Evangelicals Don’t Do Opposite-Gender Friendships (Here’s Why)

Evangelicals Don’t Do Opposite-Gender Friendships (Here’s Why) September 23, 2020

Now here’s a fascinating tweet:

“A whole bunch of folks in the church got married before they ever learned how to have healthy friendships with the opposite sex and boy oh boy does it show!” writes DeVon Wade. This is true! I think it actually goes deeper than this, though. In my experience, evangelicals actually don’t think there should be healthy friendships with the opposite sex. In fact, evangelicals don’t have a framework for men and women to relate to each other outside of sex—and power. 

First, let’s look at opposite gender friendship outside of marriage. Here, sex is most important.

In evangelical churches, any cross-gender relationship is always, always, always portrayed as dangerous. The moment a teenage girl and boy get friendly, adults in the congregation start watching them like a hawk—in their view, the only end point such relationships can possibly have is either marriage, or premarital sex. And that, of courses, would be bad.

Once someone is married, opposite-gender friendships the perfect opportunity for affairs, so they’re not exactly smiled on there, either! Someone who maintained a close opposite-gender friendship after marriage would be viewed as asking for trouble. And potentially worse—they might be taken aside by an elder, or even experience church discipline.

In either case, it comes back to sex—men and women (and teenage boys and girls) cannot be friends, evangelicals hold, because they will inevitably end up having sex with each other. As they see it, men and women (and teenage boys and girls) cannot relate to each other in ways that are not fundamentally informed by sexual desire.

Consider the Billy Graham rule, which holds that a man should never, ever have a meal alone with a woman who is not his wife. Vice President Mike Pence has stated that he’s a close follower of the Billy Graham rule. Remember: evangelicals do not believe men and women can interact with each other without those interactions being fueled and flavored by sex.

And they think it’s the secular world that’s sex addled.

Next, let’s look at opposite-gender friendship within marriage. Here, power becomes important.

Most modern Americans expect a husband and wife to also be friends, and in a general way, evangelicals would agree. You know what I’m talking about—there’s this idea in our society that your spouse should also be your best and closest friend.

(We can talk another time about the problems that can result when this is taken too far; married people also need to have close friendships with other people, and no one should be expected to meet their spouse’s every need.)

Here’s the problem, though—evangelicals also hold that the husband is the head of the family, and that wives should submit to and obey their husbands. Some evangelicals try to sugarcoat this—husbands are to exercise servant leadership, they say—but this is a mere bandaid over a gaping wound. Either the wife is expected to submit, or she is not. There’s no two ways about it.

If you spend much time reading evangelical literature—and I have—you’ll find that evangelicals cannot talk about the marital relationship without talking about power. If the husband is not leading and making all of the family’s decisions, the wife is. They view this relationship as fundamentally oppositional. And because friendship implies some sort of equal footing, rather than a relationship characterized by an unending, immutable power struggle, this isn’t friendship. 

Try, for a moment, to imagine a friendship in which one person is expected to always call the shots—and the other is expected to always accept the other’s decisions. You can’t, can you? Or if you can, it’s because you’ve experienced or seen a “friendship” that was fundamentally abusive—that was more about power and who has it than about, well, actual friendship. 

To return to DeVon Wade, yes, “a whole bunch of folks in the church got married before they ever learned how to have healthy friendships with the opposite sex,” and yes, it does show. But it was also intentional. In the church—at least, in the evangelical church I grew up in—people are never supposed to have healthy friendships with the opposite sex. Not even with their spouse. 

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