Category: Articles (page 1 of 2)

Is the church breeding loneliness?

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.

Whatever happened to rescuing the princess?

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.

It’s funny how things have changed so much since the 80s. These days, just for one example, we have the UK Advertising Watchdog banning gender stereotypes, and some schools are experimenting with essentially eradicating the difference between boys and girls. There is also a growing concern about so-called toxic masculinity (as I wrote about recently).

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…)

  1. 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?
  2. 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?

Non-sexual romantic relationships?

Sam Allberry has been busy recently – not so long ago he recorded a great video about singleness and friendship, now he’s written an article: May SSA Christians Have Non-Sexual Romantic Relationships?

The article kicks off:

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’.

‘Toxic masculinity’ and Safe At Last

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.

Genesis 1:27

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.

Psalm 86:8-10

Love Without Limits: Polyamory and Friendship

Yesterday I watched Louis Theroux’s documentary Altered States: 1. Love Without Limits. It was a fascinating programme and one which is well worth reflecting on. It was documenting the rise of polyamory – that is, people who choose to live in ‘open’ relationships, with more than a single couple involved. It followed about three different groups (I can’t call them couples!) and explored how their relationships worked.

I have a few reflections which I’d like to talk about here, because I think the documentary has some relevance to what Friend Zone is about.

1. Polyamory is desire gone mad

It was painfully obvious, in every single arrangement, that there was at least one person getting the raw end of the deal. No-one came out and said they were unhappy with the polyamorous arrangement, but it didn’t take much reading between the lines to see that was the case.

The phrase ‘have your cake and eat it’ sprang to my mind more than once during the course of the programme. I think in every arrangement, it had originated with someone being unhappy and wanting to add to what they had rather than stop a relationship and start a new one. It was unhindered desire – human lust given licence.

2. One is not enough

One thing which was said repeatedly during the programme was ‘How can one person be enough?’ – i.e, one person is not supposed to fulfil every one of their partner’s needs. This is something I completely agree with – and a big part of the reason why Friend Zone is here.

However, the solution is completely different. Polyamory says – ‘one person can never be enough… therefore you need multiple sexual relationships’. This is the complete antithesis of Friend Zone: this site exists to say ‘one person can never be enough… therefore you need lots of friends.’ Which leads on to the third point.

3. No-one got what they wanted

It really struck me that all the people involved were searching for something, but they never really found it. One of the things I enjoy is being around couples who’ve been together a long time – couples who’ve been through thick and thin together, who are comfortable with each other. I believe that my wife and I, having been married for 12 years, are more comfortable with each other now than we were to start with – and I hope that will continue to grow through the course of our lives. Because marriage is an exclusive relationship, we have a commitment to each other which has grown – and the level of trust and love for each other has grown as well.

What really came home to me watching the polyamory documentary is that, by introducing sex into everything, the polyamorists didn’t get either marriage or friendship. There seemed to be a constant level of tension and unease in the relationships. There was no real commitment

And it struck me that, in order to have deep friendships, one must be coming from a place of security: in order to relate to someone – especially someone of the opposite sex – you have to have the security of knowing what kind of relationship it is. If every relationship is  potentially a sexual relationship, then it’s going to spoil everything from the start.

And this is why I am increasingly of the opinion that the traditional Christian understanding of marriage – as in, the lifelong union of a man and a woman – is good news for the world. It is the bedrock of healthy relationships: sexual intimacy belongs within the confines of marriage, and is safe there. Friendships can flourish when sexual intimacy is taken off the table. However, if sex is loosed from the confines of marriage, it destroys everything – friendship included. As (I believe) Ray Ortlund said: “Sex is like fire: in the fireplace, it keeps you warm. Out of the fireplace, it burns the house down.”

Losing our ability to see beauty

Over the past week or two I’ve started working my way through Revelation with Ian Paul’s new Tyndale Commentary. I’ve very much enjoyed reading it so far – Revelation is a book I’ve always been a bit scared of, so getting to grips with it has been on my list for a long time.

