Is what we consider appropriate behavior and boundaries as Christians based on the Bible, or on our culture?
Clearly, it’s a little of both. We avoid plain “thou shalt nots” (e.g. the culture says sex is great in many contexts; we teach sex is only appropriate in the type of marriage God set up in the garden of Eden), yet we tend to go with what’s culturally appropriate in how we interact with others (e.g. in Western churches we don’t “greet all the brethren with a holy kiss” though Paul and Peter both tell their readers to).
Part of this makes perfect sense. You don’t dress exactly like people did in Bible times because 1) you can’t find ankle-length robes for everyday wear in stores, 2) clothing designed for a Middle Eastern climate isn’t practical world-wide, and 3) these styles would be considered inappropriate or even immodest in some cultural contexts. So we apply the principle of dressing appropriately rather than trying to recreate Biblical fashion.
But what about other topics? How much should we go with what is culturally appropriate verses what is traditionally appropriate in Christian communities?
After my brother came back from teen camp, I learned that a pastor’s wife was concerned about the hand-holding, arms around shoulders, and hugging going on between the young men at camp. She was especially worried by the use of the term “bromance,” and how the teens’ behavior might be seen in light of the recent Supreme Court decision.
I understand why this upsets adults who have seen their culture change from “men don’t have feelings” to one that encourages male expression of emotion and accepts homosexuality (two things not necessarily related, except in this sort of discussion). I know why young men expressing affection for their guy friends scares middle aged and older adults. I’m just not sure God shares their fears.
Then he [Joseph] fell on his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept, and Benjamin wept on his neck. Moreover he kissed all his brothers and wept over them, and after that his brothers talked with him.(Gen 45:14-15)
Similar scenes play out when Esau and Jacob are reunited (Gen. 33:4), when Joseph sees his father again (Gen. 46:29), when the Prodigal son returns (Luke 15:20), and when Paul says good-bye to the Ephesians elders (Acts 20:36-37). Now, you might say they just got swept away in emotional reunions or partings and that this wasn’t common among friends and brothers, but what about this scene?
When Jesus had said these things, He was troubled in spirit, and testified and said, “Most assuredly, I say to you, one of you will betray Me.” Then the disciples looked at one another, perplexed about whom He spoke. Now there was leaning on Jesus’ bosom one of His disciples, whom Jesus loved. Simon Peter therefore motioned to him to ask who it was of whom He spoke. Then, leaning back on Jesus’ breast, he said to Him, “Lord, who is it?” (John 13:21-23)
Obviously Jesus wasn’t doing anything wrong — He never sinned! Yet if our young men in the church lean against each other at a supper table, we lecture them on the evils of “bromance.” We make a digression every time we teach on 1 Samuel 20 to explain that David and Jonathan weren’t gay and that there’s nothing wrong with close friendships between guys, but then we lecture young men who have close friends? Talk about mixed signals!
There are appropriate and inappropriate ways to interact with other people, but we can’t just make the blanket statement that the Bible forbids physical expressions of affection between two men (or two women, but “besties” aren’t my topic right now). I think we do our young people a grave disservice when we imply that there’s something unnatural about their friendships and make no effort to teach them how to express affection as men and as women. Just saying, “That’s bad, so don’t do it” isn’t going to work–touch is too important as a bonding mechanism among humans and there simply isn’t a Biblical basis for putting distance like that between friends.
Men and Women
All that being said about affection in friendships, there are stricter rules governing the interactions between men and women. I do think it is possible for men and women to be “just friends,” but the closer male and female friends get (physically or emotionally), the harder it is to keep the friendship casual. God created men and women to be attracted to each other–the very first human relationship was a romantic one (Gen. 2:18-24).
I find it interesting that in Genesis 20, when Abimelech takes Sarah away from Abraham thinking she is his sister, that God tells Abimelech in a dream, “I also withheld you from sinning against Me; therefore I did not let you touch her” (Gen 20:6). While this Hebrew word can euphemistically mean “to lie with a woman,” it’s not the typical word used for sex in the bible. Rather, it’s the word used to command Adam and Eve not to touch the forbidden fruit (Gen 3:3). For Abimelech, just touching another man’s wife would have been sin even though he did it in ignorance.
