Can We Just Be Friends?—Some Reflections on the Graham Rule

The following are some rough and random thoughts on the Graham/Pence Rule, which, in response to the allegations made against Bill Hybels and others, is being discussed again.



Although it isn’t a position that I have encountered that much in the wild, some Christians believe that the Graham/Pence Rule should be a hard-and-fast rule for all Christians to follow (I don’t follow it, for the record, although I would definitely be minded to under slightly different circumstances). However, this rule gets its name from self-imposed prudential principles adopted by two men in highly unusual positions.

Billy Graham, for instance, adopted it as one of a number of principles to protect him from the sort of moral failure that had afflicted other Christian evangelists and devastated their witness and ministries. The ‘Billy Graham Rule’—which involved never being alone with a woman who was not his wife—was designed to avoid temptation, the appearance of impropriety, and the danger of false accusations.

Billy Graham was someone who frequently travelled without his wife and family and stayed alone in hotels. As an extremely famous figure, he would be less likely to enjoy privacy in public or visible places. Many thousands of admiring women came to hear him speak. Such a way of life exposed Graham to great emotional excitement and exhaustion, to specific pressures and constraints, and to uncommon temptations and dangers. In light of such factors, the prudence of Graham’s principle should not be lightly dismissed. Its prudence is harder to oppose when one considers how Graham’s ministry was distinguished from those of so many others by its avoidance of scandal.



Tish Harrison Warren’s article on the subject of the Graham Rule presents some principles that she and her husband use to avoid temptation in their marriage. She opposes the Graham Rule, believing that ‘in its most pristine form’ it makes friendships between the sexes impossible. She presents the Graham Rule as legalism and argues for the alternative of wisdom and virtue.

However, wisdom and virtue are not uniform for every situation. Nor does holding that something is a matter of wisdom mean that we are each free to choose our own preferred course of action: a failure to take a path that is wise in your particular situation is something for which you can be held sinfully culpable. While Warren is surely justified in opposing a legalistic general imposition of the Graham Rule, Graham’s own self-adoption of the principle certainly looks a lot like wisdom in the extreme context of his unusual calling. A great many men in ministry who have fallen into sexual sin could have benefited from adopting it.



Sex and power are entangled in all sorts of complicated and inconvenient ways. Sex can be a source of a sense of power, and power can also be a strong aphrodisiac. Politics is never far from erotics. Likewise, spiritual influence often has an erotic component, which, in the hands of foolish or immoral people, can easily be abused. Unless guardrails are established—and especially high ones where the danger is most pronounced—boundaries can easily be crossed when people are weak or wicked.

Here we should consider that women can naturally respond to charismatic preachers and leaders, who speak to their most intimate spiritual needs, who show a concern for them that their husbands might not, and who have an aura of high competence (similar things can happen with charismatic professors and young female students). This presents temptations to many men for which they might be quite unprepared, perhaps especially if they have not previously been recipients of much female attention.

Indeed, it is very easy for both parties in such an interaction to be flattered by the other’s attentions and for them to fall into sin if they are not guarded against it. Morally compromised men in such situations can also use their power to abuse women or take advantage of the inclarity of women’s feelings towards them. Much as therapists must be alert to the phenomenon of transference, so pastors need to be exceedingly wary of the emotional dynamics of their pastoral relations with others, especially those of the other sex.



We would be foolish to think that most people who end up falling into adultery go into it willingly and with their eyes open. All too often, it begins with a licit yet unguarded relationship. A faithful pastor receives the admiration of a congregant for the wisdom of his spiritual counsel. Struggling with insecurity or a sense of being underappreciated, he is flattered by and, over time, begins to feed more and more upon this person’s admiration. The admiration is that bit more gratifying as he finds the congregant rather attractive and more so as things develop.

The congregant, in turn, is flattered by the attention that such a man is giving her, attention that she may not be receiving from her husband. Both of them find that the subtle but growing sense of the other’s attraction to them creates a delightful charged character to their interactions, and come to value each other’s attention over that of their own spouses. Chemistry is fun! Before too long, unless they arrest things, unguarded affections will become subtle flirting, which will in time become strong emotional attachment and then actual adultery. People can become hooked before they know it.



It is important to consider boundaries. Boundaries can be both internal and external. In the practice of their vocations, pastors, like professors and counsellors, will encounter many people with weak or lowered boundaries. They will encounter highly impressionable people who develop intense attachments to them, attachments that will occasionally have an erotic component. Many others will lower their boundaries with them.

And pastors can struggle with all sorts of weak boundaries of their own. Pastors can be incredibly lonely and relationally isolated, bearing many people’s burdens, but with no one to bear their own, which makes them vulnerable to affection. If they experience tensions in their marriages, the stark contrast between the appreciation shown by others and the lack of appreciation of their wives can leave them open to temptation. Pastors shoulder a lot of emotional weight and can struggle with weariness, bitterness, and self-pity. Their insecurity can also make them susceptible to flattery, much as it makes them more susceptible to criticism.

Developing and maintaining healthy internal boundaries requires constant work on one’s self, habits, and relations. It requires working to maintain a strong relationship with one’s spouse. It requires dealing with one’s insecurities. It requires developing a far thicker skin to both criticism and flattery from all but carefully chosen quarters. It requires seeking truthful and righteous sources of encouragement, so you won’t be vulnerable to the lips of the flatterer. It requires being alert to and on guard against the temptations that power opens one up to. It requires addressing one’s loneliness and finding appropriate sources of emotional support and encouragement. It requires intense concern for one’s own spiritual, psychological, and relational health before you consider helping others. It requires eating and sleeping well, so that you are less likely to be weak and weary. It requires diligent investment in your family’s well-being. It requires deliberate development of better routines and robust habits, so that you are less at the mercy of your impulses in weak moments.



It also requires the establishing of external boundaries. The claim that purity is not avoidance is misguided. Purity will often require avoidance of situations that would be dangerous for us. Of course, purity is not mere avoidance (and purity isn’t merely a matter of not sinning). However, avoidance will often be the prudence that is part and parcel of the pursuit of purity. Scripture commonly connects fleeing from evil with the pursuit of righteousness (e.g. 1 Corinthians 6:18; 1 Timothy 6:11; 2 Timothy 2:22). Fleeing from youthful lusts or from the temptation of money may require plucking out offending eyes.

The external boundaries we set up, to avoid finding ourselves in a position of temptation for which we are unprepared, will generally not involve complete avoidance of something. More commonly they will involve avoidance only in particular times and contexts where we would be more vulnerable and principles for careful negotiation to minimize exposure to strong temptation at other times. They will also involve structures of accountability or principles of engagement.



It should be noted that Warren’s list of principles that she and her husband follow are far from universally applicable. They wouldn’t have been the most helpful for someone in Graham’s position, for example. However, even beyond Graham’s extreme case, most couples should be exceedingly wary of following Warren’s tenth principle (‘If ever there is even the faintest attraction to someone—even distant potential weirdness—we tell our spouse that day’): it could easily be a recipe for serious marital tensions.

Seriously, guys, don’t try this at home.

Warren’s principles also seem to depend heavily upon spouses whose lives, work, and friendship groups largely overlap. Most couples probably won’t find themselves in this situation. Of course, a society where a great many men and women spend much of their time in close interaction with members of the other sex in contexts where their spouse is neither present nor a regular participant is no small part of our problem here. Warren’s principles might not be very helpful for such persons.

Warren’s principles also rest a lot upon maintaining a close and communicative marriage. This is very good, as far as it goes. However, the challenge comes when there is marital tension or distance (physical or otherwise). It comes when communication is weak, one spouse is lonely, self-pitying, angry, bitter or resentful, insecure, or weary and someone of the other sex shows them attention or affection. What happens then? Will loose principles which allow for exceptions suffice? The dam isn’t built for the regular high tide, but for the thousand-year flood. It is easy to claim that the dam is working really well, when it hasn’t yet really been tested.



Near the end of her article, Warren writes:

I also recognize that there are some men or women who, due to pornography or sexual addiction or particular patterns of weakness, may not be able to have relationships with the opposite sex. These men and women should admit that to themselves and their community honestly and seek help. But we must all recognize that those are unique boundaries for a particular area of unhealth (like alcoholics wisely avoiding bars) and not a generally applicable principle that assumes that women are an inherent threat to all men.

In light of the huge scale of the problem of porn use and addiction among Christians and pastors, perhaps stronger boundaries are much more needed.

The resistance to the idea of erecting boundaries and avoidance of particular contexts, interactions, and practices as elements of our pursuit of purity is often based upon a sort of heroic conception of virtue that simply does not adequately reckon with the sinfulness and the weakness of the human heart. The righteous man isn’t a match for every temptation that will come his way and his wisdom is found in his flight from and avoidance of many of the most dangerous temptations to which he would be exposed.



Faced with the crumbling of many of the boundaries that once protected us against our temptations, the result is as often as not the overwhelming and undermining of Christians’ virtue, rather than their healthy development of more robust virtue in response to the exposure to danger. Flattering themselves that they are strong and mature enough to face temptation, many Christians end up watching the same depraved, violent, and sexualized entertainment on their TVs and computers as their non-Christian neighbours. Although they may feel guiltier about it, they still end up with secret porn addictions, while still perhaps feeling superior to other Christians who have set up strong limits on their Internet use. They may look down on the weakness of their neighbour who feels the need to disconnect from social media, yet they spend much of their time losing their cool or indulging their laziness or envy on Twitter and Facebook, feeding a preoccupation with its immediacy that eclipses their spiritual horizon.

The pride many Christians have in rejecting the legalism of fundamentalism’s excessive boundaries often does not seem to be manifested in greater holiness of life, a more intense hunger for righteousness, wiser behaviour, and deeper virtue, but in more thoroughly rationalized dabbling in the dirtiness of the world. Even many Christians who are earnestly pursuing holiness can far more easily be overcome by sin in a society where the boundaries that once protected us from temptations or from acting upon them are so lowered.

