04 Oct 2018
Women involved in friendships and ministry (discipleship, caregiving, counseling, etc.) sometimes become ensnared in messy, emotional, codependent attachments with each other. These codependent relationships easily take on a romantic feel and can become sexualized. Breaking free can be excruciating! However, rest assured that messy relationships are a “common to man” temptation and sin struggle. Consider Beth and Anna.
“Ellen, we never saw ourselves as gay, but we have never been in love with another person in this way.”
This was how Beth¹ a woman in her forties, described her affair with Anna, a young grad student who began coming to her church. They connected easily, and a warm friendship and casual mentoring relationship developed quickly.
Beth described her marriage to her husband, a pastor, as “living under the same roof but being physically and emotionally divorced.” With Anna, however, she experienced the deeply satisfying emotional oneness she had always craved. Their physical affection slowly pushed past appropriate boundaries. Before long, these two Christian sisters were involved in a sexual relationship. No one questioned the intense, consuming nature of the relationship. “Everyone just thought we were the best of friends and even envied our connection,” Beth told me.
When these messy relational dynamics happen in Christian mentoring relationships, the spiritual component adds tremendous confusion and fuels the agonizing question, “How can this be wrong when it feels so good?”
Diagnosing a Messy Relationship
Here are five indicators of an unhealthy attachment.
- Fused lives, schedules, and relational spheres.
- Exclusivity and possessiveness. Other people feel like intruders, as a threat to your closeness.
- The relationship needs regular clarification of each person’s role in it. Generally, one woman has a needy/take-care-of-me role and the other a needy-to-be-needed/caregiver role. Fear, insecurity, and jealousy are triggered when one steps out of her role.
- Maintaining consistent emotional connection is vital. Texts, emails, calls and time spent together grow and intensify to typically become life-dominating.
- Romanticized affection through words and physical touch, and of course any sexual involvement.
When these messy relational dynamics happen in Christian mentoring relationships, the spiritual component adds tremendous confusion and fuels the agonizing question, “How can this be wrong when it feels so good?”
The Mess of Relational Idolatry
Our desires for unfailing love and being deeply known are beautiful aspects of being image bearers of God. He loves us perfectly, knows us completely, and exists in a holy relational Trinity. However, every detail of our image bearing capability is distorted by sin.
The Bible is clear that no one and no thing is to be exalted in our lives over obedience and love for God. As God’s redeemed and no-longer-belonging-to-ourselves people, we are created by, through, and for Christ as Colossians 1:16 beautifully declares. This means that all of our relationships, and the place we give people in our lives, are to be submitted under the loving Lordship of Christ. No friend or woman we may be mentoring should ever become a god or Jesus-replacement in our life!
The Bible is clear that no one and no thing is to be exalted in our lives over obedience and love for God… Relational idolatry happens when we look to people to give us only what Jesus can.
The truth is that messy relationships can still feel beautiful and loving. But even our desires are disordered and need the radical Christward orientation that only the clarity of Scripture gives. Desires can be corrupt and sinful (2 Peter 1:4), or they can be “of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:17), which bears out in the sweet, holy good fruit of the Spirit. Though created for wholeness and holiness, all of us struggle in one way or another in our desires and relationships.
Relational idolatry happens when we look to people to give us only what Jesus can. Sister, if you are involved in a relationship similar to Anna and Beth’s, know that idolatry is a common struggle to all of us.
The Bible and Idolatry
My journey of faith, relationships, and sin has included the worship of people, including women I’ve mentored. Though Scripture does not use the phrase “relational idolatry,” it’s in there.
Consider these passages.
“I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.” (Ex. 20:2-3)
God does not command us to be exclusive in our devotion to him because he is insecure or narcissistic! Instead, God loves us and knows that when we worship him alone, we glorify him, and people will be in their proper place in our lives as godly friends rather than Jesus-replacements.
“For my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and dug out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.” (Jer. 2:13)
God’s people had committed a variety of rebellious acts, yet he sums up their sin with two statements that apply to us today: a) we turn away from him and b) seek other sources as our living water. What do you value in your relationships?
- Is it to fix someone’s life?
- Is it to have someone put your life back together when you feel broken?
- Is your heart empty and you want someone to make it whole?
You know the name for this: codependency. But it’s deeper than that: it’s co-idolatry as two women look to each other for their value, identity, and security, something only God is able to give to us.