The other day I came across an interesting comment on Revelation 3:18 (from the letter to the church in Laodicea). That verse says: “I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so that you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so that you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so that you can see.”

Ian comments:

In Greek culture, nakedness served to show off the glory of the human body, and participants in the games competed naked – hence our word ‘gymnast’ derives from the Greek for ‘naked’. The associated shame is in line with Jewish rejection of public nakedness (and hence their objection to the games), but here relates to the Laodiceans’ failure to ‘put on’ the way of living that is true to their faith (cf. Col. 3:9-14).

It’s hard to imagine participants in the Olympic Games participating naked! But the ancients certainly had a different view of the body and nudity than we do today in 21st Century Britain. Looking back through history and across the world, many different cultures have had different views of the body. Even cultures which are fairly close to home – for example, my wife was telling me the other day about her experience going swimming in France. It was the norm there (at least where she was) for the women to swim topless – even those who had one-piece costumes would roll them down. Everyone did it, it was just normal – no-one batted an eyelid! (For the record, she couldn’t bring herself to do the same…)

Societies throughout the ages have had different views about what is and is not permissible. However, I don’t think the church has always responded in the best way – I talked about this previously in my Christian Modesty post. The other day I saw this tweet:

I think this is a pretty fair representation of many British Christians: believing in Jesus entails modesty which means (amongst other things) always being clothed in public. Now there are, of course, many good reasons for clothes to be worn! But I wonder if there isn’t something deeper going on: do many Christians think nakedness is lewd and improper because the body itself is lewd and improper? In other words, the issue isn’t to do with nudity per se but rather what leads to that particular view.

Why does it matter?

The other day I was thinking about how things are so different for teenagers now broadband internet is widely available in the UK. Teenagers have access to pornographic material which is almost beyond imagination. Martin Daubney, ex-editor of lads’ mag Loaded, shortly after quitting as editor filmed a documentary called Porn on the Brain. He wrote about some of his research here:

I’d been invited to sit in on a forward-thinking class led by sex education consultant Jonny Hunt, who is regularly asked into schools to discuss sex and relationships. To establish what these kids knew about sex – including pornography – he had asked the children to write an A-Z list of the sexual terms they knew, no matter how extreme.

… when Jonny pinned their lists on the board, it turned out that the children’s extensive knowledge of porn terms was not only startling, it superseded that of every adult in the room – including the sex education consultant himself.

… When questioned, they had all – every child in a class of 20 – seen sodomy acted out in porn videos. I was stunned they even knew about it – I certainly hadn’t heard of it at that age – let alone had watched it and as a result may even have wanted to try it.

Pornography is changing the landscape of young adults – has already changed it beyond recognition in the time since I was a teenager. Teenagers now have access to just about anything, for free, on their smartphones. All of this has consequences – and we are seeing some of those consequences now (I talked about a few of them on this site).  The key question is: what is access to porn at such a young age doing to these teenagers? In particular – is it affecting not just their view of sex, but their wider view of the body? If the only nudity you are exposed to is in the context of pornography, isn’t that going to colour your understanding of the body?

What can / should we be doing?

In my previous post about modesty I suggested that modesty actually exacerbates the problem. The message it sends out is, “the body is something sexual – therefore it needs to be covered up.” I remember as a child going to the National Gallery in London and looking at beautiful works of art and feeling a bit uneasy seeing pictures e.g. of naked breasts or a penis – why should this be the case? As I explained in that post – the human body is not something shameful. We, the church, have the theology, we have the Holy Spirit – how then should we tackle this problem?

Here I have to say that I’m not sure the best way forward. How should we help young people to have a healthy self-image? There are a few steps in this regard, but I’m not sure that we’ve really cracked this one yet. Answers on a postcard (or comment below, or drop us an email).