Reading Christians of past ages, one is often struck by their strong sense of a need for renunciation of anything that would hinder or trip them up in their pursuit of holiness. Their strong rules around entertainment or interaction between the sexes seem so excessive to us today—surely purity is not avoidance! Yet it is hard not to wonder whether this is simply because we have such a high tolerance for sin, provided that it is perceived to occur among consensual adults and to be a tolerable cost incurred by our increased enjoyment of autonomy. Likewise, we seem to have little sense of our weakness and corruption: we all have a fifth column within our hearts.

The overwhelming majority of people have sexual relations outside of or prior to marriage. 40-50% of marriages end in divorce. The overwhelming majority of affairs begin in the workplace and with friendships. The majority of Christian men watch porn at least once a month. All of these figures are dramatic increases upon what they would have been a century ago and are exceedingly high among Christians, not just outside of the Church. Many of the Christians succumbing to these sins are typical and sometimes prominent members of our churches, not scandalous sinners.

If we really cared about purity, perhaps we would recognize our vulnerability to temptation and flee from some of the factors that clearly contribute to these problems. Yet we seem to value high levels of autonomy over deliverance from the clutches of vice. We are also proud in our supposed strength and maturity.



People complain that the Graham Rule is built upon fear, yet I see little evidence that most people fear falling in these areas enough. Scripture warns us to flee sexual sin, alerting us to the fact that it can lead people to their death. When we see Christian ministers losing their integrity, falling away from Christ, losing their marriages and families, losing their vocations, causing their churches to implode, should we not fear? Should we not be warier to avoid the places where they fell? Fear is a perfectly appropriate motivator when it comes to dealing with the destructive power of sin in our lives and communities and one that Scripture often employs. The idea that fear is an inadmissible spur to preventive measures against sin is dangerous foolishness. We aren’t remotely near sufficiently fearful in our dealing with sin.

Of course, we need Christian courage, courage that is confident in the power of grace over sin, a courage that isn’t satisfied by mere avoidance, but which throws itself into positive duties of service of God and neighbour. However, the notion that such courage involves either a negation of appropriate fear of sin, or a rejection of the need for avoidance of key dangers is a grievous error.



Warren’s counsel falls far more on the side of those who are wary of the idea that men and women can ‘just be friends’. For Warren, men and women can be friends, but it requires real caution. This much is good, being far more realistic than many of the positions out there.

Far too many are studiously oblivious to the significant differences between men and women when it comes to friendship more generally and cross-sex friendships more particularly. Even within the same ‘friendship’, men and women will often regard the relationship differently: a great many women think that they are ‘just friends’ with men who are sexually attracted to them. Men are more likely to harbour feelings for their female friends and to want for the friendship to become something more. Men and women have different tendencies when it comes to what they look for from friendships. Men are more likely than women to look for romantic and sexual relations, while women are more likely to look for support and protection.

Mismatched desires and expectations are a common feature of such relations: men can feel trapped in the ‘friend-zone’, while women can be annoyed by their male friends’ romantic or sexual expectations of their friendship. This doesn’t mean that friendships can’t exist, but it does make them rather more complicated to negotiate.

There is also the fact that male and female modes of friendship differ more generally. Male friendships are far more commonly situated in larger groups of friends and are forged through doing things together or around a common interest or passion. Female friendships are much more likely to be emotionally intimate and dyadic—more face-to-face than shoulder-to-shoulder. Male friendships tend to be rougher than female friendships—men often bond through shared struggle and rough treatment of each other. They also tend to involve much less direct communication and, when communication does occur, it is more likely to be externally focused.

The sort of friendships that are being discussed when people wonder whether men and women can ‘just be friends’ are far more typically dyadic face-to-face relationships. However, while such relationships may be close to women’s more typical forms of friendship, they tend to differ significantly from men’s. Female friendships tend to be far more emotionally intense than male friendships: teenage boys, for instance, are much less likely to have BFFs or to experience the same dramatic break-ups with their friends.



C.S. Lewis’s definition of friendship, in contrast to many of those implicit in contemporary accounts, is one that has a shared regard for a common interest, good, pursuit, or truth at its heart. There is a sort of erotic element to friendship, but the eros is a shared desire for something else that binds the friends together. This sort of friendship is also one that is by its nature highly welcoming of third parties that share the same interest. Lewis discusses how easily friendship can shift into eros in relations between the sexes, while also observing that such relations can highlight the difference between friendship and eros, as friendship is not exclusive or jealous in the ways that our erotic bonds with another are.

It is important to be more critical of the unexamined assumptions about and theories of friendship that underlie many contemporary discussions of the subject. For instance, the commonality of a narrow focus on dyadic friendships may be suggestive of a conceptual cloudiness and practical imprudence. There is a degree of exclusivity implied in the way that such friendships are described that should provoke serious questions about the nature of the bond being discussed.

Friendship, as Lewis describes it, arises out of a more general companionship in a larger group, as two or more persons find a specific common interest that gives them a kinship of spirit, a kinship that they are eager to find others to share in. Indeed, where such friendship genuinely exists between the sexes, one would expect that the concern to extend it would be more pronounced, in order better to distinguish it from the exclusivity of eros and to protect it from the ever-present danger of straying in that direction.

Now, Lewis’s discussion of friendship is limited in certain respects. It centres a form of friendship that is more typical of men, raising questions about the dyadic friendships that are more common among women. Such friendships are far more likely to be characterized by an intensification of ‘affection’ in their basic relational character (employing Lewis’s taxonomy), an intensification of affection that is less open to outsiders.

Male friendships can be affectionate, of course. However, it should be noticed that the intensely affectionate male friendships that people point to as examples of this good—e.g. Frodo and Sam in The Lord of the Rings, or the friendships forged in war—are friendships where that deep affection has grown out of the binding power of a common quest or testing experience. Friendship develops into something more affectionate through shared struggle and growing familiarity; close affection is not its starting point. As the companionship of a group of men is testing through shared struggle it can deepen into a powerful fellowship of brotherhood, with friendships becoming highly affectionate and emotionally expressive. Such relationships are extremely rare in the modern world, though.



Greater conceptual clarity really is essential here. When we talk about ‘friendship’—and especially between men and women—what precisely do we have in mind? Are we talking about dyadic bonds of growing mutual affection? Are we talking about an enjoyment of companionship in community? Are we talking about non-dyadic groups of people of both sexes bound together by the intensity of a shared pursuit or common love? Are we talking about friendships that are ordered away from exclusivity, or friendships that are intensifying it? And we should bear in mind that much of what we call ‘friendship’ falls rather short of what that term has often been used to denote in more careful discourse on the subject.

The idea that someone observing the Graham Rule cannot have friendships with the other sex is one that typically contains unhelpful yet undeclared assumptions about what friendship must be. Is it the case, for instance, that Billy Graham had no strong and meaningful relationships with women outside of his family?



The fact that Christians are referred to as ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’ is often taken as invitation to overplay a familial analogy. However, one’s relationships with Christians of the other sex is not held in check by either the natural dampening of attraction caused by the Westermarck effect, nor by the incest taboo: there are crucial differences between relations between natural brothers and sisters and between male and female Christians.

Yes, we have a deep spiritual kinship with each other. However, this is a kinship that has a particular character: a kinship discovered in our common orientation towards and fellowship in Christ, not in private affectionate relationships that move in the direction of exclusivity. Further, Christians have generally recognized that this kinship is one that must occur within clear bounds of propriety, bounds of propriety that are quite different from those which exist between natural brothers and sisters.



Arguments in favour of increased cross-gender friendships should not be dismissed by using ad hominem arguments. However, it is important to register the way in which various of the men who have most prominently advocated for such friendships and encouraged people to be less wary of them have had abusive relations with the other sex, failing to uphold crucial boundaries. They might not be the best examples to follow here.

Hugo Schwyzer, who was once vocal as a highly progressive Christian, wrote a piece in The Atlantic, praising Christians advocating for friendships between men and women. A few years later, we all discovered that he had been sleeping with his students, with porn stars, and with other women whose trust and friendship he had exploited.

John Howard Yoder advanced a bold theory of ‘non-genital affective relationships’ between the sexes. The Church should be a radical new community, where the fact that we are truly brothers and sisters allows for affectionate touching and physical contact between the sexes, contact that would be erotically charged outside of the Church, but which familiarity should enable us to overcome. Yoder’s own ‘experiment’ in non-sexual touching involved him touching or making advances on over fifty different women who came to him as a mentor, authority figure, or friend.

The reviews of Dan Brennan’s book, Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions: Engaging the Mystery of Friendship Between Men and Women contain comments like the following:

Dan Brennan is a public figure. He speaks and writes and puts himself out there as the expert on friendship between men and women. But be warned. If the author of a book can not live out what he writes, then should his book really be read? I’ve known Brennan for 10 years and over the course of time he has blown up multiple relationships with women that were once “very close friends.”

For a variety of reasons he is unable to do what he suggests that you do – sometimes those friendships blew up over sexual issues (one friend of 20 years that he wouldn’t stop kissing—and wouldn’t even admit that it was a problem); another friend who he physically tried to attack (me—Dan and I were close friends for 10 years. You can see my name in the front of his book); a whole variety of friends who he now calls “crazy” because they disagreed with him on what exactly friendship should be. He is a man who is not in control of his own actions—who often claims he cant even remember his own actions, including kissing 3 friends on the lips multiple times.

If you look at this book and something in your gut says, “something isn’t right here”, then you are correct….This book and author are not what they claim to be.


I was one of Dan Brennan’s first cross-gender friendship “experiments” and it is time for me to speak up. I am not against cross-gender friendship; I have had several cross-gender friendships, but the one I had with Dan has been the most unhealthy. He had taken the teachings of Leanne Payne and distorted and misused them, creating unhealthy emotional attachments with women. I did not realize until it was too late just how controlling he was or how painful this would be. I shared a significant amount of personal information with him, and when the relationship turned sour I did not feel that I could share in public what had happened. I felt I had to protect his methods (which should be public) in order for him to protect my personal information (which I shared in private). BTW, he also shared personal information from woman to woman, so that I knew too much about the other women he was “counseling.”