Steps of Repentance if You’re in a Relational Mess
God is committed to rescuing us, and keeping himself as our ultimate source of life, joy, and identity. Wholeness in our relationships comes from holiness in our relationships, which is a fruit of worship and trust of God alone. Here are steps of faith and repentance to take.
1. Admit your relational sin and flee into the loving arms of Jesus. Fleeing to Jesus means letting go of this relationship by turning towards him. Which means you must leave where you are, throw off sin and hindrances. He is faithful to hear, forgive, and love all who come to him (Heb. 4:16).
If you don’t know where to begin, try praying Psalm 139:23-24. Here’s my expanded version.
“Lord, search and examine me…explore all the crevices of my heart and mind…all my anxious thoughts. See if there are any sinful paths I’m walking in, if there are patterns of painful idolatry in me. Reveal the true nature of my heart Lord and give me spiritual guidance in your good, holy pathways.”
2. Expect a season of pain and grief that can lead you to God’s deep comfort. Letting go will be anguishing; it will get more painful before it gets better. But the pain which comes from costly obedience is healing rather than enslaving pain. Soul surgery requires you to allow the gospel to touch, cut, and heal the deeper issues of your heart (unbelief, fear, insecurity, anger, trauma, pain, etc.).
3. Separate and allow space to happen between you and this woman. Colossians 3:5 is a hard word, but one that leads to true life. “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.” If you’ve been sexually involved, you must sever ties completely. Indefinitely. This is how you will put to death the messy attachment that has formed between you.
God is committed to rescuing us, and keeping himself as our ultimate source of life, joy, and identity. Wholeness in our relationships comes from holiness in our relationships
On this point, I usually get pushback. But Ellen, we love each other as friends! We encouraged each other so much in Christ before things got sexual…can’t we just go back to what was good?!
If you are in this situation, I wish I could see your face now and talk to you tenderly, yet directly. Sister, you must flee temptation and sin at all costs! 1 Corinthians 10:14 says you are to flee from sin…not try to manage it, heal it, or contain it. Put to death, flee, repent (or turn a relational 180). These are the words that God’s word uses in considering our relationship to sin. When sexual sin enters a non-marital relationship, obedience means turning from that person and relationship so that your heart can become set fully on Christ, your true life, once more (Colossians 3:1-4).
Consider this a season of intentional fasting from any contact with this person. No social media stalking. Do not muse over texts, emails, etc. Let go and the comfort of God will be a bottomless well of comfort if you stay the course.
New gospel life WILL come from this death. “For I will restore health to you, and your wounds I will heal, declares the Lord…” (Jer. 30:17).
4. Pursue biblical discipleship regarding:
How to cultivate an intimate relationship with Christ. It’s possible to be busy for the Lord, without loving and abiding in him. A wise Puritan pastor said, “The soul is so constituted that it craves fulfillment from things outside itself and will embrace earthly joys for satisfaction when it cannot reach spiritual ones. The believer is in spiritual danger if he allows himself to go for any length of time without tasting the love of Christ and savoring the felt comforts of a Savior’s presence. When Christ ceases to fill the heart with satisfaction, our souls will go in silent search of other lovers.”²
The underlying heart issues you need to address. Jesus said, “You shall know the truth and the truth will set you free!” (John 8:32). What made you vulnerable to this messy relationship? What is off kilter in your beliefs?
God’s design for healthy relationships. What does it mean to have the kind of wise love that Paul prayed for in Philippians 1:9-11? Christ is eager to teach you what it looks like to have himself in his rightful place in your life so that people will be in theirs.
5. Seek accountability for your relationships. I’ve learned that I must have people who have meddling rights in my life! Trusted, spiritually mature friends who love and encourage me to cultivate godly relationships and will help me discern if I’m blind to a potential relational mess.
6. Cry out to Jesus your Deliverer day after day. He is our precious Savior… and our faithful Bridegroom, the One to whom we are married to for all of eternity. He will help, love, and comfort us while we live during this short earthly time. He will grow “into us” the testimony of David:
“He brought me out into a broad place; he rescued me, because he delighted in me.” (Psalm 18:19)
God loves his daughters so much that he faithfully calls us to himself away from idols, including messy relationships. Hear this promise today as you ponder what your next steps of faith are:
“Now to him who is able to Keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.” (Jude 1:24-25)
This blog first appeared on Revive Our Hearts under the title: “Untangle Twisted Relationships: When Women’s Friendships Become Unhealthy.”
