Let me give you a few quotes to whet your appetite.
Godly men will indeed emanate compassion, humility, service, and love. This is true. But is this the whole truth? Has the ideal of manhood in the modern church become just a gentle shadow of what God made it to be?
Endangered is that species of lionhearted masculinity that bears Aslan’s description: “not safe, but good.” Our present ideals, like the ones I once held, do not require goodness to make men safe, because they ensure that men are safe regardless of goodness. The man reborn in this image says nothing uncomfortable, rallies no charge, and shows little, if any, initiative. He is goaded to be convictionless, passionless, perhaps even Christless, if but subdued.
The King’s men will be found, with Christ, in the thickest parts of the battle. They will eschew wasting their lives venturing nothing, growing warm for nothing, exercising no initiative, taking no stands, building no fortitude of faith, engaging in no spiritual battle, carrying no burdens, planting no flags on unconquered hilltops. The men of this King, for the very reason that they despise playing with foam swords against the forces of evil, create the safest culture for their women and children. Dangerous men under God, holding one another accountable, will not stand idly by as the bears maul those they should rather protect and nourish.
I thought it was a helpful article which helps me to think about what needs to happen in the church. We want more godly men, and we want more godly women – in fact, being godly men and women requires growing into godly masculinity and femininity expressed through our own unique gifts and personalities.
Do have a read of the article – I hope this is a subject which I will return to.
I’m currently reading Francis Schaeffer’s book True Spirituality. Although I’m only half-way through, I’ve found it an excellent read so far – exactly what I needed to hear, and what (in my opinion) the Western church needs to hear at the moment.
The basic thesis is that we can’t simply claim orthodox truths and be done with it – we actually have to put it into practice. We can’t simply say we live by the power of the Holy Spirit without actually living by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Here’s a quote I read yesterday which is characteristic of what he says throughout the book:
The Christian’s call is to believe right doctrine; true doctrine: the doctrine of the Scripture. But it is not just a matter of stating right doctrine, though that is so important. Neither is it merely to be that which can be explained by natural talent, or character, or energy … Preaching the Gospel without the Holy Spirit is to miss the entire point of the command of Jesus Christ for our era… Whatever is not an exhibition that God exists misses the whole point of the Christian’s life now on this earth [My emphasis]. According to the Bible, we are to be living a supernatural life now, in this present existence in a way we shall never be able to do again through all eternity. We are called upon to live a supernatural life now, by faith.
Schaeffer, true spirituality, p.86-7
The point of the passage is that Christians should be living their lives proclaiming the truth that God exists – not simply saying that he exists. I don’t know about you and your experience of church – but this hits home for me. I’ve been in church all my life, and I can recognise what it looks like to say one thing but live life a different way.
Bringing this round to what Friend Zone is about, I think what Schaeffer said is very relevant. I think Christians have for too long assumed that sexual morality in the Christian life is all about avoiding: avoiding temptation, avoiding members of the opposite sex, avoid anything which might be considered wrongdoing (hence the subtitle of Aimee Byrd’s book – “avoidance is not purity”).
However – does this way of living actual proclaim that Jesus is alive? Is this way of living empowered by the Holy Spirit? It seems to me that the ‘avoidance’ strategy is actually a strategy of self-reliance. It’s a strategy which anyone could use, whether a non-Christian or not. It doesn’t really require a belief in the supernatural. In the Schaeffer’s words which I quoted above, it could easily be explained by “natural talent, or character, or energy.” Thousands of non-Christians have gone through their lives without having an affair!
This is why I think the ‘godly wisdom’ of avoiding sexual temptation has to be re-examined. God is bigger than sexual temptation! We have a Christ who sets us free, who died and rose again that we might share in his resurrection life right now. We have a Holy Spirit who indwells us, who transforms us day by day. Why oh why do we persist in the mistaken belief that we can defeat sin simply by avoiding temptation?
