Can women podcast with men? Aimee Byrd was forced to consider this question when she joined her two male co-hosts on the Mortification of Spin podcast. Listeners warned that she “was an affair waiting to happen, a possible career ender, perhaps Satan’s strategy to bring down another pastor and church” (7). This kind of thinking is not uncommon in conservative Christian circles, so Why Can’t We Be Friends?: Avoidance Is Not Purity is her response. Her argument is that by uniting men and women in Christ and calling them to loving fellowship in the household of faith, God calls men and women not just to friendly relations, but filial love.
When thinking about how men and women should relate, Christians have often relied on rules: don’t drive together alone, don’t eat together alone, don’t text or email each other without a third party copied, don’t podcast together (apparently). These well-meant rules are intended to prevent affairs, sexual immorality, and the appearance thereof. But Byrd points out that “imposing these extrabiblical restrictions on all believers hinders spiritual growth and does not promote purity” (46). Our purity doesn’t come from avoiding people of the other sex; it comes from God, and we grow in purity as we are more and more able to appreciate and love our brothers and sisters as whole human beings. This is how Jesus interacted with women: he viewed them as women made in the image of God, loving and serving them as co-heirs, even if that meant offending others. Byrd writes, “His friendships with women were downright scandalous during his ministry on earth” (82–83). He didn’t go out of his way to scandalize, and he never let the threat of scandal stop him from treating women with love and respect. His purity was the genuine article, allowing him to engage women and not reduce them to sexual threats or opportunities. Byrd says that we are to have the same attitude to people of the other sex; not being naive about sin but also not using rules to fake purity, “stealing unearned virtue at the expense of another’s dignity” (77).
In contrast to Jesus, Byrd’s prime example of the wrong way to think about male-female friendships comes from the movie When Harry Met Sally. Harry Burns, played by Billy Crystal, insists that men and women can’t be friends because “the sex part always gets in the way.” She writes that this movie “helped to popularize the notion that all women are reduced to a means of sexual gratification for men, that a man cannot control himself from thinking about conquering every woman he is ‘friends’ with, and that we all have to live with this cold, hard fact” (23). She says the church has absorbed these ideas from the culture.
Because she’s writing against a view that says sex always gets in the way, she expends most of her energy showing that it’s possible for men and women to treat each other like brothers and sisters at all. And it is! But sometimes sex does get in the way. On top of that, there is rampant confusion in the Christian community about the differences between attraction, sexual desire, and lust—Christians frequently collapse any kind of attraction into lust, which only intensifies their calls for avoidance of the other sex. To address these issues, Byrd says it’s immature to confuse attraction and temptation, because “the truth is that we are attracted to more people than our spouses. Attraction is not impurity” (87). This is a great start, but the book would have benefitted from a deeper treatment of the topic.
Instead she often references her relationship to her brother. She writes, “My brother and I would never think of reducing each other to sexual objects” (217). That’s wonderful, but they’re benefitting from millennia of strong taboos against incest that unrelated men and women don’t have access to. I fully support Byrd’s championing of male-female friendships, and I don’t believe they inevitably end in sexual immorality, but they do sometimes result in attraction (sometimes even sexual immorality), and her case for these relationships would be stronger if she discussed more thoroughly how to handle attraction in a loving and honest way.
The major flaw in Byrd’s case for male-female friendships is that the book isn’t a focused argument in their defense. Instead, Byrd attempts to fight reductive views of friendship by writing a much broader book, looking at friendship through the lenses of anthropology, eschatology, christology, and ecclesiology. She goes even further afield, dedicating entire chapters to the mission of the church, the way Christians should celebrate and suffer together, and how to enjoy table fellowship. I appreciate her attempt to expand the conversation, and she makes excellent points about all these topics, but they don’t add up to logical presentation of her ideas about male-female friendship. This lack of focus makes reading the book difficult; it’s a struggle to hang on to the main thread. Toward the end of the book she writes, “Can men and women be friends? By now, that question may be nearly forgotten!” (214). It seems like she’s hoping that by reminding people of the true nature of Christian friendship at length, any issues they have with male-female friendships will dissolve. While providing that context certainly helps, it would have been much more helpful if it were presented in a more carefully-structured format.
Even without structure and more specific tips about how to handle attraction, her insights on the nature of Christian friendship as a whole (and male-female friendships in particular) are helpful, and her thoughts on the true nature of purity undid lots of damage I’d suffered at the hands of purity culture by enabling me to appreciate the love Jesus had for women even more. In a Christian culture that desperately needs a reminder that men and women can be friends, her ideas will generate further conversations about how we can better love one another.
Anna Smith (MA, biblical studies, Westminster Seminary California) is an assistant editor for The Gospel Coalition, and she writes at www.thebeautifulplaceblog.com. She lives with her husband, Andy, in Rochester, Minnesota.