This seems to be the conventional wisdom on the subject: men and women cannot be friends. Things will always turn romantic for one or the other. They will try to manipulate one another and one or both will always be hurt.
I understand where this line of thinking comes from. Who among us hasn’t experienced unreciprocated love? Who hasn’t fallen in love with a friend? Also, affairs happen. People are manipulative. Men and women pursue their lustful desires under the banner of friendship.
But I don’t think the Christian community has considered the implications of saying that men and women can’t be friends. Here are a few reasons I believe we need to stop saying and believing this.
1. All love involves boundaries.
By saying that men and women can be friends, I’m saying that they can love each other in a certain sense (that’s what friendship means) and still keep that love within its proper boundaries. Take my sisters, for example. I love them deeply. Yet there are boundaries that my love for them will not cross, expressions of love that are simply off limits. The same with my mother and my daughters. The same with my coworkers and students.
Now, people go astray in all of these areas. Incest and affairs are realities. But we can’t let the sinful distortion of love push us to throw out love altogether. In every friendship, there is genuine love. Yet that love must stay within its proper bounds. If that love prompts romantic feelings where they don’t belong, the love must be redirected.
Consider this: even with my wife my love has boundaries. Jesus says that if I love my wife more than him (actually, if I don’t hate her by comparison), I’m not worthy to be his disciple (Luke 14:26). So while marriage opens up many expressions of love, I don’t have free reign to love my wife in whatever way or to whatever degree I choose. My love for God may be boundless, my love for my wife may not.
2. Women are not valuable only insofar as they are potential partners (and vice versa).
One major problem I have with the men-and-women-can’t-be-friends view is that it over-sexualizes, or at least over-romanticizes, love. It’s saying, “I won’t be friends with a woman unless we’re heading towards dating/marriage.” This is part of the reason breakups are so awful—you’ve now made each other ineligible for “friendship.”
This one actually makes me angry. A Christian man will look at a woman made in the image of God—a human being for whom Christ gave his very life—and say, “I’ll only get to know / be edified by / invest my time in this person if there’s a chance I’ll marry her.” If you can’t interact with a woman without playing romantic or sexual possibilities in your head, then yes, you’re not ready to spend time hanging out with women (and vice versa). But that’s a horrible place to be, my friend. That’s a sin issue you need to attack for the glory of God. Your sisters in Christ are too valuable to be sidelined because of your lust (and vice versa).
3. We can’t divide the body of Christ.
Another tragic consequence of the men-and-women-can’t-be-friends view is that it splits the church in half. Half of the church I may be edified by, I may use my Spirit-empowered gifts to bless, I may see and appreciate the image of God in. The other half, meh.
One of the reasons I love being in a small group in our church is that I get to interact with men and women over biblical issues. I get to learn from both genders. I get to know them better. I get to hear their perspectives. We get to use our spiritual gifts to build one another up. If you read 1 Corinthians 12 carefully, you’ll notice that Paul doesn’t talk about two bodies of Christ: one male, one female. No, we’re all stuck in this body together. There can be no divisions, all suffer and rejoice together (vv. 25–26).
Picture a flower garden. I could do nothing to my garden but compulsively soak it in Miracle Gro. But uncontrolled growth leads to a tangled mess. If every flower is allowed to grow however it will with all of the growing power I can give it, ugliness abounds. But if I carefully tend the flowers, adding fertilizer to this plant, skillfully pruning that plant, my garden can grow beautifully.
So it is with love. We cannot let our love for each person manifest itself in any way we may desire. We certainly can’t pursue distorted versions of love. Love requires pruning, discernment. And that’s the challenge. We have to be careful to “make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Rom. 13:14). But shunning half of the body of Christ out of fear is not Christian. I don’t know precisely what your relationship with members of the opposite sex should look like, but they are your neighbors, and you are called to love them.