It seems to me that the times when God is working most powerfully in my life are the times when he is calling me to do something I simply cannot do in my own strength. This is because, as the Lord said to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). When we rely on ourselves, not only is this sinful (because we shouldn’t be self-reliant), but we are presenting a bad witness to the world. How can we tell ‘a better story’ if we don’t have God’s help? But when we are called to go beyond what we are capable of, we are forced to rely on God.
So much of the time I think Christians in recent years have fought temptation in a worldly way, and haven’t even realised it. But we simply can’t maintain that any longer – we will either give in to sexual temptation or, with God’s help, rise above it. The church now has a huge opportunity: sex has become such a huge deal in our society, akin to a god, that Christians have the ability to demonstrate just what kind of a life it’s possible to life when God is with us. When sex is dethroned and God is rightfully put on the throne, it’s possible to live in a way we never thought possible.
I’m beginning to awaken to the kind of possibilities this might enable – but more on that another day. Anyway, for the moment, I do commend the book to you – it’s a fantastic read and I hope you will see the relevance of it to Friend Zone and the church today.
In our church, we have just started a short series on Genesis 1-3. I preached last week on Genesis 1:1-24, and as I was preparing it struck me once again how important it is to understand these foundational texts.
In the sermon last Sunday, we were looking at the next passage, which contained these words:
26 Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’
27 So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.
28 God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.’
As I was listening to the sermon, what really hit me is the emphasis on ‘male and female’: it doesn’t simply say that God made people, in the generic sense, but he made them male and female. All throughout Genesis 1 God separates – he separates the land and sea, land and sky, day and night – and male and female. Two complementary things which are designed to work together in harmony.
In the case of male and female, this is all part of mankind’s dominion over creation (v26). And v28 goes on to say that an important part of that is to ‘be fruitful and increase in number’ – clearly a reference to procreation (and therefore marriage).
What struck me this time, however, is the universal nature of this division in humanity. Sometimes I think this passage is referred to as if it only applies to marriage: men and women are to come together in marriage, but not in other ways. But I don’t think this does justice to the scope of what is in view here. I don’t think Genesis 1 envisions men and women ruling over creation, only coming together in marriage to procreate. Marriage and procreation is very important, even foundational – but it is not exclusive.
Mankind is designed to rule over creation, to be God’s image bearers over the earth. If men and women are designed to complement one another, then that ‘complementarity’ should be expressed at every level – not simply within marriage, but all over the place.
Let me try to ground this with one or two examples. You often hear of ministries which are run by a husband and wife together. How often do you hear of things which are run by two friends – a man and a woman? I’m sure it happens, but I don’t think it happens much. I am currently helping to run a baby and toddler group with a female friend, and it seems to be working out pretty well so far. Perhaps the idea of running things as friends could be explored further.
It seems to me that our vision of masculinity and femininity, and how we relate as men and women, has been so clouded by sex for so long that it’s hard to think in another way. But the more I think about it, the more I think there is to think about!
Please comment below and let me know if you have any other ideas.
I have written about loneliness on this site before – for example here. It is well known that loneliness is one of the biggest issues facing society today – in today’s hyper-connected world, people are actually forming fewer deep friendships and relationships.
This week I read an interesting interview with Rosaria Butterfield about whether the church is actually breeding loneliness, rather than helping. Here’s how it begins:
Is the church breeding loneliness? Rosaria Butterfield answers yes.
She believes we have declared independence from each other in our culture and, sadly, in our churches. Once upon a time, the church was “of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common” (Acts 4:32). Shared time, shared food, shared possessions. Shared identity. They were the early church — a family bound together by the blood of Jesus.
Many of our churches today have left behind that picture of the family of God, though. The contemporary Western church’s “absolutely low or nonexistent culture of family of God” has fostered an unparalleled depth of loneliness, with single women in particular buried at the bottom.
Rosaria’s solution is for families to open their doors to single people, especially single women.
