What you are about to read is a powerful positive story of a happily married male pastor who enjoys close female friendships. In the twentieth century evangelical subculture seminaries taught pastors to survive in a solitary confinement spirituality. Male pastors absorbed a spirituality that spiritual leadership meant not having close friends. Evangelical male pastors are still fighting that isolating, individualistic mentality. If you hang around social media long enough, you will find this is a crisis of connection and community with Christian men. For single or married women aspiring to the ministry, this too, would mean a crisis of connection, a crisis of friendship.
Brian's story is refreshingly counter-cultural to anxiety-driven evangelical leadership that not only isolates pastors from close friendships but also drives an unneccesary wedge between women (single and married) and married male pastors. At so many levels this is a powerful story for what differentiating holiness can looks like between differentiated adults who enjoy their marriages and their close cross-gender friends.
Brian Cobb, a servant of God's word, has worked among Churches of Christ for over thirty years, the past twenty years as senior pastor for a youthful university and military faith community with a campus ministry in Manhattan, Kansas. Married for thirty-seven years, he and his wife Beverly are blessed with two adult children and one grandchild. Throughout the course of his ministry, Brian has also "adopted" or been adopted by numerous children (young adults) and grandchildren. He and Bev have both enjoyed cross-gender friendships, within their marriage and egalitarian family system. It may be indicative that their idealistic daughter, in planning her wedding, chose to have a "person of honor," a male friend, stand closest at her side. Brian consistently emphasizes in his teaching that God's will and purpose for his people is that we love; thus, it's not about rules, regulations, rituals or religion--it's all about relationships.
Said the bird to the squirrel, "I know what it's like to be up high in a tree. But what is it like to climb there with such incredible agility and speed?"
"It's wonderful” the squirrel replied. “But try as you might to imagine, in order to understand what it's like, you would have to experience climbing as a squirrel. You would have to be a squirrel.”
Said the squirrel to the bird, "I know what it's like to leap from one tree to the next. But what is it like to fly there or even far above the trees, with such grace and ease?"
"It's great,” replied the bird. “But try as you might to imagine, in order to understand what it’s like, you would need to experience flight as a bird. You would have to be a bird.”
From the top of their tree, where they shared a gently swaying limb, the bird and squirrel looked up as a cloud slowly drifted by, so high in the sky.
Said the bird and the squirrel to the cloud, " . . .
Okay, dream over. What if the birds and the squirrels were to criticize and judge each other, in the exercise of their various gifts, for not doing it quite right, for somehow cheating or violating their own self-imposed standards or for putting the forest at risk? That’s ridiculous. Were it possible, nothing good could come of such; it would create only discord. For birds are birds and squirrels are squirrels. And one could not become the other. Moreover, what good would it accomplish for the birds and squirrels to launch a tirade against clouds for being so abstract and undefinable, for not staying within the guidelines of respectable cloud design?
It’s equally absurd to expect uniformity among those who follow Jesus. All are called to the loving heights of Christlike relationships. So we’d better be working on becoming better lovers. But we do not all relate in the same way. No more than we communicate in the same way. Doesn’t God’s word teach us that we are diverse for a purpose and that the Spirit gifts us individually, as God wills, for the good of all? Indeed, diversity is part of God’s design for our friendships, families and faith communities. Besides, we might all be bored, if everyone was just like me. Or you.
Of course, there are some gifts which we may choose and develop, to an extent. But I ask you to consider that there are also gifts of being, which are inborn, engrained essentials, inescapable and inextricable parts of who we are. How could we deny those gifts within ourselves? Why would we? And why would we allow others to thwart us in the godly use of our gifts, especially gifts of being, those gifts which we are?
For some of us, cross-gender friendships are as natural as breathing. And we might feel like we are choking without them. It’s who we are. It’s who I am.
I am most certainly a heterosexual man. I have never experienced gender confusion or any kind of identity crisis. Not even close. I know who I am. Nonetheless, as soon as I started school, I had a strong desire to have female friends, and I recognized potential connections. But little girls and little boys tend to run in separate packs. As a child, I would have preferred to sit in the floor and play with the girls than to run around roughing it up with the boys. Sadly, the girls wouldn’t let me play with them, because “you can’t see Barbie naked.”
