by John Ellis
While working as a bartender at a large nightclub in Pensacola, FL, one of the bouncers asked me if I wanted to join him and several of our other male coworkers the next day when they visited the campus of the local Christian fundamentalist college. Asking why in the world they would want to do that, I was stunned by his answer.
“The girls there dress incredibly sexy!” he blurted out.
Dress sexy? That made very little sense to me. Like most Christian fundamentalist colleges, the dress code was strict and allowed for very little flaunting of flesh. Sexy was a descriptor that I never thought I would hear describe the clothes of the females on that campus. Especially not from guys who worked in a place where semi-nudity was a constant and where actual nudity was not uncommon. Sex permeated our work. By way of one example, the bouncers had been instructed to not be in too big of a hurry to intervene when customers engaged in public sex. The other customers enjoyed the show, after all.
And, yet, these guys who had mostly unfettered access to sex found the “old-fashioned” clothes of the Christian college girls sexy.
Whenever I hear or engage with conversations about modesty, purity, and questions about the possibility for platonic relationships between men and women, I think about that invitation and my friend’s answer. Reading Aimee Byrd’s new book Why Can’t We Be Friends? proved no exception.
With her book, Byrd interacts with the question of whether men and women who are not married to each other can be friends. And she does so in part through the prism of the Billy Graham Rules and the famous scene from When Harry Met Sally in which Billy Crystal’s character states that men and women can’t be friends because the “sex part gets in the way.”
My experience tells me that Crystal’s character was right. The “sex part” does get in the way (for the record, my experience is much more varied than the two extremes of Christian fundamentalism and hedonistic nightclubs). I’m not sure that many women fully understand how deeply (and shamefully) true that is. And I’m not sure that it is something that many males are fully forthright with women about, even their wives. An argument could be made that Billy Crystal’s character betrayed his gender. He revealed a secret that allowed women a peek into the “enemy’s” motives.
After reading her book, I’m not sure that Aimee Byrd fully comprehends how much truth is embedded in that scene from When Harry Met Sally, yet she does a masterful job of pushing back on it. And therein lies my paradox – I loved most of the book, I mean really loved most of the book, but the parts that I find problematic are problematic enough where I don’t know if I can recommend it. I want to, though.
While it’s hard to quantify because no hard data exists (that I’m aware of), much of conservative evangelicalism has failed to adequately and appropriately serve, to one degree or another, our sisters in Christ. The reality is that many of us could share shameful anecdote after shameful anecdote about how women have been marginalized, mistreated, and reduced to their sexuality within our churches.
Byrd helpfully diagnoses sin as the root problem and wisely concludes that the manifestation in this context is because Christian men fail to view and treat Christian women as sisters in Christ. In her book, Aimee Byrd calls us to pursue relationships with our brothers and sisters in Christ in God-honoring, edifying ways. She explains in the book’s Introduction:
I wrote this book because I want us to be biblically faithful in a very important area: our relationships. I want marriages to be better. I want singles to have more meaningful relationships. And I want the next generation to grow up with a better of how men and women view each other.
To that I say a hearty “Amen!”
I wholeheartedly agree with her when she claims, “Scripture tells us over and over again that Christian men and women are more than friends – we are brothers and sisters in Christ.”
And I don’t disagree when she writes:
What I can’t find in Scripture is any warning about avoiding friendships between the sexes in order to avoid sin. Instead the Bible says, ‘Let love be without hypocrisy. Detest evil; cling to what is good’ (Romans 12:9 CSB0. We are to cling to what is good, not throw it out because sin is possible. Directly following that command is a call to meaningful relationships with our siblings in Christ: ‘Love one another deeply as brothers and sister’ (Rom. 12:10 CSB).
Where Aimee Byrd and I disagree, I think, is the realm of ethics. As in, how do we work out and put into practice “meaningful relationships with our siblings in Christ” while still detesting evil and clinging to good? Frankly, I have a sneaking suspicion that if Aimee and I were able to sit down and talk this out, we’d actually agree far more than we disagree regarding the ethics. And that’s what frustrated me while reading her book and what continues to frustrate me while writing this review.
Amongst all of our explicit agreement and our assumed agreement (assumed on my part), where I disagree, what I think she fails to fully comprehend, is so important as to cause me to be hesitant about recommending Why Can’t We Be Friends?.
Throughout the book, Byrd takes the Billy Graham Rules to task, and not necessarily without cause. As an adherent of a version of the Billy Graham Rules, I admit that some men prioritize the rules over love. In chapter one, Aimee provides a brief sketch of a time she was forced to walk alone at night through a “sketchy ally when I could’ve been offered a ride to my car three blocks away.”
Her revelation about that night horrified me.
