ignoring friendship is destroying the Church

I’ve been mulling over a few thoughts for the past few months, and they all sort of came to a head last night. Suddenly things that didn’t seem to be connected fit together to create one compelling conclusion: the Christian obsession with marriage and family (read: traditional, nuclear) is destroying the Church and her people.

A bit ago I was a part of a discussion group to help a group of pastors who wanted to make sure they created a safe space for LGBT+ people, regardless of whether or not they identified as Side A or Side B. One of the things that was emphasized over the course of the discussion was the absolute need for married-couples centrism to end. Most of the churches I’ve been in don’t know what to do with unmarried people, especially once those people reach 30.

Church is supposed to be a community, but many churches have adopted this mentality of segregating everything up by “life stage” and gender– see Ladies’ Bible Studies and Men’s Prayer Breakfasts and the endless barrage of things for married people to do. At the last church we attended, the church set up a “Dinners for 8” program so married couples of similar ages could get to know each other. They didn’t offer anything similar for single people.

Over time it began to deeply bother me that conservative evangelicals want to shove celibacy down every queer person’s throat, but offer nothing for them. No sense of community, of belonging. Nothing to help strengthen or comfort, or help them get by in a world where they’re forbidden from being with anyone they love. “If you’re gay, then you need to remain celibate,” is the message, but then they just boost them out into the cold dark night of loneliness with a swift kick to the rear.

Another thing that seemed unrelated at first is my beef with the phrase “emotional adultery.” All of us, but most especially married people, are cautioned from basically every side to avoid “close emotional connections with the opposite sex.” This completely ignores non-binary people, who have no “opposite sex,” and bisexual people, because the idea is that we should avoid friendships with the gender we’re attracted to, and bi people are attracted to all genders. It’s also heteronormative, but affects lesbian and gay individuals differently.

Aside from the fact that this “avoid emotional adultery!” teaching is tantamount to “have no friends!” for bi people, it also makes it seem anathema for straight people to have friendships with someone of the same gender– a position that seems completely unsupported in the Bible, what with everyone thinking of each other as brother and sister and having all things in common and hanging out together all the time and greeting each other with holy kisses.

And the last thing was a eureka! moment I had last night: I have never, not once, heard a message on the topic “this is how you can have a good friendship.” Oh, I’ve heard plenty about avoiding people who would “corrupt your good manners” and lots of messages on how “iron sharpeneth iron,” but nothing that covers things like friendships require healthy boundaries or friends should communicate about their needs.

Instead, what we get is lots and lots and LOTS of messages on being a good husband or wife, on the importance of marriage and family, and a fairly basic human need like friendship is completely shoved aside in favor of the Idol of the Nuclear Family. This obsession has wreaked violence and harm in the form of homophobia and anti-marriage-equality bigotry, but it’s also destroyed the Church because we’ve collectively decided that being a community of friends is less important than worshiping a false idol.

One of the things that has always made me wistful and left me longing are the descriptions of the early church in Acts. They cared about each other, helped each other, and it didn’t matter if your family was close by, or if you still had parents living, or if your husband was dead. They thought of each other as individuals, as friends, as community, not as a loosely organized structure of Family Units. You weren’t important to them only as long as you had 2.5 kids, a picket fence, and a dog– being a person created with the Imago Dei was more than enough.

I think the modern American church desperately needs to get back to that. We’ve been so obsessed with “One Man, One Woman” for so many years that it’s made us blind to our basic human needs. We can’t afford to ignore friendship. Without it, we the Church are as clanging brass. The sound of the fury, signifying nothing. If we can’t even offer friendship, what else is there?

Photo by Jeff Golden
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  • Stefunny Ricci

    Yes. The church is constantly pushing away the very same people they scream need God most. The nonsensical hypocrisy is overwhelmingly discouraging.

  • notleia

    Hell yeah. Christian subculture has a fixation with one life narrative above all others: child, student, married, married with kids/grandkids. Where’s the literature for the class/group leaders (and people who were press-ganged into being class/group leaders) for the people who are for-real adults but who aren’t hitched or popping out kidlets? Focus on the Family sure ain’t gonna help you with that (though the less of them, the better).
    It’s worse for denominations who are all het up on binary gender roles and crap. They don’t allow anyone any flexibility beyond “have kids” or “support wife/kids.” Which might make alienation of on-purpose singles/childfrees a feature rather than a bug for them.

  • I feel like this is a society-wide problem, rather than something specifically lacking in churches. It’s easy enough to find books and movies with a romantic relationship placed in the centre (either throughout, or as the end goal), but friendships are much harder to find. When friendships do appear, they are usually just there to establish something about the main character, then the friend fades into the background. But a story about two *friends* who brave obstacles? Or the “meet cute” of two people who will become *friends* by the end?

    The implicit assumption is that friends are something kids/teens have, maybe into your 20s, but they’re really just place holders for the REAL relationships – the romantic ones. After that, if you have friends at all, it’ll just be another couple you can have over for dinner so you can, oh I don’t know, maybe compare your own success/childrearing/possessions/careers to in nasty, passive-aggressive ways for comedy.

