By Tania Harris
Some of the best friendships of my life have been with men.
I think of Paul who invited me to share his church offices when I first set out to plant my church. We met as students in one of our Masters classes. He was the short geeky one; funny, well-loved and smart. Half a decade older, he was also more skilled in ministry than I, having planted his own church and flexed his pastoral muscles for years. During the week we would discuss theological points in our sermons and on Monday mornings, we would debrief our services over smiley cupcakes from the local bakery. Paul was there to reassure me when the numbers were down and provide advice about the drunk who gate-crashed my service. He was first on my church board and led my commissioning when I left.
I think of Aaron, an ex-navy guy, who when he first entered my church was aghast to see a “chick up the front”, but managed to stay on in spite of it. He was the one of the first to get on board with the vision, to offer his home for fellowship and share the preaching roster on Sundays. At Christmas time, he demonstrated his true loyalty when he rocked a Santa suit at our community outreach just because I asked him.
I think of Pete, an integral part of the God Conversations ministry, who sits in his studio on a regular basis, diligently recording and mixing my podcasts; who patiently listens to my frustrations and cheers at the testimonies and who gets as excited as me watching thrillers on the couch at the end of a long week.
All of them have been close friends who have stood with me through different times of my life. All of them have been God’s provision for me in the season I was in.
All of them have also been married.
Over the years I’ve read books and articles with titles like; “Ten Rules for Working with Women.” They’ve included such instructions as: “Never be in a room alone with a woman; always leave the door open in the presence of a female, and don’t ever maintain eye contact with someone whose not your wife for any length of time.” In other words, don’t be friends with women.
I understand where they’re coming from. The dangers of close male-female friendships are abundantly clear. Marriages, families and entire communities have been devastated because people have done the very things those articles warn against.
But at the same time, friendships with the opposite gender have enormous potential to enrich our lives. They provide us with greater perspective and open us up to seeing the world in a different way. They also enable us to know God at a deeper level through relating to the other part of the image he called us to share (Genesis 1:26-28).
So how does a Christian woman do friendship with men?
The Need for Boundaries
What those articles about cross-gendered friendships were trying to emphasize was our need for boundaries. As Townsend and Cloud in their well-known book on the topic describe them, boundaries define who I am in relation to others. They define the roles I play and the responsibilities I have in each of my relationships. We all need healthy boundaries in our lives. Like a child who flourishes within the safety of well-defined parameters, boundaries give us the freedom to thrive in our relationships.
Where those articles get it wrong I believe, is in the nature of those boundaries. The rules they lay down are primarily external. They are imposed from the ‘outside-in’ and though well-intended, they can be hopelessly ineffective.
Ask anyone whose experienced the effects of sexual chemistry. Where lust and longing are involved, external boundaries are about as powerless as a wire fence against a bulldozer. The door to the office may well be ajar, but the boundaries of the heart can still be crossed. There might be a third person in the room, but thoughts may still be wandering to places they shouldn’t go.
If we are to have healthy friendships with men, our boundaries must be internalised. That means we need to take responsibility to carefully regulate our hearts – even more than our office doors.
Know your Heart
Once when my friend Paul and I were attending a pastors’ retreat, the question came up of whether we should drive there together. The campsite was over two hours away and we lived in adjoining neighbourhoods, so it made sense that we travel in the same car. When I asked my mentor for advice, she told me the last three moral failings in our denomination were male to male. “Just go together,” she said; “You’re fine”. And we were. Paul was a brother to me. He knew it and I knew it. We’d even discussed it at some point. There was no need to enforce external boundaries because the internal ones were already there.
There’ve been other relationships though. Those times when the boundaries weren’t quite so clear; where there was a danger that lines could be crossed either from my side or theirs. These were the men I wouldn’t do coffee with, sit in an office for extended periods of time with or drive alone with in a car.
May I say, it is never difficult to tell the difference? We know it when it happens. Ever since high school, we’ve learned to recognize when someone’s eyes linger too long or when our hearts beat a little faster than they normally would.
The key is to consider every relationship on its own merit. To ask; where is my heart in this relationship? Are the boundary lines where they should be? It’s up to us to take responsibility for the way we respond to our male friends – to consider what’s going on inside and act in a way that protects both ourselves and others.
It’s worth it of course. When we take time to establish our internal boundaries, we can be free to enjoy the blessing of one of the most worthwhile relationships in our lives. Having healthy male friendships is a gift available to us to enjoy. But if we’re not willing to keep our hearts in check, perhaps it would be better not to have any male friends at all.
© August 7th 2015, Tania Harris
This article first appeared at God Conversations here.