Caveat emptor, folks.



Social perception is something that we should take into consideration here too. Propriety isn’t merely about acting in an appropriate manner, but about acting in a way that is mindful of people’s perceptions. Here it is important to bear in mind that, despite vocal progressive opposition to the Graham/Pence Rule, public opinion is surprisingly conservative on the matter of being alone with the other sex in various situations. If we are to avoid scandal or hint of impropriety, we may well need to be especially careful here.


It is important to recognize that much of the push for the ‘why can’t we just be friends?’ position arises from unusual conditions in contemporary society. In particular, the concern for close interactions between the sexes is often advanced in order to protect women’s equal potential for advancement in institutions and workplaces, where more segregated forms of sociality, or exclusion from the closest interactions with superiors, peers, and mentors would advantage men over women.

However, it is imperative that we recognize that the radical integration of the sexes in the workplace and society is a break with most traditional forms of society. New principles of production and social ordering, built around deracinated and de-particularized androgynous individuals, have steadily paved over more traditional and organic forms of sexed society and displaced the old familial and social order. Although many workplaces still retain some of the organic segregation of the sexes—largely as a residual effect of the differing typical preferences of the sexes—they increasingly involve working closely for sustained periods of time with persons of the other sex who are not members of our families. We really aren’t mindful of just how radical the development of the unisex workplace is and how disruptive of natural sexed ways of life its demands can be.

The paving over of our natural sociality in the workplace requires us neatly to compartmentalize or separate things that aren’t so easily separated. Sex and power must be neatly detached. Sexed forms of sociality must be suppressed. Our private and professional selves must be compartmentalized, our natural affections and characters from our rule-governed behaviours. Professional relations between the sexes must be scoured of all eros. At work we must operate and treat others as neuters, rather than as sexed persons. But nature isn’t so easily subdued to our wishes and our society’s desired outcomes are constantly frustrated as a result. For instance, men continue to act and interact in a virile manner that presents obstacles to women’s advancement. They continue to manifest a different form of affinity to and different tendencies in relationship with other men than to and with women. And women, for their part, continue to exhibit more typically feminine forms of sociality, even when these are in some degree of tension with institutions that have been ordered around masculine tendencies.

The ‘why can’t we just be friends?’ position and the resistance to the Graham/Pence Rule are, when examined, seldom merely concerned with arguing for the possibility of healthy and prudentially pursued friendships between the sexes in some cases (I don’t know many who would have a problem with that: most of us have a number of friendly relationships with persons of the other sex). Their aim tends to be more far-reaching: a thoroughgoing integration of the sexes, ensuring, for instance, that nothing of much significance can occur in realms that are more exclusive to men.

Yet such a unisex approach to society, where sexual difference is removed from civil, economic, and public life, can be very damaging. It denies both sexes more organic forms of sociality and forces them into situations that can be stifling or oppressive for them. For instance, within the unisex workforce, men lose much of the deep male companionship and potential for friendship that they once enjoyed. Male friendship, as it thrives in realms of shared labour or activity, is easily disrupted when women are admitted to those realms and is not as readily privatized. The more affectionate relationships between men that can emerge through shared struggle are lost as the natural ethic of the male workforce—one of brotherhood, camaraderie, manhood and manliness, standing in the male group, mutual dependence, honour, strength, virility, and a code of male provision and protection—is paved over by a gender-neutralizing code of professionalism for individual wage-earners.

The workplace, for all of its many problems, was never merely a realm of wage-earning for men, but also served other natural ends, ends that were bound up with their realization of their male identities. As men have lost such realms to gender-neutralization, it should not surprise us that masculinity has become much more puerile and performative, focused ever more narrowly upon the bonds that men can form through sports, drinking, and consumption of entertainment and involving an insecure acting out of stereotypes, or that men have become abject and emasculated.

Lewis observes the way that women’s determined entry into male social groups and domains has ‘banished male companionship, and therefore male Friendship, from whole neighbourhoods.’ Men increasingly have to interact on women’s terms, emasculating them and starving them of relationships that they need for their social and psychological well-being. The isolation and anomie experienced by many men today is in no small measure related to their loss of male community, to their loss of supportive bonds forged through shared labour and struggle with other men, to their loss of the firmer and dignifying forms of identity enjoyed in such contexts, to their loss of a male society to give them standing and confirm them through rites of passage, to their loss of contexts where they can be emotionally expressive in more typically male ways, which women are often unprepared to handle. For their part, women are also increasingly starved of the affectionate companionship of other women, creating a deep psychological hunger for which participation in gendered movements offers limited relief.

Of course, we should not be unmindful of the reasons why so many women pressed for admission into the workforce and male realms more generally, as these domains became detached from and rapidly marginalized the old familial and household order. However, this doesn’t mean that this reaction to dysfunction is a healthy one, rather than one that reinforces our problems and introduces many more (natural dynamics between the sexes keep breaking through the paving of the rule-governed behaviour of the workplace, producing countless workplace romances and cases of infidelity and producing quasi-marital dynamics to develop between co-workers). Merely excluding women from such realms would not be a solution either: that too would just reinforce an injustice, rather than addressing it.



The example of Jesus is often appealed to in the context of this discussion. Yet Jesus was so far from practicing unisex sociality that he surrounded himself with twelve men, with a core group of three men, and a particularly close male friend. The Last Supper, for instance, was an exclusively male event.

There were women among Jesus’s followers and Jesus had compassionate and affectionate dealings with several women in the gospels. However, as a man, Jesus overwhelmingly affiliated and associated with other men, not as a form of prejudice against women, but as a natural expression of his maleness. This can be difficult for egalitarian moderns to come to terms with, but it is important that we seek to attain some understanding of it.

Furthermore, the gospels depict women as having a peculiarly gendered relationship with Jesus, one coloured with eros and requiring more careful boundaries than his relationships with men required. Women were attached to Jesus’s body and showed extravagant affection for him. In John’s gospel we see Jesus depicted as the divine bridegroom. The people are prepared for him by John the Baptist, who characterizes himself as the friend of the bridegroom. He begins his ministry at a wedding ceremony, performing the duty of the bridegroom in providing wine. He meets the woman at the well, as the patriarchs met their wives at wells. He saves the woman caught in adultery. His feet are washed by Mary of Bethany with her hair in an action with erotic overtones, as she treats him in a way that one could only imagine a woman treating her husband. He brings the Woman of Israel to birth through the labour of the cross. He encounters Mary Magdalene like Eve in the garden. Perhaps especially in the gospel of John, women are not just like the men in their relationship to Jesus: they are associated with a form of relationship with Christ that has a distinctively feminine character, one framed by motherhood and wifehood and with a quasi-erotic relationship with his body. The men, by contrast, are associated with Christ’s mission to a degree that the women are not. Now, we should be careful of the conclusions that we draw from the contrasts here, but the asymmetry needs to be recognized.

As modern individualists, our tendency is to think of both men and women as assorted individuals with some lowest common denominator set of traits or tendencies in common. We are much less equipped to think of men and women as solidarities, rather than as characteristics of detached individuals. To be a man is to be one of the men, to be associated with the men, to affiliate with them, and to act with them. Masculinity is not something that each man must performatively realize for himself, but something that each and every man enjoys in companionship with other men. To be a man is to be one of those who stands over against the women in the dance of society.

Jesus manifests a form of maleness and male sociality that is not hermetically sealed off from association with women, lacking in regard, concern, affection, and compassion for women, or concerned with accruing its own power at the expense of the good of all. However, there is pronounced asymmetry, degree of separation, and profound attraction between the sexes maintained. It stands in radical contrast with our flattening out of the sexes in society. Jesus’s coming doesn’t lead to a flattening out of the sexes, but the emergence of a more pronounced textual expression of femininity in response to his masculinity. He comes as the bridegroom for his bride, as a manly hero whose advent elicits desire and joy in women. As they relate to Christ, both the masculinity of men and the femininity of women are brought to the fore in ways that accentuate their distinct glories.



Finally, although this may not be a primary consideration, it is also important to bear in mind the pattern of the Church’s historic practice here too. Many seem to be ignorant of the widespread practice of sex-segregated seating in traditional Christian worship, for instance, continuing down to the present in some quarters of the Orthodox church and only recently abandoned elsewhere (e.g. the 1917 Code of Canon Law, Canon 1262, §1 declares, “It is desirable that, in harmony with ancient Church order, the women in church be separated from the men”).

This practice—which would scandalize most moderns—existed for the sake of propriety. It was also expressive of the natural ordering of the human race: not merely as a vast collection of atomized individuals, but as the great asymmetric pairing and magnetic polarity of male and female, a disjunction that represents an ordered whole in charged, fruitful, and beautiful internal relation.

Church history clearly records some close friendships or affectionate relations between men and women and many of us enjoy such friendships. However, Lewis rightly observes the way in which we are ‘bedevilled by the egalitarian idea that what is possible for some ought to be (and therefore is) possible to all.’ Some men and women can just be friends in certain ways. A great many can’t. And the flattening out of the sexes and their relations is a matter of profound foolishness, the fruit of which is seen in innumerable cases of sexual license, infidelity, and broken and weakened marriages.



From the example of Christ, we should learn that a recognition of the alterity of men and women and a healthy degree of separation and distinction between their respective domains of activity and sociality should never involve a separatism. It should never involve an isolation from, an unconcern for, or a lack of involvement with the other sex. There are countless ways that strong, meaningful, affectionate, and compassionate relationships can and should be enjoyed between the sexes in beautiful and prudential ways. Learning how to relate well to the other sex in various contexts is simply a basic element of growing to psychological and social maturity. The Graham Rule doesn’t preclude this, although it imposes closer restrictions than many of us believe that we currently need to adopt. Whether we follow it or not, we should be characterized by mature involvement with the other sex, one that is genuinely mindful of their otherness while also mindful of their similarity, one that displays the wisdom of serpents and the innocence of doves, one that maintains distinction and distance, without falling into detachment.

