Platonic: A relationship marked by the absence of romance or sex. (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)
It’s the premise of almost every romcom ever: boy meets girl. Boy and girl hit it off. Boy and girl are committed to being friends. Boy and girl inevitably become romantically involved.
The idea of effortless, healthy boundaries between the sexes is a funny thing. If western media like Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus is to be believed, inherently confusing dynamics between men and women are simply a fact of life. Miscommunication, different kinds of interests and especially different kinds of interest in each other lead many to believe that platonic friendship between men and women is extremely rare. That more often than not, only hurts the side who inevitably wants more in the relationship.
However, as real as these differences and challenges can be, I believe God’s word points the church in a more positive direction towards genuine male/female friendships that uphold sensible boundaries, while at the same time cultivating meaningful engagement with one another. Even better, we don’t need to be romantically involved to enjoy these benefits. Let’s start by recognising the source of some common missteps in male/female friendships before moving on to biblical examples of healthy interactions, and then concluding with what genuine, platonic friendship might look like.
The “How not to” guide to male/female friendship
Looking specifically within the Christian sphere, I’ve observed three reasonably common approaches to non-marriage relationships between men and women that, I feel, are unhelpful. Whether married or single, male or female, most of us will probably admit that we’ve personally embodied at least one of these caricatures at some point. I’ve seen myself in more than one of them! These tropes intentionally exaggerate some behaviour, and they certainly don’t encompass the range of unhelpful ways in which we might relate, but they’re common enough to cover the main bases.
First, there is the “Boundary Pusher”, an unmarried Christian who is typically serious about honouring Jesus and who spends a lot of time alone with the object of their affection behind closed doors—with no intention of making physical contact, of course. Bonus points for booking holidays together where you share the same room.
On the entirely opposite end of the spectrum, there’s the “Slayer of Temptation”, an individual who announces proudly that they would never let themselves occupy the same room as a member of the opposite sex unless there was a third party there to hold them accountable. The guy who fetches his wife if ever a lone
temptress—woman should dare approach him to say hello during morning tea at church is one such creature.
Thirdly and finally, there’s the “Apex Hunter”, the restlessly single individual who is so desperate to get hitched that they systematically throw themselves at every eligible person within the radius of their social circles. Unfortunately they usually leave members of the opposite sex feeling totally ignored once it becomes apparent that they aren’t a prospective dating partner.
The Boundary Pusher, the Slayer of Temptation and the Apex Hunter: even though the symptoms of these approaches to male/female relationships may be very different, the common factor is that they lack a balance of biblical principles. The Boundary Pusher has an over-realised view of non-marriage partnerships; the Slayer of Temptation places too much emphasis on purity to the exclusion of love; and the Apex Hunter overemphasises romantic relationships at the expense of friendships. Each of these imbalances make it very difficult for men and women to enjoy and benefit from healthy, platonic relationships with one another.
Finding the balance
Starting with Jesus
When we turn to Christ, our primary example for all of life, it’s no surprise that we find in him a wonderful model for friendship. Even better, while Jesus obviously related as a man, his example is applicable to both sexes.
First and most obviously, our Boundary Pushing tendencies are challenged by the fact that Jesus never spends extended, regular, one-to-one time together with women in private settings. It’s not that he never found himself alone with a woman (for example, John 4:7-26). But it’s not hard to recognise the difference between infrequent or incidental encounters, and planned, private and intimate ones. In this case, the distinct lack of biblical evidence for the latter scenario should speak loudly and clearly.
On the other hand, the Slayer of Temptation might want to observe how Jesus does interact with the opposite sex: Jesus addresses the woman with the bleeding disorder affectionately as “daughter” (Luke 8:48). He speaks freely with the lone Samaritan woman at the (public) well without running to fetch an accountability disciple and without asking her to fetch her partner first (John 4:7-26). In a particularly striking move against cultural norms, he welcomed Mary to sit in a small gathering of (male) disciples who were listening to his teaching (Luke 10:39). There are other examples in the Gospels, but what this pattern of interaction communicates is really not so difficult or surprising: as a man, Jesus’ interactions with men and women are not identical, but they demonstrate that meaningful relationships with both sexes are not only normal, but valuable.
Jesus’ purity of conduct means he never sexualised women by viewing them as objects of lust, nor did he reduce their friendship to a gateway for a potential date. In addition, he didn’t view the opposite sex as temptations to be avoided and evidently expected the same treatment in return. In fact, all of Jesus’ relations with the opposite sex were purely platonic encounters guided by love. The Apex Hunter can learn much (and perhaps even find more success in the long-term) from building a strong foundation of platonic before romantic relationships.
The first disciples
This example isn’t limited to Jesus either: the Apostle Paul’s greetings throughout his letters, particularly in Romans 16, includes many women. He speaks of them not only with respect, but also with an admiration and a familiarity that suggests more than a “Say hi to your wife for me” kind of relationship. In fact, he identifies most of them totally independently of men.
