We’re on to Casting Call—the series where we look at God’s view of the roles we play as married and single people, parents, and friends. And…it just so happens that as I was alphabetizing books in the church office a few weeks ago, I ran into a very eclectic old friend of mine (a book, rather) that, long ago, was able to articulate something that forever shifted my own thoughts about brother and sister relationships between believers.
Let me back up about twenty years. When I was growing up, I had the Jesus bug in me: I was overseeing a ministry team at church when I was 16; I started attending a young adult small group and led my first Bible study when I was 17. I cared about the life of the church and the people in it (or as many people as I could really fit into my peripheral vision at the time—I was sixteen, remember!). But one thing seemed abundantly clear, it seemed like there was this unspoken division between men and women in the church when it came to doing the “stuff” of the church, and unless a man and a woman were married, there wasn’t much working together going on. Some of the reasoning for this was unspoken and indirect, but I picked up enough over the years to understand that there was a lot of fear drifting around about all the things that could go wrong when men and women worked together, from inappropriate emotional attachments to full-on affairs (not to mention that there were some things women just shouldn’t be doing in the first place).
Before I had an opportunity to be actually left out, I felt it. I knew that women weren’t going to be senior pastors because (it was said) there was something deficient in our make-up that disqualified us, and I knew that I wasn’t going to get to go to a certain conference or training seminar with a male ministry partner because it would mean riding together, and good Christians didn’t do such things in the late ‘90s. Being a sister of a biological brother six years my senior, I felt again like my big brother was going off to do really cool stuff that I would never be old enough to do.
I noticed this lack of connection generally between men and women in the Church, whole worlds of believers cut off from one another. It didn’t seem right, didn’t seem like a representation of God’s kingdom where Jesus traveled with, was supported by, and discipled many women.
About ten years ago, a guy friend lent me that book—the one I ran into on the church shelves—where Rodney Clapp* had written something so insightful about the problem of gender segregation in the church that it still affects how I think even a decade later:
“Men and women have been taught to see one another only in the most starkly contrasting, black-and-white-terms: either as lovers or as the most casual of acquaintances….[Rigid] separation serves only to reinforce the impoverished, overly narrow idea that a member of the other sex can be only a love object or casual acquaintance. When people saddled with such cramped imaginations have any feelings at all for a woman or man, they are faced with only two options: go to bed or never see each other again. This isn’t freedom. This is tragedy.”
I was living and witnessing the tragedy Clapp speaks of all around me. I had only an inkling of a template for quality brother-sister relationships. And if my only options really were to have affairs or never speak to a man I wasn’t married to about anything significant ever again, that meant I was avoiding a lot of men on a regular basis, and avoiding about half of the body of Christ. And then there were singles in the church—unmarried women systematically cut off from almost all relationships with Christian brothers (and unmarried men from their Christian sisters). It is tragedy when anyone misses out on the gifts and strengths that half the population of the Church has to offer.
So, Clapp suggested we “expand our imagination and affirm the possibility and practice of cross-sexual relationships, both between singles and by married Christians welcoming singles into their lives.” Could we collectively articulate a new vision for these relationships? It’s true that people make crappy decisions; people have affairs and they break their covenants, but Lewis Smedes writes that when we are living as our best selves before God, when we are “covenant-keepers,” we don’t have to “worry much or moralize a great deal about the proprieties of relationships outside of marriage.”
I know that everyone reading this has a unique past. Maybe you have made bad choices when it came to relational boundaries; maybe you have violated one of your marriage vows, or you have a spouse who did, and have reaped untold pain and heartache as a result. I understand that different histories and vulnerabilities require different considerations and applied wisdom. But, how Smedes’ principle worked out for me (and how I think it can work out for many of us) is this: because I walk around with a very holy sense of my commitment to God and my husband to uphold our marriage vows, I also walk around with a lot of confidence that interacting with someone I’m not married to doesn’t have the power to undo all of that.
I have two brothers through my family of origin. One, a half-brother, was fairly absent from my life for about a decade before he died five years ago. And my other (little) brother is off making his way in Colorado. One of the biggest gifts to me in the last ten years has been a handful of men who’ve been in my life as week-in and week-out brothers and friends that I’ve co-labored with, joked with, eaten meals with, had kid playdates with, and/or grown with as servants to the church. There have been places deep inside me (where family-of-origin relationships didn’t demonstrate the best of what God intended) that God chose to heal and restore through relationships with these guys. There were skills, values, and truths imparted to me, tough questions I was asked, conversations that engaged my heart in ways it hadn’t yet engaged–and God used spiritual brothers to do that! Twenty years ago, I might have worried a truth like that to be borderline heretical; now, I think it just comes with the territory of the Gospel. Would that we all be blessed by relationships in the family of God, regardless of our roles and our gender and our marital statuses. And may the Holy Spirit work in our imaginations to expand any boundaries we’ve put on the fellowship He wants to establish in His Church.
*Families at the Crossroads: Beyond Tradition and Modern Options, from the chapter “The Superiority of Singleness” by Rodney Clapp.