In our current social context, where external boundaries are low or non-existent, we must be far more vigilant to establish robust internal and personal boundaries where we can. Many of us will have little choice but to negotiate situations within which we will be exposed to more temptation than is good. The question of whether to adopt the Graham Rule is moot for many, as they must spend much time alone with persons of the other sex in the course of their work. In such non-ideal circumstances we must be wise, self-controlled, students both of the ways of our own souls and of the deceptive paths of sin. We must, where we can, support others in virtue and seek their support in our commitment to it too. We must seek to become people known for holiness and integrity in our conduct, fleeing evil and pursuing purity in all things, presenting a model of faithfulness for all to see.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Christian Experience, Ethics, Sex and Sexuality, Society. Bookmark the permalink.

50 Responses to Can We Just Be Friends?—Some Reflections on the Graham Rule

  1. Pingback: Can We Just Be Friends?—Some Reflections on the Graham Rule – Alastair’s Adversaria |

  2. Nick Clarey says:

    Thanks for the helpful reflections on a difficult topic! One matter that has been raised as a counterpoint to the Pence rule in particular is that it’s imposition, particularly in a political context, results in detrimental effects on the career advancement of women. If the secondary effect of limiting inter gender relationships is commonplace in the political arena it remains a “boys’ club” and we are thereby deprived of many talented female politicians. It’s of course a very personal choice, but it seems a valid concern raised by career women in politics (and the media as well) that is worth some reflection. I suppose the take away is to approach any relationship of this nature in a professional environment with a degree of caution.

    • Thanks for the comment, Nick.

      We face a deep tension between a society ordered around individual careerists and self-realizers in a system ordered by de-particularizing technique and a society ordered around the organic human structures of the disjunction between male and female, differentiated male and female socialities in socially choreographed interactions, marriage and family, the movement from generation to generation, the gravity of place, the household as the integrating unit, etc.

      If we are to uphold or establish these organic human structures, or restore them even to the most limited degree, it will definitely present restrictive limits for those who seek to live as autonomous careerists or practitioners of technique. These limits will almost certainly be felt more keenly by some than by others. However, where they are lacking, although we may increase our capacity to gain wealth and enjoy more autonomous power, far more important goods are undermined.

  3. Aaron Siver says:

    Thanks, Alastair. That was a very articulate response to and exploration of a subject that is often met with a good deal of flat absolutism one way or another. You’ve expressed lots of good insights about the typical ways that the sexes differ in their approaches to friendship.

    And yet I’m wondering if you’d venture out a little into the margins of the 1-3% who endure added complications on these matters. Tish Warren alludes in passing to what I’m thinking of in a parenthetical comment:

    “(Not to mention the confusion it poses for those who are same-sex attracted: Are they supposed to avoid friendships with either sex to ward off all possible temptation?)”

    For colleagues in the working world, why does there seem to be no stated concern even just for false accusations or appearances in this day and age for men alone with men and women alone with women? Or in the church, why is it that a pastor could have a private meeting with a congregant of the same sex with no thought for having to take the precautions he would with the opposite sex or of slanderous (or not?) accusations along these lines? Is it just because we all intuitively know that’s not plausible for most people? But as far as actual temptation, I’ve been quite surprised over the years by what other people I’ve known are capable of desiring that I never would have imagined to be possible, specifically on this subject. So, it leaves me skeptical of thinking anyone is actually incapable of anything when given the right circumstances.

    But moving past all those perceptions and possibilities, what are we supposed to do about those of us with same-sex attraction, whether it’s in a work or church setting, whether it’s a person who has embraced living out homosexual conduct or a person who merely experiences romantic and sexual desires for their own sex while seeking to live in a biblically chaste manner? I can by cynical and think that it must be nice to be able to assume all the players in this game are straight people who possess no possibility otherwise. I may be married and hold firmly to a very traditionally biblical sexual ethic, but I’m still predominantly same-sex attracted. These rules have never seemed like they protect someone in my situation from the paranoia and jealousy of others about appearances, false accusations, or even actual complications. I’ve had some truly sad experiences with this.

    I get that what’s being discussed is the usual, common, vast-majority situation. But to me, it’s like being a space-alien anthropologist looking in from the outside. I can see all this at work between most men and most women. But I’m in the odd place of fundamentally being a man and responding as such, and yet I can do so toward other men rather than women, and I can sometimes respond in ways more demographically characteristic of women. It’s a strange amalgamation personality traits and behaviors. I’ve been forced to contend with being around my own sex my whole life and have no other option. For me, I don’t think I’d have ever developed a healthy self-perception as a proper man among other men without having to face romantic emotional complications in male friendships. I sympathize with Wesley Hill in his book “Spiritual Friendship” when he said that having to contend with romantic feelings in friendships with other men is not a question of “if” but rather “when”. It will inevitably happen. So what will we do once it does?

    I obviously don’t expect you to speak into any specific situations to which you’re a stranger or outsider. I’m just wondering if you have any thoughts in general on this subject. Thanks.

    • Stephen Crawford+ says:

      I agree with Jennifer below that your question is helpful. One thing I would point out–though I’m not sure how accurately this addresses the concerns you raise–is that the desire in gay men for the affection of another man is at root perfectly healthy. In fact, it’s a good thing. It’s part of their design as men. If your thinking about sexuality is more traditional, then you might conclude that it’s not good when that desire for the love of a man becomes sexualized and takes on erotic overtones. But the longing for the love another man is itself basically good.

      That doesn’t mean you don’t have to be cautious in certain ways. You should still recognize when there’s a need for appropriate boundaries. The kind of flattery and admiration that Alastair points to can still be dangers. And you should certainly pay attention to yourself and don’t be too proud to recognize when the relationship is becoming sexualized–for you or for the other man.

      But there’s an added dynamic here that distinguishes the relationship from one between a man and a woman. You’re in a position to give another man the love of a brother. That itself might be a profound blessing for him. If the Lord has graced you in this way, you might offer another man the love of a father. Or more specifically, the Lord might use you as a channel of his fatherly love into another man’s life. That might be a blessing yet more profound. If this can be undertaken with integrity, that’s a great thing. Of course, it means knowing God as your Father and yourself as his son in a particularly deep way.

      • Aaron Siver says:

        In short, yes, those are very much ways in which I’ve learned to navigate such friendships and situations. It’s complicated that there is unfortunately a pathway between my good feelings of friendship and affection and other feelings that are something more. But I generally know and recognize the difference. And I know how I want to positively contribute to my friendships. One friend recently told me it’s probably best that I think of myself as good at being a friend centrally and that the issues with romance and sexuality are peripheral troubles to male friendship. It’s better that than thinking that some sort of crypto-homosexuality is what truly and insidiously motives all my interactions with my friends. ☺️

    • Thanks for the comment, Aaron, and the thoughtful questions.

      Problems come when we treat the Graham Rule as a universal solution for every person and situation. It is neither universal, nor is it a solution. Rather, it is one dimension of a prudential approach adopted by a specific person addressing the challenges of his specific situation. It creates some protective boundaries, but those boundaries don’t mean that the issues that the boundaries were erected in response to just vanish. It makes them rather more manageable, though.

      As I suggest in my post, the Graham Rule would be unworkable for many people. Many people must work directly with persons of the other sex who aren’t members of their family and have little choice in the matter. Such persons don’t have the protections that higher external boundaries might give them, but, with greater vigilance about internal boundaries, can negotiate such non-ideal situations with purity.

      Same-sex attracted persons have compounded challenges in their relations, facing temptations for which the boundaries that protect heterosexual persons are of little or limited use in protecting them. Taking the limited analogy of drinking, most of the population can drink in a healthy manner without harming themselves or others, within protective boundaries set around such things as operating vehicles, sexual relations, drinking age, and drinking hours. Without such boundaries, much more damage could be caused to them and others. However, a minority of the population (nearly 10% of adult men) cannot. Such persons need to establish personal boundaries of their own—structures of support and accountability, commitments to complete abstinence, avoidance of dangerous contexts, etc. There isn’t a magic bullet to solve this, and while there are ways in which they can be assisted in their struggle, there is no ‘technique’ that will simply spare them it. Having external boundaries was never something to relieve one of any need to struggle with temptation, just to limit one’s exposure to it in more potent forms.

      If you are going to tackle temptations against which society offers fewer institutional and conventional safeguards, you will probably be forced to become far wiser to the way temptation and sin operates in your life (the crisis of porn addiction in the Church is a good example of how vulnerable to their temptations people can be when former defences are removed). Without the luxury of the protections that others enjoy, you will have no choice but to become wise as the Serpent, developing all resources and avenues of support at your disposal.

      Beyond this, however, I think that there are other considerations here. Here are a few:

      1. Dyadic friendship is where the greatest danger lies. Unfortunately, a widespread assumption implicit in many contemporary Christian conversations about friendship, whether between the sexes or between same-sex attracted persons of the same sex, is that friendship is dyadic. But it really doesn’t need to be. Forming strong non-dyadic friendships can help to disrupt an exclusivity that could easily become dangerous.

      2. The dyadic model of friendship is also related to specific ways of negotiating eros and affection in relation, ways that are generally unconsidered and which can open us up to temptation. Carefully reflecting upon the structure of our sociality and the character of its ordering is important. Are our friendships, for instance, non-exclusive bonds ordered outwards towards a shared object of life or sense of calling? Rather too much of the spiritual friendship conversation, for instance, has proceeded by treating the friendship as an end in itself, rather than as a bond that develops as two people are knit together in the pursuit or service of some end beyond the relationship between them. When our friendships aren’t ‘about’ anything other than the affection between us itself, problems may be more likely to develop.

      3. This doesn’t mean that affectionate relationships are inappropriate, but they can pose particular dangers in situations where sexual attraction could potentially arise. Where I’ve had such friendships with women before, being mindful of the risks, I’ve worked to make them as non-exclusive as possible, including others within the friendships. I’ve also worked to move the focus from the immediate space that exists between us to shared activities and objects of concern that mediate our relation (objects of concern and activities in which others are involved).