In one very simple, yet helpful section from Graham Beynon and Jane Tooher’s excellent book, Embracing Complementarianism, they note a golden rule for conduct between the sexes: Paul instructs Timothy to treat women with purity, not avoid them (1 Tim 5:2).1 There it is: men and women are to interact with purity. This might sound like an obvious, foundational biblical instruction (because it is), but that’s really the point: Paul is issuing a positive command to be fulfilled, not merely a negative situation to avoid. That is, as men and women, we actually cannot fulfil our calling to build up Christ’s church in love (Eph 4:16) simply by sexualising, ignoring or marrying the other half of it. Men and women are not two distinct groups of people who happen to be working in parallel; we are one body with many members who cannot say to one another “I have no need of you” (1 Cor 12:21).
Back to the present
This means we cannot afford to only work together for the kingdom from afar, simply because it seems too dangerous or too complicated to step out of our preferred demographics (which always seem to most closely resemble ourselves). We cannot afford to miss the blessing, wisdom and insight provided by diverse Christian friendships. We cannot afford to reduce our status as brothers and sisters in Christ to a purely hypothetical or ideological relationship that has almost no practical meaning when we come together.
Though such a loss of relationship is profound for everyone, our single adults are disproportionately affected by this mistake as it means they receive virtually no input from the opposite sex. For those actively engaged in some form of ministry,2 we are also far less able to understand and meet the needs of others when we fail to do this. Guy’s nights and women’s events are great, but a singular instinct to divide and separate every time a gender-specific issue needs addressing makes it harder for us to grow together as brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, sons and daughters in Christ.
Relationships with boundaries, not barriers
Friend: A person with whom one has developed a close and informal relationship of mutual trust and intimacy. (Oxford English Dictionary)
Bearing in mind what we stand to lose, let’s finish by working towards what we hope to gain—which, I would argue, is friendship. I defy anyone arguing that this is either an unbecoming or unrealistic goal for brothers and sisters in God’s family who see each other every week. If our view of one another as redeemed people being transformed by the Holy Spirit is unable to bear this description of members of the opposite sex, then our expectations are far too small. According to God’s word and our Lord’s own example, we not only can, but must find balance between the oversexualisation of our culture and reactionary, suspicion-driven avoidance, which hides under the guise of “avoiding the appearance of evil” (1 Thess 5:22 KJV).
Thinking practically, then, let’s first remind ourselves again that platonic friendships between the sexes may not be the same as friendships between two men and two women. Regularly spending significant amounts of time one-to-one, or in extended, private messaging is rarely wise—and doubly so if either friend is married. Even if we are convinced that neither side wants (or ever could want) any sort of romantic involvement, our mandate to be pure in conduct and good examples in the faith means the impression that unguarded behaviour gives other people is still potentially harmful. Sadly, there are too many poor examples of this from high-profile ministry figures to count.
We can thank God, though, that friendships don’t need to be all about one-to-one hangouts. Are you a married woman who had a great conversation with a single guy at morning tea? Invite him over for dinner so you can get to know him as a family. Are you a guy in the same Bible study group as a married woman who serves you by playing in the morning congregation’s band every week? Ask how God has shaped her through that ministry role and what insights she’s gained from it. Perhaps you’re a mother who met another father while serving in crèche: ask regularly how your family can be praying for his over the coming season, and share in both the struggles and joys which that journey brings. There are countless things you could learn from one another over time in the 15 minutes before Bible study starts. If someone else joins the conversation, the more the merrier!
A rough “How to” guide to male/female friendship
When pursuing intentional friendships together, there are many questions of wisdom you must answer yourself. Behaviour that might be totally acceptable for certain people in certain contexts may be quite unwise for others and unfortunately, this flies in the face of our desire for quick and easy steps to follow. As with all areas of life, we have a duty to measure our own strengths and weaknesses, freedoms and responsibilities, and Christian and non-Christian cultures when making decisions. But let’s remember that this process doesn’t have to be hard, contrived or fraught with peril.
So, firstly, as we individual Christians prepare to engage with the body of Christ, week in and week out, come before your Heavenly Father and ask him how you might love his people with the same love of Christ that drew you together into one family in the first place. Secondly, as a corporate body in Christ, let’s aim to be a model of loving friendship that our desperately confused world can’t help but respect and desire for themselves. And finally, as we pursue these things together, let’s remember that if God could reconcile sinners to himself while we were separated from Christ (Eph 2:11-15), how much more, now that we are brothers and sisters in Christ, can men and women hope to be reconciled to one another as friends.
Jordan Cunningham has completed his third year at Moore College.
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1 Graham Beynon and Jane Tooher, Embracing Complementarianism (Guildford: The Good Book Company, 2022) pp. 91-92.