I thought it was a very helpful article and much of it resonated with what I’ve been writing about here. I’d just like to pick up on one thing she said. She suggests opening up families to single people is a good idea because “it places healthy pressure on a marriage to be a godly marriage and not resort to ‘living together like roommates'”. I thought this was a fascinating and insightful remark: often there is a view in churches that being faithful to your spouse is simply a matter of not sleeping with anyone else. So long as you’ve been sexually faithful, you’ve discharged your duty as a husband / wife. But I wonder if this is having too low a view of marriage and our responsibilities in it: Christians are called to more than simply avoiding doing what is wrong and should be investing, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to have the best marriage and be the best husband / wife you can be.
The problem is, if you think that the nuclear family is an island – that the biological family is the centre of the universe, and the church is just an extra activity that you do – then you can actually get away with quite a lot. I think a lot of people, rather than seeking to invest in marriage, simply ‘get by’ – as long as there isn’t too much temptation from outside, they coast along. Sadly a good number of Christians have fallen prey to this way of thinking.
So how would opening up a family to others help? I was just imagining what it might be like to have a single woman living in our house – especially, say, a young and attractive woman. Certainly I think there would be more than a few raised eyebrows in response. I can hear people now: “Isn’t that a bit… unwise?”
But it strikes me that this is exactly the kind of situation which the gospel speaks into. God forgives us in Christ Jesus, and gives us a new power by the Holy Spirit to do things which we would not otherwise have the power to do. We too often have the mindset: “Marriage is hard – so let’s not put any pressure on it”. In doing so we overlook a great opportunity. Instead we should have the attitude, “Marriage is hard – so it needs healthy pressure on it to help it grow.” God, after all, thinks that we need healthy pressure on our lives to grow as Christians.
One of the biggest realisations I have come to over the last few years when it comes to sanctification is that God doesn’t call us to things we think we can do – he calls us to things we think we can’t do, so we may learn the truth of what Jesus said: “apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). When we go through hard times, when pressure is put on us, it is an opportunity for us to grow in our dependence on the Lord.
I’m not suggesting that we should therefore seek to put as much pressure on ourselves as possible! But rather – maybe we should in humility have a more open attitude, and listen to where the Spirit may be leading us in these things. And trust that He is faithful and will help us to do what we do not have the power to do ourselves. Perhaps opening up marriage and family life to include single people would actually be the best thing that could happen to a marriage.
When I was a kid, I grew up playing Super Mario Bros on my first ever games console – the NES. I’ve recently rediscovered it with an online emulator as I’ve been trying to show my daughter a little about what Daddy used to do as a child! It was a fun, albeit frustrating game: every time you completed a level, after defeating the final boss you’d get told: “Thank you Mario! But our princess is in another castle!”
It’s funny, looking back, just how dated it seems. I’m not talking about the 80s graphics and audio quality, I’m talking about the whole concept of rescuing a princess. I think it’s highly unlikely today that you’d find a game which had such a stereotypical view of men and women. These days you’re more likely to find strong female characters – in fact, I think it’s almost obligatory to have strong female role models in just about everything. The main aim seems to be to subvert the stereotype – perhaps a princess rescuing a prince.
So what’s the problem? I’m wondering if society has thrown the baby out with the bathwater. Stereotypes are, after all, there for a reason – there is a reality they are based upon: they don’t simply fall out of the air! Men and women do tend to behave in certain ways – even if they don’t always have to behave like that, or there are plenty of counter examples.
One of the things I’ve been thinking about lately is the issue of strength. Strength is traditionally seen as a more masculine thing: men are physically stronger (I saw a study recently which concluded that, on average, Caucasian women had about 1/3 of the upper body strength of men, and Asian women had about 2/3 of the upper body strength of men.) And, simply from observation, I think there is a sense in which men are ‘stronger’ in some senses of personality. (If you want a longer form read on this, you should read Alistair Robert’s blog from a few years ago: Why we should jettison the “Strong Female Character”.)
The Bible does speak a little about these things. One passage which is very ‘un-PC’ is 1 Peter 3:
Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers.
1 Peter 3:7
What exactly does Peter mean by ‘the weaker partner’? He doesn’t spell it out – but I think his words do resonate for me as a man who has been married for 12 years now. Even if I can’t describe exactly what that means!
