It was late summer, 2002. One of my online cross-gender friendships was becoming more than just an "acquaintance" kind of relationship. This was before I knew any cross-gender friendship material existed. Before I knew there were any stories of cross-gender friendship in church history. I don't remember how I came across this book but I stumbled upon Biblical Foundations for Small Group Ministry by Gareth Weldon Icenogle in the bowels of the basement in Trinity Evangelical Divinity Library. I can't remember what drew me to this book because I wasn't interested in reading about small groups at the time. Anyway, this text may have been the first one to steer my thinking to freedom, wholeness, and oneness in cross-gender friendships. As you will see, he's not talking about paired cgf's (small group is his focus) but I began to ask myself, why not for cross-gender friendship, too??? I was praying through some issues of sexuality with my friend.
"It is often affirmed that the Old Testament and New Testament perspective on male and female relationships is defined primarily by marriage. Many have implied that there is no other general parameter for men and women to be together in community. From this theological perspective it is also often argued that there is little basis for men and women who are not married to be in heterosexual groups together. This foundational attitude has set the ministry precedent for men and women to be in groups where marriage defines their primary relationships and roles. However, such a bias in small groups often implies discussion of sexuality should be limited to private discussions between husbands and wives and never shared in a larger group. Such a bias tends to cut spirituality off from sexuality and suggest spirituality is a group concern but sexuality is a private-personal domain of the individual of the couple."
He then immediately addresses the sex-segregated dynamics, men this way, women in this group, etc. typical evangelical separatist strategies for control. Then he reasons that if such a separation continues to take place and never merges into a maturing process, then, "the spirituality of community will continue to be bound and gagged by the fear of group sexuality. Since the Garden, humanity has a fear of confronting sexuality in a face-to-face context. Unresolved sexual dysfunction will always block the path to deep spiritual community."
This next observation was so foundational for me early on when I was in the midst of cross-gender friendship, sexuality, and prayer when I didn't know any resource existed in the evangelical community: "Rather than deal with the discontinuity of between our pursuit of spiritual community and our avoidance of healthy sexual community, we seal the separation of the sexes so we never deal with broken sexuality in face-to-face small groups. In such a protective environment the fear of adultery will not be replaced by the hope for sexual wholeness. The fear of sexual seduction will not be overcome by a commitment to growing spirituality.
This has been one of the historical critiques of monasticism and a parallel fear of undisciplined sexuality. While Protestants have often critiqued the monastic movement (and its occasional sexual abuses), Protestant groups continue to practice their own kinds of heterosexual monasticism: isolation of the sexes, restrictive attitudes about sexual feelings, avoidance of emotional and sexual conversation, or control of roles men and women play in the community."
That quote right there set me to begin thinking a whole different way with the possibility of going deep in friendship with women as a married man. My entire view of cross-gender friendship--to grow into a trust to talk about sexuality in a context committed to a strong spirituality and fidelity was birthed from this excerpt.
Now, the funny thing is, when I read this, I put it back on the shelf. I was confident I was going to check this book out in the future and read it. Several weeks later I went back and forgot the name of the title. And, Trinity library has gadzillions of titles on small groups. I looked all over for the book and could not find it. I didn't remember the exact name or title. I just remembered the color of the book jacket. Apparently, it was checked out. I went back again a couple of weeks later. No luck. A couple of months later, no luck. When I began doing research on this book, I went back to Trinity in their small group section to look, and could never find it. It was one of the first books I thought quoting from but I couldn't remember the title or author.
Icenogle only refers to small group community. But, I reasoned, a strong cross-gender friendship could lead to wholeness and growth between sexes and spreading wholeness, not fear into the wider community.
Don't you love this quote? I know not every evangelical would, but I am first directing it to my regular readers who have supported me in my book.