Damian at Castles of Nutshells writes a post against what he calls ‘relational hedging‘. Basically, it’s a means of resisting temptation by avoiding relationships with anyone of the opposite sex, particularly when married. The theory is, if you aren’t friends with those of the opposite sex, you can never fall into temptation. What Damian describes is something I have heard in evangelical circles a good bit, and also seems to be the basis of Joshua Harris’s I Kissed Dating Goodbye. I have to admit that I have never read that book all the way through, but the summaries suggest that a boy or girl keeps themselves pure not only sexually, but emotionally by not forming these close knit relationships and having any relationships governed by the parents (I once heard Duke prof Lauren Winner say that unless you live in the 1800s, it doesn’t work if you’re in your 20s and don’t live at home).
Reading the dissenting responses to Damian’s post, I got to thinking what exactly underlies this thinking? Can men and women be friends without having to be so wary of temptation that two people cannot have a relationship. I don’t doubt that it can be fraught with temptation. And I will even admit that cautions need to be put in place. But, that doesn’t mean one should call for a moratorium on opposite sex relationships. My best friend from seminary is female, and both of us thought it a priority for me not to cheat on my wife. So, we both made sure that her friendship with April was cultivated, and she soon became one of April’s closest friends. Rarely did I talk indepth about my relationship with my wife, but my friend and I talked a lot about other things that sometimes April was too close to the situation (working out my relationship with my family and April’s, for instance). Also, my friend and I can talk about church situations that can be awkward with April given she knows who the situations involve. I am also friends with her husband, whom she married after seminary. He was my racquetball partner and sometimes study partner.
So, I have been wondering what underlies this? I wonder if the church, and perhaps the evangelical church in particular, have failed us with its emphasis on ‘the family’, which is at ‘the centre’. The church, rather, is a community of believers that at best weave in and out of each other’s lives. Do we teach each other how to have healthy, non-sexual relationships with anyone? Or, as it has appeared in some church singles classes, is the church a huge match-making service (or a singles bar)? Once you matched, then you are a complete person (that seems to be the underlying assumption in some churches – when I was a single, it seemed like everyone around me yearned for me to find that person). I think that in the Josh Harris book (or at least the bit of it I know), the desire to protect young people from developing relationships because they might get hurt is what concerns me most. Of course, getting hurt is no fun, but it also made me who I am. (As an aside, my mother used to say about teenagers always group dating – if they get to know someone well enough to marry, how are they going to know how to have a conversation with their partner – or anyone – if they only go in groups!).
I also wonder if there is not an inherent sexism involved. Are women only good for being married to? It would almost seem that a woman can’t have a relationship outside of a husband. Perhaps I am being over the top, but at least the implied presumption is that relationships between the sexes can only happen within marriage. And if I may steal Dave Warnock’s issue for a moment, it also implies that one cannot have a working relationship with a woman as an equal. For instance, my superintendent is female. There are times where what we say is confidential, and working together, we have become friends. Avoiding the opposite sex in this instance would result in a ridiculous situation – or throw away my calling as a Methodist minister.
The Gospel of John, at least, seems to indicate a much deeper relationship with Mary, Martha, and Mary Magdalene. I will even go so far as to suggest Paul, despite his reputation, had friendships with women and were some of his first converts. What I would like to see in the church more is a return to a discussion of healthy relationships in the body of Christ – among and between the sexes, going beyond safeguards of sex.