² John Flavel, “The Method of Grace,” The Whole Works of John Flavel (London: Baynes, 1820), vol. 2, p. 438.
Ellen talks more on this subject in the accompanying video: When Do Friendships Between Women Become Codependent? These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
Good friendships in the Body of Christ are vital and necessary. And those friendships should be rich and deep. But sometimes there’s a danger lurking there: when one or both friends look to each other for what only Jesus can give us, then relational idolatry happens. Listen to Ellen talk about how to get yourself out of that unhealthy friendship and move toward Christ.
There’s more to learn after this video! Read Ellen’s accompanying blog: Codependent Struggles in Women’s Friendships. You can also go to Ellen’s 3-part blog and video series on emotional affairs. Click here for “Emotional Affairs: When Closeness Becomes Destructive – Part I”.
More and more Christians are entering marriage with a sexual past. Couples need to be aware that virtually no one is entering marriage free of sexual struggle and sin. For this reason, Ellen Dykas explains how to begin talking about your sexual history and why it’s critical to discuss past and current sexual struggles before engagement and marriage. To learn more, read Ellen’s blog, “Sexual History: Why You Need to Address it Before Getting Engaged.”
What happens when a couple enters marriage, and they don’t really know each other? Of course, engaged and newlywed couples can’t possibly know each other to the degree they will after years of marriage. Wise pre-marital counseling usually addresses important issues like family history, faith, finances, children, sex, roles, etc. However, often people marry having avoided a critical component of their story: sexual history.
When a woman and man commit to marriage, it should mirror God’s eternal, exclusive, united-together relationship with his people (Ephesians 5:25-33). The unique one-flesh relationship (Genesis 2:241) of marriage refers to a concept broader than sexual intimacy. Marriage involves two people becoming one in sharing all of life and an intimate knowing of each other.
That’s why knowing your future spouse’s sexual history is so important. Sexual history refers to experiences of sexual activity with another person, with self, mediated through technology, sexual fantasy, etc. Knowing a person’s sexual history includes understanding what the struggle has looked like as far as length of time, frequency of giving in to temptation, attempts to fight and overcome sin, and a willingness to be transparent and accountable with others. Sexual history also includes traumatic experiences of being sexually harassed or abused.
There are many reasons people avoid discussing their sexual history: fear, shame, and feeling intimidated by tough topics are just a few. Private sins like porn and masturbation sometimes seem to fade out when a dating relationship is going well. Some unwisely say things like, “Let the past be the past; move on into the future with this person you love and start fresh!”
Why it’s wise to discuss sexual history before you get engaged.
Most brides begin wedding preparation within days of getting engaged. It’s an exciting time as engagement communicates, I’m committing myself to marry you, as is. Before a couple gets engaged, they should be able to say: “I know your strengths, weaknesses, temptations, sins and the pattern of your life. I want to marry you knowing what I know.”
When dating and engaged couples hide the real deal of their sexual history and current struggles from their loved one, they set the stage for broken trust and future broken hearts.
Jesus strengthens and comforts you in the process of sharing your sexual history.
This may feel scary, but you’re not alone as you consider honest conversations with the man or woman you’re dating or engaged to. Jesus is with you to guide, encourage, and enable you to do the right thing and walk in the light rather than hide or avoid.
Secondly, God promises mercy to those who walk in the light. Proverbs 28:13 says, “Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.” His mercy comes through forgiveness, redemption, and providing friends to walk with you through this process.
Finally, Jesus is your eternal companion and spouse. He is with you for all of time and will never abandon you! Your relationship may or may not survive the vulnerable process of sharing your sexual past, but Jesus will never leave you or forsake you.
General principles for sharing sexual history.
Here are some general ideas to help you think through this process:
- Remember, the goal is to be known as someone who needs God’s grace in this area, not to vent or dump all the nitty-gritty details of sexual behaviors. Ask a wise friend or mentor to pray for you and help you discern what you need to share.
- Next, remember that this will be an ongoing conversation, not an intense, one time tell-all. Cultivating patient listening and transparent sharing will set your relationship on a healthy trajectory for marriage if you move forward.
