Women Be Friends in the Church?

by Derek Brown

There’s nothing like a good friend. Scripture recognizes the worth of close friendships and calls the believer to exercise God-fearing loyalty to one’s friends (Prov 17:17). Indeed, it was the fact that the Messiah was betrayed by an intimate friend that made the betrayal so grievous (Ps 41:9). Friendship is a gift from our Creator. Friends hold us up (Eccl 4:9-10), strengthen us in the Lord (1 Sam 23:16), and admonish us (Prov 27:6). Friends are meant to be a source of genuine delight (Ps 16:3) and objects of affection (Prov 27:9).

While it is good to be reminded of these truths, much of this seems obvious enough for friendships between members of the same sex. When it comes to male/female friendships, however, things are not as clear. Given the nature of the relationship, the hovering potential for romance, and questions of propriety and purity, men and women in the church may find themselves in a swirl of confusion about how to relate to each other.

Given the nature of the relationship, the hovering potential for romance, and questions of propriety and purity, men and women in the church may find themselves in a swirl of confusion about how to relate to each other.

Some Christians may try to overcome this confusion by avoiding any relationship with members of the opposite sex unless they are romantically interested. Where avoidance doesn’t characterize these relationships, awkwardness may still be the general flavor. But neither avoidance nor awkwardness should characterize male/female relationships in the body of Christ. There is a better way.   

Confident that Scripture points us in a superior direction, my aim in this article is to clear away some of the confusion in this area and help Christian men and women develop holy, happy, and healthy relationships with each other for the glory of God. Let’s begin with some definitions.

Who is a Friend?
Although social media has diluted the concept of friendship—you can be a “friend” with someone you just met and barely know—the primary definition for the word “friend” still carries the ideas of nearness and affection. Culturally, we still recognize that a “friend” is more than an “acquaintance.” Outside the social media context, to say that someone is my “friend” is to say that we share, at some level, a mutual affection that does not exist between people who have just met (hence the problem of calling someone I only recently met, and perhaps not even in person, my “friend” on Facebook).

English versions of the Bible often use the word “friend” to translate Hebrew (Old Testament) and Greek (New Testament) words that convey some amount of relational closeness and mutual affection. “Thus the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend” (Ex 33:11); “A dishonest man spreads strife, and a whisperer separates close friends” (Prov 16:28); “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity” (Prov 17:17); “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). This use of the English word “friend” is consistent with the relationship conveyed in these biblical examples: a friend is someone with whom you share some measure of relational depth, nearness, and mutual affection.

But given this definition of friendship, we inevitably move to the question of male/female friendships. We may be in hearty agreement with this definition when it comes to same-gender friendships, but friendships between men and women tend to be a little more complicated. Why is this? The primary reason for this complexity is the fact that men and women are made by God to come together in marital union (Gen 2:22-24). We must distinguish between same-sex and opposite-sex friendships because male/female friendships are by their very nature different than same-sex friendships and therefore require specific attention and categorization.

Unlike relationships between members of the same sex, relationships between men and women by their God-given design possess the potential for romance. Paul addresses how men and women are to relate to one another in the church with specific instruction and classification (1 Tim 5:2), and divides discipleship into gender-specific categories (Titus 2:1-6) for this reason (among others).

But to help us better understand how friendships can exist between men and women in the church, it will be advantageous to examine how such relationships may be distinguished from same-sex friendships and male/female romance. Consider the following chart:  

Same-Sex FriendshipMale/Female FriendshipMale/Female Romance
Brotherly Affection and DelightBrotherly Affection and DelightBrotherly Affection and Delight
Ministry PartnershipMinistry PartnershipMinistry Partnership
Christian WarmthChristian WarmthChristian Warmth
Mainly Individual Fellowship with Corporate FellowshipMainly Corporate Fellowship with some Individual FellowshipExclusivity
Relational DepthRelational CareRelational Intimacy
  Desire for Physical Intimacy (prior to the wedding)/Physical Intimacy (after the wedding)

Notice what these three relationships share in common. Among Christian friendships and romantic relationships, there is brotherly affection and delight, ministry partnership, Christian warmth, and fellowship. For male/female friendships, this Christian fellowship should (and typically does) occur primarily in corporate settings because the primary venue for friendship (if we take the definition of “friend” given above) is with members of the same-sex.

