So, I could be mistaken, but I have never seen Scot McKnight ever express concerns or warnings about how the expression of deep emotional intimacy between a therapist and her married client threatens “face-to-face” "exclusivism."
One of the main objections, cautions, fears, and so on that I hear among the evangelicals who express the danger of intimate cross-gender friendships is the “face-to-face” exclusivism that Scot raised up.
Even my friend David Fitch, believes such a friendship should not be “normative” in the church. I respect him, but in the missional church he’s planted it still is shaped by sex segregation and the romantic myth values. Dave encourages small groups (triads) to meet but they are all sex segregated like groups born out of the Promise Keepers in the 90s. It's not that same sex groups are wrong, but if that is all that is presented and encouraged, it keeps the wedge driven by Freud in there.
In my book, Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions, I note the powerful influence of the romantic myth among evangelicals.
This series is fleshing out though there is so much more to the conversation than evangelicals claiming "face to face exclusivism."
My targeted critique in this series is for those who are 1) evangelical therapists who regularly practice a dyadic, cross-gender client practice, and 2) those evangelicals who support such a thing as something distinctively different from cross-gender friendship.
Here’s the deal though: I know it’s hard for some evangelicals to admit it, but these dyadic relationships of deep emotional connections are already flourishing in the evangelical community: between therapists and their clients.
I have something in common with many evangelical therapists who practice relational therapy: If you’re married, it is not inappropriate for you to be alone with a member of the opposite sex (married or not married) with whom you share an intentional dyadic relationship when no one else is present. It’s not inappropriate to nurture shared vulnerability, mutuality, authenticity, deep empathetic connection, and tender, meaningful touch when no one else is around.
This is happening in hundreds of hundreds of counseling offices across America.
There are those in both categories who would seek to elevate the therapeutic practice as in some kind of elite practice while simultaneously sounding warning signals and red flags for deep emotional connection in a dyadic cross-gender friendship.
But in counseling offices all over the country, Christian therapists intentionally practice a dyadic intimacy with their cross-gender client which also involves either one or both of them as someone else’s spouse.
Intimacy Within the Dyadic Relationship
Theologian David Ford articulates this so well in his section on the discipline of intimacy in his book, The Shape of Living:
“What happens in intimacy, whether in twos or threes, or more, cannot be communicated adequately to those not part of it. It therefore has the character of a secret, something known to be there but also known to have a great deal that remains unknown. The only adequate revelation of it would be to take part in a repeat performance—but of course any repetition would not be the original thing and would be changed by the new participant… We thirst for deeper penetration into the depths of others and to have someone with whom we can share our own secrets and who can understand us more deeply… At root the desire to be able to share secrets of intimacy is good.”
Hundreds and hundreds of Christian therapists practice this ongoing intimacy with their married cross-gender clients. In the midst of this dyadic intimacy are therapists who see love as their main goal—not some detached love: “Love is a state of vulnerability. In loving we are affected strongly by the other person and we share that effect” (Judith Jordan, italics added).
Ford continues, "At the heart of a relationship like this is something… is the secret between two people, and it can go on getting deeper for decades… We constantly come up against the sheer otherness and difference of each other. "
James Olthuis writes, “The personal bonding between therapist and therapeut, involving levels deeper than cognitive understanding…is a two-way interaction in which both parties are changed for the better. Good therapy helps both the therapeut and the therapist to be alive in new and deeper ways”(italics added).
This intimacy definitely doesn’t fit into anyone who promotes exclusive emotional intimacy within marriage. Both Olthuis’ and Jordan’s descriptions sound like they could be talking about an intimate, life-giving, affectionate cross-gender friendship outside of the office. Paul Wadell speaks of friendship intimacy: “We will draw each other more fully to life and through the love we share, shall become one—not despite our differences but in them…intimacy is the work and achievement of a special kind of love.”
It stands in stark contrast to the dark side of a romantic-obsessed culture in which exclusive emotional intimacy is suppose occupy us every minute of the day.
The Dark Side of Exclusive Emotional Intimacy
Dennis Rainey and Barbara Rainey sound the exclusive clarion call to this kind of marital love when they write, “When you find yourself connecting with another person who starts becoming in even the smallest way a substitute for your marital partner, you’ve started traveling down a dangerous road.”
Exclusive emotional intimacy is born not out of the Bible but out of the romantic myth which says the height of adult intimacy is this perfect union with the right person and this person is your all and all--forever!
The Raineys (and other evangelicals who promote emotional exclusivity) tragically miss they underscore this extrabiblical exaggeration in a romantic obsessed culture in which some take it to a devastating conclusion: violence and even murder.
Aaron Ben-Ze 'ev and Ruhama Goussinsky in their book, In the Name of Love: Romantic Ideology and Its Victims detail romantic ideology in our culture and the victims.
They analyze those who have murdered “out of love.” Think of all the romantic obsessed songs: “Only you and you alone” crooned The Platters. In a romantic-obsessed culture where love songs like, “I can’t live, if living is without you,” permeate, one of the dark sides to emotional exclusivity and intense focus on one’s spouse is violence and murder. Olivia Newton John sings, "I'm hopelessly devoted to you."
“Yes. I loved her very strongly. I loved her a lot, really a lot… I was even willing to sacrifice myself for her” said one a wife-murderer. Another wife-murderer, “I couldn’t stand being away from her. I couldn’t stand that.” Still one more wife-murderer said, “I couldn’t function without her.” One more: “She was everything to me.”
This makes the perspective of evangelicals like Jack and Judith Balswick who support intimate cross-gender friendships beyond marriage (Jack was one of the first theologians to encourage me to write in the subject) sound like it’s not only life-giving and healthy, but lifesaving. Jack writes, “The idea that a spouse must meet all our needs gives us an unrealistic picture of marriage.”
Aaron Ben-Ze 'ev and Ruhama Goussinsky point out that “over 30 percent of all female murder victims in the United States die at the hands of a former or present spouse.” They argue that romantic ideology implies extreme behavior. “Typical romantic love seems to entail not only jealousy, but possessiveness as well.” This is what is typically encouraged in the evangelical community in marital classes.
Of course there are other factors involved but Ze 'ev and Goussinsky connect dots with wife-murderers and romantic intensity. "She was everything to me. She was my soul" ( a wife-murderer).
Evangelicals who want to “protect” marriage and its emotional exclusivity are singing the same notes of a culture in which 30 percent of all female murder victims die at the hands of a former or present spouse. "Protecting" marriage in a romantic saturated culture by discouraging friendship intimacy is not a Jesus-centered approach to friendship and community, it's Freudian driven sexuality mixed in with the romantic myth.
What if evangelicals began to see healthy, life-giving, intimate cross-gender friendship as something that could contribute health, shalom, and flourishing of men and women in a romantic-obsessed culture?
Jesus said, “For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one's foes will be members of one's own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:35-38).
Well meaning evangelicals like Scot, Dave, and Raineys continue to follow a romantic model that sexualizes intimacy and its dangers outside of marriage with little encouragement to see life-giving intimacy between men and women beyond marriage. In doing so, they unwittingly continue to support the romantic myth in our culture—a culture which connects 30 percent of all female murder victims who have died at the hands of a former or present husband.
Bella DePaulo rightly says about the glorification of the couple in our culture: “the reigning American worldview may well represent one of the narrowest construals of intimacy ever imagined.”
Friendship is another relationship where sexuality can flourish into deep oneness—not a rival to marriage but a beautiful expression of embodied love alongside it, supporting it.
Friendship is a model for what community looks like when heaven is on earth. It is a passionate, robust expression of community in the new creation, a deep taste of what is possible in the present and what is to come.