Why Can’t We Be Friends?: Avoidance Is Not Purity by Aimee Byrd — Book Review

by Katharine Armbrester

While it may seem safe to impose rules that separate us from ordinary encounters with the other sex, this isn’t the virtue of purity. It is overly sexualizing of others. Rejecting impurity or sexual transgression should never lead to rejecting the value of another person.

Continuing in our series of Aimee Byrd, another deep and challenging work from the self-described “housewife theologian” is her endlessly insightful Why Can’t We Be Friends?: Avoidance Is Not Purity. In this book, Byrd describes the legalism, self-enforced deprivation, and anxiety that plagues many Christians when they fall prey to the non-Biblical cultural belief that it is impossible for a non-married man and woman to be friends.

Byrd asks the questions that doubtless many readers are also wondering: why is friendship between men and women so rare? Why do Christians look at male-female friendships with suspicion? Does the lack of male-female friendship lead to unrealistic expectations for marriage? Why aren’t more Christians talking about this problem? Thankfully, Byrd answers these questions with blunt honesty, humor, and Biblical truth.

Byrd first became interested in this subject when she was invited to join a preacher and a theologian (both male) on the The Mortification of Spin podcast, and was surprised at the outraged reaction from many listeners, who thought that a female participant would “distract” the men and lead them into sin, despite the fact that all the participants were married and had already been friends for a long time. Byrd was distressed at the sheer volume of negative comments, and also movingly writes in the book how she was once not given a ride to her car in a dangerous part of town from a fellow (male) Christian because being alone with a woman was a “temptation” to him, and he prioritized his own reputation over her physical safety.

Undoubtedly, every woman in the church has a similar story of feeling rejected and shamed merely for being female, and as Byrd reveals, this gender segregation is the result of fear, it is not a manifestation of godliness, and these painful confrontations can be avoided when men and women have a proper understanding of Scripture and gender relations. As Byrd powerfully laments: Is our greatest hope for intimacy and communion to be found only in a marriage so fragile that giving someone else a car ride can ruin it? Do Christian marriages, which were designed for this lifetime only, display Christ’s love for his church to outsiders if we put this kind of pressure on one another?…If we can’t be trusted to have enough integrity to show one another common decency, then our souls are far from purified, and we certainly can’t have a sincere or fervent love for one another.

The idea that it is unsafe for men and women to be merely friends is by no means a Biblical truth, but a lie that Christians have absorbed into daily living from the worldly culture around them. The most famous cultural representation of this lie is Billy Crystal’s womanizing character in When Harry Met Sally, who states that “the sex part gets in the way” of inter-sex friendships. Also, the late Billy Graham even perpetuated this thinking in his refusal to eat with a woman other than his wife. As Byrd illustrates, a great deal of good is lost when suspicion rules male-female interactions, rather than the grace of God. Neither “the Billy Crystal rule” or “the Billy Graham rule” are rules that Christ lived by, and neither should Christ-followers.

When it comes to relationships between the sexes, we don’t combat evil with constant suspicion, regulations, and avoidance. In fact, we sin when we allow a ruling passion or sensual desire to determine our relationships, grieving the Holy Spirit and quenching his work to develop the affection of godly siblingship.

Siblingship in Christ is the treasure that is irrevocably lost when fear and legalism make friendships between non-married men and women suspect, or impossible. With this loss of siblingship, multiple opportunities for fellowship, service, charitable works, and mutual emotional support are either stunted or foregone completely. In one of the most valuable chapters, “Cultivate a Church Environment That Supports Sacred Siblingship,” Byrd highlights all the “One Anothers,” in Scripture—the sacred injunctions to love one another, as siblings, and all the ways that men and women can help each other in their Christian walk through their friendships.

Men and women together bear the image of God in humanity. That means we need to view our sisters and brothers holistically, not just physically….It also means our physicality should not pose a threat to one another. Is our zealousness to avoid sin inadvertently training Christians to reduce women to sexual temptresses and men to animalistic impulses? We are to be transformed by the renewing of our minds… To view the other sex as constant temptations to sin and threats to purity merely perpetuates the thinking and behavior of the unredeemed.

Again and again in Why Can’t We Be Friends, Byrd reiterates the Biblically sanctioned benefits that arise from male-female friendships that are sacrificed every day to the altar of cultural tradition and gender suspicion. We have forgotten that Christ scandalized the culture of his day and the Philistines that enforced it with his multiple friendships with women, from whom he received not only emotional aid but wisdom. When friendships are not supported or treasured within Christianity, one of the most devastating side effects is that too much pressure is placed on the marriage relationship to fulfill all the emotional needs of the man and the woman. Also, when inter-sex relationships are viewed as suspicious, single Christians are relegated to the margins of the church, and they do not receive the benefits of siblingship that Jesus himself experienced as a single Christian. Would we view Christ with suspicion if he walked among us today, due to his single status and loving friendships with women?

Friendship is one of God’s gifts. The strange part is that many Christians today are afraid to publicly acknowledge before our fellow evangelicals any affection or friendship with the other sex, denying altogether this gift and the responsibilities that come with it. In the new heavens and the new earth, men won’t be separated from women, we won’t pour all our affection, intimacy, and passions into our spouses, and we will be too spiritually mature to pretend that we don’t need the gift siblinghood and friendship with the other sex. So it’s imperative to practice appropriate ways to express our gratitude to both the Giver and one another now.

Why Can’t We Be Friends? is an invaluable resource on a little discussed topic in Christianity, illuminating a blight that is so insidious and has blighted Christian relationships so subtly and for so long that many have simply taken the lack of male-female friendships as a fact of life. “Men are from Mars and women are from Venus, and it is impossible for them to be friends without fooling around,” etc., is the reasoning we often hear. But this is not the truth. It is imperative for Christians to be discerning, and to separate harmful cultural beliefs from Christian truths, and one of those truths is that men and women are most certainly allowed, able and encouraged to be friends with one another, and to glorify God in these earthly representations of spiritual siblingship. And, as Aimee Byrd reveals, we cannot begin too soon.

Click here to read the review of Aimee Byrd’s “No Little Women: Equipping All Women in the Household of God”

Katharine Armbrester is in the MFA creative writing program at the Mississippi University for Women. She is a devotee of Flannery O’Connor and Margaret Atwood and fully intends to be an equally disconcerting playwright—she thinks Alabama needs one.

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