I have watched the chatter on social media as bloggers (men and women) have been stirred to react in this new era of anxious egalitarianism. As I anticipated , a number of bloggers have been stirred to respond to this pervasive sense of social anxiety infiltrating what was perceived to be healthy egalitarian leadership. Aren't you struck by the fact that the egalitarian bloggers with power/platform have virtually been silent on the relational power of spiritual friendship between men and women? Where are the egalitarian voices stepping forward to help us navigate spiritual intimacy between the sexes?
It should be no surprise, really. For forty years Willow Creek egalitarianism (the most popular kind) did not include cross-sex friendship when it dived into deep relational language/connection. Deep relationships in church? You betcha! Deep egalitarian marriages? No question.
But deep relational language that embraced friendships between men and women? Not hardly.
It's no coincidence that through the years--going all the way back to thirty years ago--Hybels wrote and preached on "deep" relationships within the church and marriage but with no corresponding depth in cross-gender friendship. This has been evangelical egalitarianism.
This poverty or scarceness among egalitarians may seem like a small shortcoming in light of the bigger picture of women welcomed to preach in churches. But the more I researched the history of spiritual friendship between the sexes, the more I discovered how one-sided friendship has been. It was one-dimensional. Friendship throughout Christendom was male-centered. Women were considered incapable of being true friends by the spiritual experts (men). Women were considered spiritual distractions or temptations to knowing holy friendship.
In this history men have run the show.
Inextricably bound to the invisibility of women ("weaker sex" or scarce female personal power in virtue) in the spiritual friendship tradition is the glaring absence of God’s powerful nearness in cross-sex friendship. These are tied together.
I have a few rambling (not exhaustive) thoughts on the psychodynamic theory on differentiation of self and cross-gender friendship. While I want to be careful to not exalt it as a single-bullet, the power and beauty of it in shaping a theology of cross-sex friendship has been a huge blessing to me the past ten years.
It's important to understand at the outset, that every blogger, every theologian, every pastor who has an opinion about cross-gender friendship has psychological theories as their background beliefs. Everybody has their own social psychology that shapes their commitment to the Billy Graham rule or their other "biblical" or "theological" priorities in this conversation. Scratch the surface and poke around some, and we all have some kind of social psychology we adhere to.
I have come to love the breadth and depth and beauty of differentiation of self as I have immersed myself into both theory and practice.
I think its healthy and biblical to claim the friendship of God as a foundation for egalitarian fullness.
It's no small thing that the image of God as friend goes all the way back to the Old Testament. God offers divine friendship to Moses. God had a “face-to-face” meeting with Moses “as one speaks to a friend” (Exodus 33:11). Commentators have noted the immediate, direct, intense conversation between Moses and God. Moses never, ever had a face-to-face meeting with a human friend like he did with God.
Then Jesus does this AMAZING thing in the Gospel of John. He told his followers that he came in order for them to have abundant life in John 10:10, and ends up telling his disciples he was no longer going to call them servants but friends (John 15:15). A core part of differentiation is claiming and knowing the fullness of "I" as distinct from others but remaining connected to others even in the midst of their psychological pressure for you to change. It's knowing one's full "I" when significant others are demanding "we." Differentiated individuals are able to take a stand in an emotionally intense system.
Whoever is reading this right now, differentiation is not about me trying to pressure you to come over to what I believe about the friendship of God as a foundation for egalitarian fullness. I let go of any desire to change you or pressure you to join me in that belief if you are not there. I'll say a few more things about that as we go on.
Once I connected dots with differentiation of self and God's friendship, a vast, whole new world opened up to me as far as how wide and long and high and deep friendship is in the world. And history!!!! Perhaps its precisely because God is a friend we discover friendship to be this universal experience and phenomenon. It’s really not a far-fetched idea to talk about a theology of friendship or a hermeneutic of friendship given its breadth and depth and power across all cultures and times. For sure, there are varying degrees and differences throughout history, but the endless stories of personal friendship are something we see over and over again.
