Something has changed -marriage, singleness and friendship

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Last week, I responded to some of the speculation around Matt Chandler’s leave of absence from The Village Church. There seemed to be a strong presumption and a lot of speculation around the announcement that the sin must have been far worse than suggested. Otherwise, in effect, Chandler’s church were imposing a legalistic “Billy Graham rule” and this would have negative implications for friendship and for single people in the church.[1]

It is worth noting therefore that in the statements made, for all their faults, the church and Chandler were clear that the issue wasn’t about friendship itself but about aspects of the direction that friendship had taken.

Secondly, whilst some of the strongest reaction that came out was about the implications for single Christians, the specific situation wasn’t about single Christians but about two married people. That’s not to say that there aren’t problematic issues within the church about how single people in general and single women in particular are viewed.

Take this example from a  US pastor:

Now, “39” is oddly specific but I would gently suggest that he spends a bit of time with a few older Christians in their “twilight” years. It might cause him to repent of talking such nonsense to the benefit of all future interactions he may have with younger believers.

So, there is a danger if we have this legalistic application of the so called Billy Graham rule and an unhealthy attitude to singleness and friendship.  There are, I think, some particular reasons as to how we’ve arrived at this state of affairs.

  • If you are married, cultivate good, healthy friendships with others as brothers and sisters in Christ -both with married couples and single people.
  • If you are single, cultivate good, healthy friendships with others as brothers and sisters in Christ – both with married couples and single people.

However, I also think we need to be careful that we don’t allow the pendulum to swing back the other way.  In my initial article, I argued that there isn’t a binary choice between sinful, sexual relationships and innocent platonic ones, that there are other ways in which a relationship could be problematic without it straying into an all out physical affair.

I think the point came out further as we drew to the conclusion of our little podcast series on Song of Songs last week.  We saw at the end of The Song that marriage means that something has changed. Now, The Song points specifically to our relationship with Christ as the church but from there we can make an application to human marriage as well as it points to Christ and the Church. 

My marriage did affect my relationships with others. The obvious and overt one in the Bible is that husbands are told to leave their parents (note despite the emphasis in the marriage vows, it is in fact the husband who is told to leave and cleave) for their spouse. Priorities have changed.  From there, it is implicit that other relationships change too. In fact, as you’ll pick up in the talk, the bride’s relationship with her brothers changes when she meets the one. [2]

It is important to emphasise that relationships change, they are not abolished. In fact, the point should be that the marriage is to the benefit of other relationships and friendships whether with single friends or other married couples and families.  The friendship should be improved. I’m sure that my friends will affirm that this has been the case for them since I married Sarah (whether her friends would concur, I cannot say).

Now, exactly how that works out in terms of your friends is going to vary from friendship to friendship depending on personalities and circumstances.  I think prescriptive legalism is unhelpful here.

My general rule of thumb though is to keep emphasising the point that the marriage should improve not remove friendships.  So, one helpful way of looking at things is to see that friendships are gained.  If we as a married couple are now one flesh, then instead of Sarah having friends and me having friends, we have friends together.  That doesn’t mean of course that we have to see every friend together at the same time but it does mean that the perspective changes.  This both benefits the friendship in the present time and it future proofs it and the marriage from future dangers. There are few things sadder (contrary to the tweeted claim above) than a marriage going through difficulties and the respective friends of each party aligning to take sides.  Of course, there will be times when a marriage is in difficulties because of sin and blame on one side but we should be able to see that whoever we were first friends with and the general rule is that we are friends of both and therefore we are for them, we are for their marriage.

So, if we assume that nothing changes when we get married then we may well lose some of the wider societal benefits of marriage. Marriage is meant to be a public good -for the wider benefit of all, not just the personal benefits of the couple.  The important question is whether or not those changes are for the better.

[1] Note, that in my article I’m not judging whether or not something more has happened or not.  I’m simply arguing that we shouldn’t and don’t need to get into the speculating game.

[2] It strikes me at this point as well that no one has yet raised the question of how pastors cultivate healthy friendships within their churches regardless of the gender and martial status questions. I suspect that this is as big a challenge.

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