- When is the best time to begin these conversations? There isn’t a spiritual formula to figure out the exact moment when a couple should share with one another about their sexual history. Each relationship is unique; however, if both of you are seriously considering marriage, then it’s important to begin revealing parts of your sexual past.
- If you’re on the receiving end of hearing a dating partner’s sexual past, here are the important things you want to find out. Keep in mind that you’re not looking for perfection but integrity and commitment to walk in repentance.
• How is he/she seeking to walk in faith and repentance? Is it all-out or half-hearted?
• Does this person have solid friendships in his/her life, people who both love and ask the hard questions in light of knowing him/her?
• If sexual sin is a present tense reality, what is the trajectory of the struggle? Is there a decrease in giving way to temptation and an increasing strength to resist and flee?
If your partner is half-hearted, casual, and/or doesn’t see any of this as a big deal, STOP. Do not proceed forward in this relationship. Words of affection, promises to love you, and even a commitment to pray more are not enough! You need to see ongoing, intentional steps to flee sin and grow in Christ before you take one more relational step with this person.
Sexual history is an important and significant topic to discuss in dating relationships, especially if you are considering marriage. But remember, such history does not define or identify any of us; Jesus does! He’s the King of his kingdom and so as we trust him, rest in his love and grace, we’ll have the wisdom we need for our relationships.
This blog first appeared on enCourage, the PCA’s website for Women’s Ministry, but it has been slightly edited for this post.
Ellen talks more about sexual history on her accompanying video: Why Couples Who Are Considering Marriage Need to Share Their Sexual History. These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
In our Spring 2018 issue of harvestusa magazine, guest writer Penny Freeman looks at the stresses of ministry for women leaders, and gives practical ways churches can better support them in the work they do. (You can read the entire magazine issue online: Women, Sexuality, and the Church)
As a 20-something on staff with Young Life, my supervisor gave me a six-page form to fill out that asked me hard questions about life and ministry. The questions were frighteningly personal and, I feared, would expose me as a ministry fraud.
I waited until the last minute to hand it in, confident I was going to be fired. My big reveal? I didn’t have devotions every day. I struggled with depressing feelings. And God didn’t always make sense to me in moments that were hard or disappointing.
My wise supervisor sat me down, listened, and assured me my job and future with Young Life was secure, but she wanted to help me develop and grow. There was a sigh of relief when I found out I was safe under her care. Later that year, at a regional retreat for female staff, I found out that I was not alone. The sharing revealed:
- We all struggled to believe the gospel when hard events were happening in our lives.
- Ministry was rewarding but tended to create loneliness.
- Praying felt difficult to practice.
- We all often lost our tempers.
- We all struggled with “imposter syndrome” and wondered about leaving ministry for “secular” jobs.
- Most women had a counselor or “safe relationship”.
This was the important lesson learned for going forward in ministry: Ministry leaders needed a safe space to be honest about their hearts, their struggles, and their fears.
So, who shepherds the shepherdesses?
Women are working hard in many thriving churches and parachurch ministries as leaders, pastors’ wives, and other support staff, and we should care about their hearts and souls.
Women who are in ministry rarely take care of themselves or have avenues to do so. While caring intentionally for others, many times they run on fumes themselves.
As a female leader, I have been equipped for ministry by the multiple mentors and caregivers who have poured into my life over 40 years. Here are some simple ways people have discipled and shepherded me, enabling me to both function more productively and flourish in ministry.
- Ministry leaders need to practice self-care.
Women who are in ministry rarely take care of themselves or have avenues to do so. While caring intentionally for others, many times they run on fumes themselves. Moreover, most live on shoe-string budgets and rarely have the income to pay for things that might encourage their care. One concrete way to care for a woman in ministry would be to encourage regular time to herself.
Self-care for caretakers should not be optional. Burnout is a real thing. Invest in your female staff members and volunteers by providing movie passes, personal rest days where she can go away and reflect and rest, and any multiple ways she can step away from ministry to do something fun. Although these things may not seem very “spiritual” in nature, they help women gain and maintain a sense of health, enjoyment, and value for self and others.
- Ministry leaders need safe listeners.
Text or call your ministry leader routinely and ask her how you can pray for her. Some of my best supporters are folks I can simply text “PRAY” to, knowing they are safe enough that I don’t have to explain all the details; they know the details of my life well enough to pray.
