Are There Boundaries Between Men and Women? Rethinking the Social Division Between the Sexes

   

After reflecting on the years that I spent growing up in a conservative church, I can recall experiencing very little interaction with the opposite sex. Although boys and girls were permitted to sit together during the youth group worship services, it was a rare occasion when an individual from either sex took advantage of this opportunity. For the most part, boys would sit on one side of the sanctuary and girls on the other. The few times that I remember people straying from this norm, the participants were guests that showed up as a couple. Other than that, prolonged male/female interaction was an unspoken taboo.

When I was sixteen years old I crossed (in my opinion) one of the most significant thresholds of my life. At the beginning of my junior year of high school I began spending some time with a girl who I had fallen head over heels for, and eventually I was able to convince her to like me too. After seeing her for a while, the next hurdle I had to jump was figuring out how I could see her outside of school. So as a young inexperienced male, I did what every boy my age dreams of doing with the girl he has the hots for; I took her to church. To be more exact, I took my soon to be girlfriend to Tuesday-night high school youth group. I think I realized that the only chance I’d have at getting her parents to allow their fifteen-year-old daughter to spend time with a sixteen-year-old male was if I convinced them that we would be hanging out in an environment that would keep us from getting into trouble. Hence, our first dates together were spent at church.

To my surprise, once we arrived at youth group it seemed as if we were almost immediately split up. We were rarely allowed to sit together during the worship service and the instruction that we received from the leaders post-worship took place in gender specific groups—a male leader instructed the guys and a female leader instructed the gals. Needless to say, I quickly learned that church was not the ideal place to have a date with my soon to be girlfriend.

During the four years succeeding my first youth group experience post single-hood, I found myself in circumstances time and time again where some sort of authority figure within the church would assert his/her power to drive a wedge between my girlfriend and I. Although I don’t entirely blame those who were concerned for my sexual purity for the way that they constantly imposed boundaries on my dating relationship, I now realize that my view of women in general was being shaped by their reactions.

Now that I have been married for close to a year now, I’m beginning to realize that I never really learned how to interact with those of the opposite sex. Let me be more specific. I have yet to be properly instructed on how to interact with someone from the opposite sex who I am not interested in dating. Sure I’ve gained a fair amount of experience learning how to keep physical boundaries. Not only that, I’ve also learned a few things about communication styles, leaving the toilet seat down, going shopping, and buying gifts. But now that I’m in a stage where no one is hounding me about sexual purity, I’ve become aware of the fact that I don’t know how to relate to females as my sisters in Christ. I’ve been conditioned to believe that all male/female interaction is innately sexual.

But why should anyone expect anything different? Isn’t this the natural result of an environment where males and females are separated until somehow, a couple is formed, and then from that time forward they are encouraged to marry as quickly as possible, lest they fall into sexual temptation? How is a male now supposed to act towards other females in the church once he is married? From my experience, males in the church sit in a sort of limbo mode once they are married. Virtually the only female that they have substantial interaction with is their wife and they don’t really know how they are supposed to treat other women. But is this God’s design for His people? Is there a healthier way that men and woman within the church can interact that will be more glorifying to God? Is it possible for brothers and sisters in Christ to complement each other in a way that is beneficial to the body of Christ? I’d like to hear others thoughts on this issue as well as the experiences they have had.

 

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  • I love this discussion & I wish more people took time to engage these questions.

    I grew up in a youth group that was encouraged to interact with people of both genders in the context of a group of people; to hang out one on one implied interest in dating.

    I’ve found myself in increasingly awkward situations where, being raised in a secular household, hanging out one on one with a gentleman could be platonic and not a problem, but to do so with many of my Christian friends makes people uncomfortable & inevitably gives Christian guys the wrong impression.

    I grew up with a brother, we hung out, discussed things on a deep level, and hung out around laser tag and batting cages. I try to carry out a similar relationship with my brothers in Christ. I look back to my relationship with my brother for guidance in how to interact with my brothers in Christ more-so than I look at what the church staff dictates to me.

    It takes effort to engage in brother and sister relationships with one another, but it is more than worthwhile.

    “1 Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father. Treat younger men as brothers, 2 older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity.” 1 Timothy 5

  • Thanks for commenting Shannon. I think many have similar stories as well. For myself, my wife and I have several friends of the opposite sex from before we were married. It is natural for us, and for me in particular, to treat these people the exact same way as before.

    I had a meeting with a friend and we went out to dinner to grab a bite while getting our business done. But I felt people making the assumption that we were dating or even doing something wrong when my wife and her boyfriend weren’t there. Perhaps this a normal social issues as well.

