Can I be Friends with Girls?

Let me start this post with two short anecdotes. Firstly, a couple of years ago I was rebuked by an older Christian man in my church after he saw me sharing a plate of eats with a female friend. His wife also chastised my friend, at another time. Why? Sharing a plate of food was something only a husband and wife could do and who knows how people might have perceived our breaking of bread. Secondly, two years ago I heard the testimony of a visiting pastor. Discussing his conversion he repeatedly mentioned a close friend who the Lord used extensively in bringing him to faith. They would meet up, go for coffees, and chat regularly over the phone. But after becoming a Christian, this pastor called his faithful friend up and said they could no longer be friends. Why? Because this friend was a woman and their close relationship posed a threat to his marriage.

Man and womanThis post is titled with a question: ‘Can I be friends with girls?’ But the more general question or issue I hope to begin answering is this: can we share an intimate friendship with someone that we might grow romantically attracted to? In my case, that is women. Returning to my two anecdotes, the first is little more than laughable legalism and I treated it as such. However the second is more in touch with reality and genuine Christian concerns about adultery or sexual sin. While that pastor shared this aspect of his testimony I felt that his decision was commendable but nothing to celebrate. For example, I struggle with anger on the soccer field and because of it I have periodically refrained from playing. But that is never where I want to stay, on the sidelines, for I desire to glorify God on the soccer field and not simply by avoiding it.

This brings us back to the question of this post, which I am writing as an extension of its predecessor: Six Obstacles to Friendship. After preaching on friendship recently (you can read a summary of that here) I was asked about mixed-sex friendships. And that was not the first time I have been asked the question. I also recently learnt that the question is not unique to our time and has tended towards legalism in the church. In Reading with the Reformers Timothy George paraphrases Martin Luther, “There are legalists who have so tightened the meaning of Jesus’ words against lustful gazing that they forbid all companionship between men and women…But Jesus did not call for such sequestration. He distinguished looking and lusting.” Luther went on: Jesus allowed “talking, laughing, and having a good time” with women. To George and Luther’s points I would add the fact that Jesus certainly had close female friends (John 11:5; Luke 8:1-3). Personally, I am with Jesus and – on most points – Luther.

Freudian mythI do understand the caution against intimate and vulnerable friendships between men and women, where one or both are married or even in the case that neither are. It is possible to become sexually attracted to a friend, but then it is also possible I will lust while walking through the local shopping mall. Yet I still go. Gerald Bray notes in God is Love that because Western culture is obsessed with sex there is a suspicion towards close relationships, “It is now much harder than it used to be to maintain friendships, not only between members of the opposite sex (which has always been difficult) but among those of the same sex as well.” In Spiritual Friendship, Wesley Hill goes further and challenges Christians who adopt what we might call the Freudian Myth, “The belief that sex wholly explains the depths of our most profound relationships.” Sex is not the ultimate destination, or trajectory, of love-filled and close relationships, intimate friendships or affectionate companionship. In other words, sexual intimacy is not the aim or outcome of all intimacy.

There is much more I hope to write on this question, because it seems to be one many people are unsure about. In conclusion, let me say again that avoiding deep and vulnerable friendship is a wisdom issue, not a matter of law. When pressed to the extent that I have encountered it among conservative Christians it becomes legalism. The idea that sexual attraction is the inevitable end of intimate friendship between a man and a woman is not a biblical one. Likewise, the desire for close relationships with women who are not my wife is not born from sexual desire. In the church God has created a wonderfully diverse community whereby the differences of its members are a blessing to one another. We should embrace that, with both delight and discernment.

6 Obstacles to Friendship

Friendship is a wonderful gift from God. Over the years I have gratefully enjoyed its fruits, though not without effort and commitment. On occasion I have been asked to teach on the topic, and I have tried to make that material available at Rekindle: defining friendship and its purposes as well as appreciating it as an eternal gift. Recently I was handed the privilege of preaching on the topic, so I took the chance to rework my material and supplement it.

FriendsReflecting on the many obstacles to friendship I realised that friendships must survive in a hostile environment, fraught with threats and challenges. So here are some of the obstacles to friendship that I have experienced in my own life and culture. The list is far from comprehensive and you will very likely think of more, which I hope you will add in the comments. But my intention in listing them here is to make you aware of the obstacles to friendship and encourage you to strive harder for this glorious, satisfying and sanctifying gift.