      4. As I suggested in the post, the sort of male-female friendships people discuss in these contexts tend to have a different dynamic from typical male friendships. In particular, male friendships are rather less dyadic in their impulse and likely to be rather less intimate in their focus. I know very little about the personal lives of many of my good friends. Our personal lives simply don’t feature much in our conversation or interactions; I do know most of their theological and political views and how good they are at an array of different activities and games, though. Such friendships can shift in a more personal direction, but they are considerably less likely to do so. One of the problems with the sorts of friendships between men and women that are often under discussion is their ambivalence: the women within them aren’t functioning as honorary guys and the men aren’t functioning as honorary women. Rather, there is a dynamic more distinct to a male-female relationship, which is where many of the dangers arise from, as this is quite an unstable and poorly-defined paradigm of relationship. In the case of friendships between same-sex attracted persons of the same sex, the divergence from common male paradigms of friendship is often more noticeable.

      5. I suspect that much of the emphasis on dyadic friendships arises from the loss of the deep and enduring networks of companionship and community that we used to have. As more atomized individuals, we have a need for intimacy, but don’t have the same communities that allow for highly distributed and non-sexual sources of intimacy. One of the results of this, I think, is a greater tendency to poorly bounded relationships and a susceptibility to excessive attachment with individuals. I doubt we would be in quite so much danger in a less lonely society (although the danger would still definitely be real).

      6. General boundaries on relationships will be sufficient for the overwhelming majority of friendships. Out of all friendship possibilities, situations where two persons of the same sex are both same-sex attracted are a very small minority. However, for same-sex attracted persons, I suspect they occur with some regularity. Furthermore, same-sex attracted persons are often different from other members of their own sex in ways that affect their common modes of friendship and sociality, often leading them to affiliate more instinctively with and like the other sex, which complicates matters further: sexuality is intertwined with many aspects of our psychology, subjectivity, and sociality.

      7. Boundaries must guard against sin, yet also allow for health. If our concern merely becomes guarding against sin, growth can be prevented. Strong non-sexual affiliation with our sex is particularly important for our well-being and sense of self. However, healthy relations between the sexes that uphold alterity, instil mutual concern, affection, and regard, encourage marital union, and protect the integrity and exclusivity of that bond are essential for health. And these forms of health correspond to natural drives and instincts that a large majority of men and women possess in some measure. To encourage our bonds with our own sex, certain boundaries have to be fairly low, boundaries which are far higher when dealing with the other sex, where protecting the integrity of marriage is more important. However, what allows for growth in health for most entails a greater exposure to temptation for certain others (it is important to observe the asymmetry of the temptations to which straight and gay persons are exposed by our social formation in this regard). We must do what we can to mitigate the dangers such persons face, without compromising the potential for the growth of others in health. Really not an easy task.

      LOTS more could be said about this, but those are my initial reflections.

      • Aaron Siver says:

        Yep. That all sounds very experientially familiar over the years. I can attest to much of what you’ve said. I especially love and agree with becoming particularly self-reflective and wise as the Serpent about this. It’s so true. 😊

  4. Jennifer Mugrage says:

    Wow. Great comment by Aaron Silver. He raises some legit questions … I can’t wait to see Alistair’s reply.

    Some thoughts on the main article: Wise, commonsensical, hugely convicting.

    I was first baffled, then irritated, by the way the mob went after Mike Pence after he mentioned his rule. It seems like a classic case of “no good deed goes unpunished.” On a much smaller scale, I’ve had the same experience when interacting with progressives: You do or say something that you think is good, wise, or even just common sense. You expect, because it’s so obviously good, that it will be an area where you can find common ground. And then suddenly, you find yourself being condemned or mocked for that very thing.

    I get the argument that the Graham Rule treats women as dangerous objects. But really, doesn’t it occur to anybody that the rule exists not because the man doesn’t trust women, but because he doesn’t trust his own heart? There is also the shortsighted, reducio ad absurdum argument that there’s no need for anybody to have such a rule because it’s so unlikely that the two are going to begin an affair on the spot … completely ignoring the pressures and dynamics on male authority figures, and the high likelihood of the longish path toward adultery that you describe.

    About the rather naive Christian view that we should have such good control of our thought lives that no external boundaries should ever be necessary … I see it as analogous to controlling the tongue. Of course, part of controlling the tongue is working on our hearts. “Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.” But does that mean that we will never need to bite our tongues? Of course not! It would be nice if all my thoughts were so pure and Christlike that I need not fear to blurt out what I was thinking, at any moment. But until that blessed day comes, I will need to learn some self-control in order to avoid setting a fire with my words. Crude? Based on fear? You betcha. Also, WAY better than the alternative.

  5. Stephen Crawford+ says:

    On Mary Magdalene and the risen Christ in the garden: there are also echoes in John’s telling of this story from the Song of Songs–the garden, as you mention, but also the smell of spices and perfumes in the air, Mary’s eager search for Jesus and her desire to cling to him. Interestingly, Jesus both confirms these echoes but also sets boundaries for them, distinguishing his relationship with Mary from the Shullamite and her Beloved, when he tells her not to cling to him because he hasn’t yet ascended to the Father. (A young scholar I was at seminary with picked up on these, though I don’t know if she ever published them or not.)

    • Yes, John does a lot with Song of Songs. For more on these themes, Warren Gage’s work on the relationship between John and Revelation and the marital themes within both is helpful. Peter Leithart’s new Revelation commentary is superb too. He notes, for instance, the parallel between the end of Song of Songs and the end of Revelation, both involving the bride calling for the bridegroom to come quickly.

  6. Laura says:

    As always your thoughts are considerate and careful Alastair. I haven’t read all the comments sorry and this is just a short comment that doesn’t add to what you have written but just what I have been thinking on this topic. It concerns me the way all relationships between men and women seem to have become sexualised in our society and the church reflects this to some degree and in my experience as erred on the side of wishing to have no appearance of impropriety and not enough on encouraging people to grow up and be adults in their relationships. Instead my experience is of adults remaining at adolescent level in their view of other humans in church. I agree that women connect with friends differently than men and I think that the church could encourage friendship/fellowship amongst congregants in a way that is perhaps less typically female and therefore encourage a balanced, chaste approach to friendships? Working bees come to mind as one possibility. From my perspective as a woman I am attuned to emotions and connection and am well aware of when my friendship with a man has the possibility of becoming more than chaste friendship and am more than willing to shut it down. I would prefer my husband to err on the side of propriety than be seen to be flirting however I would prefer him to have the internal discipline to not be inclined to flirt with another woman in the first place.

    • Thanks for the comment, Laura. You raise some important questions. I’ll try to get into them in some detail.

      You discuss people remaining at adolescent level in their view of other humans in church, rather than growing up and being adults. I think you are pointing to something real, but it seems to me that the childishness is more complicated and is often more related to the closeness of relations between sexes than to their separation.

      Children are naturally largely undifferentiated, especially in the nursery. The differentiation between male and female is something that grows over time. The use of the word ‘playmate’ in, ironically named, ‘adult’ entertainment, for instance, is an attempt to return to a realm of childhood where the sexes are much less naturally differentiated and where our interactions are not laden with responsibility, social consequence, or a weight of propriety.

      As we become adults, however, differentiation occurs. My childhood companion and friend becomes a wife and a mother. She leaves the realm of childhood behind and becomes something considerably more glorious than an individual child. She is now someone who is part of a one-flesh union, someone who is the helpmeet of one man, who is the heart of a family, with a realm of dominion of her own. These dimensions of herself aren’t things that can be lightly divested, so that I can relate to her once again as a detached individual, as I did when we were children. Whereas once I could relate to her in the realm of the school playground or one of our homes, childhood realms expressive of the dominion of others over us, now we must relate as adult people with realms of dominion of our own and as people with differentiated selves (as public and private persons, with identities as husband, wife, father, mother, etc.). This requires a mindfulness of both of us, a carefulness that we don’t trespass beyond our bounds, and stronger bounds of propriety and formality.

      For instance, a husband is supposed to be a one-woman person and a wife a one-man person. In your spouse, you are in a sense supposed to relate to the entirety of their sex. While you will have other men or women in your life, they are for you THE man or THE woman: no one should be allowed to trespass upon their space. Other men should be careful not to tear down a woman’s husband and not to usurp or trespass upon his unique place, relating to her as if he wasn’t in the picture. This creates a greater distance, but it is a necessary and healthy distance—it is also an adult distance.

      Likewise, being a husband or wife introduces a measure of formal distance between you and your same-sex companions. They must recognize that you now have a more basic set of relational commitments that limit their demands upon you (a reality that our society partially recognizes in the sloppy practice of stag and hen parties).

      The modern unisex workplace is a return to a realm of childhood. Few of us are building up our own households. Rather, we labour as servants for a wage in the ‘households’ of our employers, abiding by their rules of professionalism rather than by our own ownership of our labour and our realm of dominion. And as part of this, every labourer in the bigender workforce is reduced to the more childlike state of a tractable and dominionless individual. The culture of the workplace, where we compliantly operate at the behest of our bosses and each member of the workforce functions as an undifferentiated and relatively fungible person, is one where the sexes are heavily integrated. There are codes to regulate our behaviour and interactions that we are supposed to comply with and a growing protective system of enforcement to keep us all in line.

      In the modern workforce, we’re generally all on first name terms with our fellow workers. Being on first name terms is usually expected of us, because first name terms are more closely related to a realm of undifferentiated individuals under the authority of someone else. If I were to start talking about co-workers as Mrs. Clark or Mr. Davids, I might gain some small sense of the alienation of the self that the modern workplace demands, reducing us to private and dominionless selves so that we are more biddable to our employers: addressing my colleague as ‘Mrs’ alerts me to the fact that she has a husband, children, and a realm of dominion of her own and that I should relate to her in a way that honours that. The expectation in the modern workplace that such formalities be dropped is part and parcel of the privatization of marriage and the household, the stripping of its dominion.