School, especially high school, is tough enough, without also feeling isolated or lonely. Sure, I dated as a teen. But I had female friends. When I was a sophomore, a senior male and three senior females in our youth group adopted me, just when I needed it most. That was a great experience for me, because I had female friends, and we were not going to date each other. Over four decades later, I’m still in contact with two of those women.
Both in my youth and in my experienced maturity, I struggle to understand why (to borrow a metaphor from Kipling) East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet until courtship and marriage. And then, once again, never the twain shall meet with any other member of the opposite sex, until death do us part. Nonsense.
Male friendships usually did not work out well for me in my youth. Although I was involved in athletics and other activities with males, ultimately I had different interests than most of them, such as reading, art and music. I’m told (okay, let’s allow someone else to take the fall for this generalization) that males tend to communicate and relate side-by-side, engaging in an activity or interest they share in common. Sure, I can play ball, hunt, fish, or work alongside you. But, frankly, whether you are male or female, I still don’t care to discuss your truck, sports or, you know, most of the alleged guy stuff. My wife won’t talk truck with you, but she will talk you into the ground over sports. I prefer to communicate and relate, face to face, going deep, which is how females communicate and relate (somebody takes another hit). Moreover, I have always been and I am deeply empathetic, highly sensitive, protective, caring, nurturing . . .
Stop. Aren’t those traits usually characterized as feminine in our society? Did the concept of gender just get fuzzy for you? There we go listening to social designations and expectations, again. Gender is not as simple as the biological assignment of reproductive systems and the assigned social expectations based on anatomy. Concretely, I am biologically male. And being of hardcore Rational temperament I have a tough logical edge, which is impossible not to notice, and which I suppose some would perceive as masculine, even though numerous females share that trait. Abstractly, however, possessing both so-called feminine and masculine characteristics—all by myself, alone—I am cross-gender. So, why wouldn’t I have female friends?
Occasionally, I get my best female friend’s ire up a bit when I tease, “I’m such a girl.” She replies, “Stop saying that! You’re all man!” Well, I guess she should know, because she’s married to one. My wife agrees with her.
In the words of a single female friend who is not in the least interested in sex or marriage, “Why can’t people just be people?” I don’t know, but let’s have a shot at it, shall we.
Time out. I’d like to thank Dan Brennan, author of Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions, for the invitation to share in his blog today. Dan knows that I’m not out to be a catalyst or an activist in a movement. He also knows that I’m just keeping it real and living it, as I have tried to do over the course of my life. However, I am willing to serve as an example (the embodied apologetic already exists, so feel free to observe) to promote a broader acceptance among God’s people, not for myself personally but for the grace God has given to me, my closest friends and some of you, to His glory.
As a serious student and servant of God’s word for three and a half decades, I proffer here that there are those of us are gifted by God for cross-gender interactions, gifted by God to be friends with the opposite sex, gifted to trust, affirm heal and delight in one another, gifted to communicate intimately, gifted to know and to be known, and gifted to provide each other with safety, security and support—all very well within the will of God.
Yes, we all should strive to develop such gifts, to whatever extent lies within our potential, for we are all called to love one another and to pursue the greatest gift, which is love. Personally, I’m still working on gifts in which I am weak and need to grow. Let’s all do that, as we are able. Nevertheless, please recognize that some of us were born into and for cross-gender communion, not only in spiritual rebirth and transformation but even at biological birth. It’s who we are, how God designed us. And we no more chose this precious gift for ourselves than anyone could choose the ways in which they are gifted.
Not to embrace and employ such remarkable gifts to the glory of God (whether out of timidity or fear or compliance to a contrived human standard) would be to quench the Spirit and stunt growth both in ourselves and in the Kingdom. Moreover, those who would oppose the wise use of such gifts in the name of God should be careful not to grieve the Spirit. Cringe at the thought. I do, and I’ll be guilty of neither.
