If avoidance isn’t purity, what is? In a culture saturated with both sexual liberty and sexual misconduct, Christians long for a better way forward. Yet some of us wonder if our solutions haven’t merely triggered other problems. We grieve that #MeToo includes #ChurchToo. Created male and female and in God’s own image, how do we find a way in today’s world that honors, rather than isolates?
Into this fray steps author and speaker Aimee Byrd. Her recent work Why Can’t We Be Friends? implores the church to re-examine its instincts and practices when it comes to male-female relationships.
One of the fundamental ideas Byrd attacks is that avoidance is the substance of purity. The thought goes, if a man is not around a woman, he doesn’t have occasion for sin. What this has led to in many churches and ministries is a separation of men from women. Sometimes this looks like refusing to be in a room alone together, or sharing a meal one on one, or giving rides home late at night. Byrd questions the biblical rationality of this approach, using a three-pronged approach.
First, she asserts that the avoidance of one gender by the other buys too much in to the world’s hyper-sexualization of humans. Culture uses sex to sell every conceivable good. It also tells us famously that men and women simply can’t be friends, because the sexual tension would mount up too high. It’s as if the main things our bodies are for is erotic play. Byrd rightly presses us to consider if the church has bought this lie. She cites the True Love Waits and Silver Ring Thing movements as evidence that “Christian faith has become its own movement that focuses on our sexual desires as key to our identities” (63). She asks in effect, Do we also subtly believe that our sexuality is the main thing about us?
This brings us to Byrd’s second point. While it is reasonable for Christians to take sexual sin seriously, using avoidance as our only tactic against it doesn’t build positive virtue. That’s like avoiding a knee injury by never running. Sure, you’re not going to over-tax the joint. But neither will you make it strong. The same with our muscles of obedience. Byrd notes that “we don’t purify ourselves through abstinence. We purify ourselves by fixing our hope on Jesus Christ” (71). We must learn what to do with our thoughts, feelings and urges when they arise. We should never court temptation, but we must know how to seek Christ if it does arise. If our main hope is avoidance, we will not stand when the fight does come to our door.
What I especially liked about this point was the way Byrd pushed against the church’s tendency to bill marriage as a type of salvation. This is our sanctioned cross-gender relationship, and where you can express your sexuality. But “while faithfulness is marriage is expected, it is not necessarily virtuous” (74). You may be faithful by default, not because of spiritual devotion. After all, many non-Christian people practice deep devotion to spouse without having any connection to Jesus Christ. What Christians need is development into Christlikeness, whether married or single, so that by the Spirit we can refuse the evil and choose the good.
Byrd’s third critique is her most persuasive: avoidance of cross-gender interaction obliterates the practice of sibling-hood. She shows that all throughout the New Testament, Christians are called brothers and sisters. The text is also littered with the famous “one another” passages, which call us to practical love and service of all. If we spend no time together, how are we able to do these things? More troubling, are some of our acts of avoidance causing us to keep certain commands of Christ unfulfilled?
If a woman was forced to walk back to her hotel alone in dark, unfamiliar city because a Christian man had a policy of not being alone in a car with a woman, would that be love - or legalism? Assuming he is an upright man, he would not have sinned against her during that ride. So then it would be perhaps more about protecting his reputation than protecting his sister in Christ. We know that Christ was always concerned about holiness, but not about reputation. People accused him of having a demon! He kept on loving anyway. This doesn’t mean that we don’t take seriously the Bible’s call to be above reproach. It does mean we need to evaluate what that call means by the example of Christ and the command to love our neighbor as ourselves.
These three arguments alone justify engagement with this book and with this topic. But they don’t smooth over the weakness of the book. Two deserve mention.
First, in chapter six Byrd writes, “God's design was to produce women not only as sexual partners, haven-makers, and baby mamas to men, but also as friends to walk side by side with them”(100). Of course women are more than sexual partners and mothers. That is the best of the sibling argument – we see in the Bible that we are meant to be brothers and sisters. But, does that mean the same thing as being friends? I’m not so sure.
Not much is said about friendship in the Scripture. Byrd points to David and Jonathan, and Ruth and Naomi as model biblical friendships - and both of these friendship dyads are same-gender. The difficulty is that friendship is never well defined by the Bible. It is not the main category it traffics in. Even our culture is contrary. Friendship is either glib (certainly not what Byrd is pressing for), or it is a deep bond. I’m not trying to say let’s not be friends. I am questioning what friendship looks like when the possibility of attraction lurks, which may be why the Bible doesn’t speak much to cross gender friendship. And I also question how much we should try to put our cultural views of friendship onto the biblical metaphor of brothers and sisters, because they might in fact be markedly different.
This leads to the second weakness: Byrd’s ambiguity on the nature of attraction, and what that means for everyone, including especially same-sex attracted Christians. Her section heading on page 87 warns not to confuse attraction with temptation. But then in the subsequent pages she is confusing as to whether attraction is temptation, or even if it is sin! For example, on 91 she writes, “If you are married and find yourself romantically attracted to someone other than your spouse, or if you are single and find yourself romantically attracted to someone who is off limits for any reason, then you need to confess this to the Lord in prayer and not put yourself in situations that fuel romantic feelings.” We need more clarity on this topic in 2018, not less. This is a major weakness and a sign that we need more writing on this important topic.
This is especially true for those of us who experience same-sex attraction. We need deep relationship just like everyone else. But if cross gender is closed off because of their sake (because people can be attracted to us even if we aren’t attracted to them!), and same gender carries troubles of attraction, what do we do? Surely the answer isn’t isolation. Surely the answer comes in building positive virtue in Christ by the Spirit. But these things can’t be discussed at length in a book review.
Aimee Byrd offers the church a next step in this important conversation of male-female relationships in the body. It should be read and applauded for the strengths it brings. It should also push us to think better and more critically about how to fulfill robust holiness in our interactions with each other. We must answer these questions with biblical faithfulness and with winsome love. May God give us help and strength!