It also explains how in God's cosmos, friendship defies reduction. It defies downsizing. It defies so many attempts to scale it down. One author thinks of friendship through this angle. Another through this one. Still another one through this meaning. Then there is this rich reflection. And theologian Liz Carmichael surveys the richness of diverse theological meanings in her book here. It seems like there is this unending reflection of friendship because of divine energy being poured out on all flesh!
But this I do know from years of experience now of being alone, together with female friends, face-to-face. I know--in a deep sense of knowing--the biblical witness that God is a friend to both man and woman. No matter what we say about human friendships, the language of divine friendship immediately puts friendship in the deepest relational language of all relational languages and categories. It’s a relational dimension to God’s nearness that knows no frontiers. There is a mysterious fullness to divine friendship that we can taste, see, know, and feel, now. It's also abounding with life-giving energy. We are never going to be able to plumb the depths of ever-present boundless energy, vitality, vigor, and power in God’s presence as our friend to women and men.
One of the things this means is that a theology of cross-sex friendship is not about theological leftovers after all the power has been distributed for deep church life and deep married life. A theology of cross-sex friendship is not an inconsequential "add-on" after we have exhausted relational depth in the church and in marriage.It seems to me that for a man and woman to know God as a friend, Divine friendship immediately points us to a relational power and presence in God’s intimate closeness as our friend like no other friend we know on earth or will ever know. In Divine friendship, there is an unspeakable depth, fullness, and mystery.
If two people know and enjoy God's friendship--including two opposite-sex friends--they share the greatest common ground possible that could unite two people. Of all the "Aha! You enjoy that too!" scenarios that unite and bond friends--God's friendship is the greatest of all. What kind of friend could draw two cross-sex friends into intimate friendship? A friend like God. From A to Z, from beginning into eternity, God's nearness as a friend to men and women is the greatest common ground they could know in leadership, ministry, or mere friendship.
Do Christians need a vast array of studies from sociologists, therapists, theologians, and pastors to convince them that Christ's friendship--His relational nearness--is foundation for egalitarian fullness? Perhaps. But after sixteen years of investing my life into deep cross-gender friendships, I know Christ is the foundation for the fullness of friendship.
Understanding that the Bible itself claims God is a friend gives me the hermeneutical courage to see God's closeness as a friend as profoundly healing and hopeful and gloriously meaningful!! The power of divine friendship is inexhaustible. Friendship doesn't take a backseat nor assume inferiority to other hermeneutical emphases. Indeed, Roberta Gilbert believes, "friendship may be the ideal paradigm for all relationships."
"Power struggles" start here. Here that is in the significance of power in our hermeneutical emphases. No matter how deep we go in the conversation on power between men and women, does Divine friendship have a place at the hermeneutical table just as much as any claims of ecclesial power or marital power??? Knowing God as friend gives both man and woman access to unlimited reciprocal power--shared power with (not power-over) at every developmental step in their friendship.
Self-differentiation is a mature inner knowing of who you are in relation to others--including important others.
A key part of self-differentiation and healthy relationships is knowing who you are--your thoughts, feelings, desires--in connection with whom you are closest to. Jesus gives us authentic personal power-authentic personal presence to know we are as we learn to relate to other's intense feelings, ideas, anxieties. The fullness of healthy connection is knowing who you are and not being part of an emotional domino in a system. It's the ability to say "I" when others want you to say "we."
Knowing God as friend--not just an abstract knowing--but to know God as friend is to know a friend like no other. Coming to know Jesus as a friend takes us deep into what it means to be a woman, what it means to a man, what it means to be human. The biblical witness that directs us to us knowing that Jesus calls us friends is not a kind of software that gets added on after the sexual hardware was wired in our human makeup.
I anticipated there would be many men (and women) who claim the Billy Graham rule as a wise rule in this new era of anxious egalitarianism. But I was looking for any egalitarian bloggers/authors with platforms to come forth claiming friendship between men and women was possible via differentiating closeness. It was cool to see Anglican priest Tish Harrison Warren step forth. And I greatly appreciated Tina Osterhouse's contribution at CBE. We are making progress!
But I was wondering if we would see any egalitarian bloggers/authors go deep into differentiating closeness. There is a spiritual awakening happening right now in the #MeToo and the #ChurchToo movement. The power of women's voices is emerging out of patriarchy. The reckoning is here. Male ego, entitlement, and power, sexualized aggression are no longer tolerable in the physical proximity of a woman.