      This said, many people prefer being more childlike in their interactions with the other sex, without a sense of their responsibilities. When we think about being ‘grown up’ in our relationships with the other sex, we are in danger of thinking that this is merely a matter of ‘behaving ourselves’. Yet, it should also involve an appreciation that with age comes greater differentiation and a proper distance that goes with that.

      I wonder whether many of us have come to idealize the transitional realm of poorly-defined sociality that one finds in the modern coed university environment, for instance. When we have small families with little social face or agency, little experience of dense and extended families, anonymous neighbourhoods, churches with weak communities, and workplaces with transitory relationships that are abstracted from the wider realities of communal and familial life, the most socially fulfilling time of our lives can be that brief window between leaving home and entering the workforce. Responsibilities are low, we are sheltered but have lots of choice, boundaries between the sexes are limited, there is the enjoyable frisson of attraction with the other sex, lots of casual relationships, the possibility of sexual activity with limited consequences (with lots of friendships blurring into sexual relations), and close companionship in a context where shared life and shared work are tightly integrated. Facing the loneliness of atomized and alienated ‘adult’ life in the modern world, I suspect that many want to return to such halcyon days.

      Beyond this, while the older workplace was commonly a site of deep and organic male or female sociality, the modern unisex workplace is ordered by technique in a way designed to marginalize this natural sociality. The result, as I noted in the post, is that male sociality in particular—where it continues to exist—tends to become puerile, focused on drinking, sports, and entertainment (women still have the shared reality of child-bearing and rearing, which creates a bond premised upon their mature adulthood, albeit much diminished from what it once was—compare the world of women seen in something like Call the Midwife to the more thoroughly modern situation). The result is that even adults have embarrassingly adolescent dynamics to their relationships.

      The modern workplace has displaced much of what once used to occur in the household. It should not be surprising to us that relations between co-workers or between managers and subordinates in the unisex workplace often assume a quasi-marital character and also that sexual abuse, harassment, and workplace affairs are commonplace realities. We have an increasing number of laws to try to prevent these dynamics arising, but they still exist, because ‘professional’ unisex work relations between men and women are fairly unnatural to us, are in large measure a de-condensation of relations of production that used to be familial, and involve a displacing of the husband-wife relation with the employer-employee relation. This is much less the case in less alienated forms of labour, where a woman is functioning less as an employee than as someone working out her own dominion or that of her household (professors, many doctors, store owners, etc.), but this is not the case for most. It is important not to allow the fact that we are paid and rule-governed to dull our awareness of the sort of dynamics that characterize the modern workplace and how easily, even in their ‘functional’ forms, the relationships between men and women assume a quasi-marital flavour, allowing us to cross boundaries that would never be crossed otherwise. About a third of workers say that they have a ‘work husband’ or ‘work wife’. This shouldn’t surprise us: such marital dynamics are natural to us, but the modern unisex workplace is weird, alienating, and unhealthy in a great many complicated ways that we simply are not alert to.

      The sexualization of relations between men and women is very difficult to avoid where clear boundaries don’t exist, as without clear boundaries they all too easily slip into this, unisex sociality being characterized but lots of unhealthy emotional entanglements, affairs, sexual involvement, etc. In some ways, men and women are far more intervolved in modern society than they were in past ages, in all aspects of life. However, this ‘intervolvement’ is increasingly as detached unisex individuals, shorn of bounds of propriety, marriage, and custom. The result is a confused sexualization of many things that were not previously sexualized, along with a sort of countervailing push in the direction of de-sexualization.

      A push on the part of the Church to try to create a new artificial sort of sociality between the sexes that is not alert to our natural tendencies isn’t a real solution. Historically, churches were highly gender segregated, throughout the Christian world. Interactions between men and women were far more constrained by custom and convention. This is the sort of society envisaged by the New Testament. It is a society that allows for interactions between the sexes, but is radically contrary to a unisex society.

      Indeed, it is important to recognize that something like the Graham Rule is a response in part to the advent of an unprecedented new situation within which old social norms no longer operated well. I doubt most Christian leaders of ages prior to Graham had such a rule: their societies provided most of the necessary boundaries. The Graham Rule responds in part to the existence of a new organizational culture in churches, moving us from churches as bodies characterized by organic sexed communal relations to institutions that function more like modern businesses, as impersonal systems of administration detached from the organic forms of life of human community (watch this video for a very helpful discussion). Within such systems there simply isn’t a clear pattern for relations between the sexes and men and women can function more interchangeably. Private encounters with people of the other sex would be considerably less likely to happen in an earlier social context, and where they did both parties would have a clearer sense of their place relative to each other. However, with the rise of the parachurch and of Christian organizations run like businesses, the sexes were far more likely to have dealings with each other for which social custom and convention didn’t provide scripts. Likewise, the worlds of men and women increasingly blurred into each other as the family was privatized and a ‘personal’ and familial form of society was replaced by the organization of most of society through impersonal technocratic systems ordered around unisex and atomized individuals. Society came to be framed increasingly as an undifferentiated ‘mass’ of individuals for the sake of communication, government, and social order, rather than as a body ordered by sexual difference, generational transition, and family structure.

      Relations between the sexes are naturally charged. This can’t be wished away and, if we don’t provide very careful boundaries, it will express itself. The Church today is considerably more relaxed about the integration of the sexes than it was at any point in the past (how many churches do you know where men and women are expected to sit separately, as they have been for most of church history in most quarters of the Church?). Our highly gender-integrated society is really quite a novelty. This certainly doesn’t mean that it is entirely a bad thing, or that we should be returning to the pattern of the past (I don’t believe that we should), but it should strongly caution us about the expectation that the Christian ideal is an even more intense form of integration.

      This does leave us with the challenging question of how we could relate to Christians of the other sex in ways that do not reduce them to unisex or atomized individuals, but which take seriously both their fullness and their true alterity as husband or wife, father or mother, man or woman, even if that reality is not always heavily foregrounded. Propriety is closely related to our recognition of each other’s glory. It is a determination to honour the other party in the fullness of their mature and differentiated personhood, to recognize that they are not a mere individual whom we can lightly detach from their relational bonds and unions (and isn’t the Internet a place where we are especially inclined to forget this?). Can I have a meaningful relationship with a woman, for instance, if I am always mindful to treat her—even if I don’t always address her—as ‘Mrs. Bloggs’, as a wife, mother, heart of her household, not just as my personal pal ‘Jane’? We are a society where such courtesies and the customary distances that they accompany and maintain feel burdensome, preventing us from the relaxed informality that we prize. However, I find it interesting to see the way that people react to the constant use of such formalities in an Austen novel. They instinctively recognize that there is something proper and dignifying about it. Setting such things in almost any modern context, where similar customs, senses of propriety, and elements of formality do not exist would not only sap the plots of much of their drama, but would strip the characters of much of their dignity.

      Now, it is not the case that friendships between the sexes can’t develop in such contexts, although such friendships would be much rarer in dyadic form. Rather, friendships would be much more likely to be group friendships or matters of community or networks of companionship. Also, as marriage is taken far more seriously, the leaving of all others in order to cleave to one’s wife would carry considerably more weight. There would also be many more friendships and contexts of companionship that would be exclusive to one sex or the other. Nevertheless, formality and a measure of distance does not preclude the development of genuine affection between the sexes. In fact, by maintaining a measure of distance, it can allow a proper affection to grow without it so easily collapsing into eros. And where it does move in the direction of eros, it is more likely to do so in a proper rather than a precipitous manner. This approach to friendship recognizes that unisex society is unhealthy and maintains a distinction between the sexes and their sociality. There is no reason why this couldn’t allow for extensive realms of friendly interaction between them. We would have to think a lot more clearly about how to develop them, though, and be willing to accept certain boundaries that people chafe at.

  7. Patrick M says:


    Thank you for bringing light into a discussion with much heat. I wanted to touch on a seldom discussed aspect of the modern workplace: the aphrodisiac of a supportive woman.

    I work in sales. Sales is a high stress career with a high rejection rate and you need highly agentive tendencies. Most of us in the industry call it modern day hunting. We say things like, “Will the new hire make it? Is he a hunter?” And behind every successful hunter is a support/service team tasked with caring for the clients he brings in. The support staff typically “nests” in the office and deals with the more domestic work – resolving complaints, processing workflow, etc.

    You can imagine the male/female ratio of these two roles. I’ve been in sales 16 years and I’ve seen three female sales “hunters” (one childless, one divorced, one not very good) and two male support staffers (one identifying as gay and one always joking that he’s “one of the ladies”). It’s has been fascinating to see gender so pronounced in spite of our best efforts to unwind it, but I digress.

    Yet, the dynamics associated with these collegial relationships are very dangerous and I want to explain what I’ve felt and what I’ve known other men have felt.

    Wendell Berry once stated that his wife typed his manuscripts because he used pen and ink. When accused of misogyny, he quipped that a wife typing for her husband is considered slavery but a wife typing as some CEO’s secretary would be considered the apex of freedom. Same job, different relationship. And while it wasn’t the main thrust of his argument in that essay, he alluded to something that we need to be more aware of- the beauty of a supportive woman.

    Currently, I have a team of three women behind me and they all work to make sure I am successful. In turn, I am motivated to make sure they have continued employment, raises and bonuses, etc. The intimacy in this type of transaction is beyond mere economics; it is one of shared struggle, lost clients,the heartaches of defeat, the joys of victory, daily interaction (indeed multiple times a day), shared humor, shared wealth, etc. It mimicks marriage in a very stunted, but very real way.

    A wife at home with kids or at another place of work doing the “dual income” thing is placed in an extreme disadvantage compared to the women supporting her husband every day. Salesmen routinely joke about their “work wife/wives” and I recently heard a salesman joke that he spent every day for 30 years with his support staffer while spending a couple hours per week with his wife. It is a huge downside to our modern economy. The helper to the man, the one called to build and love and work and laugh with him, is absent. In her place is a technically proficient woman with whom he will most likely form illicit emotional bonds, even if they are never sexually expressed. The “work wife” is the one managing he schedule, troubleshooting behind the scenes, preparing him for his “hunt”, hiding his weaknesses by being strong in the areas where he lacks. A wife does none of these things in a modern economy. The work wife supplants her in many meaningful ways.