Spend time to earn her trust and let her unburden her heart on her own terms. Safe listening sometimes means no advice, no judgment, and no well-intentioned prying questions for more information. Just listen and validate your friend’s experience (you can validate her experience without agreeing with everything she says). Finally, be a “vault” listener. What she says stays in the vault (never gets repeated). You are a trusted source of confidence.
Being a safe listener is the only way she will come to you with deeply personal struggles, especially ones involving her sexuality. She may have a husband who she discovers is looking at porn; she might be struggling with that herself. Sexual issues and ministry are an explosive combination! Too many struggles stay hidden until they blow up, for reasons of shame and fear of losing one’s job. Being a safe listener invites others to ask for help and communicates that you will stick with her for her good.
- Ministry leaders need hard conversations.
Our marriages, our kids, and our hearts are targets for the enemy. If ministry leaders fall hard, we potentially take a lot of folks down with us.
If you are a trusted friend, be willing to have hard conversations. Where is she tempted to compromise her biblical values or moral integrity? Is she living within her budget? Is she spending time on Facebook scrolling for old relationships because of marital disappointment? Is she gossiping on the phone about people who have hurt her or looking at websites she shouldn’t? Is she harboring bitterness about events she can’t resolve? Is she dealing with emotional or physical abuse in her relationships?
By all means ask these questions. And don’t be shocked if your ministry friend has far more in her life than you can shoulder; invite her to glean wisdom from others, and from professional counselors in your area. Help her with the cost if she needs it.
- Ministry leaders need encouragement.
Most women ministry leaders walk around with a secret critic in their heads that renders null-and-void any praise they receive. But when they are affirmed in their character, God’s gifting in them, or how their ministry makes a difference in your eyes, they feel encouraged.
Send her to a conference or seminar where she will be fed spiritually and emotionally. Remind her that her relationship with God is more significant than what she accomplishes. Tell her what you see God doing in her, that she is his daughter and reflects him more every day.
These, then, are some concrete ways to watch over the hearts of those women who bear the mantle of gospel ministry. We need to thoughtfully and proactively support these women as they continue assisting others in growth and sanctification.
Penny Freeman talks more on this subject in the accompanying video: How Can Women in Ministry Guard Against Burnout? These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
24 May 2018
In this video, Penny Freeman shares her life experience of 40 years in ministry, identifying what drains her life and what gives her life. You can read more of Penny’s thoughts in her blog, “Caring for the Shepherdesses: What Women Leaders Need.” You can also read the Spring 2018 issue of harvestusa magazine here where Penny’s article first appeared.
17 May 2018
In the Church, men and women are brothers and sisters in Christ. This means we can relate to one another as friends by sharing life together and helping one another run the race of faith. To learn more about biblical friendship, read Aimee Byrd’s blog, “Does a Woman’s Sexuality Hinder her Capability for Friendship?” You can also read our latest harvestusa magazine, “Women, Sexuality, and the Church,” here.
In our Spring 2018 issue of harvestusa magazine, guest writer Aimee Byrd, in light of the #MeToo movement, explores the tensions that exist in friendships between men and women, and then argues that the gospel radically transforms these relationships. When the gospel is lived out, friendships between men and women won’t fall into the abuse that the #MeToo movement rightly exposes, resulting in true intimacy and respect. (You can read the entire magazine issue online: Women, Sexuality, and the Church)
When we think about sin’s impact on sexuality, we usually think of things like pornography, broken marriages, rape, sex trafficking, and other abuses. But one category that we often neglect to recognize regarding sin’s impact on sexuality is the gift of friendship. When we over-sexualize men and women made in the image of God, we are unable to view one another holistically and fellowship platonically. And this has been a historical problem, even in the church.
Women Incapable of Friendship
I don’t know of anyone in our contemporary culture that would say women are incapable of the virtue of friendship. In fact, sociological studies reveal that men open up more about themselves when a woman is involved in the dialogue.¹ But ancient philosophers did not believe that women had the moral capacity for what they held as the highest virtue of communion — friendship. Echoing the same mindset taught by Cicero, Aristotle, and Plato in their treatises on friendship, even Augustine joined in this reductive thinking about a woman’s nature. One of our greatest theologians in church history, “although he knew that well-educated and cultured women existed,” and respected his own mother’s wisdom, wrote, “’If God had wanted Adam to have a partner in scintillating conversation he would have created another man.’”² While this kind of statement is a shock to our modern sensibilities, we can still be reductive about virtuous friendship between the sexes.
