What is spiritual, physical, and emotional closeness between men and women sans romantic love?
It is called friendship.
Not too long ago, Sharon Hodde Miller, a frequent writer for Christianity Today’s Her.memeutics Blog for women asserted that close friendship between married men and women who are not married to each other, “ is not healthy or biblical.” She was responding to my book, Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions and my friendships.
Contra Miller, evangelical author (Ruby Slippers), feminist, speaker, apologist, occasional contributor to Christianity Today’s Her.memeutics Blog for women, Jonalyn Grace Fincher has written a bold post on her blog for healthy intimate friendships between men and women: Harry and Sally are Wrong: Friendships between Men and Women
Fincher writes: “ brother/sister closeness is supposed to be the model for how to interact with those of the opposite sex (1 Tim 5:2, Mark 3:35)… Men and women were designed to have physical, emotional, spiritual closeness without romantic entanglement… we can recognize the beauty and attractiveness, power and sensuality, significance and vulnerability of each person.”
Sharon Hodde Miller meet Jonalyn Grace Fincher.
Long entrenched boundaries are shifting in the evangelical world at large.
The boundaries between men and women in today's evangelical subculture look very different than they did twenty years ago. Just look at the ongoing blog friendship/partnership between theologian Scot McKnight and RJS for one of innumerable examples.
Miller and Fincher represent something Nicola Hoggard Creegan and Christine Pohl have observed: "in the Christian world at large, boundaries are now being shared and broken...a number of evangelical writers are calling for a new catholicity" (Living on the Boundaries: Evangelical Women, Feminism, and the Evangelical Academy).
Gender and relational boundaries are shifting among evangelical men and women throughout the evangelical world. In the neo-Reformed paradigm look at how Timothy and Kathy Keller address the issues of gender in The Meaning of Marriage. A book like this would have been unheard of fifty years ago.
Or from a different perspective, look at Kristina La-Celle-Peterson’s, Liberating Tradition. Take a serious look at Pam Hogeweide’s book, Unladylike. Also, you won’t want to miss Rachel Held Evans’ upcoming book, The Year of Biblical Womanhood.
That brings me back to talk about Miller and Fincher. Oh! By the way, have you looked at what evangelical women have expressed about friendships between men and women?
Ruth Haley Barton in her book, Equal to the Task writes, “There is no reason to think that women and men cannot forge friendships in which they become as precious and irreplaceable to each other just as friends of the same sex do.”
Anettte Ejsing, says, “We can only understand ourselves individually if we explore relationships with the opposite sex. They do not have be romantic relationships” (The Power of One). Edith Humphrey in her book, Ecstasy and Intimacy writes powerfully for male-female friendship.
Lisa McMinn sees the possibility of close friendships emanating from sexual fidelity: “Sexual fidelity becomes a gift of abundant love” (Sexuality and Holy Longing). Judith Balswick believes intimate friendships may prevent affairs (Authentic Sexuality). My friend, co-pastor Kathy Escobar has a strong view that intimate friendships between men and women are life-giving, power-diffusing, and wildly beautiful for the community and the world.
Then you have the book, Mixed Ministry coauthored by Sue Edwards, Kelley Matthews, and Henry Rogers. This book explores relational closeness between men and women partnering alongside each other in ministry.
So some evangelical women are insisting that spiritual, emotional, and physical closeness between friends is not biblical or healthy (Miller, Anne Wilson, Ashley McIlwain, etc.). Other evangelical women are embracing boundary-shifting friendships within marriage and beyond as a healthy expression of deep reconciliation between the sexes.
I am using “boundary-shifting friendships” to describe the love whose friendship “shifts the boundaries of our being” (An Uncommon Correspondence). Men and women opening themselves to what God is doing through communion in friendship revealing the spiritual intimacy as a way of life for men and women to God’s reign of love and shalom in the here-and-now.
Some Random Thoughts
1. Boundary-shifting friendships as a way of love in the new world between men and women are here to stay.
There will be more evangelical women who hunger after the Spirit for boundary-shifting friendships. They will see the boundary shifts of human intimacy in friendship transforming men and women accompanied by mutual interest in justice, shalom, and equality.
Boundary-shifting friendships are ongoing expressions of the journey of the spiritual intimacy between men and women in the here-and-now. They assume openness to God and the intimate trust of participating in eternal life between the sexes in this present world.
