Ignoring Friendship is Destroying the Church

Ignoring Friendship is Destroying the Church September 14, 2015

WhenChurchMustChangeby Samantha Field cross posted from her blog Samantha P Field.com

I’ve been mulling over a few thoughts for the past few months, and they all sort of came to a head last night. Suddenly things that didn’t seem to be connected fit together to create one compelling conclusion: the Christian obsession with marriage and family (read: traditional, nuclear) is destroying the Church and her people.

A bit ago I was a part of a discussion group to help a group of pastors who wanted to make sure they created a safe space for LGBT+ people, regardless of whether or not they identified as Side A or Side B. One of the things that was emphasized over the course of the discussion was the absolute need for married-couples centrism to end. Most of the churches I’ve been in don’t know what to do with unmarried people, especially once those people reach 30.

Church is supposed to be a community, but many churches have adopted this mentality of segregating everything up by “life stage” and gender– see Ladies’ Bible Studies and Men’s Prayer Breakfasts and the endless barrage of things for married people to do. At the last church we attended, the church set up a “Dinners for 8″ program so married couples of similar ages could get to know each other. They didn’t offer anything similar for single people.

Over time it began to deeply bother me that conservative evangelicals want to shove celibacy down every queer person’s throat, but offer nothing for them. No sense of community, of belonging. Nothing to help strengthen or comfort, or help them get by in a world where they’re forbidden from being with anyone they love. “If you’re gay, then you need to remain celibate,” is the message, but then they just boost them out into the cold dark night of loneliness with a swift kick to the rear.

Another thing that seemed unrelated at first is my beef with the phrase “emotional adultery.” All of us, but most especially married people, are cautioned from basically every side to avoid “close emotional connections with the opposite sex.” This completely ignores non-binary people, who have no “opposite sex,” and bisexual people, because the idea is that we should avoid friendships with the gender we’re attracted to, and bi people are attracted to all genders. It’s also heteronormative, but affects lesbian and gay individuals differently.

Aside from the fact that this “avoid emotional adultery!” teaching is tantamount to “have no friends!” for bi people, it also makes it seem anathema for straight people to have friendships with someone of the same gender– a position that seems completely unsupported in the Bible, what with everyone thinking of each other as brother and sister and having all things in common and hanging out together all the time and greeting each other with holy kisses.

And the last thing was a eureka! moment I had last night: I have never, not once, heard a message on the topic “this is how you can have a good friendship.” Oh, I’ve heard plenty about avoiding people who would “corrupt your good manners” and lots of messages on how “iron sharpeneth iron,” but nothing that covers things like friendships require healthy boundaries or friends should communicate about their needs.

Instead, what we get is lots and lots and LOTS of messages on being a good husband or wife, on the importance of marriage and family, and a fairly basic human need like friendship is completely shoved aside in favor of the Idol of the Nuclear Family. This obsession has wreaked violence and harm in the form of homophobia and anti-marriage-equality bigotry, but it’s also destroyed the Church because we’ve collectively decided that being a community of friends is less important than worshiping a false idol.

One of the things that has always made me wistful and left me longing are the descriptions of the early church in Acts. They cared about each other, helped each other, and it didn’t matter if your family was close by, or if you still had parents living, or if your husband was dead. They thought of each other as individuals, as friends, as community, not as a loosely organized structure of Family Units. You weren’t important to them only as long as you had 2.5 kids, a picket fence, and a dog– being a person created with the Imago Dei was more than enough.

I think the modern American church desperately needs to get back to that. We’ve been so obsessed with “One Man, One Woman” for so many years that it’s made us blind to our basic human needs. We can’t afford to ignore friendship. Without it, we the Church are as clanging brass. The sound of the fury, signifying nothing. If we can’t even offer friendship, what else is there?


Samantha blogs at Samantha Field.com and is a member of The Spiritual Abuse Survivor Blogs Network


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  • gimpi1

    Any fundamentally social organization that can’t make room for friendships is certainly doomed.

    Also, the whole “emotional adultery” nonsense… I have had really good male friends, including one that I was very attracted to – and I think he was attracted to me. We simply never let anything beyond friendship happen, since we’re both married, and we both valued our marriages and our personal integrity. It’s called “self-control.” I’m sort of amazed at how little groups that carry on about being responsible actually trust themselves and each other to act responsibly.

  • Karen the rock whisperer

    Interesting that you bring up the early Church. If my limited historical understanding is correct, they were pretty radical in crossing class lines. In the Roman world, you could be a slave of Pagans and still be allowed time off for Christian services, so friendships could develop between free people and slaves. And soldiers, farmworkers, tradespeople, and even a few of the elite all worshipped together and made friends. This was a time when marriage was dictated by economics, slave status, and family ties, so it wasn’t a “choice” in the modern sense. Of course, there were also social conventions about how men and women mixed, that (if followed) kept things proper. So friendships within the church, with varied individuals, might have been much easier than it is nowadays.

    In my brief experience of Evangelical Christianity, it was extremely couple-oriented and family oriented. I recall one friend whose husband was not a church-goer, and other church members gave her grief for it; somehow it was her fault. Husband and I, who have never had children, were put on childcare detail without our consent and not enough time to schedule someone else. So were other childless friends. It was assumed that if you didn’t have children, you must still be trying and weren’t getting adequately blessed.