Lest I be misunderstood, please understand that I am not recommending some kind of Christian naturism! I don’t think this is the right solution – not least because it locates the solution in nudity rather than in Christ. Calling the church to have a healthy view of the body doesn’t mean that we should go to the opposite extreme!

But I do think what Friend Zone is about has something to offer, and I think it is to do with seeing each other in the context of a non-sexual relationship. When men and women can see each other as genuine friends, part of that means appreciating what is beautiful without the corruption of sexual desire. That’s why I entitled this post, “Losing our ability to see beauty” – because one of the things I’ve realised about our society is that it’s virtually impossible now to see someone as beautiful without reading a sexual connotation into that. (Or at least, I think this is more true for younger folk – millennials and younger).

One of the things I’ve learned over the last few years is that it is not sinful for me as a man to acknowledge that a woman is beautiful. Partly this has been caused by watching my wife breastfeeding our children – which is a beautiful and natural thing for her to have done. It made me realise the extent of the way our society’s view of the female body has become distorted! And as I’ve thought about the body from a theological perspective, it has come back to me repeatedly that the body is not an insignificant or trivial detail in God’s plans: Men and women should see each other holistically – we are not disembodied souls floating around, but embodied. Count up the number of references in the New Testament for using our whole bodies for God – for example, 1 Corinthians 6:18-20:

Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body. Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honour God with your bodies.

It is not our disembodied souls that God lives in – but our bodies. And as Christians we are to honour God with our bodies – not just in the negative (avoiding doing what is wrong) but positively doing what is right. How we see each other’s bodies is a part of the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit – we should not rest content with what society says, or with some kind of legalistic ‘modesty’, but rather the inner transforming work of the Spirit.

Summing up

Let me draw a few conclusions. I appreciate this is not a short post and I just want to make as clear as possible what I am and am not saying.

I am not arguing for nudity to be part of the church – rather, I think the British church’s attitudes to nudity demonstrate that we need to think more carefully about the body. Especially given our current cultural context.

The big question, to my mind, is this: how are we broadcasting the ‘better story’ compared with our society? Do teenagers receive a positive message about themselves and their bodies from the church – not just from what they hear in teaching, but from what we do? Are men and women, with the help of the Spirit, seeking to see each other holistically – with God-given beauty rather than a sinful distortion of it?

I don’t have the answers, not right now. But all I know is, unless we are prepared to ask some tough questions, we won’t get any answers.

Challenging ‘Christian Modesty’: Shouldn’t we be more positive about the body?

Yesterday I wrote a review of Aimee Byrd’s book, “Why can’t we be friends” (it’s great, by the way – you should read it). At the end of that review I said “As I got to the end of the book, it struck me that there are many more angles on this which weren’t covered. I don’t say that as a negative – just that I have realised this topic is so much bigger than I thought it was a few months ago.”

One of the things which I have been thinking about is about the body – a topic I wrote about fairly recently but I think is worth exploring in more detail. There is something of a ‘modesty’ culture in Christian circles – it’s probably more pronounced in America, from what I hear, but certainly Christian women in the UK know about it. Women are supposed to cover up, not to expose too much, lest their bodies might cause a brother to stumble.

The problem is, of course, that women start to see their bodies as a source of temptation and shame and men start to see women’s bodies as a source of temptation and something to avoid. This kind of modesty culture seems to me to actually encourage seeing one another sexually. The irony – something which is designed to avoid temptation actually ends up causing more of it! But that’s the problem, isn’t it? Trying to deal with a situation through the Law rather than Grace. It can’t be done – the Spirit is the only way.

If we truly believe that bodies are good, and that Christ came in the body to redeem us – body and soul – and that our whole bodies should be used as instruments of righteousness – shouldn’t Christians be known for our love of all things physical? Shouldn’t Christians be known to demonstrate our affection physically (“Greet each other with a holy kiss”, as Paul says in no less than four of his epistles!). What right does the church have to be so concerned with the pharisaic appearance of righteousness that it overlooks these things?