Friends? Yes, of course, I have female friends. No, we’re not just friends. Come on, now. Just deprecates friendship itself. I don’t have any just friends (even though they are justified people) of either biological designation. And close friendships usually start with a spiritual connection. It’s something we perceive in each other. Pains to be touched with healing, needs to be filled, all the highs and lows of life to be shared, dreams and hopes and eternity. And we trust that the potentials of our relationship are a gift from God, even as God gifts us for and with each other.
I recognize connections, at a glance. Sometimes connections can grow into close cross-gender friendships, sometimes not. After all, it takes two, and we may be at different points on the journey of our spirits through this life. And any kind of relationship that is contrived or out of balance is not likely to be healthy, successful or desirable. Therefore, I’m not on a quest for female friends so much as I welcome any godly relationship that has the potential to grow into friendship. I let God provide, which He does.
I met her ten years ago, when she was a single mother, trying to sort out herself and life. Click! Connection. Instantaneously and inextricably connected. No, we weren’t checking each other out and feeding the biological buzz of a superficial attraction. It was just our eyes, we both knew, and it was spiritual, it was deep. We focused on each other’s eyes for several seconds while time stood still. Awkward? Yes (you should hear her hilarious account of that event in our communion). We’d had a glimpse of each other’s souls. It was a divine appointment.
Within the past several years—and at least several dozen coffee shop, lunch and dinner meetings, with long conversations (two brains peering over the tops of their glasses in what we call a mind meld, finishing each other’s thoughts and sentences, laughing at each other’s jokes long before the punch line), gradually our friendship has grown close and comfortable, trusting and secure. Over dinner last week, she shared a discussion that had transpired between her and her concerned adolescent son, about the nature of our relationship. In conclusion, she had told him, “I hope that someday you will be able to have friends who are female, even after you are married.”
Beautiful. Bless her heart, she said it, not me. Why is that a big deal? Because she and I had never talked about the issue, not ever. Although we had been living it, we had never discussed together the concept of cross-gender friendships, not one word in ten years. You see, it had not been necessary, because she shares the gift, too. We were quite simply, innocently and contentedly being. Being who we are, being how God has graced us.
Thus, the context having been set, that night she and I did finally have the talk. Awkward? No (we’re so far beyond that now). As I laid out the traditional opposing arguments for her, my lawyer friend raised biblical objections, such as: “What about being brothers and sisters? Doesn’t the Bible say we are supposed to be family?”
We talked about discipleship and following Jesus (who flouted all the Pharisaic relational expectations of a rabbi), following Jesus into cross-gender relationships.
And in response to my description of certain institutionally legislated human dogmas regarding the limitation of cross-gender interactions for the sake of playing it safe, not playing with fire (the fire being allegedly irresistible emotional and biological urges, the flesh being tempted, etc.) with frustration in her voice, she lamented,
“What about the Spirit?”
Indeed. What about the Spirit?
That night I gave her my last clean copy of Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions. I’m sure we’ll have much to talk about when we get together in coming weeks. Dan’s book, which she is reading now . . . perhaps responses to this blog piece.
My brainstorm list for this essay had become far too long. My wife said it was shaping up to be a book. So how would I ever narrow the focus? My dear friend had provided the answer. Yes. What about the Spirit?
Note well, the first person to read this was the literature teacher, my wife of thirty-seven years, who proofed and graded it for me. Who knows, she may read it to my brother, who is still (and since high school) her closest male friend. I’m glad they have each other. They need each other precisely because neither one of them is me.
After my wife, my best friend, whom my wife has thanked “for being the kind of friend Brian needs” read it. Both of our marriages are stronger because of our friendship (true of all my close cross-gender friendships). If you knew how much so, you might start asking us if we are taking applications for additional cross-gender friends. We seem to be content letting God provide.
Then, most certainly, my lawyer friend whose insights I treasure, as I do her, was called upon to bless the project.
And we are. As we will be, in the Spirit. By His grace and to His glory . . . in the spirit of friendship.