    We finally left that church and Evangelical Christianity behind, and all those “friends” we made there wanted nothing to do with us. We hadn’t even declared that our religious tendencies were changing; the straw that broke the camel’s back for us was about church finances, though Husband was distressed by the way the Evangelical message fed my depression. But the shunning was monolithic. Former friends wouldn’t even greet us when we encountered each other in the hardware store. I can’t help but think that early Church members wouldn’t have been that way.

  • SAO

    Yep, me too. My husband’s best friend. That attraction has waned over the years and the 4 of us are still good friends because both of us valued the commitments we gave to our spouses.

  • Mary

    “The family” used to be the primary social safety net, the primary moral authority, the only career the majority of women could ever look forward to, the source of the training and connections and capital that young men needed to get started in their own careers, and the only retirement plan available to elderly people. People relied on their families (and their churches) for meeting all kinds of needs that can be met by the government and secular society these days. Consequently families really are a lot less tightly bound these days. People can escape their families without ruining their lives, so naturally some do. This has some real costs, including a lot of lonely elderly people who living nursing homes instead of at home, and a lot of over-stressed young parents, who don’t have a network of extended family to help them care for their children. I think nearly all of the fundamentalist movements currently popular, Christian and Muslim and etc, are actually about nostalgia for those bigger, closer families of old, and attempts to restore that way of life. So it’s no wonder that fundamentalist churches are organized around families. That is their raison d’etre, these days.

  • paganheart

    So much truth in this. My husband and I have been married for 21 years, and were together for about five years before that. I say “about” because we started out as friends, part of a mixed group in college that bonded over a shared love of Monty Python movies and sci-fi/fantasy geekdom. Somewhere along the line, we sort of realized that we were attracted to each other, and that neither of us were in a romantic relationship (I’d had a really, really bad one and had basically decided that I didn’t care if I ever had another boyfriend)….and the rest, as they say, is history. Even today, people notice that “you guys don’t talk like a married couple, you talk like you’re friends,” as a neighbor of ours once put it. I really do think that the fact we were friends first is one of the reasons that our relationship still works.

    From what I know of church marriage counseling (we got married at the courthouse so we missed out on all that) it mostly seems to consist of “how to be a good husband/wife,” presented in a way that enforces rigid gender roles. Very little time, if any, is spend on “how to be friends,” as if that would somehow be detrimental to the marriage. And the idea that men and women could actually have platonic friendships? Perish the thought….!

    I have always had male friends; in junior high, I might’ve had more male than female friends. (That nasty, backstabbing “mean girl” phase that so many junior high girls go through made me really hate my own gender for a while.) In high school and college, I made guy friends, some gay and some straight, through choir and theater activities. Even now, one of my best friends is a man who is a fellow heavy metal fan who I can talk music and go to shows with, since our otherwise wonderful respective spouses don’t care much for our taste in music.

    I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I have occasionally felt a sexual attraction to some of my male friends; I’m human, and it happens. But like others on this thread, I don’t act on those urges because I am an adult, I have self-control, and I love my husband and don’t want to ruin the good thing we have. This idea that so many churches have–that a woman and a man can’t possibly relate to each other except in the context of a “traditional” marriage–feeds a lot of dysfunction and if anything creates a “forbidden fruit” syndrome that leaves people unable to recognize and control their urges. You don’t get over your fear of flying by avoiding airplanes at all costs, and you don’t learn how to control your sexual urges by ignoring them and refusing to associate in any way with women not your wife (or men not your husband.)

    And yes, churches get this so, so wrong. Even in the relatively liberal ELCA church where I sing in choir, there are “men’s groups” and “women’s groups” and the male senior pastor does not feel comfortable meeting with or counseling women, unless the woman’s spouse (or lacking that, the female associate pastor) is present. The “nuclear family” is no longer the societal norm, yet churches continue to default to it. Those that move beyond this norm are the only ones that will survive. Perhaps it is time–past time–for churches to move beyond rigid “family” to egalitarian “friendship.”

  • Astrin Ymris

    On Amazon, I’ve heard conservative Catholics bemoan the fact that the social safety net prevents the Church from having a monopoly as the sole source of charity.

    IMO, that’s what’s behind the Tea Party desire to cut benefits to the poor– to force the “unchurched” to either find a congregation or become dependent on religious-based charity…which can have whatever “strings” the religious group wishes attached to it. Attending services… joining the denomination and living under their rules… dumping your same-sex spouse… surrendering your illegitimate child for adoption… This is what so-called “Libertarians” want to foist on us.

  • Astrin Ymris

    See, if the Religious Right’s not-so-unspoken goal is “outbreeding the enemy, so we can take over the country” then there’s going to be a lot of pressure to sort the faithful into breeding pairs. It’s not a bug; it’s a feature.


  • Joy

    As someone who is a single Christian over the age of 30 (never mind how much over!) this post rings true in so many ways. The Church just doesn’t know what to do with those of us who aren’t married. So they pretend we don’t exist – and when we leave, they don’t even notice we’re gone.

  • KarenH

    That’s very true.