    • Caddy Compson

      I agree with you that it is present society-wide, but I feel like it’s too a much more intense degree in the church. As a single woman, I don’t feel much pressure from my “secular” friends and environments to partner off, but I certainly do both from the church I grew up in and the ones I’ve visited as an adult. I agree that the narratives the wider culture present are heavily focused on romance, but I feel like people who aren’t in the white Christian bubble have more understanding that not every individual is going to be married or even in a relationship at a given moment. They have a better understanding that some people are just fine outside of a romantic relationship (whether for a time or for their whole lives), whereas in the church you are expected to find a spouse and if you don’t, you’re viewed as a sort of failure. Nobody I know would explicitly put it that way, but there’s just a general feeling in the church that getting married is what all adults do and if you don’t manage to do that, it’s sad because you haven’t done life correctly.

      • And I think that’s pretty common. So much of what I see from the more fundamentalist/evangelical churches reflects, in an enhanced version, broader social problems. Whether that’s acceptance of non-romantic relationships, or victim blaming, or rape culture, etc.

        It’s like a certain kind of church is both a product of our society (which makes the claims of biblical literalism rather laughable), and an enhancement of its flaws.

  • Molly Dodd

    It is really important not to make everything about the idealized family unit, and can be a big problem when churches do that.

    Something that makes a huge difference for me in my rather small (60 attendees), community intensive parish, has been eating together after Sunday Liturgy and on holidays. All of us. I can visit with my married friends, single friends, widows, older singles, it doesn’t really matter that much, they’re pretty much all great, and really interesting people. In addition to the weekly get togethers, it’s fantastic having a place to go for holidays where it’s not assumed that everyone will go home to their family after a short service, and where those of us who don’t aren’t left clinging to one another like we’re defective. Thanksgiving is especially lovely, when we have Liturgy and a feast with thankfulness toasts in the parish hall.

    It’s hard to have a career with the economy here, so there are a number of people, especially singles, who stay for a few years, have to leave, but always feel like it’s home to us, this is where our best friendships are, and come back when we can. But I also think there’s something just beyond the organization and size that makes it special, though that helps. I want to find a complicated explanation about the scientists from the lab and the liberal arts seekers from the local great books college and whatnot, and that’s part of it, but part is also just how we “do life” together. It probably helps that those singles, widows and widowers, wanderers, fathers and mothers chasing their toddlers across the rugs, empty nesters, those whose life partners don’t go to church, and everyone else are commended and appreciated for doing whatever we do to contribute to that life together.

    • Caddy Compson

      I envy you your church. I’ve had an enormously hard time finding a community. I love the services I go to, but I haven’t ever felt embraced or made any friends. It’s wonderful to hear that there are churches doing it right.

  • Pebbs

    I had never realized this before, but you’re right. I’ve never heard a sermon about “how to be a great friend” or “how to deal with common friendship problems”. I have been to some churches where close friendships are almost frowned upon because they’re seen as clique-ish, as though it were possible for everyone in a large church to be equally close to each other. This is a truly weird situation and I hadn’t really wrapped my head around it until now.

  • Samantha, you frequently have excellent insights, but I think this one is among your best. Thank you for it. Your difficult experiences in the church have produced much needed healing and guidance for others.

  • Alice

    I had never thought about how you never hear sermons or Sunday school classes on friendship. I can only think of a few times, and that was about how friendship is the best strategy to convert people. It’s just a means to an end.

  • Kathy Ray

    I’m a married woman in her 50s and have no real friends except the ones I made in college (and they’ve all moved away). I spend time with people in the church (in groups that offer pseudo-friendship, but not the real thing), but there’s no one I could call and say, “Want to have coffee?” or “Want to come over and hang out?” People my age– especially married people– aren’t supposed to want or need that. And it’s not just the church, it’s the whole town that’s like this. Trying to make non-Christian friends hasn’t really worked either.

  • Kathy Ray

    I’m a married woman in her 50s and have no real friends except the ones I made in college (and they’ve all moved away). I spend time with people in the church (in groups that offer pseudo-friendship, but not the real thing), but there’s no one I could call and say, “Want to have coffee?” or “Want to come over and hang out?” People my age– especially married people– aren’t supposed to want or need that. And it’s not just the church, it’s the whole town that’s like this. Trying to make non-Christian friends hasn’t really worked either.

  • aviendha

    Yes. Thank you. This is one of the things that led to me eventually leaving church – how hard it is to become part of the church community as a single thirty something female. Couple get togethers, the lack of engagement unless you are part of a couple, not being seen as an adult but more for what you bring to church in terms of service instead of who you are. Your value. I was told to keep on pushing in. And did so for a long time until I broke. Busy picking up the pieces and so grateful to be out of the church.

  • calvinandhobbesforever

    As a recently divorced woman, this hits me straight in the gut. In fact, even as a married woman I was rarely at his church because he was in ministry and it could be awkward. Churches have no clue what to do with single folks at all, so if they have a group at all they call it “college and career.” Because obviously everyone over 25 is properly married.