I do think there is a sense, from the Bible, in which men are supposed to use their strength – whatever that may entail (physical or otherwise) in order to protect and care for those who are weaker. The Bible often talks about protection of “the fatherless and the widow” – vulnerable women and children.
I’ve been thinking about this and wondering whether this role has largely disappeared from society, certainly in terms of the way things are portrayed in the media. Are there many strong male characters any more, taking the traditional role of caring for women and children? Do men have positive role models to look up to in this respect?
As I said in my previous post about toxic masculinity – if men don’t have positive role models and examples, if masculinity is not seen in any way to be a positive thing, are we setting ourselves up for a problem? If society doesn’t want to acknowledge some basic facts about men and women, does that give men a licence to abuse because they don’t see anything better? I’m not trying to excuse men from responsibility, but – it strikes me that society may be in the process of shooting itself in the foot (again).
I don’t think there are any easy answers here, but I’d like to suggest a couple of questions to think about. (Answers on a postcard…)
How could we promote a positive vision for masculinity and strength without resorting to ‘rescuing the princess’? Is there a way of portraying masculinity in a modern, positive way without stereotyping?
Friend Zone is about friendship between men and women. How do those understandings of men and women, masculinity and femininity, work themselves out in friendship? Especially when we think about things like strength and weakness?
I’ve just finished reading Love Thy Body by Nancy Pearcey. It’s a really excellent book and I would recommend anyone to read it. For me, I think its biggest strength was helping me to ‘join the dots’ with respect to many of the issues we are facing as a society today: it made the case that homosexuality, transgender, and abortion are all manifestations of a deeper underlying belief about our bodies.
I particularly appreciated her explanation of the ‘upper story’ and ‘lower story’: many of the justifications for these things are based on the point that our ‘upper story’, the story in our minds and wills, is more important and that our ‘lower story’ , our bodies, is unimportant. Society see our bodies as basically bags of meat, things which are fairly unimportant compared with our minds and emotions.
Therefore – if you feel like you belong in a different body (in particular – gender), than it’s your body which is wrong. Your body is not the ‘real you’, so to speak. She applies this to the other issues as well, showing that most people think our bodies do not define us.
So, what do we do? Christians, in particular, should be affirming the goodness of God’s creation – the goodness of the body and the material world (while at the same time acknowledging its fallenness.) As I have said before, should Christians not be more positive about the body? Should Christians not be setting an example in how to relate to each other in a physical way?
All of this has made me think about friendship. In the past I think I’ve seen friendship largely as a non-physical thing: we relate only on the level of intellect and emotion – not at all on the physical level. The physical level is largely reserved for marriage.
I just wonder whether this is healthy and Biblical. There is a question in my mind: what would ’embodied’ friendship look like? What would it mean to be friends not just on a spiritual / intellectual / emotional level but on a physical level as well? This is partly what I had in mind in the previous post about non-sexual romantic relationships.
Is there a space to explore what it means to be ’embodied’ friends – and yet sexually pure? I think there is, but – as for what exactly that means – I don’t know as yet. Suggestions on a postcard.
In the meantime, if you haven’t read it – do read the book. It’s a great read and very eye-opening and helpful – not just in diagnosing the problem but in helping us to see what Christians should be doing instead!
When it comes to same-sex relationships and the church, I’ve heard more and more people propose some sort of committed, same-sex, non-sexual romantic friendships for those who want to uphold the Christian sexual ethic.
This, they say, avoids the supposed loneliness of singleness while upholding biblical standards of sexual behavior.
(Much of what Sam says is helpful and you should read the rest of the article).
I’d just like to pick up on one thing, the use of the word romantic. Now, I’m not quite sure who has been proposing ‘romantic’ friendships. I know there are couples like the women who write A Queer Calling, but I’m not sure whether they would describe their relationship as a ‘romantic’ one.
I think one has to be careful in defining things here. Clearly there is more to distinguish between marriage and friendship than simply sex: friendship is a different kind of relationship than marriage. As a married man, I hope I am qualified to say that!
