One of the big questions hovering around the topic of courtship and dating is the role of friendship. How intimate of a friendship with someone of the opposite sex is OK? How do I move from friendship to dating? Won’t the friendship be ruined if one of us expresses romantic interest and the other doesn’t respond favorably?
Basically, the question seems to be how exactly single Christians should relate to members of the opposite sex in that large and awkward zone between “we’ve never met” and a deliberate dating or courting relationship.
Much of this is a fairly new problem. Essentially, the historical reality is that until 30 or 40 years ago, long, intimate friendships between men and women in which each served as the other’s emotional confidante, relationship adviser and “best buddy” were far less common than they are today.
So is the trend toward intimate friendships between single men and women a good thing? In my view, not so much. If you haven’t read my previous articles on biblical dating, you’ll be helped in thinking through this issue by reading “Biblical Dating: What is it?” Based on some of the principles found there, let me offer a couple of practical reasons why I believe such friendships to be generally unwise, and then I’ll suggest a positive role for friendship among singles in the Christian community.
Friendship That Invites Confusion and Frustration
In previous articles, I’ve raised several biblical principles regarding the way we should treat our brothers and sisters in Christ. First Thessalonians 4:1-8 admonishes us not to wrong or “defraud” our brother or sister by implying a marital level of commitment (through sexual involvement) when it does not exist. As I’ve discussed before, a broad (but sound) implication of this passage is that “defrauding” could include inappropriate emotional — as well as physical — intimacy. Romans 13:8-14 calls us to love others, to work for their souls’ good rather than looking to please ourselves. More specifically, verse 10 reminds us that “[l]ove does no harm to its neighbor.” Romans 14:1-15:7 offers a discourse on favoring weaker brothers and sisters above ourselves, valuing and encouraging that which is good in the souls of others.
Bottom line: I believe it is extremely difficult and rare — as a practical matter — to honor these principles in the context of a close, intimate friendship between two single Christians of the opposite sex. (For the verbally precise among you, I think such friendships between non-single Christians are also a bad idea, but that’s not what we’re talking about here.)
Intimate friendships between men and women almost always produce confusion and frustration for at least one of the parties involved. Close friendships by their very nature tend to involve extensive time talking and hanging out one-on-one. They tend to involve a deep knowledge of the other person’s hopes, desires and personality. They tend to involve the sharing of many aspects of each other’s daily lives and routines. In other words, they tend to involve much of the type of intimacy and companionship involved in — and meant for — marriage.
Yet even with all this deep communication going on, at least one aspect of these friendships inherently involves a mixed message. No matter how clearly one or both of you have defined what’s happening as “just friends,” your actions are constantly saying, “I enjoy being with you and interacting with you in a way that suggests marriage (or at least romantic attraction).”
The simple reality (of which most people are aware, whether they admit it or not) is that in the vast majority of these types of relationships, one of the parties involved either began the “friendship” with romantic feelings for the other person or develops them along the way. Either way, that person is now hanging on to the “friendship” in the hope of getting something more despite the “clear words” from the other person that he or she wants nothing beyond friendship.
To the extent that one person’s romantic feelings have been clearly articulated to the other (and were met with an unfavorable response) to continue in some no-man’s land of “good friends,” is arguably to take selfish advantage of the vulnerable party. Yes, I know, the other person is an adult who is free and responsible to walk away if he or she is so unsatisfied, but like it or not, it tends not to work that way. Hope springs eternal, whether it should or not.
And that’s the “clear” scenario. What if one person develops romantic feelings in a friendship in which no “clear words” have been spoken, such that the desires of the other person are a mystery? Especially if it’s the woman in this position (as seems to be the case more often than not) she will likely feel that if she pushes for something more than friendship, she may lose the interaction and companionship she currently has. Still, given her desire for a husband — and perhaps to have this man as her husband — the status quo of “just really good friends but nothing more for some odd reason” will leave her unsatisfied, frustrated and confused. I have seen and heard and read of such frustration and hurt playing out many times over.
Certainly, a man can find himself in a similar position with a woman he’s attracted to, but given his obligation to be clear and intentional with the woman and to initiate the type of relationship he truly desires, he arguably has placed — or at least kept — himself in such a position. He simply is not “between a rock and a hard place” in the same way a woman is.
Finally, there’s one more type of confusion to consider. How do others view your “friendship”? Ladies, might there be men who would have initiated with you but for their uncertainty about or discomfort with your intimate friendship with another man? Guys, has a woman perhaps turned you down over questions about a woman friend you spend lots of time with? Would youwant to date someone knowing that he or she had a significant, pre-existing and ongoing emotional bond with another single member of the opposite sex? If I were a single person desiring marriage, the answers to these questions would matter to me.
I admit we’re not talking absolutes here, but almost. In my experience counseling and writing on this topic, everybody thinks (or at least claims) that his or her intimate friendship is the exception. “No way we’ll end up in one of the situations you just talked about. Unlike most other people of our age and experience, we are (insert favorite answer here) a) really astute students of our own and each other’s hearts, b) super-clear and talented communicators, c) always honest with each other, even when such honesty entails huge vulnerability for whoever is speaking, d) all of the above.”