A few months ago I was at a youth event with some of our church teenagers. The speaker was from another local church, and he talked from Psalm 139 about how God made us and how God loves us. One of the things he said which really hit home to our teenage girls was about loving ourselves and our bodies, because God made us. These girls are so often given negative messages about their bodies – they need to look a certain way to fit in, etc – that it was revolutionary for them to hear something positive about their bodies. And it’s made me think: what good news do Christians have to offer for people, women especially, who are struggling in this way?

I know one or two women who are blessed with breasts that are above average in size (the fact that I had to resist a huge temptation to use a euphemism there is probably in itself indicative that something is wrong!). I think they feel a little ashamed of themselves, like they have to disguise it – that maybe their bodies are a cause of sexual temptation. Obviously this isn’t the case for every woman in this situation, but in a culture where breasts are sexualised to the point they are in much of Western society, you can hardly blame Christian women for feeling a bit guilty.

What kind of good news is the church offering young women if it sends out a conflicted message – “your bodies are good, a temple of the holy spirit, made beautiful by God – BUT try and cover yourself up and stop men looking at you.” The more I think about it, the more I think that we as a church need to be working hard at this – we need to show people what it means to love one another, bodies included. Not just tell them. I often think of Glynn Harrison’s book “A Better Story” – we need to be showing the world a better story, not preaching one story from our lips but demonstrating something else with our actions.

We believe that God made bodies and made them good – let’s ask God to help us show that and not just proclaim it.

So… we should all become nudists, right?

Haha. Good try, No, that’s not what I’m saying. But we still deal with the effects of sin and the fall – modesty is of some value, even if we haven’t got everything right in the church. But we should challenge unhealthy attitudes wherever they are found, and I do feel that some of the attitudes in the church at the moment are unhealthy. Bodies are good – that doesn’t mean we need to be naked all the time! Grace doesn’t mean that we can throw all caution to the wind, especially with those outside the church. (Paul may have been alluding in 1 Corinthians 11 about long hair to temple prostitutes, who would signal their availability by waving their uncovered hair around.  It’s important to be wise about how we engage with the world.)

The challenge is to present a right attitude to the world while at the same time acknowledge that the world has gone very wrong. How we do that is not an easy thing, and I certainly don’t have all the answers. Personally, I’m just beginning to think about this and start to get my head around it.

But some food for thought: many of the great artworks of previous generations contained nudity – think of Michelangelo’s David, for example. He, and many classical artists, could see the beauty and dignity of the human body.  (I should say, so can many artists today). We, by contrast, live in a culture where women have to fight for the right to breastfeed their babies (I have two young daughters, both of whom were breastfed – I know a little of the struggle that goes on here). Breasts are so sexualised and seen as improper that it’s become difficult in public for a woman to do one of the most natural things in the world. What a messed up world we live in!

Perhaps we as a church need to recover something of the goodness of bodies, not reduce them (as society does) to sexual gratification but see the beauty inherent in what God made good. All of this is part and parcel of what it means to be friends – seeing each other holistically, as Aimee Byrd put it. I pray that God will enliven the church to meet the hour – that we may be driven further into the Scriptures to seek what the Spirit is saying at this time.

Friendship and the Body

It was the end of a long, hot day. We’d had a busy day getting up to all sorts of fun and now it was late in the evening, and we were sitting round a camp fire. I was 20 years old, and sat next to my friend Naomi. While we were sitting there, she just took my hand and held it for a while. Somehow we both knew it wasn’t a romantic thing – it was just friendship. We just sat there holding hands for a while, watching the fire and listening to others chatting around us. All that happened about 15 years ago – it was on a Christian Union summer house party (don’t ask). But the event is notable because it was the first and only time that such a thing has ever happened to me.

Why do I mention this? In my last post I mentioned an article about the body I’d been reading. It’s got me thinking again about how much of the Christian world at the moment – in the West, at least – seems to be fairly gnostic: that is, the body is often seen as a bad thing. No-one actually comes out and says this, of course! – but sometimes our theology is revealed more by what we do than by what we say.

