The Joys (and the Limitations) of Male-Female Friendships

Newton’s third law tells us that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Though this law pertains to physics, it seems equally true in the realm of ideas. Recently, a renewed emphasis on the value of the Billy Graham/Mike Pence Rule as a means of protecting sexual fidelity has provoked an equal and opposite emphasis on the value of male-female friendships. To be clear, what’s under discussion here is not whether it’s okay for couples to be friends with other couples, but whether it is acceptable and advisable for a man and woman to share a close personal friendship while they are each married to other people.

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I have been challenged by much of the writing about male-female friendships, I have been thinking about the topic a lot over the past few months, and I’m eager to apply it to my own life and friendships. I have observed that much of the discussion about opposite-sex friendships depends upon the brother-sister analogy that is so common in Scripture. When we put our faith in Jesus Christ and receive his salvation, we are adopted into the family of God, becoming brothers and sisters in the Lord. This relationship is a tremendous blessing and carries great significance. Addressing one another as “brother” and “sister” is not just Christian tradition, but proclamation of precious truth!

While the language of the spiritual family describes something genuine—we are bound together in Jesus Christ—we need to remember that it is also metaphorical. Metaphors are a useful means of fostering understanding, but they invariably have limitations, and we need to be careful we do not push them too far. As a kind of personal thinking challenge, I’ve been attempting to consider the brother-sister to see where I may encounter its limitations.

I have three biological sisters and enjoy close relationships with them. This closeness is not only a product of sharing genes and living our early lives together, but of spending plenty of quality time with one another and even divulging intimate details of our lives. I gladly go out for coffee or a meal with any of them. I stay overnight in their homes even if their husbands aren’t around. I get in a car with them at any time and under any circumstance. I call them up just to chat. I ask them deep and meaningful questions and even attempt to bring wisdom to bear on deeply personal matters. I deliberately seek their wisdom when I have questions about my life or marriage. I end every phone call with, “I love you.” There is a significant degree of relational intimacy between us, yet in all of it there is not the least danger, confusion, or misunderstanding about the nature of our relationship or our intentions. Why? Because we are brother and sisters. And it gets better still: no one else harbors the least suspicion about our relationship for the very same reason. Even if someone may initially raise an eyebrow when they see us together, all they need to hear is, “Meet my sister” and all suspicion vanishes.

Does this brother-sister relationship provide a valid model of what I should expect to experience with sisters in Christ? I believe the answer is a solid yes and no.

The answer is “yes” because brothers and sisters in Christ are meant to model their love, commitment, and purity on the familial relationship. Besides the hundreds of verses that exhort us to live as brothers and sisters, we have some very specific teaching on relationships: Treat “older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity,” says Paul to Timothy (1 Timothy 5:2). It’s like he’s saying, “Think about your own sisters and extend that very same level of love and purity to the young women in your church.” Well and good. However, I still believe that at some level we can push the metaphor a bit too far, and this is where we encounter the “no.” Stick with me here and I’ll show how I’ve been thinking it through.

Let’s say a young and unmarried Christian man is looking for a wife with whom he can share his life, enjoy romance, and pursue a sexual relationship. He can look out at the mass of women in the world and identify a small number of people with whom he absolutely must not form such a relationship: his biological sisters. To pursue them would be an egregious offence against natural law, federal law, and God’s law. Thus, biological sisters form the pool of people who are completely off-bounds when it comes to romance, marriage, and a sexual relationship.

Who makes up the pool of people who are in-bounds? Sisters. Spiritual sisters. Biological sisters form the pool of people whom he must not select from and spiritual sisters form the pool of people whom he must select from. A young man rightly looks toward his spiritual sisters when he wishes to begin the kind of relationship that would be grossly immoral with his biological sisters. This stands as proof that the familial brother-sister relationship only extends so far and that at some point the metaphor begins to break down. We are brothers and sisters in one way, but we are not brothers and sisters in another way.

So let’s circle back to the relationship I enjoy with my three sisters. Think about the relational intimacy we share and how it is the product of opening our lives and hearts before one another, spending lots of quality time together, deliberately saying, “I love you.” There is no danger of pursuit, romance, or sexuality. There is no danger of confusion about intentions and no danger of misunderstanding the nature of our relationship. This gives us a tremendous freedom to enjoy one another and to pursue very deep and meaningful relationships. My sisters and I can pursue and enjoy that relational intimacy at least in part because they are in the pool of people who are off-bounds.

But any other woman exists in that other pool. We may both be happily married to other people at the moment. We may both have absolutely pure intentions and desires at the moment. But that does not shift her into the same pool as my biological sisters. There are circumstances (such as the deaths of both spouses) where in the future there could still be a perfectly God-honoring pursuit, romance, and sexual relationship, something that is never the case with biological sisters. This demonstrates that these two brother-sister relationships are analogous, but not perfectly and completely so. Eventually the metaphor breaks down, which tells me I cannot use it without careful consideration and qualification. I have to guard against stretching it past its limits.

Here is what I’m driving at. The Bible lays great importance on the brother-sister relationship to govern relationships between Christians, and so should I. It should be my joy and privilege to carefully draw out the implications of that brother-sister relationship and to live it to the full, and I am convicted I need to do better here (which is exactly where I can benefit from reading the material people have been writing on living as brothers and sisters in the Lord). I must be careful not to deceive myself by mistaking avoidance for purity (to borrow Aimee Byrd’s helpful little phrase) and must not allow fear or suspicion to keep me from loving and serving women the Lord brings into my life. The brother-sister relationship has so much to teach me here. Yet it is not an exhaustive metaphor and neither is it the Bible’s exclusive word for governing relationships. I am responsible to ponder and heed it, but also to be careful not to follow it beyond its breaking point.

(In response to requests for clarification, please do not take the link below as an endorsement of Douglas Wilson’s wider writings since I find much there that I disagree with; rather, it’s an acknowledgement that one of his articles sparked some thoughts in my mind on the limitations of the brother-sister metaphor. You can find that article here.)