  • This might be my favorite post you’ve ever written. Even before I left the church, my sisters and I used to talk about this. As teenagers, we would get angry that all they talked about was PURITY but all we wanted to hear about was friendships. We were lonely isolated girls with very little way to make friends and we were starving for the church to actually mention what it takes to make good friendships, to encourage others to reach out, to encourage us to reach out to others.
    This is absolutely brilliant and I can’t tell you how much this post meant to me. Thank you. I’ve been dying to hear this for years.

  • David Lund

    Your timing on this post was perfect. I was just fuming about this same issue yesterday.

    One of the things that I always loved about our church was that, with rare exceptions, the various group activities, from bible studies to athletics, were based on topics or interests, so things like age, marital status, or even orientation didn’t matter. We had a lot of married couples, of course, but about 40% of our adults were either divorced or never married, and it didn’t matter in the slightest. Then, about five years ago, we started trying to improve our children’s ministries because we had a strong in-house Sunday School curriculum but not much else. We succeeded spectacularly, with the result that we’ve gained lots of new families with kids. For the most part I think that’s wonderful, but with the growth has come a weird fixation with groups based on age/gender/marital status.

    What set me off yesterday was the announcement of the small groups for the coming quarter: men’s group, women’s group, young adults group, married couples group, mothers with preschoolers group, etc. … oh, and one group for anyone. Really? I don’t begrudge people who want to get together to talk about things they have in common — the mothers with preschoolers is a great example — but most of the groups had no special reason to be limited. The young adults are studying prayer. Older people don’t want to talk about prayer? The marrieds are doing time management. Single people don’t have time management issues? And group after group was the same. What possible value is being served by excluding people?

    I’ve raised the issue with our pastor and small group coordinator almost every cycle, but I can’t seem to convince them that something vital is being lost and real harm is being done. Your post captures my frustration perfectly and more eloquently than I’ve ever been able to articulate it. (I realize your post reaches more broadly, but I think the small group problem is symptomatic of the same thing.)

    There is nothing special about being pigeonholed by your “station in life”. You can go anywhere and get that. The whole world seems to be dying to label us and sort us and tell us what we can or can’t be or do as a result. The church is at its best when it just lets us share our messiness with each other. As you pointed out, we all carry part of the Imago Dei; how can we possibly glimpse the whole if we’re constantly being sorted into boxes with other people who happen to have similar pieces of that image?

    Anyway, my rant concluded, thank you for another excellent post. You are always thought provoking, but this one was a real lifeline.

  • Kim Waggoner

    Samantha, I love this so much. I think you hit the nail right on the head. I’m married, in my thirties, no kids, and I go to church by myself. I’m finding it very difficult to make friends and I’m wondering if this is part of it. Thank you!

    Quick question: in this sentence “it also makes it seem anathema for straight people to have friendships with someone of the same gender” – do you mean opposite gender?

  • Jackalope

    “At the last church we attended, the church set up a “Dinners for 8”
    program so married couples of similar ages could get to know each other.
    They didn’t offer anything similar for single people.”

    What a waste of Dinners for 8! My church does that but it’s for EVERYONE; we might have a couple of singles, 2 couples, and a mom with teens, or something like that, the number 8 being there only because much more than that and it’s hard to get a conversation going. It perplexes me that this would be seen as couples-only.

  • Sara Lin Wilde

    This spoke to me. I was staunchly with my closest friend through high school; we were inseparable, a package deal. We became less close when I moved to a new city for university and became less religious. But one she got married, she went from “call me at 4 am if you need a friend” to “I can’t lift a finger to help you even when you’re in crisis because my nuclear family is too important”. Like, I once went to her literally fleeing abuse, and she refused to let me in to print a train ticket. Having friends who are victims of abuse does not fit in with the perfect suburban family life she’s created.

  • If I hear one more pastor preaching about marriage tell me that “this is for the single people out there; you’ll need this one day!” I’m going to stand up and scream. PREACH SOMETHING ELSE. The Bible’s a long book, man.

  • Lou

    I’ve lurked on and off for some time, but only recently began commenting here. I’m sure that you and I disagree about some (many?) things, but damn! It had never occurred to me that I haven’t been hearing sermons or Sunday school lessons or small group discussions about how to be a good friend. The closest I ever got was a group of twentysomething-aged adults who were earnestly (so very, very earnestly) trying to build an “intentional community” (we spent a lot of time having “edifying conversations”) and an occasional 5-minute rabbit trail about how “David and Jonathan were totally just friends, and they were good friends, and isn’t that nice?”
    We definitely need to know how to be friends with each other as individual bearers of the Imago Dei! We definitely need basic info on healthy boundaries (I wouldn’t have wound up in an abusive friendship for years if I had known that I was worth setting boundaries for and that I didn’t have to constantly sacrifice myself for what turned out to be somebody else’s ego and not just “the interest of others”).