My friend and I met in a trendy crepe restaurant to talk about our lives—the struggles and the successes. She sat across from me sipping her cappuccino and said with a note of sadness, “Church events end up being reminders that I’m alone. I leave feeling more lonely than before.” My friend, divorced and a single mom, has slipped out of the church scene finding it a place where she no longer fits.
Her situation is the same for many who don’t find themselves safely ensconced in a family dynamic. It is those who swim outside the familiar current of church life who struggle to find a safe place. Things are even more complicated when we add the awkwardness of intimacy. In Bronwyn Lea’s book Beyond Awkward Side Hugs, Lea accurately identifies the heart of our intimacy issues in the church—our limited concept of family.
The book is focused (as the subtitle reads) on explaining how we could be “living as Christian brothers and sisters in a sex-crazed world.” Before we can learn to navigate this sex-crazed world, we need to re-imagine what it means to live as Christian brothers and sisters. We cannot ignore the fact that our culture sexualizes every aspect and every relationship in our lives. As Christians, we too are colored by these associations. Concepts like the Billy Graham rule and other strict interactions between males and females suggest we believe that hovering below the surface is a sexual interaction waiting to happen. However, there is a way to view relationships in a healthy way. Lea states, “Jesus had intimate nonerotic relationships. He had gendered nonerotic relationships. He had loving nonerotic relationships. And he calls us to live according to his example.” While the nuclear family is something to be valued and protected, to imitate Jesus, we must broaden our perspective. After all, the “family members” Jesus gave greatest emphasis to were those who were of God’s kingdom and not just blood relatives.
To start we must learn how to live as family, embracing nonerotic forms of intimacy in the church. For those who have not experienced such relationships, the way can seem scary and dangerous. Lea likens it to a person unfamiliar with snowy weather moving to a location like Minnesota and being asked to navigate in winter. However, it’s not as foreign as we might think—we already understand healthy relationships. Scripture depicts the images of mutual respect and sacrificial serving that should characterize all healthy encounters. While we do not underestimate the power of the sexual drive, we also understand that we are not animals incapable of controlling our basic instincts. While we may be tempted, we cannot forget the beautiful stamp of Imago Dei on each person.
It is part of our calling also—added to the great commission to preach the gospel throughout the ends of the earth. Jesus’s final prayer is that we would exhibit unity. It is this unity that verifies our claims about who Jesus is. The times that the church has acted as a family have been our shining moments throughout history and even in my own life. My own nuclear family life was exceptionally chaotic growing up. I’ve never felt secure in that area. However, despite the challenges of the last 18 years of ministry life (my husband is a pastor), I have found the church to be a family that I needed.
When my father died several years ago, I was absolutely devastated. Though family life was tough growing up, my father was my rock—the person I knew who loved me unreservedly. He wasn’t a believer and I don’t know if in his last moments he reached out for mercy. His death was the first big check on the goodness of God in my life. When I was at my most vulnerable, wracked with nightmares and guilt, my church family came around me in the most beautiful way. While we were gone, friends came and cleaned my house. When we returned, meals and groceries were brought for days on end. A family offered to take us out on their boat to spread my father’s ashes in the ocean, which was what he had wanted. And the support was not just these acts of service, but gifts of time and listening and grieving with me. This outpouring of love came from women, men, families, single people, and couples. To this day, when I’m asked why I love the church, I tell them this story.
This is us at our best. This is what can be accomplished if we believe that not all relationships are haunted by sexuality. This can be our testimony too when we allow love and not fear to rule the day. And it is this wonderful gift of community that those who live on the fringes of family life can find a doorway into true intimacy and community. As Lea notes, “The warm, close relationships between believing brothers and sisters were to be celebrated and nurtured as they pursued holiness in community…It doesn’t have to be weird. It can be wonderful.”