    I think no matter the situation, mutual respect for one’s spouse and friends needs to be a priority. On that particular occasion, I should have asked permission from my wife and from her boyfriend—just to make sure everything was above water.

    These are difficult issues but with love and consideration, we can navigate these complications.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you so much for commenting Shannon. I had a hunch that the scope of this problem extends far beyond the context in which I experienced it. And I totally agree with you, I love this discussion and I think more people should take time to engage these questions. If you have any thoughts in particular about a subject you’d like to see discussed, feel free to let me know.

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  • _klv.

    i think the problem can go even further. of course every relationship/experience is different. but i’ve experienced different implications like:

    a) not knowing how to interact not only with other women, but even with your wife. not interaction with the opposite sex hinders our skills to understand substantial differences in the way of thinking, feeling, interpreting expressions, personal needs, etc. after 10 years of marriage, i’ve realized that those differences are at the core of most home arguments.

    b) you’re in a double trouble. not only you will have a hard time understanding the dynamics of socializing with the opposite sex but now you will have an overseer that doesn’t understand them either. your couple’s fears exponentiate your problem.

    don’t mean to be pessimistic. i still believe there is hope and that God’s grace can heal and help overcome our fears and deficiencies but i believe it is important to understand the effects of an overprotective environment so we can find balance not only for us but for the ones that come after us. our children.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for the comment. Do you have any thoughts about how the problem can be solved?

  • _klv.

    if I had the answer, i’d be rich. actually, i think there is a whole lot of writers who have benefited from this starting with John Gray for example.
    lately, i’ve read a bunch of those books and i’ve found that even when they are well intended and offer a lot of tools to understand the “other side of the story”, still they lack of something very substantial, that is (to quote a well known friend); “there is no better display of love than that who offers his life for his friend”.
    most of those books offer you a way to understand your partner and “do” what you have to do so he /she “does” what you expect from them. see a problem here? when you do, so they give back, you are just feeding that selfish core what we are supposed to get rid off. but it is imperative though to understand the differences between sexes to be better prepared.

    that being said, i believe the main problem resides in an even more deep matter. that is, our worldview. as I read in your article, you were raised in a conservative environment and what defines a conservative is not only his/her view of the morality of a relationship but in a whole interpretation (what i call worldview) of the scripture narrative (called bible by others, ;o) ). that worldview is actually what defines you and what makes you either free or a slave. while it is true that you can be a slave to the law, it is equally true that you can be a slave to your addictions. i assume from your article that you are on a journey in search for the balance (i believe there is actually a whole bunch of us in the same path) and to me, that is the only answer to the problem. it is not easy to revert the wiring we have got through years of teachings, it’s going to take time, pain, tears. the main opponent i’ve found is fear, and please don’t take in the wrong way, but woman usually are more susceptible to it. the best think you can do, is to go on that journey TOGETHER. take it from someone who didn’t do it and now is paying the price.

    i haven’t had a quiet time in a few days. my brains tends to be messy when that happens. forgive me if this answer is a bit vague.

    i like your blog.

  • _klv

    to complement…

    i don´t know exactly where you suggest the problem actually resides, in the man just married, in the woman with whom he is interacting now or in both. i think that each part has its own specifics to deal with.

    the man.
    i usually give this example: suppose i will introduce you to a friend that has a problem in his eye, but it really bothers him when people notice. so i tell you that when you meet, avoid at all costs to stare on his eye with the problem. how do you think the meeting will end up? definitely an awkward experience. i think it is the same with man-woman. when your leaders keep telling you to avoid this or that, the more you actually keep thinking about this or that. it turns into part of hour hardwiring. this we need to fix and i think that only trough practice and god´s grace we can overcome it.

    the woman.
    one of the main problems i face (because i still go to a conservative church, don´t ask me why) is that some woman will think you want something with them if you try interact with them in a freely way. they have heard that males are driven by impulses and that they need to be so careful that it is very difficult for them to think otherwise. i´ve literally heard of women who think that man are always thinking about sex. i heard one say that if david fell in immorality, all man are in high risk to fall too, so we cannot be trusted.

    both parts work in response a hardwiring received by teachings that the most important thing to keep in mind is your morality. i think this is at the core of most conservative churches teachings. this is why i say that we need to change our worldview. i truly believe that when you invest your life in a greater story, in a calling and try to be part of it. when your church focuses more in love to those in need, to the struggling ones, to the poor. you stop thinking about “those things” they insisted so much and relationships become easier and eventually, god´s grace flowing through us to others, will heal and restore the genuine love to brothers and sisters.

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