I have written quite a bit lately on male/female issues. This has not been contrived through any preconceived plan, at least humanly speaking. I have thought about these issues for a lifetime. I fully expect that I will not work them out with complete satisfaction in my lifetime. I have admitted that some of this stuff frightens me. I have also admitted that being a latecomer to this dialogue I must move carefully in terms of my own response. This is not a cop out but a reasoned, principled response to what I believe is a highly emotional issue. Let me explain.
First, on the matter of women in leadership in the local church I have told my own story in the book How I Changed My Mind About Women in Leadership which gives the stories of twenty-one evangelical leaders who changed their mind on this issue. I spent more than three decades working this out scripturally, theologically and emotionally. One of the hardest parts of this issue was the pressure I felt to not to tell friends I respected and knew disagreed with me. I should not have been so fearful. My real friends have not responded negatively at all. (More than a few think I’m wrong, which is fine.) This issue is not a “core mission issue” for me or ACT 3. I continue to have friends, even members of the ACT 3 board, who do not agree with my conclusion.
Second, on the issue of cross-gender friendships I shared a little about my journey in four recent blogs on Dan Brennan’s challenging book, Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions. but this subject is in the early stages of careful thought. There is much, much more for me to read and think about. And there is a lot to discuss with a number of trusted friends, some of whom agree with me and some who do not. I want to be really clear about this. I am still working this matter out. More important than my own view on the subject is the well-being of my wife and family. I will do nothing to harm them, ever. My wife and I have always communicated about these matters openly and will continue to do so. (I strongly encourage every couple to be open about all their relationships!) I have lived my whole married life with my best friend and this relationship, held to the highest moral and ethical standards, will not be allowed to suffer in any way. I even wrote a book on morally fallen leaders, The Stain That Stays. I have rethought that book during the last few weeks. I still hold to the same high standards that I articulated there. As I work out how I respond to a whole set of new questions I will seek for deep wisdom and divine grace.
Finally, there is the issue of how to deal with gay and lesbian friendships. There is one thing I am certain about here: I am commanded to love my neighbors and this has nothing to do with their sexual orientation and practice. There are so many emotionally-charged issues that we throw up about this subject that I am very tired of the old arguments. I believe sexual union is designed by God for a husband and wife in a covenant called marriage. I also believe sexuality is badly misunderstood in our culture. I believe the church has few real answers to the sexual problems we see. I see this, ultimately, as a missional issue. (I will say more when I write my review of Andrew Marin’s excellent book, Love Is An Orientation.) I see more expression of community among gays and lesbians than among most Christian churches. Could there be something here that we need to learn that is actually quite right in spite of their sexual practice?
A recent posted comment (January 3) by my friend Dr. Joe Schaffer, a professor at Penn State University, expresses a great deal of what I have been thinking lately. I end with Dr. Schaffer’s comments from a few days ago:
If Bible study, theological study, and church leadership is dominated by men, it would not be surprising for this to have happened. There is a great deal of sexual brokenness in this fallen world, both in men and in women. But men see it primarily from their own perspective: a strong desire that seems uncontrollable and cannot ever be tamed, and must be managed by continually averting the eyes, knowing one's limits, avoiding dangerous situations, and so on.
I am reminded of what happened to Joseph in Genesis 39. When he was tempted by Potiphar's wife, he rejected her advances and simply ran away. I guess it was the best that he could do, to flee from sexual immorality by fleeing from the person. But I don't think Jesus would have done that. Jesus was remarkably free in his relationships with women, to the point of appearing scandalous to the Pharisees. When he was talking to the Samaritan woman, I don't think he averted his eyes and stared at the ground. I think he looked directly at her, seeing all of her, including her God-given beauty and sexuality, and loved her for who she was and for who she was created to be.
At what point, in our plan of spiritual growth and discipleship for men, should we expect them to grow up from the level of Joseph to the level of Jesus?
That's an actual question, not a rhetorical one.
When I was discipled as a college student during the 1980's, I do remember being exhorted by church leaders to exercise self-control and treat women with dignity and respect. But as a practical matter, church leaders were content and happy if the young men under their care acted like Joseph — avoiding sexual sin by fleeing from temptation — rather than becoming like Jesus.
In a culture like ours, where men are continually bombarded with hyper-sexualized, idolatrous images of female bodies, where immoral behavior is celebrated and healthy marriages are becoming increasingly rare, helping young men to turn away from sin to become like Joseph seems like a wonderful victory. Perhaps it is. But shouldn't we expect more? Shouldn't we expect the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit to actually heal us of our broken sexuality, so that we actually become like Jesus?
But I imagine that, if young men actually were truly healed and displayed genuinely Christ-like attitudes and behaviors toward women, many in the church would perceive it as scandalous.
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John, thanks for your kind words and friendship.
When I wrote that comment a couple of days ago, I was not thinking primarily about nonromantic cross-gender relationships (although that topic is very germane). I was writing from personal experience. The realization that, after nearly thirty years of Christian discipleship in a Bible-focused evangelical church, there were some huge deficiencies in my own character, including:
* a lack of deep friendships with people of all kinds
* difficulty in expressing affection, even to my wife and children
* overall sense of emotional disconnectedness
* lack of honesty
* the realization that, despite twenty years of marriage to a wonderful Christian woman, there was still a great deal of sexual sinfulness within me that had not been healed
* dryness in my faith and lack of intimacy in my walk with God
These issues are all interrelated. I have been experiencing God’s work in all of these areas. I still have a very, very long way to go. But I sense what God is doing here. He is working to change me into someone who can actually love him and actually love others. He is moving me from the world of abstract principles and doctrines into the ocean of relationships. Basically, he is trying to turn me into a normal, healthy human being. Imagine that! The journey is uncomfortable, disturbing, and wonderful. This is clearly God’s work, not something that I or anyone else can do.
I have been reading Dan Brennan’s book with great interest. His book is not just about nonromantic male-female friendship. He touches on all of these areas, and many more. His book articulates and validates a lot of what God has been teaching me through other channels. As I look forward to continued dialogue with you and others on these excellent topics.