Friendship is undervalued

Like a sunroof or cupholders, we tend to think of friendship as a ‘nice to have’. We do not consider it essential but an added extra. The result of this thinking is that we have a low estimation of friendship. If you believe something is not necessary you are unlikely to think it is important. But as I argued in a previous post defining friendship biblically, “Friendship involves complete vulnerability, the joining of two people’s souls in a wonderful love that reflects the nature of God.” This should not be undervalued but undertaken with concerted devotion.

Marriage has supplanted friendship

WeddingWhile I affirm that marriage is also a tremendous gift from God I fear that an unhealthy emphasis on it means friendship is overshadowed, and friends are forgotten. We make the mistake of believing that one person (our spouse) will be able to meet all of our relational and emotional needs, as if one single relationship (marriage) removes the need for all others.

Increased mobility

We move around, relocate for work and chase our ambitions into new neighbourhoods and countries. This impermanence is relationally disorienting and probably one of the reasons marriages turn inward and become isolated. Anyone who has relocated will know that finding community and creating new friendships is challenging, and often ends in loneliness. As Rod Dreher writes in The Benedict Option, “If you are going to put down spiritual roots…you need to stay in one place long enough for them to go deep.”

Technology

Following from the previous point, perpetually moving around we convince ourselves that we can remain ‘connected’. I will admit that I am indebted to platforms such as Skype and FaceTime but mediated communication (and friendship) falls short of the true glory of friendship. Despite all the benefits of these tools, which we ought to also praise God for, they are simply no substitute. 1000 friends on Facebook cannot stave my loneliness; nor can a video call provide the physical comfort and presence of a friend when it is desperately needed.

We are suspicious of intimacy

FriendshipIn his book titled Spiritual Friendship, Wesley Hill develops what he calls the “Freudian myth”, the idea that the terminus of intimacy between two people is always romantic or sexual. On once occasion, after speaking to teenagers about friendship some of the guys came up to me and said words like vulnerability, affection and intimacy cannot exist between guys for fear of being perceived as homosexuals. We might easily laugh that off, but most adults probably limit those adjectives to romantic relationships. But when we see two friends visibly loving delighting in each other we assume they desire something more than friendship.

Unbiblical idea of masculinity

Admittedly a generalisation and perhaps this is linked with the previous point, many men I know stick to the shallows in their friendships, revelling in the superficial and bonding over the inane. A lot of people have the strange notion that being a man means independence, strength, apathy and the complete childish avoidance of anything deemed effeminate. This has not resulted in generations of impressive men but boys with serious emotional and social limitations.

So there you have it, a far from comprehensive list of obstacles to friendship in our world today. Please interact with anything I have raised or add your own below. Returning to the first point, until we are convinced that God has given us friendship and imbued it with significant potential we will settle for cheap imitations and shadows.

Doodle: Childlessness and the Sovereignty of God

I have now written a couple of posts arguing against the position of many Christians that says married couples must at least attempt to have children. Most recently I challenged what I believe are weak arguments against deliberate childlessness, developing another post I wrote on the topic last year. This shorter post is a personal note, appended to those linked above. And I am writing it because though I stand by my position, my wife and I recently had a child; in fact, we knew my wife was pregnant when my first post went up. So here, very briefly, I want to answer some of the pointed criticisms and more emotional reactions to my posts.

God is sovereign

Institutes volume 1One comment on my original post read, “You aren’t the one who decides if you have kids or not. You may do your best to prevent it, but if the Lord wants you to procreate you are going to have kids.” AJ, who posted the comment, could not have been more correct. We had decided that we did not want children, but God willed something else. I am reading through Calvin’s Institutes this year and it was certainly no coincidence that I read this the day before my son was born, “Augustine rightly complains that wrong is done to God when a higher cause of things than his will is demanded” (1.14.1). Calvin also writes that we must accept God’s secret purposes. Though that section addresses speculation, it applies well to sovereignty. Later, Calvin writes, “If we had quiet and composed minds ready to learn, the final outcome would show that God always has the best reason for his plan (1.17.1).

Children are a gift

Since God is sovereign it follows that children are the result of him giving them to us. They are not something everyone is entitled to, nor are they something every married couple should expect (or demand) from God. This is surely part of the reason children are called a blessing throughout the Old Testament. My wife and I are very grateful for our son. Our experience of him has been serendipitous, an unlooked for delight. But because children are a gift, a blessing from the Lord, all of us must remember what the Puritan Samuel Rutherford wrote in one of his letters, “I write my blessing to that sweet child, whom you have borrowed from God; he is not heritage to you, but a loan, love him as folks do borrowed things.” We are not entitled to children, as Rutherford says they are not our heritage but borrowed from God. We are entrusted with children, to treasure and take care of them.

