How the Church Needs to Redefine Male and Female Relationships

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We don't need more fences. We don't need a stronger negative push against sinful sexual relationships.  We need to foster a different mindset altogether.
We don't need more fences. We don't need a stronger negative push against sinful sexual relationships. We need to foster a different mindset altogether. (iStockPhoto)
"Do not rebuke an elder, but exhort him as a father, the younger men as brothers, the elder women as mothers, and the younger women as sisters, with complete purity" (1 Tim. 5:1-2).

I've been thinking for the last few weeks how evangelicals have lost the mentality of family that Paul exhorts here, at least in our public conversations around gender and our actions between genders. For a while, really more than a decade from my perspective, gender conversations among evangelicals have been primarily focused on husbands and wives (or some version of that focus)—encouraging healthy marriages, discouraging relationships outside of marriage, discipling men to be good husbands, discipling women to be good wives, and so forth. I think many of these conversations have been valuable to the church. What does marriage that is in Christ between image-bearers of God look like? Believers must be discipled on this!

But note that Scripture talks of husbands and wives singularly, "the husband of one wife." The global application of the marriage relationship is only between Jesus and His Church, never between men and women in general. No analogy from the marital relationship transfers to average male/female relationships. In contrast, Scripture speaks of fathers, daughters, mothers, sons, brothers and sisters as categories applied generally outside of biological family.

The average Christian woman knows and interacts with hundreds of men in her lifetime, maybe more, but in most cases only ONE of those men will ever be her husband. Many in conservative evangelicalism respond to that fact by encouraging and discipling women in ways that support only that one relationship with that one man. Instead, women (and men) need to be discipled to keep Christ in the myriad of other opposite-gendered relationships they have.

Mark 3:35 says, "For whoever does the will of God is My brother, and My sister, and My mother."

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In my experience, men and women in the conservative church are mostly encouraged not to have any of those relationships at all beyond a superficial level. The fear that an inappropriate relationship between the sexes will develop justifies for many the avoidance of any male/female relationship outside of marriage. I'm afraid that in an effort to avoid inappropriate relationships between men and women, we have forgotten to foster appropriate ones.  

As one friend said, we focus so on the word "purity" in I Timothy 5 that we forget that the context is a familial relationship in which such purity is the norm. We should seek to be consistent with the example of Scripture, particularly in the ways the book of Acts and writings of Paul speak of relationships in the New Testament Church between genders. Consider both Paul's outright instructions to Timothy and his own example of how he related to women in the Church.

Paul had a relationship with Phoebe. He knew Eudodia and Syntyche well. They worked together, and he spoke of them as sisters. He exhorted Timothy to think of the women around him as family as well. Paul shows us that the default mode between genders in the Church is familial—moms and sons, dads and daughters, brothers and sisters.

Romans 16:1 says, "I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a servant of the church at Cenchrea."

Capitulation to Culture  While sex outside of marriage has always been a fairly common sin, we live today in a sex-crazed culture. On steroids. And Christians, particularly conservative ones, have allowed an increasingly sexually obsessed culture to infiltrate the church. Even when it infiltrates in its negative sense (when we prohibit sex outside of marriage and teach against looking at another woman with lust), it still infiltrates.

We try to protect our families from sinful sexual relationships. But we have still kept a sexual axis as the primary issue between genders and just tried to move the church in the opposite direction. We don't need more fences. We don't need a stronger negative push against sinful sexual relationships.  We need to foster a different mindset altogether. The church needs to plow a counterculture. It needs a new axis on gender, orthogonal to the sexual one, that equips us to live affirmatively in male/female relationships in the body of Christ.

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