Also notice the three elements that distinguish male/female friendship from male/female romance: (1) exclusivity; (2) relational intimacy; (3a) desire for physical intimacy (prior to the wedding)/(3b) physical intimacy (after the wedding). Where (1), (2), and (3a) are starting to emerge, a friendship is transitioning to a romantic relationship.

Romance Begins with Exclusivity
But a romantic relationship begins with exclusivity. Yes, there are degrees of exclusivity—depending on how well the relationship is going, you will move from less to more exclusivity until you are completely exclusive as a married couple. But even at the beginnings of the relationship, romance is marked by some measure of exclusivity (I am starting to like her more than other girls; I choose to ask her out and not someone else). As one author has observed, exclusivity is the essence of marriage. It makes sense, then, that a relationship leading to marriage would begin with some amount of exclusiveness.

Once exclusivity is established, however, the couple should not delve headfirst into greater relational intimacy. Rather, between exclusivity and relational intimacy is the pursuit of clarity. The goal for the Christian couple is to get to know each other with some level of exclusivity and thereby gain clarity on whether this particular relationship should lead to marriage. Once that clarity is established, then deeper relational intimacy can commence. As relational intimacy increases, so will physical desire.

The goal for the Christian couple is to get to know each other with some level of exclusivity and thereby gain clarity on whether this particular relationship should lead to marriage.

But these three elements—exclusivity, relational intimacy, and physical desire—should not characterize male/female friendships in the body of Christ. Now, you might see the logic behind my comments about exclusivity and the biblical reasons to avoid the growth of physical desire (e.g., Matt 5:27-30), but relational intimacy? Why can’t relational intimacy exist between men and women in the church?

Brotherly Affection, Not Intimacy
We must first define what we mean by relational intimacy. While the word “intimate” may in some contexts carry sexual overtones, the primary definition of these words are, “closely acquainted; familiar; close”; “[having] a very close connection” and “marked by warm friendship developing through long association.”  

Now, there should be affection and connection between men and women in the church due to our mutual relationship with Christ. This brotherly affection will be characterized by the following spiritual qualities:  

  • Joy over the reality that our brother or sister is loved by Christ and that they love the Savior (1 John 3:1; 4:7-20; 5:1). At the foundation of our relationship with members of the body of Christ is the reality that they are loved by Christ and united to him. We don’t create a spiritual connection between our brothers and sisters in Christ; we already have a spiritual connection with them due to our mutual union with Christ and the corporate unity wrought by the Spirit (Eph 4:3). Married or single, if you are a man, you can rejoice over your sisters in Christ because she is loved by God. Married or single, if you are a woman, you can rejoice over your brothers in Christ because he is loved by God.    
  • Lust-free delight in their Christlike character and unique personality as God’s image-bearer (Ps 16:3). Due to the work of Christ cleansing our consciences and the Spirit regenerating our hearts and enabling us to walk in holiness, we are able to experience—wonder of wonders!—lust-free delight in our brothers and sisters in Christ. Among the many blessings of salvation is the new ability to enjoy the company of our brothers and sisters without the defiling propensity to think of them as sexual objects. As a man whose past is riddled with sexual sin, I have found this to be a glorious gift.      
  • Envy-free appreciation of their spiritual gifts and their contribution to the body of Christ (1 Cor 12:7). Brothers and sisters can also show appreciation for their spiritual siblings’ unique contribution to the body of Christ and even partner with them in ministry, as Paul did with both men and women (Rom 16:1ff).  

These spiritual qualities provide the foundation upon which men and women are to relate in the body of Christ. But these qualities don’t require relational intimacy—a category I believe is best reserved for romantic relationships. When it comes to men and women in their relationships with each other, it is better to pursue relational care than relational intimacy. Relational care is the quality of Christ-like love for one’s spiritual sibling that is expressed in genuine concern for his or her walk with the Lord and protection of the other person’s romantic expectations. It is distinguished from relational intimacy because it is not preceded by exclusivity.

Why Not Intimacy Between Friends?
Male and female friendships in the church are not, by definition, exclusive: they are inclusive. Christian brothers and sisters don’t isolate one particular opposite-sex friendship and ignore all others: they share relationship with all of their spiritual siblings. Inclusive sibling relationships, therefore, remain on the level of relational care because they occur primarily in the corporate environment. But there are also a few practical reasons why it is wise to not pursue relational intimacy with our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Male and female friendships in the church are not, by definition, exclusive: they are inclusive.

