Mark Driscoll's reaction to Ted Haggard's downfall has created quite a stir. Susan Arnold, among others, has responded to Driscoll's disappointing posture towards women and cross gender relationships in general. Although Driscoll rightfully desires to promote emotional, physical, spiritual, and sexual intimacy within marriage as a passionate alternative to sexual downfalls, his model for cross gender relating and ministry leaves a lot to be desired. As I was reading about his decision to seclude himself within his house, thereby retreating from relating and engaging women, I was reminded of Richard Rohr's observation: "A lot that's called orthodoxy, loyalty, and obedience is grounded in fear. I do a lot of spiritual direction, and when I get underneath the language of orthodoxy and obedience, I find fear" (pg. 102). I was reminded of a different man, a completely different alternative model of cross gender relating and ministry: Francis de Sales.
Francis de Sales, who lived in the 1600's, gave us some indication that cross gender intimacy, i.e. nonromantic, intimately close friendships between men and women in ministry, spiritual direction, or mentoring, outside and beyond marriage is not something to be feared, but something to be pursued and blessed, something in which to experience growth and blessing.
One cannot find a more dramatic alternative to Driscoll's own model of ministry than Francis de Sales' model. I would suggest that de Sales' vision for ministry and intimacy between men and women was a model of relating, given the patriarchal culture of his day, was way ahead of his time. His model demonstrates that Christian spirituality, cross gender spiritual friendships, cross gender ministry, cross gender spiritual direction, did not fit into a universal, one-size-fits all paradigm into which all men and women must be shoehorned. Nor, in the words of my wife, must cross gender spiritual friendship carry a "surgeon general's warning."
The living testimony of Francis de Sales provides these insights into cross gender intimacy and ministry:
1. It is possible for men and women to experience a nonromantic deep intimacy without falling into sexual intimacy.
Francis de Sales didn't retreat into some private enclave when he encountered women. He pursued friendships with them. Throughout his life he cultivated close friendships with some of the women to whom he provided spiritual direction. He was not afraid of intimacy; he was not afraid of women; he was not of afraid intimacy with women. The story of de Sales provides for us many modalities of love in nonromantic cross gender relationships, a picture of what close relationships could look like between a brother and sister in Christ. For many Christians, this brother/sister dynamic is not a model of closeness, but of distance. For some Christians, even the thought of deep emotional between a brother and sister in Christ is "inappropriate." De Sales modeled for us the existence and possibility of close, very close, nonromantic cross gender relationships.
2. Deep, close, cross gender spiritual friendship may be a rich catalyst and conduit for spiritual formation.
Yep. You may have to read that twice. On the opposite side of Driscoll's spectrum of fear and withdrawal is this stunning Salesian view of Christian spirituality: close intergender friendships may be transformational. By all accounts, de Sales was gifted when it came to ministering to women and relating to women. Although he enjoyed male friendships, he had a particular passion and gifting for cultivating intimacy with women in spiritual direction and friendships. For de Sales, spiritual direction was birthed out of a mutual shared love for God. Wendy Wright has written an entire book on his closest cross gender friendship with Jeanne de Chantal.
3. It's possible to do cross gender ministry and mentoring within the boundaries of an intimate friendship.
Yep again. You may have to rub your eyes for this one to ensure you are not reading something heretical. As Wright points out in several places, this has many complex challenges but then again, easy, simplistic, formulaic, universal models of detachment in human relationships are not the way to go either. Where the Spirit is, there is liberty. A cross gender relational spirituality emanates from the Spirit, Himself. There will be boundaries in cross gender ministry, but that doesn't preclude intimacy, emotional depth, emotional bonding, etc. between men and women. De Sales embodied a living, close friendship model of ministry that would not be accepted in contemporary therapeutical ethics and for many members of the professional clergy.
4. A cross gender relational model is not an inferior path to spiritual formation in comparison to models that involve withdrawing to get alone with God.
It's not an either/or here. Spiritual friendship as a model, whether it be cross gender or with the same gender, is a powerful dynamic in spiritual formation. This is a generalization of point two.