    Over the years, I’ve gotten many tips from those in my industry who are successful. Over and over again this piece advice keeps coming up- “Never shit where you eat.” It was the crudest way to warn me of what I would go on to feel towards the women who will support me, and how I need to resist every urge to act upon those impulses. And a loving, caring, supportive, and competent woman is a powerful aphrodisiac.

    It is a sad state of our modern world that our wives are our choices for sex and “possibly” procreation, but the bulk of our days will be spent partnering with technically proficient and adequately licensed colleagues. A paralegal with her attorney, a CSR helping the owner run his insurance firm, an executive assistant managing the CEO’s calendar- these all will be closer to the man than the wife.

    I’ve no answers, as I’ve only thought about these things the past few days, but I wanted to shed more light on the Billy Graham rule in light of a modern work environment where we still have “hunters” and we still have “domestics.”

    We are not, nor will we ever be androgynous. Women will continually want to help me succeed and support me. And I will continually want to hunt and provide.

    May God have mercy on us as a society and may we find our way back to Him.

    Thanks again, Alastair!

    • Very challenging comment, Patrick. Thanks for sharing these thoughts.

      I hadn’t read this comment before responding at great length to Laura’s comments, where I argued more abstractly pretty much exactly what you are describing from personal experience. The unisex workforce cannot escape natural male-female dynamics and it is not surprising in the slightest that quasi-marital dynamics continually develop in the modern workplace. In a healthy society, we would be much less prepared to have unrelated and unmarried men and women working together like this.

      • Patrick M says:


        Correction- I hadn’t read YOUR comment before responding. 🙂 It seems we are on a similar page with quasi-marriage and work-wives.


  8. Laura says:

    I’ve got to say I cannot see anywhere in scripture basis for suggesting women have a quasi-erotic relationship with Jesus and it seems quite a dangerous thing to suggest.

    • Patrick M says:

      Hi, Laura.

      Out of curiosity, how else would you describe a woman wiping the feet of Jesus with her unveiled and unkempt hair?

      • RStarke says:

        The text doesn’t note the condition of her hair, simply what she did with it. Mary was dedicated to doing what was owed Jesus, even by social norms, that his host did not. As Jesus notes.The indictment is on Simon for his gross disrespect, not Mary.

      • I would be impressed if she could both loosen her hair and wipe a man’s feet with it without it being unkempt!

        Mary doesn’t just perform the neglected social norm, though, she performs an action that went far, far beyond and which has, at the very least, sexual undertones. The point isn’t that this is sinful or inappropriate: some element of eros is not inappropriate in the case of that woman’s relationship with Christ. There is no reason to claim that the eros aimed at sexual intercourse, but it was highly charged. She wasn’t just treating Jesus as an honoured guest but as a man deeply loved.

        And John in particular wants us to hear an echo of Song of Songs 1:12: Jesus is the king at the table and Mary is the Shulamite with her spikenard.

      • Patrick M says:



        We are also not given a description of the physical condition of the lepers Jesus touched, but one can assume there were sores, missing appendages, etc. After weeping and using her hair to wipe away tears from Jesus’s feet, I think it is safe to assume certain things about the condition of her hair at that point. That is was “loose” from any veil or braiding and probably in some sort of disarray seems common sensical after bathing Jesus’s feet with it.

        I also see your point as moot to Alastair’s comments. Yes, Simon was rebuked, and rightfully so! But the image of a “sinful woman” weeping over another man’s feet and wiping them with her hair is beyond the background with which Simon is rebuked. There is a lot going on there we need to be attentive to!

    • If you look at my remarks in the post, I was referring to John’s gospel more particularly and not to women in general.

      The case of the woman constantly kissing Jesus’s feet, covering them with costly spikenard, and wiping them with her loosened hair has highly erotic undertones to it. This sort of action, contrasting sharply with the scandalous lack of hospitality shown by Simon, was the sort of thing one could only really imagine a wife doing for a husband, and probably not even that. The loosing of her hair and her ‘touching’ of Jesus have sexual connotations in the context.

      Then there are textual allusions and themes too. Note the words of the Shulamite in Song of Songs 1:12—’While the king is at his table, my spikenard sends forth its fragrance.’ The action of the woman represents Jesus as the greater Solomon, while she plays the part of his Shulamite bride.

      And such textual themes are found throughout John’s gospel in particular, where Jesus is depicted as the bridegroom and various women he encounters are represented using bridal themes (the Shulamite, Eve in the garden, the wife met at the well, the woman delivered through the test of jealousy). Of course, the woman of Samaria, for instance, is not actually the wife of Christ. However, the text frames her as such for the sake of its theological point. Note she has had five husbands and her current partner (#6) who is not her husband. Jesus—’the Messiah who is coming’—is the seventh man, the true husband.

      ‘Quasi-erotic’ was the term I used to describe both the actual relationships between women in the gospel and Jesus, which is sexually charged in certain ways (can you imagine a man performing the loving act of the woman who anointed Jesus?), but also textually represented in terms of the theological theme of the bridegroom coming for the bride and the Son being born of the woman struggling in birth.

      • Stephen Crawford+ says:

        This is wonderful. I brought up the Song of Songs above to support your comments about the quasi-erotic nature of those interactions with Jesus. I thought it could have been clearer that seeing these exchanges as charged with Eros is entirely appropriate. But the way you went on to unpack that theme as it plays out in John was fantastic.

        Maybe I would just add that we often think about sexual desire too narrowly, and it’s hard for us to notice the way that desire isn’t so neatly compartmentalized to one cross-section of life. For example, the desire that draws a man to a woman isn’t neatly divided from the desire and the energy that drives him to build a business, which isn’t neatly divided from the desire that sets him out looking for the Lord. That must be part of why sexual desire can be so difficult to manage and properly channel.

      • Thanks, Stephen.

        To your remarks I’d add the fact that in Scripture we see a channeling of eros according to something akin to archetypes. The young man is supposed to desire Wisdom above all. However, his desire for Wisdom is supposed to lead him to a good wife. His desire for Wisdom and his desire and search for a good wife are connected throughout the book and meet in the conclusion. Likewise, the wife is supposed to submit to her husband as to the Lord, with her husband following the pattern of Christ. The longing, desire, and love excited by the deeper mystery of Christ and the Church is supposed to be channeled into the life of marriage, a woman’s love and honour for Christ informing her desire and respect for her husband and a man’s brotherhood with Christ informing his love for his wife.

        Most people miss the erotic dimension of politics, for instance, something I’ve commented upon in this reflection. And the loss of this sense of political eros makes it difficult to understand the erotic themes that John and others are subtly exploring. Christ is the Son of David, the Beloved. Like David, he is the one who possesses the hearts of his people, ruling by their love.

        Christ is everything that a man should be. He is altogether lovely, the romantic hero King of kings, who comes to deliver his Bride, winning the songs, admiration, and desire of women. He is the mighty man of valour, who defeats the strong man, forges a bond of brotherhood, and has the love and unquestioning loyalty of the men who follow him. There is a gendered shading of our proper response to Christ here, but not in a manner that excludes us from either dimension of the love he evokes in our hearts.

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  10. Doc B (Dr J B Boren) says:

    One of the best though-out responses to the whole debate I’ve seen, and I’m grateful for your input on this issue. I plan to share this in multiple ways via quotes and links to the article. I hope that is not problematic.

    I may have simply missed it, so point me in the right direction: Where are Lewis’ thoughts you cite?

  11. CW says:


    Thank you for another excellent article – as well as excellent interaction in the comments (especially your response to Laura). This is an issue that doesn’t get nearly enough attention by thoughtful Christian writers. Challenging the status quo seems to be a challenge to our political and economic systems (not to mention the taboo subject of sex difference), which are sacrosanct. However, the current arrangement is very damaging to marital happiness for many couples and even in the best relationships it causes much insecurity. Of course it also leads to the spectacular breakdown of many marriages and, by consequence, families. Most of the time when we see a danger so grave (you have pointed out the statistics on work-related infidelity) we would strive to put up appropriate limits and barriers, but we instead instruct people that there is no danger if they are a perfect spouse and Christian. It is as though a highway department is dealing with constant fatalities on a particular curve in the road and instead of re-engineering the road, or installing a guardrail, they send pamphlets to nearby residents with instructions on precise driving.

    Thank you for the courageous message, and congratulation on your recent hiring by the Davenant Institute.

    • Thanks!

      It is a very difficult issue because it arises from radical shifts in the fundamental principles of social order and thought, such as those which I describe here. As a result, all of this seems entirely rational to us; indeed, we couldn’t imagine doing things differently.

      Beyond this, there is the problem that, within our fundamental paradigm for society, the unisex workplace is the only way in which women can be treated justly. Anything else would be oppressive and marginalizing, a denial of their equal individual dignity. This isn’t merely a matter of perception: without a shift in the fundamental order of society, it would be oppressive and marginalizing.

      The radical weakening of the family isn’t just an unfortunate trade-off, though. In some senses it is a desired consequence, even if not desired explicitly and overtly. The ideal is women functioning as autonomous individuals, liberated from the natural constraints upon their sex, without any need to depend upon men and with the freedom to go their own way whenever they might choose. This order depends upon the gender integration of the workforce, a welfare state and extensive social engineering, the outsourcing of most of the responsibilities of childcare, abortion and radically normalized contraception, the rise of an extreme divorce culture, the toleration of a culture of promiscuity, casual sex, and infidelity, along with other such developments.

      None of this will change until we reject the ideal of the detached and autonomous individual and are willing to sacrifice ease and autonomy for something greater. And I don’t see a general shift in that direction happening any time soon.

