Can Christian Women and Men Be Friends?

Earlier today I enjoyed listening to my friend Kristin Kobes Du Mez take questions from Minnesota Public Radio listeners about her new book, Jesus and John Wayne. That I’ve gotten to know historians and professors as gifted as Kristin is one of the many benefits I enjoy as part of the crew at The Anxious Bench, where last week another of our contributors, Andrea Turpin, and a couple of her colleagues at Baylor University shared a terrific post about the importance of male-female friendships among Christians.

Andrea L. Turpin – Baylor University Department of History

As her friend Lori Kanitz put it, “heterosocial friendship is hard to find and even harder to defend in a culture, particularly Christian culture, that assumes men and women who share a deep connection will inevitably stray into forbidden territory either emotionally or sexually.” Because of that assumption, some conservative Christians choose to follow what’s called the “Graham Rule,” after the famous evangelist’s commitment not to “travel, meet, or eat alone with a woman other than my wife.” (Here’s Beth Allison Barr, another of my friends at Anxious Bench on the implications of that rule for Christian colleges like Baylor, or Bethel. Her post inspired one of my own.) But for Kanitz, such rules leave women and men “with neither the imaginations nor the nuanced vocabulary needed to describe and create the sorts of friendships that are extraordinarily important to human well-being, particularly in times of crisis or profound change.”

So she, Andrea, and others at Baylor spent the summer discussing Cassandra Good’s book Founding Friendships, about the relationships between early American men like Thomas Jefferson and women like Abigail Adams and author Margaret Bayard Smith. Andrea was struck that such friendships “were essentially egalitarian within a hierarchical world,” bridging divides that would otherwise have kept apart people who “valued the different perspective they each brought to the table because of their gender, but they also valued each other as individuals and had enough common traits and experiences on which to base their connection.”

Good, Founding Friendships

While religion didn’t necessarily supply those friends their common traits and experiences, Baylor engineering professor Ian Gravagne thought that “our Christian tradition and theological framework offers… a path forward for opposite-gender friendship to grow neither toward family (necessarily) or fornication but toward spiritual union – a kind of love that defies easy categorization but can be deep, abiding and fulfilling.”

So much of what Andrea and her colleagues wrote resonated with my experience. Whether it reflects our religious ethos or not, one of my favorite things about working at Bethel is that so many of my colleagues have become close friends — several of them have been women, like philosopher Sara Shady, historian Amy Poppinga, and our much-missed political science chair Stacey Hunter Hecht. (Her death, five years ago this December, inspired my longest reflection on the importance of friendship.) Whatever misgivings I have about going back to campus this fall, I’m thrilled to be able to renew those friendships in person.

Read the full post from Andrea and her friends here.