Men Incapable of Friendship with Women
Almost thirty years ago Billy Crystal uttered a line in the infamous movie When Harry Met Sally that still haunts us today: “Men and women can’t be friends because the sex part always gets in the way.” As the character Harry seemed to represent every man, and Sally, every woman, consumers lost sight of the fact that this is just a movie. Now the tables have turned, and instead of a woman’s nature being incapable of attaining relational moral perfection in friendship, it is the man who lacks virtue. Sally, representing all women, argues against this assertion. She sadly concludes that she really could have used a friend, as Harry is the only person she knew in New York.
It’s such a strong scene because in that argument and conclusion, women’s value, worth, and contribution are at stake. Man reduces woman to her capability of gratifying his uncontrollable sexual urges. But man is also reduced to his supposed animalistic impulses, even to the point where he cannot be a friend to someone in need.
Men and Women Can’t Even be Acquaintances
Under the good intentions of upholding purity and faithful marriages, the common teaching in evangelical circles is that men and women shouldn’t even share a meal, a car ride, or a text message without a chaperone. Considering that a number of prominent preachers have fallen into sexual immorality, wrecking their marriages, their ministry, and the faith of some of their followers, taking steps such as these seems prudent.
Many leaders and laity have since followed this example with the same godly intentions. Christian leaders should certainly model sexual integrity to us. But we need to see it displayed with mature spirituality and godly friendship, not with suspicion and fear. I’ve been in conversations with men afraid to give a woman a ride to the hospital, to share an elevator, or to send an email about work. Is this the message the church really wants to send about our design for communion—that women are threats to a man’s purity and that we are incapable of serving as an acquaintance in ordinary life, much less being an actual friend? Yes, take precautions, be accountable, examine your heart, but I wonder if our design and life as new creations in Christ can show us a better way?
A woman’s sexuality should not be a barrier to friendship, but it should call men to treat her with all purity, like he would a sister or a mother (1 Timothy 5:2).
Does a Woman’s Sexuality Hinder Her Capability of Friendship?
Since there will be no marrying and no sexual intercourse in eternity, we know that God’s plan for human sexuality is not ultimately expressed in the sexual intimacy of the bedroom. A greater understanding of what we are created for, who we are in Christ, and where we are headed will help shape the way we relate to one another. A woman’s sexuality should not be a barrier to friendship, but it should call men to treat her with all purity, like he would a sister or a mother (1 Timothy. 5:2). Christian men and women are co-laborers in the gospel, brothers and sisters in Christ, both given the same, affectionate “one another” exhortations in Scripture that teach us how to relate.
Created for Holy Communion
Christians, we were created for the high calling of joyful communion with the Triune God and one another. We get to participate in the Father’s great love for the Son, through his Spirit. God has revealed himself to us in the Son so that he can make friends with us. Is this what we represent in the way we relate to others? Does the world see us exemplifying God’s love for mankind in Christ? Do we treat one another as men and women made in the image of God? If the church cannot model virtuous friendship between the sexes, why would the world take us seriously when we say we are being sanctified even now as we look to our glorification as brothers and sisters serving together in the new heavens and the new earth?
Christian men and women are co-laborers in the gospel, brothers and sisters in Christ, both given the same, affectionate “one another” exhortations in Scripture that teach us how to relate.
The world should look to the church and see a household of fellowship between siblings in Christ that overflows into the way we relate to everyone.
What does that look like on this side of the resurrection, as we all still struggle with idolatrous tendencies, sexual brokenness, and over-sexualized messages regarding men and women? Scripture tells us, “Let love be without hypocrisy. Detest evil; cling to what is good. Love one another deeply as brothers and sisters” (Romans 12: 9-10, CSB).
To love our brothers and sisters well, we are called to be wise at separating good from evil. We pursue godly relationships and we warn against sin. This means we will have to be honest in self-evaluation regarding our own maturity and emotions and open to the counsel of our brothers and sisters in Christ, as honesty is achieved in community. We are God’s own possession, so we are to “abstain from fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul” (1 Peter 2:11).