Bodies are sexualised – I can’t speak for women, but for me as a man you don’t have to look very far to see women’s bodies being sexualised on TV, media, etc. It’s mainstream now – and it has been for a long time. ‘Sex sells’. so they say.  Christians are rightly upset by seeing sex used in this way – but I think the reaction is seeing bodies as sources of temptation to be avoided rather than something good which God has made.

So, for example: for me, as a man, rather than seeing a woman’s body as a beautiful thing which God has made, I see it as a source of temptation and try to avoid them as much as possible. I think this is a large part of what contributes to avoiding cross-sex friendship.

But is it right to think like that?

‘In the beginning…’

I’m always struck by Genesis 2:25: “Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.” ‘Body-shaming’ is a horrible modern term, but there was none of it before the fall. Adam and Eve were comfortable in their own skin, comfortable with their bodies. God made their bodies, and made them good – every part of them. Shame didn’t come until after the fall – in 3:7, once they have eaten the fruit, the first result we are told about is realising their nakedness and feeling shame.

I often wonder – although we live in a fallen world still, Jesus came to inaugurate the new creation – to reverse the curse of the fall and free men and women from slavery to sin. Should Christians therefore be more or less ashamed of bodies? I think Christians should be people who are known for rejoicing in all aspects of God’s good creation – human beings and bodies included. God made our bodies, he made them good, God made beauty, we should rejoice in it!

This also means Christians should be more eager to use their bodies, more eager to touch – e.g. give someone a hug, etc. We are supposed to love one another – and, as embodied creatures, we don’t just love someone with words – we love them in an appropriate physical way as well.

But – am I being over-optimistic here? We do live in a fallen world, after all: does the reality of sin mean we should hold back? I don’t think so.

Using our bodies

One of the things which I never noticed before until recently was how the New Testament talks about bodies. Here, for example, are Paul’s words in Romans 6:

Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer any part of yourself to sin as an instrument of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer every part of yourself to him as an instrument of righteousness. (v12-13)

We should offer ‘every part of ourselves’ to God – body, mind, and soul – as an instrument of righteousness. This is more than our bodies, of course, but not less! What we do with our bodies matters.

Paul, again, writes in 1 Corinthians 6:

The body, however, is not meant for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. By his power God raised the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself?

Here Paul warns against sexual immorality – because how we use our bodies really matters. Our bodies are “members of Christ himself” – what a high view of the body!

Galatians 2:20: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” So the Christian life is a bodily life – not simply a ‘super-spiritual’ life.

Lastly, 1 Thessalonians 4:3-6:

It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honourable, not in passionate lust like the pagans, who do not know God; and that in this matter no one should wrong or take advantage of a brother or sister.

Controlling our own bodies – this is sanctification.  Again, not a ‘super-spiritual’ thing but an earthy, bodily sanctification. I hope that we as a church should expect the Spirit to be sanctifying us in every way – not to expect sinless perfection in this lifetime but to have realistic yet positive expectations for change and growth.

Bodily Purity

This is what I come back to time and again as I go to the Scriptures: we are exhorted many times against sexual immorality – but the point is not simply to avoid sexual immorality but to do what is right. We should be people who use our bodies in the right way, rather than simply in the wrong way.

I’m not a person who does physical contact very easily. I’m not really a hugger – generally, when people are giving out hugs and kisses at the end of my home group, they avoid me. Clearly they’ve understood my body language! But is that right? Is it right for me to avoid physical contact?

It seems to me, from the Scriptures, that to be pure is not simply avoiding wrong physical contact but doing right physical contact in its place. Similarly with bodies – not simply avoiding thinking about bodies in a sexual way but positively thinking about them in the right way.