At the same time, I do wonder whether there is some room to explore the concept of friendship further – and I don’t mean in a ‘romantic’ direction.
Sam makes much of the fact that marriage is an exclusive relationship, whereas friendship is not, and gives the example of a hiking holiday where having two friends with him actually made a better trip. The thing is, I think this could apply as much to marriage as it does friendship: I enjoy times with my wife alone as well as other people – everything about friendship applies to marriage. The only thing, virtually by definition, which is exclusive about marriage is sex – and, we might add, romance. But what is romance?
Romance is a pretty broad term, I suggest it might be helpful to think of romance as being things which ultimately are about sex: a romantic dinner date, for example, as preparation for a romantic night. You could call it ‘wooing’ – there’s a word which doesn’t get used often enough.
But a lot of romance is what’s going on in the minds of those involve: two people having a ‘romantic’ dinner will look basically the same as two good friends having dinner – the only difference being what they are thinking, and where they think it’s going to end up.
So, when it comes to friendship, I wonder: if you (rightly) take romance out of the equation, where does that leave you?
I’m not going to offer any answers her per se, other than to say this is what I am working on with this site. I just think there is a space here to develop our understanding of friendship – in a non-romantic way.
So I think the answer to the question, ‘May Christians have non-sexual romantic relationships?’ is a firm ‘no’. Romance, as I’ve defined it, should not play any part in non-marriage relationships. But, on the other hand, I would say the answer to the question ‘Is there a space to develop our understanding of n non-romantic friendship?’ is ‘yes’.
I saw an article on the BBC earlier – How do your porn habits compare with young people across Britain? It’s based on findings from a survey commissioned for a new BBC 3 documentary called Porn Laid Bare. (The documentary is available on the iPlayer but I haven’t watched it yet – as and when I do I will probably write about it).
The statistics are, sadly, becoming par for the course: I’m unsurprised by the fact that 62% of young people have watched porn in the last month. I’m unsurprised even by the fact that the BBC have produced a documentary about it which was on the front page of the iPlayer when I looked at it this evening.
The most stunning statistic is perhaps that 45% of young brits say that porn has been their main source of sex education.
I have talked about the porn problem on this site. It is depressingly and tragically common now – the life of teenagers has become, for want of a better word ‘pornified’ – and it is having a massive effect. My sincere hope and prayer is that young people will discover a better way – otherwise who knows where we are heading as a society?
Yesterday I happened upon a review of a Channel 4 Documentary called Safe At Last – ‘Inside a Women’s Refuge’. The review moved me to actually watch the programme last night. It was not an easy watch, to be honest. What got to me most of all was the sheer scale of it all – apparently the national refuge helpline gets over 230 calls every day. It was a real eye-opener, to put it mildly.
It was clear to me that there are no easy solutions. The Guardian review said:
Such a programme shouldn’t be necessary, of course. Fundamentally, because men shouldn’t be isolating, coercing, abusing, beating, strangling, raping and threatening to murder the women they live with. But we know they do, have done and – unless things change in ways greater and more dramatic than perhaps anyone can envision – will continue to do so. Let us accept that as a brutal given.
That abuse happens is a ‘brutal given’. There are no easy answers – but, is there something which could point us in the right direction?
A few weeks ago Gillette launched an advert – ‘the best a man can be’ – which encouraged men to be better when it comes to sexual harassment, i.e. to treat women with respect, and encourage other men to do the same. This resulted in a backlash – which was probably over-the-top, but there was something in it.
I think there is a huge amount of concern at the moment about ‘toxic masculinity’ – the kind of behaviour illuminated by the #MeToo movement, and in the documentary. The problem is, sometimes it seems that all masculinity gets tarred with the same brush. Sometimes the way people discuss it veers close to: “Well, that’s just what men are like… what do you expect from them?” I think you can see that a little bit in the quote above (“Men shouldn’t be…”).
