I’ve had these conversations for years but didn’t realize I needed to read a book on it until Aimee Byrd decided to write one.
Why Can’t We Be Friends? – Avoidance Is Not Purity pursues God’s intent for his people, women and men alike, to experience all the richness of being friends with one another in the family of God. While addressing the impediments established by those who allow their fears to rule their relationships, Aimee Byrd ably lays out that real friendships between men and women are God’s desire. Bible verses and theologians’ writings and examples of Godly friendships over the centuries give credence to the reality that friendship is too great a gift to limit only to those who share one’s own set of chromosomes.
The impetus for writing the book came when Aimee Byrd was invited to join Todd Pruitt and Carl Trueman in a podcast for the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. The program brought a layperson (Byrd) into conversation with an academic (Trueman) and a pastor (Pruitt) as each offered insights on doctrine, theology, culture and the church. Critics immediately pounced. Their criticism wasn’t about problems with doctrine, though. It was about biology: Aimee does not possess a Y chromosome as Carl and Todd do.
I fit in easily as we bounced ideas off one another, engaged in theological conversation, and enjoyed a sibling-like banter that came naturally to us. But, to my surprise, some listeners soon warned of the dangers of having a woman interacting with two respectable men. Some of the “warnings” were terribly demeaning: I was an affair waiting to happen, a possible career ender, perhaps Satan’s strategy to bring down another pastor and church. Even if I was a positive addition to the podcast, it wasn’t worth the risk. The underlying message was that we shouldn’t model this coed dynamic to the church. Even if our relationships and interactions were godly, coed friendship is not something everyone can handle. Don’t try this at home. (Why Can’t We Be Friends, Acknowledgements, pp. 7-8.)
The line there in the middle is most telling: “I was an affair waiting to happen, a possible career ender, perhaps Satan’s strategy to bring down another pastor and church. Even if I was a positive addition to the podcast, it wasn’t worth the risk.”
Aimee spends the rest of the book explaining why it most certainly is worth the risk, and that the risk is not as pronounced, prevalent, or problematic as the critics perceive it to be. The first half of Why Can’t We Be Friends addresses the way God made women and men to enjoy one another in friendship as siblings in the family of God, along with problems inherent in denying women and men the opportunity to build the friendships God designed them to enjoy. The second half of the book lays out what friendship between men and women looks like in light of Scripture and the examples of Spirit-led friendships between women and men over the centuries.
Chapter six provides the hinge upon which the book turns from the first half to the second:
We don’t necessarily hunt for friends; we discover them. Our common responsibilities, such as parenting and vocations, lead us to look for others who have an interest in the same truths that we do. As we pursue these interests, believers will promote virtue in every friendship, not only our Christian ones. (Chapter 6, “We’ve Forgotten What Friendship Really Is”, p. 98.)
Some will insist – as did the critics warning Carl and Todd against the temptations Aimee brought into their lives – that there is no virtue in friendship between men and women, or if there is it is not worth the immorality possible should those men and women start having sex. Aimee points out that not every friend fulfills every need, not even one’s spouse-friend and certainly not friends restricted to those within one’s own sex. She points out the obvious when she says:
Friendship is not exclusive like marriage is, so there is no need to behave as if it were. (Id, p. 102.)
Friendship is one of the good things of God, and there is no law against pursuing God’s blessings.
What I can’t find in Scripture is any warning about avoiding friendship between the sexes in order to avoid sin. Instead the Bible says, “Let love be without hypocrisy. Detest evil; cling to what is good” (Rom. 12:9 csb). We are to cling to what is good, not throw it out because sin is possible. Directly following that command is a call to meaningful relationships with our siblings in Christ: “Love one another deeply as brothers and sisters” (Rom. 12:10 csb). (Introduction, p. 17.)
Sex is not the reason to avoid a friendship with people the Bible repeatedly tells you are your sisters and brothers. In fact, that reasoning reveals bad theology.
The sweeping proclamation that men and women cannot be friends because “the sex part always gets in the way” is a statement about our very selves. … But if we look at it from a theological perspective, we see that it not only reduces the sexes to their ability to provide sexual pleasure but also diminishes God’s eternal purposes for men and women in our relationships both with him and with each other. (Chapter 3, “We Don’t Know Our Mission”, p. 49.)
Getting the theology right, understanding what the Bible says about women and men in friendship rather than what culture has drilled into people from the worldly perspective rather than the way God teaches us, is Aimee’s aim. After a thorough listing of Bible passages on how God’s people are to interact with one another – not one verse of which is gender or sex exclusive – Aimee notes:
God’s people actively pursue deep, loving relationships. … We teach one another all the truths of the faith, and therefore we take responsibility to know these doctrines. We speak truth to one another in love, we work to advance one another in the faith, and we bear with one another as we stumble. We don’t leave a struggling brother or sister alone to fight, but we encourage and exhort, helping one another to the end.
These exhortations form a household code that helps us to pursue holy intimacy between siblings by showing love in practical ways. (Chapter 9, “Creating a Church Environment that Supports Sacred Siblingship”, p. 155.)
Not only are we told in scripture how to care for and relate to one another regardless of one’s sex, Aimee points out that failing to do so is sin.
When it comes to relationships between the sexes, we don’t combat evil with constant suspicion, regulations, and avoidance. In fact, we sin when we allow a ruling passion or sensual desire to determine our relationships, grieving the Holy Spirit and quenching his work to develop the affection of godly siblingship. (Chapter 10, “Promote One Another’s Holiness”, p. 181.)
Aimee concludes with a recognition she has stated throughout the book: some people can’t handle relationships in a healthy way and are prone to sin regardless of whether it’s by having sex with someone they’re not married to or relying on one friendship and spending too much time away from other friends or their family. But the chance of engaging in sin is not the reason to avoid putting in the work to have healthy friendships as God intended.
But it is not only inappropriate to turn a friendship into a forbidden romance; it is just as inappropriate to withhold a friendly act such as offering a ride to a person in need, engaging in normal work practices, or being an advocate in other ways during your everyday situations. That sends just as much of a reductive message. Be a friend and promote holiness in everyone whom you encounter and whom God trusts to your care. Look at one another through the eyes of Christ. (Conclusion, p. 232.)
There is the key to all relationships: “Look at one another through the eyes of Christ.” Jesus spent time alone with women and men each and took flak for it repeatedly. But he did it anyway because that’s what relationships require. These women and men are people God has entrusted to your care as a friend, too.
Be a friend.
I’ve heard some say that the fear of gossip keeps them from meeting with people of the other sex, let alone developing friendships with them. The answer to that requires addressing the gossip, not denying God’s blessed gift of friendship between all God’s people, women and men: Rooting Out the Gossip Supporting the Billy Graham Rule.
Others say that sexual temptation is too horrifying a prospect, and then let that fear rule their relationships. Sarah Taras and Jon Wymer ably address this false objection in their post Affairs Don’t Start with Texts, as did Kelly Ladd Bishop in Billy Graham’s Rule – misusing it to hold back women and men of God.