We live in difficult times in the church, and I am increasingly convinced that we need to show the world a better way – A Better Story. How we see bodies and how we use our bodies really matters in this sexualised age when so much has gone wrong with the way our society sees and uses bodies. Let’s pray and trust that God can renew us by his Spirit, even at such a time as this.

Is feminism bad for friendship?

A few days ago I recorded a video “Is feminism bad for women?” (See the bottom of this post to watch the full thing).

In the video, I said that feminism is not good because – in its current incarnation – it seems to want to eliminate the differences between men and women, leaving no space for appreciating the traditionally ‘feminine’ roles such as motherhood. (Watch the video for the full thing!)

One of the things which struck me which I didn’t have time to talk about in the video is the question of feminism and friendship: is feminism actually bad news for friendships between men and women?

I think it is, for a couple of reasons. Firstly – since, as I just said, modern feminism seems to want to eliminate the differences between men and women, we no longer relate as men and women. We are just generic ‘people’. The thing is, if there are differences between men and women, relationships won’t take account of that.

Chivalry is a pretty old fashioned word these days – and I’m not saying we should bring back the 1950s or anything like that! – but I have found it enormously beneficial in all my relationships to be aware of the dynamics going on between men and women. The fact that it sounds so ridiculously outdated and sexist to be saying something which is actually fairly common-sense shows just how much feminism has influenced society. (I’ve written more on this site about the differences between men and women.)

Secondly, there is a large part of feminism which seeks sexual liberation – in other words, to have the same sexual freedom that men enjoy. (I think this is a large part of what is behind the abortion movement). In the programme I mention in the video “The Trouble with Women”, Anne Robinson talked to some of the grid girls at Brands Hatch. In this part of the programme she suggested that women should have the right to use their sexuality and bodies however they wanted to. However, later in the programme she talked to women who had faced sexual abuse in public places (e.g. the London Underground) – and yet didn’t really draw any connection between these two things, other than we need more feminism to correct this.

This, again,  struck me as being self-defeating. We live in a society which is obsessed with sex and sexual attraction. If feminism includes sexual liberation, then it will be bad for women and bad for friendship. I wrote an article about this on my blog – “Sex is burning the house down #MeToo”.

Watching the programme I was struck once again by how lost our society is when it comes to men and women, and how the Bible offers a compelling and attractive vision for flourishing for us whether male or female.

The Revoice controversy – can desire be sanctified?

There’s been a bit of a storm created over the last few days about the Revoice Conference. The conference description says: “Supporting, encouraging, and empowering gay, lesbian, same-sex-attracted, and other LGBT Christians so they can flourish while observing the historic, Christian doctrine of marriage and sexuality”.

This has created a big discussion online – for a start, Douglas Wilson has some links to different people as well as his own take. The gist seems to be (1) is it OK to identify as a ‘gay’ Christian? (this is what Owen Strachan takes issue with); (2) it’s not right to explore the bounds of celibacy as to what is appropriate for same-sex attracted Christians.

I don’t want to talk about the first issue as that has been going on for some time. I do want to talk about the issue of celibacy, as it’s relevant to what we’re about here at Friend Zone.

Doug Wilson says this in his piece:

As Hill’s book makes plain, a commitment to celibacy does not prevent one from falling in love with a best friend, or from being heartbroken when that friend moves away. So on one end of the spectrum we have a prohibition of sexual consummation, and in the context of this Revoice conference, no one disagrees about that. But on the other end, what is legitimate? Where is the line supposed to be? When does okay turn into not okay?

Some of my questions might seem ludicrous, or impertinent, but I am in deadly earnest. Suppose that an oath-bound set of friends—what Hill is arguing for—is living together. They are committed to celibacy, which means . . . what, exactly? What does day-to-day life look like in the home? We would appear to know of the one thing prohibited (although even the boundaries of that may be uncertain), but there would also appear to be a wide range of things that still need to be discussed.