Years ago, while on staff at a theatre, my bosses (a husband and wife) were diligent in making sure that none of the women walked alone to their car after rehearsals or a performance. At night, the “occupants” around the theatre were less than savory. This non-Christian husband and wife team were adamant on this point, and I believe that it’s a point that Christians should be just as bullish on, if not more.
Aimee Byrd only shared a few of the details, but I’m assuming that the men were aware that she would be walking alone to her car that night. If I were there, I would’ve texted my wife and let her know that I would be given this stranger (the event happened at a conference) a ride to her car. I may have even texted my fellow Elders at my church and let them know. What I would not have done is allowed a woman to walk by herself at night down a “sketchy ally.”
There will always be solutions that still adhere to the spirit of the Billy Graham Rules. At the least, a man could’ve let Aimee Byrd drive his car to her car while he walked to her car. As silly as that might sound, if a brother were to do that, we all need to admit, out of love, that we do not know his heart. We don’t know his struggles. Instead of shaming him, we should be thankful that he served his sister while still pursuing holiness.
My point is that the problem isn’t necessarily the Billy Graham Rules; the problem is the men who legalistically cling to the rules at the expense of loving their sisters in Christ. Loving and serving our sisters in Christ should take precedence over man-made rules, even though the rule is wise and beneficial. And therein lies the rub, Billy Graham Rules are wise and beneficial. And I believe that it’s neither wise nor edifying for Aimee Byrd to encourage brothers to discard them.
After writing about how many churches steer into the overt sexualization promoted by our cultural, Aimee confesses that as a result, “My sexuality became a barrier to friendship.” In the context of the over-sexualized view of women that does pervade many of our churches, she asks and answers , “Who am I? I am a woman, created to find a husband and fashion a haven for him. And I am a threat to other people’s marriage [emphasis kept].”
In the margins of the book next to that paragraph, I wrote, “No. My own sin is a threat to my marriage.”
And that truth about myself and my sin is why I adhere to the Billy Graham Rules. I don’t adhere to the Billy Graham Rules for appearances’ sake. I do so out of a desire to grow in godliness. By God’s grace, I have a wonderful wife and a great marriage, but I know how deceitful lust is. Sadly, I’ve watched many men ruin their marriages because they didn’t take the call to mortify their lust seriously.
In the chapter titled “We’re Immature and Fearful,” while challenging Billy Graham Rules, Byrd lifts Jesus up as an example. She points out that Jesus visited women in their homes, wasn’t afraid to have conversations with women, and generally disregarded the cultural norms regarding women. Well, yes, of course the Savior of the World did. I look forward to the day when my sanctification is complete, and my lust isn’t something that I’ll have to mortify.
It’s true that Jesus is our example, but it’s also true that our lives aren’t one-to-one parallels with the Incarnation of the second person of the Trinity. We need to be careful about applying rigid applications from the life of Jesus to our own life. An interpretive grid that asks us to line up our life and actions in perfect symmetry with Jesus’ life and actions is not a good idea. Rather, we should seek to use an interpretive grid that takes the whole counsel of the Bible, including anthropology, into account when looking to Jesus as our example.
Thankfully, Aimee Byrd does a good job of pushing the reader to a Biblical anthropology, of seeing each other holistically and not reducing each other to parts of the whole. Allowing our perspective of each other to be shaped by culture, the When Harry Met Sally perspective, is not only demeaning to each other, it’s also dishonoring to God, the one whose Image we were all made. In that, Byrd and I are in agreement. However, I believe that she overstates her case about contemporary society.
One of the tragic subplots of the world’s story has been how men have sexualized and objectified women. If someone wants to argue that modern men have figured out how to do so more conveniently and effectively and have somehow tricked women into taking part in their own objectification, I won’t argue. But this isn’t a new issue for the Church, not by a long shot.
I sympathize with the frustration over the fact that many churches haven’t done a good job of discipling men to a godly perspective of their sisters in Christ. But the answer isn’t in ignoring how deceitfully sinful most men’s hearts are in this area. And I take umbrage at Byrd’s characterization of my struggles as, “adolescent thinking.”
I’ve known brothers who struggle with porn yet are unwilling to take steps to “gouge out their eye” or “cut off their hand” because they’re embarrassed to admit it. I had a brother confess to me once that after he sought help from his church family over his porn addiction, he was treated as an embarrassment. “I wish that I had a drug addiction,” he sadly told me. “my church is embarrassed by my porn addiction.”
In an effort to correct past errors in how we view and treat women, if churches swing too far the other way and shame men who struggle with lust (all men), we’re going to create another problem. We’re going to be intentionally placing stumbling blocks in the front of men as they seek to grow in grace and the knowledge of Jesus Christ.