What kind of nearness can men and women know in this new era of anxious egalitarianism? Women can stand against a sexualized work environment. They can stand against all forms of coercive pressure. There will be no more toleration for sexualized remarks. But there is something greater than that in differentiation of self. Women have the relational power to the what, when, where, why, and how in relation to men. They have the power to gladly choose egalitarian fullness.
Friendship as Egalitarian Fullness
One of the greatest blessings I have come to know as I have dived into a differentiation of self in the last ten years is coming to see how it shines the spotlight on egalitarian fullness. Christian friendship between men and women is nothing less than men and women coming to know the fullness of God's friendship, right here, right now, in this world. This is what I have been waiting to see bloggers/authors point men and women to in this new era of anxiety. Are we now awakened to know the fullness of Christ's presence between men and women?
In the history of spiritual friendship--including Willow Creek egalitarianism we've seen in evangelical seminaries and publishers like IVP--woman has never been capable of being a full adult in friendship with a man.When I saw how much power--unrestrained male power--Bill Hybels had in throwing his one time "friend" and co-leader under the bus after the Chicago Tribune article, I couldn't help but think about the glaring absence of egalitarian fullness at Willow.
Differentiation of self invites both men and women into something more profound than this anxiety of engulfment. Patriarchy has always defined the limitations of a woman's self when she's near a man. Clearly, there are evangelicals on this side of #ChurchToo in this hour of acute anxiety circling the wagons around around marriage, making it as it were, a "cult of two." The male logic of the Billy Graham does not vulnerably invite women into this decision-making process. It's only this entity--"the cult of two"--that can protect a man and a woman from the assumed inferiority of women and friendship.
But I also have seen the anxiety among egalitarians. It's like what the Willow Creek model has created is this psychological separation of separate spheres between men and women. Sure, men and women can be "friends" in this model, but friendship has never been the heart and soul of evangelical egalitarianism. Friendship is still neatly compartmentalized as something that is not about where "equality"--egalitarian fullness--can take place. It's only available in marriage and church.
So, egalitarians like Tish Harrison Warren, fear about getting too close to opposite-sex friends. Evangelicals--particularly evangelical egalitarians shaped by Willow Creek model--fear that in getting too close to the opposite-sex in friendship they will lose their self--they will fall down the slippery slope of adultery, they will become triangulated, they will not be claim self-responsibility in egalitarian fullness as simply two friends, being together, alone.
What differentiation of self has done is open my eyes to this glorious authentic freedom toward egalitarian fullness in friendship.Desire for egalitarian fullness is not satiated with "equality" in church or marriage. The hermeneutic of friendship helps us to see this fullness to God's presence as a friend to women and men. Women are no longer second-class citizens in spiritual friendship. Women are longer invisible in friendship. They get a full voice in the what,when, where, why, and how in friendship. Every moment.
Cross-sex friendship nothing less than a wide-open invitation to Christ's fullness beyond benevolent sexism. Can a man and woman, being together, alone, as two cross-sex friends taste and know and experience something of the fullness of God's friendship? The power of this hermeneutic awakens us to see that a man and woman may know the full range of Christ's fullness in their friendship. Abundance. Fullness. Generosity. Reciprocity. Shalom. The whole range of non-utilitarian relationship is freely offered to men and woman who are friends of Jesus. Right here. Right now.
At any moment a man and a woman may mutually become aware of the fullness of Christ's friendship. It's not bait-and-switch to entangled dysfunction. As our Friend, Christ has come in order that we might know the fullness of abundant life--in friendship, too. Seen through the lens as friends of God, Paul prays for us as friends to know the height, breadth, length, and inexhaustible depths of God's fullness (Ephesians 3:14-19).
It gets even better. The good news of seeing Christ's ever-present friendship through a developmental lens of differentiation of self, is Christ meets every single one of us where we are. Friendship in the words of Emerson, "demands religious treatment." We can see friendship as a school for our journey into the fullness of life, the fullness of self, the fullness of Christ's presence.