But in this new world of blurry definitions, what does celibacy not allow? Is hand-holding out? When they are watching a movie, how close can they sit together? Can they cuddle? When a man falls in love with his friend, is that a violation of the commitment to celibacy? I think it is high time for someone to define celibacy. What do you mean by it? Does a commitment to celibacy exclude sleeping together? Showering together? Nudity? Physical, affectionate contact? Hand-holding? Back rubs? Falling in love? If there is sexual arousal, but no orgasm, is that still celibacy? If a man falls in love with his celibate partner, and they kiss, but it goes no further, is that celibacy?

This is interesting because I think it raises a question around the nature of sin and sanctification which underlies this disagreement.

Sin, I think all would agree, is more than simply actions – it comes from the heart. Luke 6:45 says, “The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks” (ESV). It’s not just the mouth – we know that sin proceeds because our hearts are impure, not the other way round. Our actions do not make us impure – impure actions flow from impure hearts. Therefore – the only solution is to fix the heart problem, not to fix our actions. God alone can fix our heart problem – these oft-quoted verses from Ezekiel 36 prophecy what God was to accomplish in Jesus: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws” (Ezekiel 36:26-27).

So we need new hearts, we need to be renewed by the Spirit. I think all would agree so far. God takes our sinful desires and transforms them into gospel desires. We are renewed from the inside out. It’s important to remember that the goal is not for us simply to avoid what is sinful but to love.

The issues seem to be (1) here exactly does same-sex attraction ‘fit’ within this? Is it ENTIRELY bad, or is there something good which is horribly distorted by sin? (2) is it actually possible for our desires to be truly transformed? Is it reasonable to expect that this side of glory?

Let me give an example from my own life. I am a married man, but I occasionally find women who I am not married to attractive. I used to think this was an entirely sinful thing and repent of it all – but, the thing is, it didn’t stop attraction happening, and it actually led to me basically avoiding women for fear of what might happen. In my mind, avoiding women became the way I dealt with sin. Over time, I have started to see that I was wrong here – or at least, only partially right. As I said previously, attraction is not one-dimensional: it has multiple dimensions – some of them are good and right and godly, some of them are bad and wrong and sinful. It has been in recognising this that I’ve been able to take steps towards friendship – when I meet a woman where there is attraction, I find it helpful to think that there are some good things about my feelings as well as some which are sinful. Through prayer and the work of the Holy Spirit, as I repent and turn to Christ, I hope that what is bad is decreasing whereas what is good is increasing. I wonder if something of this is going on with Christians who experience same-sex attraction – is the desire entirely wrong, or is there something which can be redeemed?

I often return to 2 Peter 1:3, “His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.” We don’t lack the tools here – we have the Holy Spirit, we have the gospel, sinful hearts can be made new and desires restored.

Returning to Doug Wilson’s piece, I disagree with his argument around celibacy. It seems to me the Revoice conference is not about trying to push the boundaries of what might be permissible – the Bible is quite clear that we are called to absolute sexual purity. You can’t have a little bit of sexual purity! At the same time, I think it is right to explore what celibacy and friendship looks like – not for the point of ‘pushing the bounds’, but rather what love might look like in these cases. Physical contact is not necessarily sexual – in some cultures, for example, it’s quite normal for two men to hold hands. It’s not about trying to do everything right up until crossing some kind of red line! It’s about working out what sanctification and holiness look like in a specific set of circumstances.

My contention, and this is partly why Friend Zone is here, is this: we live in a sexually saturated world. Everything is affected by it. Christians need to show the world not just how to avoid doing anything wrong, sexually, but more – that there is a better way. Sex is not God. Desires can be transformed, sinners can be forgiven – and that love is truly possible without the corruption of sexual desire. Maybe I am being over-optimistic, but what I read from the pages of the New Testament is that God doesn’t call us to anything which he doesn’t also provide the resources for. If God is calling the church to a new area of sexual purity and holiness, one which has perhaps been unexplored for a long time, then maybe it’s time for the church to listen.

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