Complementarianism is the theological belief that men and women have different roles in the church and home and that these roles are ordained by God. Some have turned complementarianism into a system that controls every aspect of life. Few places make that more clear than some of the major websites that support that theological system. One of these sites, Desiring God, had an article entitled “More than BFFs: When Friendship Goes Too Far.” I could not believe what I read as I went through that article, and felt a response was necessary.
In this article, written by Kelly Needham, the main point is that friendship or friends may “take the place of God in your heart” and that we ought to defend ourselves from having friendships that do that. What I think the article reveals, in fact, is that some applications of complementarian theology lead to control beliefs that cause fear even in relationships that should be comforting.
Needham gives examples of relationships that, in her opinion, have gone too far. These examples are indicative of what is to come. The first is of a pair of friends who complement each other well–one is organized, the other is not, etc. They grow to be best friends. When one of the friends’ husbands gets a job that requires them to move, the other is devastated. Needham writes that the friend’s “despair was difficult to hide.” The second example is of roommates in college (?) that get along so well that they do almost everything together and others joke that they’re “joined at the hip.” The third example is of a woman who is shockingly (I say this tongue-in-cheek) single at 30 years old! She finds a younger woman who is eager to have her as a mentor and jumps on the opportunity. Later, when she gets asked on a date, she hesitates to say yes because she’s worried it could have an impact on her friendship.
What do you get from these examples? The first is a close friendship in which a woman is unhappy to see her best friend move away. The second is a close friendship in college. The third is a woman who doesn’t immediately jump on every man who asks her on a date, and one of those reasons is because she has a friendship she doesn’t want to change.
Well, Needham does see something nefarious here. She writes:
What do all these stories have in common? In each case, a friend became something more.
I honestly re-read the beginning of the article at this point the first time through because the wording seems to imply a sexual relationship here. But no, what Needham means is clear immediately following these words: “Kara wasn’t just a friend; she became Maddie’s other half. Allison wasn’t just a roommate; she became Leslie’s place of belonging. Ashley wasn’t just a mentee; she became Shelby’s purpose and mission in life. These are all examples of friendships that had gone too far.”
At this point, I had question marks floating in front of my eyes. What is going on here? Needham, it seems, believes that these friendships are too close. We must be wary, she argues, that our friendships don’t get too close. We don’t want to replace God with our friends:
While we may be aware of our tendency to look to spouses, children, money, food, careers, and houses to find fulfillment, many of us have assumed friendship is immune to the same kind of temptation. Since same-gender friendships are necessary for our spiritual health, it’s easy to assume they pose no threat to our walk with God. But idolatry is always dangerous to our souls, no matter how harmless the idol may seem at first glance.
Yes, on this complementarian mindset, we must not only fear that our spouses or children might give us fulfillment, we may also discover that friends could do the same thing! There is an almost conspiratorial feel to the whole article that only gets worse as it continues. We can’t have “BFFs,” apparently, because “the world’s model BFF is, by all accounts, a functional savior — someone who rescues you from the instability and trials of life, someone with whom and to whom you belong, who is committed to you ‘forever.'” We wouldn’t ever want to have a friend forever, now, would we? But then the article truly goes into a kind of sadly comedic territory.
The whole article’s point is that we must be fearful and vigilant that we may tend to replace God with friends in our lives. So, one may reasonably ask, how will I know if I’m doing that? Fear not! Needham has given us the means to determine when this may be the case. She offers a list of “Warning Signs.” She writes, “How can you know if a friendship is threatening to take God’s place in your heart? Here are a few questions you could ask about your relationship…”
What do these warning signs include? Well, before we look specifically at them, I want you to take the time to once again think about the main point of the article in question: it is an argument that you’re replacing God with your friends. So, presumably, if the “warning signs” are accurate, these are things you ought to be doing with God, right? After all, it’s hardly replacing God if you’re doing something with a friend that you don’t do with God. So, be sure to replace “friend” with “God” in warnings on the site. In fact, I went ahead and picked a couple out to do it for you to show how, frankly, silly this is:
Do you experience jealousy when your [God] spends time with others?
Have you lost interest in other [Gods]? Do you lack a desire to make new [Gods]?
Do you feel free to “speak for” your [God] with others?
Do you have frequent sleepovers, often preferring to share the same bed?
Do you use nicknames or special language with each other?
Are you more physically affectionate toward this [God] than other [Gods]? Are you physically affectionate in a way that makes others uncomfortable?
Some may think I’m being unfair here. After all, Needham can’t mean that these things are what we ought to be doing with or for God, right? I mean, I’m sorry, but I don’t really want to be physically affectionate with God in a way that makes others uncomfortable. But no, Needham makes it quite clear right after the list of warnings:
If you answered yes to some of these questions, it is worth considering whether your friend is becoming, or has become, something to you only God should be.
Yes, in the world of this particular brand of complementarianism, it is problematic to have a sleepover with your besty because, after all, you ought to be having a sleepover with God in which you use special nicknames for God and are physically affectionate with God.
I really don’t know a better way to rebut the claims in this article. It is, frankly, ridiculous. But this is the kind of thing that some (and yes, I am emphasizing some) complementarians believe we all ought to be doing. We must watch out for the dreaded friendship that becomes too close. We must take care in all our relationships to never cross that invisible boundary where we may idolize other people. And no, I’m not saying we could never make another person into an idol or a new God. But the language of this article and the paranoia it engenders towards friendships is devastating. Moreover, the examples used at the beginning are all perfectly reasonable. After all, does Needham really believe that friends ought not to be deeply saddened when their friends move away, or that a woman ought to always accept every request for a date if there is no objection to the character of the man (okay, she might be intentionally saying that last one)?
I think this article is deeply damaging, and shows yet another example of how complementarianism turns itself into a controlling doctrine that seeks to dominate every aspect of an individual’s life.
Kelly Needham, “More than BFFs” accessed 7/16/17.
Read other posts I’ve written on complementarian theology.
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