Flee sexual immorality. Every sin that a man does is outside the body, but he who commits sexual immorality sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s. (1 Cor. 6:18-20)
Though I appreciate the fact that we now live in a culture where I can give my guy friends a quick hug when I see them or put a hand on their shoulders in comfort, I wonder sometimes if we’ve reacted so strongly against the whole courtship idea of “never touch someone of the opposite sex” that boundary lines are becoming blurred.
More and more often at church events, I’m seeing guys and girls hanging on each other, sitting in each other’s laps and cuddling. Some of this is more than is even culturally acceptable among people who are “just friends,” and it confuses people when you try to explain you’re not in a romantic relationship (sometimes, it even confuses one of the two people involved in the friendship). I see no evidence that the Bible encourages or permits unrelated men and women to be as affectionate toward one another as they would be with their male or female friends.
Do not rebuke an older man, but exhort him as a father, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, with all purity. (1 Tim. 5:1-2)
Notice that not only should we treat our brethren as family, but that we should do so “with all purity.” The woman in Song of Solomon wishes her beloved were seen by others as her brother so she could show him affection in public (Song. 8:1-2) — implying we can show our relatives a level of affection that would be inappropriate among friends and brethren (just as there are things you don’t do with your friends or siblings because they progress to a deeper level of intimacy only allowed in marriage).
Physical touch implies a certain level of intimacy, and different touches belong to different levels of closeness. I use this in my fiction writing all the time — a touch on the arm signals two people are comfortable with each other, an arm around the shoulder is a more intimate boundaries-invading touch that you don’t let just anyone do, hands on someone’s waist or lower back is even closer, and touching someone’s face is extraordinarily intimate (in writing romantic scenes, this often accompanies a kiss). We need to be aware of what our touch is communicating to people–both those we’re interacting with, and those observing us.
Judging What’s Right
In addition to the explicit and implied Biblical guidelines for interacting with same-sex and opposite-sex friends, there are a few other principles we need to consider.
Prove all things; hold fast that which is good. Abstain from all appearance of evil. (1 Thes. 5:21-22, KJV)
We’re not supposed to do things that appear evil or may be perceived as sin, even if we think it’s right and acceptable — “do not let your good be spoken of as evil” (Rom. 14:16). Let’s say you’re a young person and you know in your heart that hugging and cuddling with your best friend is part of a pure, godly relationship. But what do you do if several people confront you about it, saying that it appears wrong and it’s causing other young people to stumble?
Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather resolve this, not to put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in our brother’s way. (Rom. 14:13)
The freedom we feel knowing we did nothing immoral isn’t always enough. If it’s a question of whether or not to follow a clear command, then we always “ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). But if it’s a case of something being permitted rather than commanded, we have to use our best judgement and think about how it impacts others.
There’s nothing “wrong” with a group of close male friends sharing hugs and acting closer than brothers. There’s nothing “wrong” with two female friends sharing a close, affectionate relationship. There’s nothing “wrong” with a woman greeting her brother in Christ with a chaste hug. But all these things can have a hurtful affect if we’re not careful. Just as a couple examples, how do our relaxed boundaries in female friendships affect women struggling with homosexual desires? how does a girl’s feeling that it’s okay to give her guy friends long hugs play with their emotions (or vice versa)? how do “bromances” affect the members of Christ’s body who are offended by the casual play on words?
It is good neither to eat meat nor drink wine nor do anything by which your brother stumbles or is offended or is made weak. Do you have faith? Have it to yourself before God. Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves. But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because he does not eat from faith; for whatever is not from faith is sin. (Rom. 14:21-23)
God is watching to see why we do what we do. He’s looking for faith, purity of heart, and a concern for how our actions affect other people. This might be as simple as young men avoiding the word “bromance,” two girls putting an arm around each other’s shoulders instead of sitting in each others laps, or guys and girls giving each other quick hugs instead of an embrace. Or it might require more thoughtfulness and self-examination about how your boundaries and behaviors are affecting other people, and yourself.
Update 9/22/2017: I don’t mean to imply that we must conform ourselves to other people’s standards. We are told to show consideration for our brethren and not do things with the intent that they stumble into sin, but our primary concern should be following God. So if we are going to do something that other Christians may consider unacceptable we should be able to respectfully respond to them with Biblical evidence that we are behaving in a right and proper manner in God’s eyes. We don’t have to change just to make them happy but we should be able to support our actions from the Bible, just as we’d expect someone who asked us to change something to support their request from the Bible.
Credits: Background picture for the images used in this post by Hernán Piñera, CC BY-SA via Flickr.