Here are some common areas we miss in self-evaluation:
Confusing attraction with sexual temptation.
Let’s not fool ourselves by saying we will never be attracted to anyone but our spouses. What do you do when you discover you are attracted to someone? We are to offer every part of ourselves—body, mind, and soul—to God. It’s easy to misread appropriate feelings that could be a godly attraction and reduce our feelings to romantic or sexual attraction since we hear so many over-sexualized messages. Let’s learn to recognize the difference and properly handle them so that we don’t miss out on the proper affection we could experience as brothers and sisters.
Assuming we won’t be tempted.
Self-evaluation will also help us recognize when we are weak in this distinction or with a particular person. Perhaps we perceive a weakness in someone else. In this case, we should not put ourselves in situations that would feed a temptation to sin or cause anyone to stumble. This is when proactive measures are called for, such as seeking accountability from someone we trust and establishing clear boundaries. If we understand the sin within our own hearts, we should exercise proper discretion, never assuming that we couldn’t be tempted.
Expecting marriage to fulfill all of our relational needs.
Looking to a spouse to fulfill all of our emotional, intellectual, and spiritual needs puts an unbearable burden on one person. This unhealthy dynamic can contribute to temptation that leads to affairs. When a wife or husband can’t measure up to these expectations, it is easy to romanticize a quality in someone else that we see lacking in our spouse.
Not valuing a spouse’s insight.
If you are married, it is dishonoring to your spouse to pursue a friendship with anyone he or she feels uncomfortable about. Also, our spouses often have insight into a situation where we may have a blind spot. Are you open with your spouse about your interactions and friendships with the opposite sex? Do your friends promote your marriage? A spouse may notice that someone has harmful intentions or manipulative ways. I have shared advice with my husband when I thought a woman had more romantic intentions in her friendship with him. He didn’t notice that until I pointed it out. My husband has given me insight about some of my friends being competitive with me in a destructive manner. We should always give heed to our spouse’s wisdom.
What is God calling us to in friendship? He is calling us to image the love he has for us in Christ. He is calling us to look at one another holistically, because along with our bodies, we have minds, souls, and emotions that matter. He is calling us to uphold distinction between the sexes, without reduction. He is calling us to growth, maturity, and a love for obedience that is greater than our fears. He is calling us to wisdom and discernment, not blanket extra-biblical rules that stereotype and hinder growth. He is calling us to a biblical understanding of purity that rightly orients all of our affections to God, as a proper response to understanding that by the help of his Spirit our purity is from Christ, through Christ, and to Christ in grateful offering (Rom. 11:36). He is calling us to promote one another’s holiness and to condemn sin.
We do this by being a friend, because friendship is something you do. Friends pursue a common mission, and the church is the ambassador of the gospel in the great commission God has given us. These relationships with our brothers and sisters in the faith will benefit us as we are sent out into the world to be good neighbors to all creation.
¹For example, see Dee Brestin, The Friendships of Women (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1988), 16.
²Translated by Henry Chadwick, St. Augustine, Confessions (NY: Oxford University Press, 1991), in Chadwick’s Introduction, xviii. Quoted from St. Augustine, Literal Commentary on Genesis.
Watch Ellen Dykas discuss this topic further in the accompanying video: Can Men and Women Be Friends? These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
The Church is active in helping men who struggle sexually, but for too long it has failed to see that women are struggling just as much as men do. Dave talks about key steps the church can make to change this, and be the support Christian women need. And read Karen Hodge’s blog on the importance of women’s ministry in the church here. And you can read the entire magazine online here.
In our Spring 2018 issue of harvestusa magazine, guest writer Karen Hodge shares her perspective, gained from many years of personal and professional experience, that women’s ministry is vitally needed in the church. And that vital need for women’s ministry is even more important today, as gender distinctions are being erased. (You can read the entire magazine issue online: Women, Sexuality, and the Church)
For many years our church hosted regional gatherings for church planters to encourage and equip them as they began their work. It was always my joy at these events to feed them as well. Several years ago, over a slice of Chicago deep-dish pizza, I listened to a young pastor tell me about the church he intended to plant. It would be relational and organic. There would primarily be small groups and absolutely no programs. He said he did not see the relevance of men’s or women’s ministry.
