On Religion by Terry Mattingly

Trying To Build A Church Family In The #Churchtoo Era

The email was signed “Worried Wife,” and contained a blunt version of a question Bronwyn Lea has heard many times while working with women in and around churches.

The writer said her husband had become friends with another woman his own age. There were no signs of trouble, but they traded messages about all kinds of things. This was creating a “jealous-wife space” in her mind.

“Worried Wife” concluded: “I need a biblical perspective. What is a godly view of cross-gender friendships, and how should they be approached within the context of marriage?”

That’s a crucial question these days for clergy and leaders of other ministries and fellowships, said Lea, author of “Beyond Awkward Side Hugs: Living as Christian Brothers and Sisters in a Sex-Crazed World.” All of those #ChurchToo reports about sexual abuse and inappropriate relationships have people on edge -- with good cause.

Lea, who has a seminary degree and law-school credentials, is convinced that it’s time for churches to act more like extended families and less like companies that sort people into niches defined by age, gender and marital status.

“Many people are lonely and they truly long for some kind of connection with others,” she said. “But they’ve also heard so many horror stories about what can go wrong that they’re afraid to reach out. They think that everyone will think that they’re creepy or weird if they open up. ... Lots of people are giving up and checking out.”

Everyone knows the church is “supposed to be a family that everyone can belong to. ... That’s the vision that we need to reclaim,” said Lea, a staff member at the First Baptist Church in Davis, California.

Thus, the New Testament says: “Treat younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity.”

The problem is making that work at the personal level, where pastors, teachers, parents and laypeople are trying to find realistic ways to handle social media, complex career pressures, tensions in modern families and constantly changing gender roles.

For example, said Lea, religious leaders have to acknowledge that their people -- children, teenagers and adults of all ages -- swim in a sea of music, advertising, movies, video games and smartphone apps that push a “sexed-up view of life.”

Some people are damaged and will need help fitting into a church community. Many women have suffered various kinds of abuse and may struggle to trust others. There are men facing fears of their own.

In her book, Lea quoted one young man who told her: “I’m struggling with a porn addiction ... and it makes me afraid to be around women. I have all of these scripts in my head of how men and women go from clothed to naked in less than two minutes, but I don’t know how to be with women in everyday life. What if I’m not a safe person for women to be around if I have all of this stuff going on in my head?”

Most churches will, unfortunately, label him as a “single man” and send him to a Bible study in which he will be surrounded with single women and men -- even if that’s the last thing that he wanted or needed.

“Everyone knows,” Lea explained, “that we’re supposed to divide everybody up by age, gender and marital status as soon as they walk through the church door. Right? ... When my husband and I got married, they sent us straight to the ‘young married’ class. Young marrieds! That’s just pooled ignorance when it came to navigating the troubled waters of those years. What we needed was wisdom.”

When extended families gather, noted Lea, there are “all kinds of aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents” sitting round that table. That’s a much healthier image of a spiritual family than one in which individuals only have friendships with people their own age.

“I want to learn about being a Christian woman from older women,” said Lea. “I need to learn about marriage from friends who are older women and men. I need to learn how to grow older. Someday, I may need to learn how to be a widow. ... Churches need to teach us how to embody all of those appropriate ties that bind.”

(Terry Mattingly leads GetReligion.org and lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is a senior fellow at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi.)