How to we respond to God’s sovereignty and gifts?

Theodore LewisThis is the question all of us must answer, and not only when God gives or withholds children. At another point in his Institutes (1.16.6), Calvin shows that the scope of God’s sovereignty is ubiquitous, “Nothing at all in the world is undertaken without his determination.” This, Calvin says, means that discontentment with our lot is nothing other than the attempt to rid ourselves of God’s purposes. AJ’s comment on my post touched on this, “Hopefully if your wife does get pregnant the child is not aborted. Surely a pastor would not do that.” I would want to add that no Christian would do that. But the point as I conclude is the question: how do we respond to God’s sovereignty, and the gifts he does or does not give us? One of the names we were considering for our son was Felix, which is Latin for lucky or fortuitous. The name we settled on was Theodore, ‘gift of God.’

Unconvincing Arguments for Why Married Couples Must Have Children

Last year I wrote a response to Tim Challies, and what I thought were some weak arguments showing why married couples should not deliberately remain childless. Before we got married, my wife and I agreed that we were not persuaded biblically that couples must procreate in order to be obedient to God. The result of that position has been numerous conversations in the past few years. Therefore the arguments listed below are predominantly points that we have heard or discussed. Unfortunately I do not remember all of the respective sources. But they are certainly commonplace in the debate about deliberate childlessness. Let me say that I do not claim to comprehensively refute these positions. Rather my purpose in writing this post is to encourage conversation.

Two paths in the New Testament: singleness and marriage

Most likely an erroneous extension of Paul’s quite bemusing argument in 1 Corinthians 7, this idea says that Christians can choose either to remain celibate or get married, with the latter necessarily entailing children. This is a reductionistic and narrow point. If the second path involves marriage and children, can we not then conclude that adoption is excluded from the path of singleness? Or that couples that are unable to have children are required to adopt? While those are undeniably the two paths before Christians concerning marriage, it remains an unproven assumption that the path of marriage requires children.

The creation mandate of Genesis means we must have children

This is a statement that warrants a much more detailed and lengthy post, so I will be brief here. The command given to Adam and Eve in Eden must first be considered in its Old Testament context. It was tied to the human commission to fill the earth, specifically given to Israel under the old covenant. As George Athas commented on a previous post on Malachi 2:15, “These words were written within and to people in the old national covenant, for whom having offspring was a national duty. In the new covenant, this is simply not the case, because the new people of God are not a country with citizens inheriting holy land from the previous generation. Those national elements are no longer part of the framework for how we operate as God’s people. As such, if someone posits that everyone needs to try to have children, they would need to do so on other grounds.”

Having children will sanctify you

“…in a way that nothing else will,” is often appended to the above statement. By this people generally mean having children will especially sanctify you. Apart from the fact that this idea is not explicitly taught anywhere in Scripture, it implies some plainly wrong conclusions. If a type of sanctification is on offer in raising children that is not repeatable anywhere else in human experience, we can expect parents to be the most mature and godly Christians. If this were the case, then certainly Paul would not have desired celibacy for anyone (1 Corinthians 7:8). In fact, for marrieds to tell childless couples – and similarly for marrieds to tell singles – that their own path breeds greater godliness is just insulting.

Furthermore, on this point, if you will allow me to be a little silly, becoming a missionary in North Korea or planning a church plant in Eritrea will also sanctify you, tremendously. Though we do not hear missionary organizations appealing for missionaries on the basis of how God will use it to make you more holy. Many decisions will sanctify us, but this does not amount to biblical imperatives to make those decisions.

When married couples choose childlessness it is always selfish

This point has some connections with the previous one, but I will address it separately. There is no denying that there is some truth in this position: for children prove a remarkable imposition and threat to idols of leisure, autonomy, and freedom. Therefore there may be selfish reasons for choosing childlessness, as there may be selfish motivations for remaining single. There is, I think, a double warning that knocks this position back: firstly, we should be very slow to pronounce on motives, since we do not know each other’s hearts. Secondly, we are must be very careful not to make our preferences into virtues, and others’ into vices. Calvin (2.3.2) wrote of the hydra of wickedness that lurks in each of our breasts. Selfishness can certainly be behind the decision to have children, only I am yet to hear someone who has chosen a childless marriage accuse those with children of sinful motivation. Without knowing my neighbour’s heart I should be slower to reach conclusions about her decisions. And when those decisions differ from mine I certainly should not demonize them. 