      • E. J. says:

        The difficult thing is that I’m not sure how women can be adequately protected from abusive marriages without having some level of personal autonomy that is higher than in the past. The current economic situation is obviously not ideal, but it seems (although I haven’t done a lot of study on this front) that the church has a rather poor record of helping women and their children escape abusive circumstances. In the past their only real chance at getting any form of help was if the wife’s family, particularly its male members, got fed up with the husband’s behavior and intervened. But that depends on the wife’s family caring enough to deal with the economic and social ramifications of getting involved, and there are a lot of families today that won’t do that even though it is far easier to offer help in such situations than it used to be. Given the high rate of abusive relationships that persist even in our relatively egalitarian society, that is a serious problem.

      • Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

        Yes, that is definitely a problem. Unless we give serious thought to addressing such situations, we will allow room for much injustice to occur. As I’ve argued on many occasions, although we should recognize that our age is one in which things that belong together—and which were held together in the past—are being separated and need to be integrated once more, we should not seek to return to the past we’ve left behind, as the way that things were integrated back then was so often unhealthy or oppressive.

        I don’t think it is the case that addressing this problem, strictly speaking, requires greater ‘personal autonomy’ for women. More reliable, healthy, and functional structures of support, operating according to a principle of subsidiarity, would also address the problem. And the effect of strengthening structures of support, rather than strengthening of independence and autonomy would produce a dynamic that is a lot less corrosive of marriage.

        However, none of these problems will be addressed without considerable care and prudence. There are no magic bullets, no utopian solutions, and certainly no golden ages to which to return.

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  13. RStarke says:

    Re: “no golden ages to which to return” – technically that’s true. We can’t go back to Eden. But Eden is where perfection was. And the New Heavens and the New Earth are coming, where there will be neither marriage nor giving in marriage. Which seems to indicate that whatever semblance of a perfect paradigm for male/female relations we are looking to build, we should fix our eyes on those two places, rather than the messy middle, where all is tainted by the Fall.

    • Eden wasn’t a golden age. It wasn’t perfect either, just a ‘good’ starting point. Perfection only comes with maturity. And the perfection of the New Heavens and the New Earth is a perfection from which we are still separated by a radical transition between ages and by the fundamental principles of human existence in the flesh prior to the resurrection. It doesn’t represent a perfection for us in this age. Nor does anything else, for that matter. Anything in this age will both fall short of perfection and will also be shot through with sin.

      We should definitely be looking both to the pre-Fall situation and to the New Heavens and the New Earth. The pre-Fall situation does tell us quite a lot about the differentiation and interaction of men and women and their forms and realms of labour, especially if we read it thoroughly and don’t merely focus on the isolated texts that most people content themselves with (texts that permit a lot to be imported into the text). Within the original creation order a pronounced asymmetry between the sexes in the character of their God-appointed, God-glorifying, and God-reflecting labour within their common calling is one of the most basic imports of the text.

      However, we aren’t called to establish a perfect paradigm for male and female relations, but one that is appropriate to our particular situations in an age of immaturity, disorder, and sin. For instance, a perfect paradigm for male and female relations would be one that didn’t make allowances for divorce (this is part of the point of Jesus’s strongly antithetical framing of his teaching relative to that of Moses), but a paradigm appropriate to our position in history must.

      And most of Scripture speaks into that particular context. While ensuring that we are clearly alert to how things were in the beginning and how things will be at the new beginning we await, we are directed in how to act righteously in a broken situation, which is still far removed from maturity, but is considerably more mature than the childlike situation of Eden.

  14. RStarke says:

    Patrick – re: the work culture you describe – I’m also in sales. I’m actually a business sales consultant. My work involves teaching business sales teams how to be more effective in their selling. The hunter/gatherer model of selling you describe is being recognized as being a historical corollary of the gender imbalance in business sales (particularly, in the tech industry in which I’ve worked for over twenty years). IOW, the belief that hunter/gathering, sports and shark metaphors were “the” effective model, was more about the instincts of the dominant population than the validity of the model. The interconnected world in which we live requires a more relational, others-centered approach. That’s the model I teach, and it works. In the two startups in which I’m currently working, women are the highest performers, consistently. The “helper” giftings are ones God gives women to serve Him and all of creation, not merely serve men. Where that’s recognized, there’s flourishing.

    As for the pseudo-familial structures Alastair describes, that’s a very worthwhile conversation to have all on its own as, again, I’ve seen and observed it from the inside of the tech industry for over twenty years. IOW, it’s not new. And yet, again, because the tech industry is so hyper-dominated by men (particular in the building and the selling portions), one has to wonder why that is? I’d argue that what they are building isn’t really about covenant family – it’s about shacking up. Absent the influence of women present in all of their womanhood to shape a workplace that is fully human (vs. the distorted shape men demand and women to various degrees comply to succeed), the secular workplace is a kind of anti-Eden – a vision of the world shaped by fallen men working alone, which, as we know, God said is not good.

    Which is why, while I agree with many of Alastair’s observations about the world as it currently is, I disagree strongly with many of his ideas about the world as it should be. The world needs a vision of male/female relations that is integrated around the imago dei, and around our fully restored humanity and communion in Christ. I don’t see Alastair’s arguments re: segregation as consistent with that. (But I am always interested and challenged when he makes them!)

  15. Alastair, what are you referring to when you write “Likewise, spiritual influence often has an erotic component” (under number 3)? How is spiritual influence erotic? I do not mean to come off challenging, I am genuinely curious.

    • Thanks for the comment and the question.

      More generally, spirituality very frequently has an erotic dimension, as seen in much Christian piety, and certainly not merely in the ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’ variety of it. By ‘erotic’, I am not referring to a form of sensual or carnal desire. Rather, it is a desire and longing for possession of the sublime. Such longing and desire are part of the way in which we relate to Christ.

      However, eros is something that must undergo proper purification. Spiritual influence evokes such desire and longing in people. Yet in its early forms, where it is most powerfully experienced, the eros is often poorly directed. Many a young woman, for instance, has experienced a powerful attraction to a charismatic professor, not properly discerning the proper object of the eros that the professor’s teaching evokes in her. She wants him, because the wisdom and knowledge he possesses and that she wants hasn’t yet properly been distinguished from his person in her mind.

      The same thing can also happen in the realm of spiritual influence. When a Christian teacher has a powerful, albeit not sinful, spiritual influence over someone, that person is drawn not just to the teaching, but also to the teacher. Such teachers have a charisma that excites attraction and devotion. This is one reason why movements built around a particular man’s charisma or teaching have so often involved many impressionable young female disciples wanting to sleep with that man and leaders all too happy to exploit this fact. For this reason, faithful Christian teachers must always be wary of playing with the potent dynamics of personal charisma, even while recognizing that they can in principle be used appropriately and for good.

      However, there are situations under which this eros, which is not inappropriate in its place, is easily misrecognized as or misdirected into a desire for sexual relations with that person. This is much less likely to occur between a man and a charismatic male leader (although it can happen there and is a dynamic that has been exploited by many in the past), but where the object of our charismatic attraction is a conceivable romantic partner, the inclarity of desire is vulnerable to misrecognition or misdirection. The attraction and devotion of men to a charismatic male leader can easily produce disordered loves and loyalties if not handled with care, but it is much less likely to be the occasion of sexual sin.

    • It should also be recognized that, more generally, charisma brings gender more to the foreground, because it brings personhood and relationships more to the surface, and they are gendered. It is hard to relate to a truly charismatic person as a neuter. So someone like Beyoncé is ‘Queen Bey’ or Jordan Peterson is spoken of as a father.

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  18. Lover of Truth says:

    Excellent article! One question I have though is why is it that women are attracted to men who are extremely influential and have lots of power? It seems to be if this desire is inherent, why did the Lord create it this way? Yes, I’m aware being influential and powerful doesn’t mean much as far as piety is concerned, but either way, especially if piety is already there, as you rightly noted out, people find themselves almost wanting to grab and draw close to you for reasons they themselves don’t understand. Why did God make it so that people with large influence and power create those dynamics of attraction? Looking at Adam in the Garden, he was definitely very powerful and of course rather influential given from God’s mandate to him, so would he have wired Eve that way? Did he create her to be attracted to those qualities for a reason? If a man of God happens to have those characteristics, how should he steward it wisely and appropriately? Also, have you also seen the other way around with women being in positions of high power and influence and men being attracted to them?

    Also, why did God make charisma? It seems to me power and influence can create charisma in of itself, but when people are “already” charismatic (even exceptionally) beforehand and you combine that with tremendous power and influence, you have countless women just itching to attach themselves to that person. Why did God wire women to have such a strong sensual draw to charisma coupled with power and influence? In general too as well, not asking presumptuously why did God make charismatic (or magnetic) people as a whole? What even makes one charismatic person have more charisma than another (what creates the levels of charisma, since some are perhaps even exceptionally charismatic).

    • Lover of Truth says:

      Hey Alastair Roberts, I hope you received my above comment. I know it’s an interesting one and definitely an extremely involved one, but just making sure you received and are hopefully going to tackle it as difficult as it might be. Thanks.

  19. Truth Seeker says:

    Dear Alastair, that’s completely fine, I understand. I didn’t stumble upon your article until semi recently and wanted to bring it up. Do you mind though, if you have the time (whenever that would be), addressing it? I know it’s a long and complicated series of them, so I’m not expecting tomorrow, but if you can, I would really really appreciate it. Again, totally you call, understood to the fullest extent but it’s something I have never heard anyone really speak to or comment on in the Body of Christ so I want to understand it better.

  20. Truth Seeker says:

    Hello Alastair. I just wanted to follow up on this thread to see if you had the time to answer this question because I think it is an interesting one for sure 🙂

    • I am not Alastair, obviously, and perhaps my answer will never be read. However, I would like to give a short answer. For centuries, women were totally dependent upon men. Their dependence and their children’s dependence increased their need for higher-status males. Charisma increases the male’s status and his earning potential (I have read studies that show, at least, that more attractive men, if not more charismatic men, are higher wage earners). Women, perhaps, learned from mothers and friends to desire such men. Desires are not necessarily bad. Desiring more wisdom, desiring to be more holy, desiring to walk in the Way are all good desires, and we can see why God instilled us with this ability to desire. The question is how to keep desires from leaning in the wrong direction.

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