Can Men and Women Be Friends?

Karen Pence introduces her husband Vice President Mike Pence during the Conservative Political Action Conference at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center February 22, 2018 in National Harbor, Maryland. (Sipa via AP Images)

After reading that mega-pastor Bill Hybels has been accused of sexual misconduct, I commented to some friends that we (Christian men) need to be extra diligent in what we say and do around women. I said that because I believe that it’s imperative that Christian men protect themselves and the women around them while serving women. Unfortunately, that’s an increasingly difficult tightrope to walk in today’s climate, to the point that it’s appropriate to wonder if men and women can be friends.

This is not a new question.

In a famous scene from the movie When Harry Met Sally, Billy Crystal turns to Meg Ryan and says, “You realize of course that we can never be friends… men and women can’t be friends because the sex part always gets in the way.”

As the pair argue, Crystal points out that “no man can be friends with a woman that he finds attractive; he always wants to have sex with her.”

I’m not saying the scene’s argument is 100 percent correct, but the point is well-taken; the specter of sex looms between men and women. This is why it would be considered inappropriate, and rightfully so, if I invited a female friend over to watch an NBA game with just me.

Most people within conservative Christianity get that. Most would shake their heads in suspicion if it were discovered that I frequently hung out alone with a female pal, just the two of us shooting the breeze. But the claim that men and women can’t be friends brings with it the charge of patriarchalism from some of the same people who believe it unwise for a married man to hang out alone with a woman who is not his wife (or vice versa).

Often, the disconnect in conversations like this one comes down to how terms are defined. I contend that men cannot be friends with women in the way that “friend” is defined when I’m speaking of my buddies. However, Christian men can and should count Christian women as their sisters in Christ.

In 1 Timothy 5:2, the Apostle Paul encourages his protégé Timothy to consider “older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity.”

The familial relationship created by being in Christ is one that is characterized by service to one another. Yet we can’t forget about Paul’s ending qualifier, “in all purity.”

Sadly, desire for personal purity in the pursuit of holiness often brings with it the accusation of patriarchalism. Vice President Mike Pence was assigned that pejorative after it was revealed that he doesn’t dine alone with women not named Karen Pence. The vice president was accused of creating an environment that makes it harder for women to succeed.

However, as Pence continued to suffer the slings and arrows of those who despise his desire to interact with women “in all purity,” the #MeToo movement was created, as powerful men began to be exposed as sexual predators. Sadly, even in the face of the expanding #MeToo movement, many of Pence’s critics still fail to see the wisdom of the vice president’s personal standards of interaction around women.

And that brings me back to the comment I made to my friends about the necessity to be careful about what we say and do around women.

Serving our sisters in Christ in all purity requires acknowledging the truth that because of sin the issue of sex will always be within reach when it comes to members of the opposite sex. Once again, that’s why most conservative Christians would look askance at me going on an overnight fishing trip alone with a woman who was not my wife. But even beyond obvious examples of overnight trips, men need to be careful about how they interact with women in our day to day lives.

Among other things, Bill Hybels has been accused of giving “lingering hugs.” It’s a good thing that I’m an introvert and don’t like being touched or touching people. If I were a “hugger,” I can’t imagine how I would defend myself against an accusation of a lingering hug.

And that’s not to defend Hybels or to claim that women who are made to feel uncomfortable by the actions of men are wrong for speaking up and defending themselves. My point is that it is incredibly difficult to know exactly how a word, a look, or a touch, even if meant innocently, will be taken.

Because men often view women as little more than objects of pleasure and take advantage of them, many of our sisters in Christ have been deeply hurt in the past. What we as their brothers in Christ say or do can have the unintended consequence of being perceived within the context of past abuse. Among other things, loving our sisters in Christ demands that we be careful not to cause more hurt and harm.

On a lesser scale, it’s also important that Christian men guard ourselves. Since it is easy for our motivations to be incorrectly assumed, we need to make sure that we are acting above reproach around our sisters in Christ.

Paul’s command to love our sisters in Christ “in all purity” is why I’m a big proponent of the Billy Graham Rule. Like the vice president, I believe that it’s important for Christian men to set personal standards that limit the amount of private interaction we have with women not married to us. No matter how much others mock us, it’s important to love and serve our sisters in Christ “in all purity.”