I don’t know if I can overstate this – if I’m told by a man or a man’s wife that he doesn’t have the propensity to struggle with lust, I believe with every ounce of my being that he’s lying, and she’s deluded. I have had too many conversations with too many men across too many circumstances and walks of life. It continues to boggle my mind that people seemingly underestimate how deceitful men’s hearts are in this area. The history of men (referring to the gender) should be enough to tell us that lust is a universal struggle.
With that being said, mercifully, by God’s grace and through the power of the Holy Spirit, victory over lust can be found. But, until Jesus returns, no man should assume that the victory is final and complete. This is why Billy Graham Rules are a good idea. They recognize that I (the man) am the problem.
I’ll grant that we need to do a better job of placing the “blame” where it belongs. Billy Graham Rules aren’t needed because of women. Women aren’t a threat to a man’s marriage, his sinful heart is. Men who have made women to feel otherwise need to repent and seek forgiveness.
Jesus told us to gouge out our eye or cut off our hand if they cause us to sin. Obviously hyperbole, it means something. And in the arena of lust, I believe that Billy Graham Rules fit contextually. However, my rules do not mean that I cannot be friends with sisters in Christ. And that’s another criticism I have of Why Can’t We Be Friends?.
Some of my favorite theology conversation partners in my church family are women. I greatly appreciate the women (and men) of my church who take seriously theology and aren’t afraid to tell me when they disagree with something I say while teaching and preaching. I have been edified and sharpened by theological conversations with both women and men. In fact, and at the risk of sounding like I’m pandering, the women I’m thinking about as I write this are more theologically astute than the men. Does that mean we’re friends?
But before I own that “sure,” I want to make sure that we’re all on the same page as to what “friend” means. I’m not sure that’s possible if taking Why Can’t Be Friends? as our template.
Aimee Byrd spends a whole chapter interacting with the definition of friend, but she never really provides anything concrete. At one point, she writes, “Exclusivity in a marriage relationship does not mean that our spouses will fulfill all our relationship needs.”
I think I know what she means when she claims that marriage is exclusive, but I find it odd that she would pair that assertion with a claim of having needs fulfilled elsewhere. The definition of “exclusive” is fungible, I guess, like the word “friend.”
To Byrd’s point, my wife doesn’t fulfill my “need” to watch sports. My wife doesn’t enjoy football, baseball, or basketball. I blame it on the fact that she’s Canadian. Thankfully, I have buddies that help me scratch that itch. However, I’m pretty sure that if I told Aimee Byrd that I frequently went over to a single woman’s house to watch the game by ourselves because we were friends, she would caution me against it. Rightfully so.
The thing is, although I believe it’s unintentional, with her book Aimee Byrd provides rhetorical cover for men who desire to feed their lust by excusing their “friendship” with someone other than their wife. Likewise, she inadvertently undermines the attempts of God-honoring men who are seeking to mortify their lust.
Like much of her book, I find much wisdom and value in the chapter titled “We’ve Forgotten What Friendship Really Is.” But, for all the good in that chapter, Byrd fails to acknowledge the shifting definition of “friendship” in our society. Furthermore, she fails to provide adequate checks and balances that take into consideration the sinfulness in the hearts of men. This is why I am very reticent about recommending Why Can’t We Be Friends?.
Before concluding, I want to express my thankfulness for a few more areas in Aimee Byrd’s book. Much of her section on how we tend to misunderstand the nature of purity is an excellent correction to the reductionist definition that much of evangelicalism clings to. In fact, I favorably quoted the book in my post about why sex outside of marriage is a sin. I also find much needed correction in how she confronts us with the shameful ways in which conservative evangelicalism has mistreated and undervalued women.
I would love to recommend Why Can’t We Be Friends? but can’t in good conscience. While she writes much that is helpful, Aimee Byrd underestimates the depravity lurking in the hearts of men. In doing so, she inadvertently (I believe) provides excuses for men to sate their lust. Without a clear definition of friend that accounts for the sinfulness of men, the title of Byrd’s book is unanswerable. Regardless, I agree that men need to do a better job of loving and serving our sisters in Christ.
Soli Deo Gloria
 If that is not reflective of your church, praise God and please forgive my broad-brush strokes. I’m not intending to imply that every conservative evangelical church fails to love and serve women. I’m simply, within the constraints of the format of a book review, attempting to acknowledge that a problem exists, because a problem does exist.
 Aimee Byrd, Why Can’t We Be Friends? Avoidance Is Not Purity (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2018), 13.
 Byrd, Why Can’t We Be Friends?, 14.
 Byrd, Why Can’t We Be Friends?, 26.
 Byrd, Why Can’t We Be Friends?, 23.
 Byrd, Why Can’t We Be Friends?, 24.
 Byrd, Why Can’t We Be Friends?, 143.
 Byrd, Why Can’t We Be Friends?, 102.