Maybe. But here I would pose the question that is relevant to so many aspects of the courtship and dating topic. Why risk harm to your own heart or to that of a brother or sister to have a type of companionship that, outside of marriage, is arguably questionable anyway? This brings me to my second argument against intimate one-on-one friendships between brothers and sisters in Christ.
Enjoying the Convenient, Delaying the Good
Let’s assume for the sake of argument that your intimate friendship is one of those rare jewels that is devoid of the potential for hurt or confusion. There’s another drawback to such friendships. They discourage marriage.
Men and women who are not called to long-term singleness and celibacy have a strong desire for companionship with a member of the opposite sex. This is good and right. As I’ve discussed before, Scripture seems to consider marriage (and children) to be a normal part of the progression toward biblical manhood and womanhood (see, among others, Genesis 1:27-28; 2:23-24; Matthew 24:38-41; Luke 20:34-36).
In the past, when both sexual immorality and intimate male-female friendships were much less accepted and less common in society, men and women moved more deliberately toward marriage earlier in life. By offering a taste of the companionship and interactions that make marriage so satisfying, with none of the accompanying commitments or responsibilities entailed in marriage, intimate friendships discourage the pursuit of the grown-up, God-intended outlet for marital desires — marriage. This is especially so in a culture — and a church — that struggles with the widespread sociological trend in its young adults known as “perpetual adolescence.” Albert Mohler, Alex and Brett Harris, Candice Watters and other Boundless authors have written about this trend at length. In fact, the failure of many Christian men to pursue marriage well into their 20s and 30s may be one of the most disturbing results of this trend, but that’s another topic for another day.
As you probably know, I believe Scripture to teach that engaging in the types of emotional intimacy and companionship involved in close male-female friendships — outside of marriage and for their own sake — is wrong (see everything else I’ve ever written for Ruby in the Rough). But even if you don’t accept that premise, such intimacy is still inadvisable in the sense that it delays and discourages marriage, which Scripture unambiguously calls good and right.
I would especially encourage women who desire marriage to give this argument some thought. If you are one of the many women to write me to complain with great frustration that “Christian men don’t initiate,” consider this: Are you and your sisters satisfying the intermediate needs of your guy friends such that they feel no particular compulsion to pursue marriage?
Friendship Within A Context of Community
So am I saying that I’m against the idea of relationships growing out of Christian friendship? Am I saying that friendship among single brothers and sisters has no place? Am I saying that single men and women need to shun one another, speaking only to utter the words “will you date me,” followed by “yes” or “no”? Absolutely not. In fact, I would argue that dating or courting relationships ideally grow out of friendship among co-laborers in the Gospel. The question is what those friendships look like practically.
First Timothy 5 describes a relationship among Christian men and women not married to one another as that of brothers and sisters. The Lord has mercifully called us not to live the Christian life alone but as part of a community of believers. Single men and women can and should serve in ministry together, study the Word together and hang out together socially. They should go out together, gather around meals, watch movies. In my view, however, these activities should be done, for the most part, in groups rather than one-on-one. Men can initiate group get-togethers, and so can women. In fact, single brothers and sisters in Christ, like the rest of Christ’s body, are positively called to care for one another. Men can (and should) give women rides home rather than have them walk alone at night. Men can come over and move couches. Women can cook a meal for a group of guys in danger of developing scurvy from a near total lack of vegetables. Knock yourselves out.
Friendships grow out of the body of Christ functioning and, in turn, result in interests beyond friendship. To be sure, the friendships that develop in this context are not the same friendships with the same level of intimacy that would develop from spending consistent time alone with someone, but they provide a context from which initiations and relationships can bloom. Remember, the world has falsely told us that a high level of intimacy with another person needs to precede any sort of commitment to another person.
Is there a precise formula for whether a friendship or series of interactions is too intimate? If there is, I don’t know it. Hang out in groups; serve together. By all means, chat and be friendly with your brothers and sisters in Christ. Should a friend make the assumption that you’re ready to marry him or her if you initiate a one-on-one conversation at church or at a group dinner? No. Have you blown two tires and gone screaming off into the trees if you ask someone to lunch or coffee once or twice? Maybe not. Depends on what happens from there.
Just be aware that “friendship” is no more a forum to play married than a dating relationship is. If you find that you are consistently showing one of your opposite-sex Christian friends more one-on-one attention than all the others, whether in conversation or through invitations out, it’s probably time for 1) some clarification of intentions and (most likely) a change in the status of the relationship to something more overtly official, or 2) a change in the way you interact with that person. Beyond that, godly single adults will have to work this out on a case-by-case basis [© Scott Croft. Scott lives in Kentucky, where he works as an attorney and serves as an elder of Third Avenue Baptist Church]