First, when relational intimacy begins to develop between a man and a woman, the natural progression of that relational intimacy is, by God’s design, to move toward physical intimacy. For two unmarried individuals, this isn’t a problem if they are pursuing exclusivity and clarity with a view toward consummating their physical desires in marriage. For married people, however, an opposite-sex friendship with someone other than their spouse cannot move in the direction of relational intimacy given the danger it poses to the marriage and due to the uniqueness of that marriage relationship.

Second, when men and women develop intimate friendships with each other, there is often confusion on one of the two sides as to where the relationship is headed. Again, if men and women were made to come together in marital union, then the closer the man and woman get, the greater the expectation there will be to complete that movement toward each other. If a man, for example, allows relational intimacy to grow between himself and a woman without any intention of moving that relationship toward marriage, often the woman will become confused about the man’s intention and the meaning of the relationship.

Third, relational intimacy between single men and women cannot continue indefinitely. If the man, for example, eventually marries another woman, then the intimacy of relationship he previously shared with the first woman must, by definition, evaporate. A married man can no longer conduct his relationships with other women in the same way he did when he was single. His nearest and dearest female relationship is now with his wife, and he must show her a unique affection that accords with the exclusivity of their relationship. Furthermore, his relationships with other women are now mediated relationships.

Marriage Creates Mediated Relationships
When a man or woman gets married, they become one-flesh with their spouse (Gen 2:24). It is not an exaggeration to say that a metaphysical change has occurred in the universe so that now every opposite-sex relationship is mediated through the spouse. Due to the nature of the one-flesh union, a married man cannot have an opposite-sex relationship that is independent from his spouse. This is not a mere practical suggestion or ethical exhortation. Any interaction he has with another woman is, by the nature of his marriage relationship, mediated through his wife. (The same goes for the married woman and her relationships.) This is first a matter of spiritual reality (i.e. it simply is the case) that provides the basis of practical decision-making (i.e., how should I interact with members of the opposite sex in light of this spiritual reality?). The interaction and relational affection between husband and wife should be unique in comparison to every other opposite-sex relationship the married couple has.  

While it is true that he will still experience brotherly affection with his sisters in Christ (see above), a married man will relate differently to single women than a single man will because there can be absolutely no movement toward romance with another woman in the married man’s case (exclusivity, relational and physical intimacy are excluded, by definition). His relationship with other women remains on the level of relational care and does not meander into the realm of exclusivity and relational intimacy. A single man, however, can still move in the direction of romance with a single woman. In his friendships with other women, there is potential for romance for the single man; such potential does not exist for the married man. The same can be said for a married woman.

Siblinghood: A Better Way
So, to return to our original question, Can men and women be friends in the church? We can answer “yes” and “no.” Yes, men and women in the church are “friends” inasmuch as they are brothers and sisters in Christ who are united by the Spirit and who express relational care for each other as fellow children of God. This kind of relationship between men and women in the church is good and healthy. But the answer is also “no” in the sense that friendship is usually attended with some measure of relational depth and intimacy that, as we saw above, is best experienced in the sphere of same-sex friendships.  

A better category for male/female relationships in the church is siblinghood. Paul instructs Timothy to treat all the young women in the church “as sisters, in all purity” (1 Tim 5:2). This means, most importantly, that all male/female relationships in the church should be free from sexual sin, including lust and immorality. Thankfully, as we noted above, due to God’s grace and the Holy Spirit, it is possible for men and women in the church to relate to one another without sexual sin, both mental and physical (Matt 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:1-8). It is possible for men and women in the church to delight in one another as brothers and sisters in Christ (Ps 16:3), partner in ministry together (Rom 16:1ff), gather corporately (Acts 2:42), love one another for Christ’s sake (Rom 12:10; 1 Thess 4:9), counsel each other (Rom 15:14), encourage one another (1 Thess 5:11) and serve one another (Gal 5:13) without transgressing crucial boundaries that God has established to protect marriage and sexual purity.

God intends for his people to live together in a way that reflects his goodness and wisdom. Avoidance and awkwardness between men and women in the church is not God’s will. While there are vital boundaries that must be protected, there are also delightful elements of our siblinghood that should be promoted as well. May God grant us the grace to pursue relationships that glorify him and strengthen his church.  

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