Mike Graham is a husband and dad of two kids. He and his family live in Charleston, West Virginia, where Mike serves as Pastor of Groups at Bible Center Church.
The topic of male and female relationships is difficult to think through, let alone write about clearly. In the midst of our over-sexed culture, there is not an obvious, simple path to walk down. Individually, we inhabit internal worlds of mixed desires that then inhabit an external corporate world of endless possible pitfalls.
I speak as a married man, 40 years old, who has served and led in many churches and para-church organizations over three decades. I have served under, with and over women in both ministry and in the work world. My best friend is my wife, yet I have been deeply influenced through many different friendships with both men and women.
Many of us have been wounded by some of the pitfalls in attempting friendship with the opposite sex. Many can sense that something in the way we handle these relationships is “off,” but maybe we’re not sure exactly what. As Christians, how do we negotiate what is appropriate and inappropriate between men and women in friendship while honoring both purity and family?
When it snows and I take my kids sledding they have multiple paths they can take to go down the hill. I have taught them that to avoid getting hurt they should first identify the trees they don’t want to hit and then choose a generally safe path to aim for. That’s a good place to start when thinking about male-female friendship; identify the dangers to avoid and the generally safe course to aim for. I don’t want to make up some list of do’s and don’ts. Creating man-made laws will only add confusion and fuel the tendency towards secret sins and isolation. I want us to live openly in the beauty of God’s family, but with wisdom and caution.
The dangers are real. Through the years I have watched several pastors fall in the area of sexual sin, including the pastor of my childhood church. My family was never the same after experiencing the pain, abandonment and discouragement of our spiritual leader’s sin. Over my life I’ve seen multiple worship and youth leaders break hearts and homes by making sinful decisions in this area. I’ve seen churches suffer and mourn, witnessing firsthand why we must pick a path of purity, integrity and accountability.
The first danger to avoid, sexual sin, is not a hard one to spot. And we should absolutely be on our guard against this pitfall in our relationships with members of the opposite sex – within the church and outside it. But in attempting to avoid this tree, I see men in our churches running into another. Some men “flee” sexual immorality only to become awkward, confusing and hurtful in their behavior toward women. We stop looking our sisters in the eye, genuinely asking how they are doing, and we never take a conversation past “hello.” Our sisters are left totally confused, feeling like potential temptresses or carriers of a contagious disease, rather than loved, appreciated sisters in Christ.
In our desire for purity, the pendulum can swing past center. Not only does the Bible call us to purity, it calls us to love one-another through genuine relationships. As brothers and sisters in Christ we are the truest of all families – an eternal family deeply connected to one another in the love of our Father. There will be a day when sex and marriage end and only an eternal family of brothers and sisters remains. It is eternally important that we choose a path of relational engagement and intentional love with our sisters in the faith as well as our brothers.
There are interesting temptations and consequences to emphasizing purity while neglecting family within the church. Women will often find that men in the world seem more inviting and genuine than those in the church. These men engage them in conversation, look them in the eye and seek to get to know them. We then berate these women for not dating one of our awkward men huddled together in the corner. Meanwhile the men in the corner begin fantasizing about women instead of genuinely getting to know them. Men who don’t know how to relate to women and care for them as people can more easily be drawn into a world where women are used as desirable and controllable objects void of relationship. Unending trees and pitfalls await down this ill informed path to “purity.”
It's easy in a larger sled to build momentum, get off center and never make a needed adjustment. As men, we desire to live out a biblical understanding of male leadership within the church. If our leadership is not balanced with an understanding of biblical friendship we can go in a hurtful and dangerous direction. The entire toboggan hits a tree. It is easy for a group of pastors to forge ahead through the meeting of male minds leaving our women voiceless and unheard. In our polity, we tell women to trust our ability to shepherd and love them, but can then move forward without genuinely knowing how they are doing and what their greatest needs are as wives, mothers, working women, single women and students.
The less we engage with women in the church on the level of family and friendship, the easier it is to miss knowing them. By failing to know them, we fail to pursue and include them. We miss out on engaging half of the Body of Christ! Women are our sisters not our servants, our friends not our blind followers, our co-heirs in Christ not heaven’s second-class citizens. We need to learn to love our sisters and friends by spending time with them, listening to them, understanding where their struggles and concerns are in life and ministry. If we want to lead with understanding and wisdom, we must shepherd our flock – all of our flock – through genuine friendships.
A biblical balance of purity and family creates an environment of genuine friendships and intentional care with wise and informed leadership. A love that displays a passion for holiness and authentic community will communicate the beauty of Christ to a broken world. Let's avoid the trees and chose this path.