The Question of Friendship: Can Men and Women Really Be Friends?

shutterstock_289833461_PRESS“If one person falls, the other can reach out and help. But someone who falls alone is in real trouble” (Ecclesiastes 4:10 NLT).
Can men and women be friends? I’ve thought about this question a lot lately, and I’ve also had a few heated discussions about this age-old question. I believe that it is a crucial question for ministry and the holy works of the Church.
Secular researchers suggest that deep, non-sexual male-female friendships are rare if not impossible (perhaps especially for men). For many people the idea seems charming but impossible. “It always leads to something else,” they argue. “Either the relationship becomes romantic or fizzles out. That romantic/sexual undercurrent will always take these relationships under like a rip tide.” Others may argue, “Maybe these friendships can happen — like maybe there is a real Loch Ness Monster or real UFOs.”
Based on my experience and observations, however, I respectfully disagree. I believe that male-female friendships can and should occur within the body of Christ. These friendships may be rare, but they are possible.
I want to explore three pictures of deep, warm, loving but non-sexual friendships between men and women — Jesus and his female traveling companions, the Apostle Paul and his co-laborers in the gospel, and the friendship between St. Francis of Assisi and his childhood friend and ministry partner, St. Clare.

Jesus’ friendships with women
Jesus shocked the world with the beautiful relationships he had with women. Because of his divine sonship he appeared scandalous with women. He broke all of the cultural rules. How was he scandalous? He traveled with women. This was simply not done; the women in this culture stayed in the temple and ministered to the rabbis — they certainly didn’t travel on the road with men.
In the gospel of Luke, the disciple and the author Luke did all but called the women who traveled with them, apostles. This to me is so affirming to women: they were a band of equals, each with their own talents, gifts, abilities and desires to bring to this community. Men and women were treated with the same respect, women and men alike.
Christ modeled for us healthy godly relationship with women. The gospel writer Luke provided one moving vignette of Jesus’ female ministry companions in his preaching work: “Soon afterward he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s household manager, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means” (Luke 8:1-3). Notice how Luke put these women in the same sentence as the 12 disciples. Jesus had transformed both the men and the women in this group, but the women were especially noted for the financial contribution they made to this band of Jesus followers.
Then as Jesus faced his death, it was his band of female ministry partners who stand out for their persevering friendship. Before his crucifixion, a woman came to anoint his body with expensive perfume. When the men around Jesus complained about her wasteful expression of friendship, Jesus responded, “She has done a beautiful thing to me … Truly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her” (Matthew 26:10, 13). And as he walked the way of the cross, Luke tells again that the women who were followers of Jesus stood out for their loyalty. Luke wrote, “And there followed him a great multitude of the people and of women who were mourning and lamenting for him” (Luke 23:27).
These vignettes have some of the essential elements of true friendship — walking through life together, being driven by a great mission together, caring for one another in good and hard times, sharing life and resources together and remaining faithful to the end.

The Apostle Paul’s friendships with women
The Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw once labeled Paul as “the eternal enemy of woman,” but that’s a far cry from what we actually see in the New Testament. Of course Paul forged deep and lasting friendships with men like Timothy and Silas and Mark. But in a few other passages, Paul shares his appreciation for some of his female friends and co-workers.
For instance, at the conclusion of Paul’s Letter to the Romans we see that women played a prominent role in the church in Rome. In a long section that extols his partners in ministry (See Romans 16), Paul sends his warm greetings to six women — Phoebe, Priscilla, Junia, Tryphena, Tryphosa and Persis — who are mentioned because, like his male friends, they “worked hard in the Lord” (Rom 16:12). In this passage, Paul also mentions three women — Euodia, Syntyche and Priscilla—because they were his synergoi (in the Greek) or “fellow-workers” (Phil. 4:3; Rom. 16:3). Paul used the same Greek word to describe his friendship with his male co-workers.
So like his Lord and Savior Jesus, the Apostle Paul carried on his life and ministry with friends at his side, and some of his most important friends were women.

The friendship of St. Francis and St. Clare
Christ laid out the model for these deep friendships between men and women based on mutual respect and honor. Then about 12 to 13 centuries later, two beautiful Christ-centered single persons — St. Francis and St. Clare — lived out the model established by Christ. As the sociologist Alberoni has said, “The relationship between St. Clare and St. Francis has all the characteristics of falling in love, sublimated or transferred to the Godhead.” They truly had all of the characteristics of “falling in love,” but what I find fascinating about their relationship is when a man and woman are united in God, this bond, if authentic, excludes all attraction of an erotic kind, even without a struggle. Both the man and woman are sheltered. It is another kind of relationship. The bond Clare and Francis shared was powerful, not possessive. They were like two trees joined by their foliage, not by their roots.
The decision between Francis and Clare was a relationship of “elective affinity,” as long as we understand “elective” not only in the sense of people who have chosen each other, but have made the same choice.
And here is the key as Antoine de Saint-Exupery wrote, “Being in love does not mean looking at each other, but looking together in the same direction.” Instead of looking at one another, Clare and Francis looked in the same direction, and we know what “direction” that was in their case. They gazed intently at Christ. Clare and Francis were like two eyes always looking in the same direction. Two eyes are not just two eyes, not one eye repeated. Neither of the two eyes is just an extra or a spare eye. Like a prism two eyes looking at an object from different angles gives the depth and relief to the object, enabling us to enfold it in our gaze…that was the relationship between Clare and Francis.
Their wish was in the life and spirit of prayer to fervently show reverence and honor to one another. They also lived the Gospel by humility not being quarrelsome, contentious or judgmental towards one another. They desired one thing alone, namely The Spirit of God within them.
How beautiful. They looked at the same God, the same Lord Jesus, the same crucified one, the same Eucharist, but from different “angles” each with their own gifts and sensitivity of properly respecting the masculine and the feminine.
“And the great thing is the played together!” In watching a movie together on this holy couple, I loved the scene where Francis is walking through a meadow and Clare follows him, almost playfully putting her feet in the footsteps left by Francis. He asks her, “Are you following in my footsteps?” She replies brightly, “No, much deeper ones.”

Practical Ways to Nurture Male/Female Relationships
Compliment one another, not compete
When we complement one another we respect, have affection, praise and congratulate one another. Grow together to achieve common goals. When we compete or feel threatened by the other, we strive to be the victor, to win or to take advantage. We begin to destroy the other.
Honor and respect
To honor we give the other special recognition or esteem. To respect another, we deeply admire them for their achievements, hold in the highest opinion.
Cultivate knowledge and love
To cultivate love is to know the depth of loyalty and love. As we increase our knowledge of the other individual, we increase our love for one another, and as we increase in knowledge and love for one another, we naturally increase our knowledge and love for our Savior.
Overall, I believe men and women can be platonic friends. It’s rare, but it can happen as long as the friendships occur within the body of Christ.

NOTE: In writing this article, I am indebted to Savannah Cottrell for her fine blog post “3 Ways Jesus Related to Women.” I also want to thank Father Cantalamessa’s work “Francis and Clare: In Love, But with Whom?”

Julie Woodley, MA, is founder and director of Restoring the Heart Ministries as well as a Gateway Counseling Center Therapist. For information visit Rthm.CC or call 1-866-780-7846.

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