So, resistance from the evangelical community toward me has been part of my experience ever since I intentionally chose intimacy in a dyadic cross-gender friendship as something good and beautiful from God.
The resistance has only confirmed my unique calling God has for me in this season.
It’s the majority that holds power. I didn’t expect the majority of evangelicals to suddenly surrender in light of the sex and power embedded in the romantic myth. But evangelicals are committed to wrestling with the scriptures and there is wide ranging diversity among evangelicals over complex issues.
I wanted to explore in this series the deep confusion, posturing, nuancing, and diversity between evangelicals on the issues of marital intimacy. What Scot McKnight calls “face-to-face exclusivism,” or emotional intimacy between men women who are married but not to each other, as well as dyadic interpersonal intimacy between men and women.
Let me again remind you that I strongly affirm and bless evangelical therapists who welcome and nurture professional therapeutic relationships with cross-gender clients. And, this series is not specifically directed at evangelicals who reject therapy as something not biblical.
This series is aimed at many evangelicals (both therapists and those who are not therapists) who have no quarrel with therapists intentionally meeting alone with their cross-gender clients weekly with the purpose of nurturing an interpersonal intimacy with emotional depth, authenticity, empathy and in a number of relationships, pray with them. All this happening weekly with one or both of them in the dyadic relationship married and without their spouses present.
This again flies in the face of what is the “unholy trinity” which has been brought up to me as a common objection to cross-gender friendship. Many evangelicals feel it is inappropriate to 1) Set a regular time to meet alone with a member of the opposite sex if one or both of you are married, 2) to nurture an ongoing dyadic relationship with the opposite sex where the dyad meets alone, and 3) to nurture any kind of emotional intimacy with someone in this dyadic relationship.
Any combination of these three or all of them combined are the chief grounds to what many evangelicals call “inappropriate” for those who are married. Yet, as we have seen, many practicing evangelical relational therapists regularly practice all three. These therapists have reframed the unholy trinity—all three of these can be reframed as something good, beautiful, healing, healing, and redemptive.
Obviously, every therapist is going to say, “But wait!” Well, yes, I’m not asserting that therapists throw all caution into the wind. There are psychological, time, and place boundaries. But they are boundaries conceptually, relationally, and practically beyond the “unholy trinity.” Way beyond.
Let me introduce you (if you haven’t already heard of them) to Mark McMinn and Lisa Graham McMinn. They’re married. They are both on staff at George Fox. Before that, they were both on staff at Wheaton. I have never met either one f2f, but I have exchanged two emails with Lisa. She has written one book in particular in which I am interested in for this post: Sexuality and Holy Longing: Embracing Intimacy in a Broken World.
There are so many good things to say about Lisa’s book. She sees sexuality as much deeper than just sex. We are embodied sexual beings. She gets the idea we are drawn to others and we yearn for communion.
She affirms the possibility of transmarital friendships. She recognizes it as an expression of the abundance of God’s goodness and favor to us in this life. However, she and Mark have chosen to not invest in any intimate friendships of the opposite sex. Their first tier of intimate friends are same sex friends. Cross-sex friends for both of them enter at the second level.
Mark is a practicing therapist. He’s written several books but there are two books I am interested in. Psychology, Theology, and Spirituality in Christian Counseling is the first one. His second, is Sin and Grace in Christian Counseling. As I understand it, from these two books, Mark does not practice a relational therapy (like for example, from ones I quoted earlier: Robert Watson, James Olthuis and many others). Mark practices a form of cognitive therapy.
It’s apparent from both of these books that Mark intentionally surpasses the “unholy trinity” and welcomes a dyadic therapeutic relationship in which he meets alone with women even though he is married.
Before I go further, I want to bring in another voice, Deborah Van Deusen Hunsinger. She contributed a chapter “An Interdisciplinary Map for Christian Counselors” in a book Mark himself edited, Care for the Soul. She says one of the gifts of therapy is that the therapist gives the gift of attentive presence. She says it’s an important question of pastoral care: “How do you tune into your own feelings as a way to help you understand the feelings of a person you are counseling?”
Mark gets this. Even if he is a cognitive therapist he understands the importance of empathy in counseling. He writes, “Our common state of sinfulness calls for empathy in Christian counseling. We do not sit above our clients, we sit with them with the pain of broken relationships.” To make sure the reader understands, he adds, “This is an existential sort of empathy, not merely a technique-oriented empathy” (Sin and Grace).
Mark also sees certain clients who feel “worthless and unimportant.” For them, he is “unusually attentive and affirming.” He also understands that there is an “appropriate level of interpersonal intimacy” in the therapeutic relationship. He cautions though, about a counseling relationship that becomes “excessively close.”
For some evangelicals, to acknowledge any form of “intimacy” between a married man and “another woman” is flat out emotional adultery. “People commit emotional adultery before they commit physical adultery. It starts where two people of the opposite sex talk with each other about intimate struggles, doubts, or feelings” (Dennis Rainey). Mark and Grace Driscoll state that one seeking help cannot go to a member of the opposite sex “because of risk of at least emotional adultery and spiritual adultery is incredibly high” (Real Marriage).
Don’t miss this important point. Mark devotes an hour of his day with a woman her each week (could be more than once a week for some clients) to connect with her on emotional issues and he nurtures an ongoing empathy and attentiveness to her with no one else present. I am sure there are some close friends of Mark’s who don’t get an hour one day a week of Mark’s undivided attention and empathy.
I don’t believe I am too far off by saying there are thousands of evangelical wives who would die for their husbands to give them one hour a week, undivided attention with deep empathy.
Even if it for a short period (remember there are psychotherapies which continue for years) most therapeutic relationships enter into what many therapists would call an intense interpersonal relationship with attachment, warmth, and empathy.
Although Mark is extremely careful to attempt to nuance this, he still nurtures an intensive intimacy with a woman he’s not married to—and he does this in a dyadic relationship with no one else around. Even though Mark is not committed to a relational, mutual framework, he is still engaging deep emotional empathy to be with the client—authentically.
Again, I am all for this. But this flies in the face of conventional evangelical wisdom on the “unholy trinity.” It resists any simple, black-and-white definition of emotional infidelity being on par with physical infidelity among evangelicals. Emotional depth, emotional intensity does not equal emotional infidelity in a dyadic relationship in which there is self-awareness, love, authenticity, high regard, and trust born out of a community (therapeutic culture).