Eternal life is not simply added on at the end of death. It is Christ who is the way and the truth and the life. The promise of participating and enjoying “eternal life” in the present means something for men and women. The phrase “eternal life” itself reveals a boundary-shifting. In the words of Richard Rohr, “Life is all about practicing for heaven.”
That includes boundary-shifting friendships between men and women in our contemporary world. There could be no greater witness between men and women of God’s future for us, of God’s presence in this immediate world, and his powerful love for us than to participate in boundary-shifting friendships.
2. Boundary-shifting friendships embrace the beauty of spiritual intimacy as healthy deep connection.
God is love. God is a Community of Persons—a Community which is Love. Jesus prays that we would all share this spiritual intimacy. There is a profound, eternal, unending, perfect communion of Love. Whether we go this route or pursue a multiple of other paths provided by the Christian story, deeply rooted in our Tradition is a spiritual intimacy which is robust, healthy, good, beautiful, life-giving, and holy.
John 1:1 gives us every indication there is relational withness, a profound relational closeness which is where we came from and where we are going. What does this mean for us now as men and women?
This is the deep relational beauty of attending and attuning with open ears to spiritual intimacy in this life between men and women: “A friend is one whose presence is joy, ever-deepening relationship and love, ever available in direct address, in communion and presence. A friend is one who remains fundamentally a mystery, inexhaustible, never fully known, always surprising” (Anne Carr).
The evangelical women who practice relational distance from men (except in romantic intimacy) assume that all attempts to move toward spiritual, emotional, and physical closeness in this world are unhealthy for marriage (triangles, codependency, etc.) or will end in sex.
What is the message though for Jesus followers? A new age has dawned in Christ. “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good”(Romans 12: 20).
Our spiritual marching orders in Colossians 3 are not some kind of passive resignation in which we have to wave the white flag until the next age. We are to keep seeking Christ “seek the things that are above” (Colossians 3:1).
“As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Colossians 3:12-14).
If we seek these things as men and women in communities of boundary-shifting friendships in marriages and friendships we will experience spiritual intimacy in this world. This is the deep beauty of spiritual intimacy between men and women in community. Despite what we see around us and what can happen (yes, there are risks) we’re not called to despair over the possibility and beauty of spiritual intimacy between men and women.
Jean Vanier uses the word “communion” here but it fits with what I mean by spiritual intimacy: “Communion is a mutual vulnerability and openness one to the other. It is liberation for both, indeed, where both are allowed to be themselves, where both are called to grow in greater freedom and openness to others” (Becoming Human).
We’re not called to a spirit of fear and despair, wringing our hands that closeness between us will always be driven by unhealthy dynamics or a sexual triangle. Think of some problems the Corinthians faced in their community and surrounding city. Yet Paul charges them to eagerly pursue profound spiritual love and intimacy in their midst (1 Cor. 13).
Jesus never tells us if we share a close physical proximity with someone from the opposite sex including physical affection we will get aroused or filled with lust. As a matter of fact he lived, embodied, and practiced the opposite. Spiritual intimacy does not encourage a form of spiritual despair for some kind disembodied, stiff-armed distance ethic which we practice outside of romantic love.
In boundary-shifting friendships, followers of Jesus seek a spiritual intimacy of wholeness and life-giving in spiritual, emotional, relational, and physical closeness.
3. Boundary-shifting friendships participate in deep freedom through spiritual intimacy.
We must not underestimate the power of spiritual freedom we have through spiritual intimacy. Jürgen Moltmann reminds us that the Spirit opens doors that were shut. The Spirit opens new chances for us and possibilities for the gospel (i.e. deep reconciliation between men and women). As men and women we live in the freedom of God’s creative possibilities and we partake of them (The Spirit of Life).
Intimate trust both in marriage and friendship fosters, nurtures, and deepens life-giving, flourishing relational freedom. Men and women are not bound to romantic scripts which breeds despair, distance, and distraction among men and women not married to each other.
In following Christ they are free to nurture and respond to the other’s beauty. They are not bound to a script in which all closeness means unhealthy dynamics or triangles. This doesn’t lift the demands of spiritual intimacy. In fact, it requires us to seek God and grow in attraction for the good and beautiful.
I'm all for advancing deep reconciliation between men and women.