Over the last year or two I’ve seen a number of people say that the solution we really need is more feminism. It seems to me that these two things – toxic masculinity and feminism – are linked. Feminism, in its modern guise, wants to promote women and women’s rights – much of which is to be applauded. But it has little to say positively about masculinity – instead the focus lately is on toxic masculinity. But toxic masculinity – as I understand it – is saying to men “stop it, reign it in, curb your impulses – so you won’t be the monster you really are underneath.” (Interestingly, I don’t think many people have been talking about toxic femininity, although let’s leave that aside for now).
In other words, women are being promoted and lauded, while men are seen as the problem and commanded to do better. Women get a free pass because they are the victims, whereas men are the problem. (I’m sure I’m over-simplifying here, but this is the way it often comes across to me. And I’m certainly not suggesting that women are not victims.)
I think this solution is a recipe for disaster and there are no surprises that it’s not working. Feminism, at least in its modern form, is partly about undermining and eradicating the differences between men and women. ‘What men can do, women can do just as well.’ There is no need for a man to be the breadwinner, there is no need for a man to be the head of the household, etc. The traditional roles of men and women are out of the window.
The problem is, the baby has been thrown out with the bathwater. There was good which came with a traditional masculine role as well as bad. And what is happening is that many men have seized the opportunity to relinquish responsibility – something I see tragically around here in the number of single mothers. I think a lot of young men now live in a sort of perpetual adolescence – they don’t have the need to grow up by taking responsibility for a family (even if they have children…)
Where are the positive role models for men? Where are the voices telling men not just to stop the bad stuff but positively to take responsibility, be a strong man, care for women and children, etc? This is one reason I think Jordan Peterson is so popular – he’s one of the few people who is saying those kind of things.
One of the lessons I’ve learned over the last few years is that you can’t change people simply by telling them to ‘stop it’. You have to give them a better vision, something to aim for. Role models are part of it (surely part of the problem is a growing number of children growing up without fathers). But in general it’s far better to show someone what they should be doing rather than simply telling them what they shouldn’t. Men need to be shown how to be men, rather than told how not to be!
Where does Friend Zone come into all this? So much of the time, I see and read things which just make me think our society is so lost when it comes to men and women. We all agree there is a problem, but no-one really seems to have the foggiest idea what to do about it. We need to re-learn what it means to be men and women, we need to re-learn the goodness of being made male and female.
So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.
This is a lesson which is hard for our society to hear: it’s not all men’s fault. In fact, part of the problem is a culture which locates the problem primarily with men – some men, at least. We desperately need to recover the Biblical vision for both men and women. And we need a Saviour who is capable of forgiving our failures and restoring in us the image of God which has been marred.
This is where I hope that Friend Zone can play a small part. Over the last few years I’ve come to realise that I don’t simply relate to other people as a person – I relate as a man. I’ve become increasingly aware of the way that sex and gender plays into our relationships. And I’ve also become increasingly amazed at how God has made men and women to complement one another and the joy it can bring when those relationships flourish.
There are deep issues in society, and it may well be the case that abuse is a a tragic ‘brutal fact’ which will always be there to an extent. But perhaps if more men and women can learn to be friends, that would be a small step. And perhaps if we as a society can learn to embrace the realities of the way that God has made us, and encourage men and women to grow into those, it would make a real difference. There are huge challenges – but God is great and there is no end to what he can do.
Among the gods there is none like you, Lord; no deeds can compare with yours. All the nations you have made will come and worship before you, Lord; they will bring glory to your name. For you are great and do marvellous deeds; you alone are God.
I watched this conversation just now and found it fascinating. One of the things Sam said which really struck me was that if the church had been fulfilling its vocation to be a family, we wouldn’t have the same problem that we do now with same-sex attraction.
The church needs to rediscover its vocation to family, friendship, and intimacy (but not sexual intimacy!). The nuclear family is not the be-all and end-all – yet sadly the church has for far too long (perhaps unwittingly) preached the message that it is.
Anyway, I thought this was a great conversation and lots of food for thought there. I hope you enjoy it.