I asked him about his family. He told me all about his wife and three daughters. At this moment it probably would have been nice if I had informed this church planter that I was a church planter’s wife of 27 years as well as the Coordinator of Women’s Ministry for our denomination (PCA) because I am pretty sure he thought I was just the pizza lady. I then asked him, besides his wife, who would train his daughters about what it means to be a woman. He said the pulpit ministry and their teaching at home should be enough. I said maybe so, but I had recently reflected as my daughter got married that it took all kinds of women in the church to help Anna Grace understand who God was and who He was calling her to be as a woman.
One of the books of the Bible that captivated my heart as a young church planter’s wife was the book of Titus. Paul encouraged Titus that in order to plant a healthy church he should instruct the older men to train the younger men and the older women to train the younger women. These older and younger people lived together in Crete. Paul said of the Cretans, “(they) are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons” (Titus 1:12). It was a worldly and evil place. “They profess to know God, but they deny him by their works. They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work” (1:16). There was a fundamental disconnect between what they professed to believe and the way they lived their lives.
Crete sounded a lot like South Florida where we were planting a church. God was bringing so many women who did not know Christ to our fellowship. I knew programs were not the answer, but I found myself in a living room full of women. So I went scrambling for answers; I was eager to know the strategy.
The strategy is in the text: we are not called to necessarily start a stellar women’s ministry but rather to “teach what accords with sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1). To “teach what is good and so train the young women” (Titus 2:3-4). Older women (chronologically or spiritually speaking) are to train the younger women what sound doctrine has to do with all of life, including parenting, relationships, their marriages, and their personal character.
The word “train” means to show, unpack or demonstrate. This command implies proximity. You can’t show someone something unless you are near them. It is a call for life-on-life discipleship. The word “sound” means healthy or hygienic. I knew that the air I was breathing in South Florida all around me was polluted with unhygienic worldly thinking. So, Paul was telling me that sound doctrine was just what my heart and the hearts of the women around me needed. Sound doctrine makes sin-sick people healthy. Sound doctrine yields sound living, sound homes, and sound churches.
So why was I trying to persuade the pizza pastor that there needed to be some provision for gender-specific discipleship in his church and for his daughters? I believe gender distinctness was God’s very good plan.
“Let us make man in our image, after our likeness….
So, God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good”
(Genesis 1:26-27; 31).
In God’s design, both maleness and femaleness are necessary to image God. Maleness and femaleness are also essential to fulfill humanity’s purpose, to be fruitful and multiply and spread God’s glory to the ends of the earth. And it takes maleness and femaleness to be one flesh. “Therefore, man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). And yet maleness and femaleness image God regardless of marital status. In all of these dimensions, we see equality of being and yet a necessary diversity of function. Maleness and femaleness, no matter how hard we try to delete it or separate it from each other, remains inseparable. United as one, men and women are used by God to display the gospel story together.
I believe women’s ministry begins when a young woman is born: teaching, training, and showing her through our words and deeds what it means to be a woman who follows Christ in our sexually-chaotic age.
Furthermore, women are products of our theology. What we think about God and His Word profoundly shapes all our actions, attitudes, and thoughts. Because the Fall has distorted maleness and femaleness, I believe it is essential to train women to be keen theologians, showing them the hope of the gospel in light of the fact that all of us are sexually broken and teaching them to think biblically about all of God’s Word, including the implications of their gender.
I believe women’s ministry begins when a young woman is born: teaching, training, and showing her through our words and deeds what it means to be a woman who follows Christ in our sexually-chaotic age. We must be zealous in encouraging and equipping her to have a sound doctrine concerning her sexuality. While avoiding gender stereotypes, we must encourage her to fulfill her God-given calling as a woman. In a culture where gender is aggressively deconstructed, seen as being unnecessary for who we are as persons, we must come alongside her in the highs and lows of life and help her to delight in her femaleness as part of God’s good design. I believe it takes more than a mother to do this; it will need a community, the Body of Christ.
Fast forward to last year. I got a call from the pizza pastor. He planted a great church that had grown rapidly, but so had the issues his congregation was facing, especially those of the women. His women had begun to gather together and were looking for guidance and direction. He wondered if I would be willing to come and help the women begin to think biblically about womanhood, to encourage them both with sound doctrine and to not lose heart in this unhygienic world. I responded that I was delighted to come, and I even offered to bring the pizza.