So what would have happened had Scot McKnight asked how his blog readers would have felt had their married adult daughter come to her parents to say, “I’ve been going to a therapist. He’s been helping me work through some issues.”
Would any of them raised issues about emotional boundaries? Would anybody have expressed deep concerns about the daughter meeting alone weekly with another man who is not her husband? Would Scot have warned about the emotional boundaries and safeguards of “exclusivism” in marriage?
Let’s hit the rewind button for a second. Scot McKnight, a friend, a theologian, one of evangelicalism’s most prolific and respected bloggers graciously introduced my book to his readers when it first came out. I am grateful for Scot’s generosity even though we have differences on male-female friendship, oneness, and marriage.
Within this series, I am highlighting some significant aspects of an expanding conversation among evangelicals. There are several things to explore with this series: ambiguities, contradictions among evangelicals about emotional depth and fidelity, two-tiered elite/lay system, the “unholy trinity,” and redemptive oneness in marriage and friendship.
Let’s start where Scot and I agree.
1. We both agree that the overarching theme of God’s great story is oneness. We were designed for oneness. Oneness was distorted. Through Jesus and the Spirit oneness is restored, and we are going to enjoy oneness forever.
2. We both agree that Pentecost inaugurated the power to create an eschatological oneness between all.
3. In that vein, we both agree that a whole new world has opened up with the Spirit’s power to make it happen.
4. We both agree that men and women were created in the image of God and are co-laborers and co-equal.
5. We both agree on the sacredness of one flesh in marriage.
The fun and dance begins between us with the differences in what we consider to be a robust oneness between men and women. Can married men and women experience a mature, healthy redemptive oneness in marriage and also integrate a mature, healthy redemptive oneness in cross-gender friendship?
At some level, Scot’s life and blog expresses a resounding yes to this question. His friendship/partnership with RJS on his blog is a great witness to this. When one recalls how for so many centuries women were considered intellectually inferior to men (and inherently prone to deception) it’s quite astonishing that week in and week out for several years now Scot has shared an intellectual oneness with RJS on his blog.
That intellectual oneness doesn’t mean he agrees with her on everything. But there is no question he has welcomed her on his blog all these years, and he desires her to influence Christians, particularly on the creation-evolution debate. This is phenomenal if you know anything about Christian tradition. I applaud Scot’s friendship with RJS.
But is intellectual oneness between men and women not married to each other all there is in God’s story? And why stop here? Does the relational oneness between God's people end at a sense of intellectual oneness?
So, it seems we have to go back to revisit the contradictions of "unholy trinity" among evangelicals.
The “unholy trinity” is postulated by many evangelicals when it comes to married men and women. For many evangelicals it is inappropriate to: 1) share immediate proximity with someone to whom you are not married, 2) intentionally set up a regular meeting time for just the two of you and, 3) nurture deep emotional intimacy or intensity within the relationship.
I have not personally discussed this with Scot, but my hunch is that he has no universal principle opposing therapists entering into counseling relationships with married clients of the opposite sex. If my guess is correct, he’s reframed the “unholy trinity” for the context of therapy. If I am wrong, I am still going to press Scot for an understanding of how he embraces the “unholy trinity” when many evangelical therapists simply do not.
As far as I can tell, Scot has expressed serious cautions appealing to all 3 criteria in regard to friendship. I will totally agree with Scot that we must exercise caution and learn discretion. But Scot seems to never go past a certain point.
He seems to express grave concern for the "unholy trinity" may happen. He postulates a scenario: "your daughter or your son is now married, and delights in his or her spouse. Your son or your daughter come to you and says, ‘I have a close friend, of the opposite sex, who is not married. That person would like me to have coffee alone just to chat. Mom, Dad, what is your advice? What is your wisdom?’”
In another blog post, Scot responded to a commenter, “Kris always talks about the importance of ‘emotional’ boundaries, and once they are crossed a relationship can be affair-like. And that there is not that much difference between an emotional affair and a physical affair. “
In his chapter on the "Sex.Life" Scot uses the metaphor "with" to beautifully describe his spousal friendship with Kris. On the other hand, James Olthuis a therapist uses the same metaphor to describe love and presence in between a therapist and a client: "With-ing is a process of co-joining which encourages people to own, express, their deepest feelings....when the attunement is appropriate, a bond of trust and intimacy develops."
Olthuis and many other evangelical therapists believe this attuning, this coming alongside another in deep empathetic connection helps individuals "achieve a deeper integration of the self." Watson talks about "union" in the therapuetic relationship and a substantive part of that "union" emotional intimacy between therapist and client.
Scot’s chapter, the “Sex.Life” in One.Life is a relevant chapter discussing a robust oneness between men and women. If you read that chapter you see that Scot keeps a great distance from exploring deep sacred friendships between men and women who may be married, but not to each other. The content of his chapter centers on sexualized friendships, marriage, and a rejection of certain romantic theories.
This chapter could have presented a robust third option, something akin to what married, Catholic author Mary DeTurris Poust describes, “Our society would lead us to believe that sexuality can only lead us to one thing, but history shows us that when we live out our sexuality in healthy and chaste ways, it can actually lead to intimate but platonic friendships.”
She adds, “We cannot discard passion and check it at the door simply because we have developed a close friendship with the opposite sex.”
Scot's reluctance to explore deep friendships between men and women in this chapter parallels his reluctance to explore deep friendships when he introduced my book. He brought up C. S. Lewis' metaphors: "Lewis says man and woman in marriage are “face to face” while friends are “side to side,” creating an exclusive no-third-party-allowed dimension to marriage. And a cross-gendered friendship, if it is indeed serious, threatens the face to face exclusivism of a married couple. "
Without a rich development of emotional intimacy between men and women outside marriage, Scot leaves himself positioned inside the "unholy trinity." Like Debbie the commenter on Sharon Hodde Miller's blog: "I still say emotional intimacy (like physical intimacy) is intended for, and should be reserved for, the married couple.”
I’ve never seen anything in Scot’s writings which says yes to oneness of intimate platonic friendships, which affirms them as good and beautiful when involving the opposite sex in contrast to other evangelical and Catholic authors who do. In others words, I have yet to see him integrate a robust oneness between love in friendship and the sacred oneness in marriage.
Among evangelical therapists who embrace relational therapy it is arguable that there is oneness beyond a sexualized oneness or the one flesh in marriage. Relational therapists such as Judith Jordan embrace deep, emotional meaningful connections between therapist and married clients. She calls for an acknowledging the power of love in therapy.
Can only trained evangelical therapists engage in shared vulnerability, love, union, authenticity, mutuality, with their opposite sex clients in ongoing dyadic relationships?
Why can’t other men and women learn those healthy ways to relate to love each other deeply beyond the therapist’s office and yet still honor marriage? What if there is a richness of emotional depth and authentic engagement between men and women who are not married to each other that bears witness to the deeper union in the church? As Olthuis notes, love "is open to the other, delights in the other, cares for the other."
Authentic delight is not just for men and women who are married to each other. As Catholic philosopher Diane Cates comments on friendship, "Intimate-character friends...are physically and emotionally stirred and delighted by each other's embodied presence."
Can evangelicals move past reductionistic views of oneness between men and women and reframe the "unholy trinity" in our friendships?