Can men and women ever really be “just friends”? It's a never-ending question, one that I'd like to consider in light of living as a Christian single.
If you poll most of the world, the answer to that question would be “no”. A friend of the opposite sex, if you believe pop culture, is someone you have slept with, will sleep with, want to sleep with, or will end up in a romantic relationship with once something happens to make you realize you're meant to be together. Real friendship with someone of the opposite sex is only possible if one of you is gay. Otherwise, friendship is simply romance disguised.
In Christian culture, due to the emphasis on marriage, it's not much different. It's generally assumed that if a single man and woman spend time together and enjoy each others' company, they must be (or should be) romantically interested. (I should note that I'm speaking in this post mainly about opposite-sex friendships between singles, not between marrieds or marrieds and singles).
I believe this attitude, both in the church and in the world, rises from a culture which puts romantic relationships in primary place, and devalued “mere” friendship. Romances are more exciting, more valuable, more worthwhile. Friendship is the inferior second prize if you can't achieve romance. However, the friendship can become really valuable if and when it translates itself to romance.
I believe a result of this attitude is that we've largely lost the concept of platonic, affectionate, supportive friendships between men and women.
In the world outside the church, this confusion came as a result of the sexual revolution. Instead of clearly delineated markers between friends and romantic partners/spouses, anyone became a potential sexual partner, muddying the waters significantly. After all, if you can have sex with your friend, why settle for less?
I recently was confused by a conversation with a non-Christian friend. He was relating to me how he'd been taking a “friend” out, hoping the relationship would turn into something more. One day, he told me they had finally kissed. “So is she your girlfriend now?” I asked him. He was astonished and amused. No, he didn't want a “relationship”. He just wanted someone to go out with and be intimate with, without any of the bother of a serious relationship or labelling her his girlfriend. Unsurprisingly, they parted ways not long after. She wanted an actual relationship, not to be called a friend while being asked to give the benefits of a girlfriend.
In the church, as I said before, it's not much different. When was the last time you heard a sermon on friendship? If I tell you that my pastor preached a sermon on relationships, what would you immediately think? Marriage or dating, of course.
Marriage is the norm, and it's expected that if a single man and woman get along well, they are or should be considering marriage. Please note that I am in no way saying that they should not. Friendship is the best way to start a marriage relationship. If you find yourself enjoying someone's company, you're compatible in your faith, personalities, and goals, and there are no obstacles, then by all means pursue God and the counsel of others to begin a relationship if you both desire.
However, whether or not we eventually marry, the vast majority of people we relate to, both in and outside the church, are not going to become our spouse. We usually know people of the opposite sex with whom we get along well and whose company we enjoy, but for one reason or another a more-than-friends relationship is not possible. Singleness is the reality for many in the church, and increasingly, those who do marry do so later in life. We miss out on a huge potential for spiritual and emotional support, enjoyment, and personal growth if we are only able to see members of the opposite sex as potential or rejected romantic partners, rather than as our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Paul's pastoral counsel to Timothy was to treat “the younger women as sisters, in all purity” (1 Timothy 5:2). I believe this is a good guideline for all of us, both men and women.
Personally speaking, for a long time I viewed single Christian males that I was interested in purely as romantic prospects. I was fine being friends with those I wasn't interested in (although some of them were interested in me). But I fell into a series of unrequited, and sometimes quite painful, crushes on men who didn't return my feelings.
As I've gotten older and none of those crushes materialized into something substantial, as I've realized singleness may well be for a lifetime, and as I've (hopefully) matured, I've come to see the very real beauty in being able to see, value, and appreciate someone simply for who they are, rather than as a romantic prospect. I've come to understand the joy of being able to be grateful for the positive blessing of their friendship, rather than being bitter and disappointed about something I don't have with them.
One of those attitudes looks at the other person primarily for how they could benefit me. The other loves them for exactly who they are. One thinks about how they could change to fit me, or to want me. The other gives thanks for their unique beauty and accepts them where they are. One robs from my life in disappointment over what I lack. The other adds to my life immensely as I enjoy the loveliness of each different personality, each different set of experiences, each unique way my life is enriched by each person. Instead of expecting one person to be “everything” to me, I enjoy the myriad of ways each friendship contributes to my life, without needing it to be more.
I may never marry. Or I may. Only God knows. But either way, my life will have been infinitely the richer for the very precious gift of friendship. I believe friendships with the opposite sex can benefit us in ways friendship with the same sex can't. God created man and woman to complement one another, and we're enriched by the differences between us in every relationship, not just marriage. The platonic affection and positive regard of our male friends can be a needed emotional support for those who don't have a spouse to lean on.
Obviously there are potential pitfalls to friendships between men and women, which are beyond the scope of this blog post. However, if we can begin by viewing our brothers and sisters in Christ primarily as that, and secondarily, if at all, as potential romantic partners; if we can honour one another and relate to one another in purity and affection; if we can provide friendship and support without secretly expecting something more; I believe we'll be well on our way to healthier, more God-honouring relationships and the surprising blessing of friendship.