Birth control means seizing control from God

One of the most staggering things I have encountered is that people using this argument have taken contraceptive measures. Calling on other Christians to fully trust God in the area of reproduction eliminates the decision to reach your desired number of children before intervening. Perhaps I am being unfair, or exaggerating the ad infinitum conclusion of this statement, but I feel that it requires those using it to surrender all of their procreative outcomes to the Lord. No contraceptives. Either, birth control, planning the size of one’s family, is prohibited because any such action removes God from the picture; or Christian freedom means we make decisions – that are neither right nor wrong – trusting our God who is sovereign in them. People in glass houses should not throw stones.

Children help marriage fulfill its New Testament role

What is that role? It is clearly laid out that in Ephesians 5, to make the gospel plain. The self-sacrificial love a husband is to show his wife is designed to illustrate Christ’s love for his people, the church. But I honestly cannot fathom how having children illuminates the relationship between Christ and his church, especially since nowhere in the New Testament is the link explicitly made between marriage and children. I am not denying that the New Testament assumes marriages will produce children, but pointing out that nowhere do we see an imperative to do so. Rowan Williams, in his essay The Body’s Grace, points out that regarding marriage the New Testament is noticeably nonbiological in its emphasis. He also quotes John Boswell, who observed that the Old Testament idealises marriage in terms of sexual attraction, not procreation. Finally, he comments that both Jesus and Paul discuss marriage without using procreation as a rationale or functional justification. Children do not help marriage fulfill its New Testament role. I would venture further, though more reading is required, in suggesting that while procreation was a function of marriage in the Old Testament that was not God’s purpose in creating the institution.

I hope you will do some of your own thinking, perhaps even respond to some of the points above, or add a more convincing position that I have overlooked.

Responding to Challies: Is It Okay To Deliberately Not Have Children?

Christopher AshYesterday Tim Challies posted asking if Christian couples can decide not to have children. The article relies on and develops a few points Christopher Ash makes in his excellent book, Married for God. However, I cannot agree with the reasoning of either Challies or Ash. Having heard similar arguments in numerous conversations, I remain unconvinced that Christian couples must have children or that the decision not to is sinful. I have planned a series of posts on the topic, and we might call this short response some of the first fruits.

Challies’ first point addresses the false dichotomy between having children and serving God. Quoting Ash, “We do not serve God rather than having children; we serve God by having children.” It is a true point: the married couple need not choose between having children and serving God, since rearing children is certainly one of the places married couples serve God. But that does not make it an essential means of serving God in marriage.

Later in the article, Challies presents his own false dichotomy: embracing children as blessing from God or calling them a curse. Really? When a friend chooses to remain celibate for whatever reason do we accuse him of calling marriage a curse? Or, let’s consider a passage often dragged into this discussion, ‘Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of children’ (Psalm 127:5). Does the couple that decide to have just two children call the “full quiver” (four, five, a Catholic dozen) a curse? We are not strung between calling children a curse or a blessing.

Finally, Challies makes a point that I really appreciated: children are uninvited strangers that couples must extend sacrificial hospitality to. Unlike our spouse or close friends we cannot choose children that suit us. However, reading this point did bring to mind another, made by Stanley Hauerwas, “We never know whom we marry; we just think we do…give it a while and he or she will change…The primary problem [then] is learning how to love and care for the stranger to whom you find yourself married.” On top of Hauerwas’ point, both Old and New Testaments encourage believers to entertain and care for strangers. Furthermore, if ever there was a place that forced unlooked for and very often inconvenient relationships it is the local church. Sure, children interrupt marriages causing sanctification and forcing hospitality. But they are not the only place where couples can practice hospitality and putting strangers ahead of themselves.

As I said at the beginning of this post, I hope to write more on this topic. I admit that this response is rushed and does not present any arguments in favour of deliberate childlessness, nor does it deal with the question of Genesis 1-2 and the creation mandate. Hopefully those will come. But in the mean time, it is frustrating to hear the poorly thought-out arguments mentioned above that prove nothing, yet somehow are persistently plied as if they did.