Another day, another high-profile sex scandal. Many Americans yawned when Arnold Schwarzenegger's extramarital activities hit the headlines two weeks ago. By now it's difficult to escape the fatalistic feeling that we've seen it all before and will see it all again, and soon.
To their credit, though, some Christians took the opportunity to discuss practical ways of staying faithful to one's spouse. On his website, Michael Hyatt, chairman and CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishers, wrote a post titled, "What Are You Doing to Protect Your Marriage?" Hyatt listed tips such as investing time and energy in one's marriage, remembering what's at stake, and setting specific boundaries. The boundaries Hyatt sets for himself, which he says "may sound old-fashioned, perhaps even legalistic," are the following:
I will not go out to eat alone with someone of the opposite sex.
I will not travel alone with someone of the opposite sex.
I will not flirt with someone of the opposite sex.
I will speak often and lovingly of my wife. (This isthe best adultery repellant known to man.)
I really appreciate that Hyatt and other Christian leaders are addressing this issue, because I know what it's like to watch a Christian leader fall. When I was 15, the senior pastor at my church—a man deeply beloved and admired by his congregation—left his wife for his secretary. Words can't capture the spiritual and emotional devastation this man and woman left in their wake. Though they would eventually repent and confess their sin before the church, some of us carry scars to this day. So I can be nothing but grateful for Christians who make the effort to stay pure and who teach others to do the same.
At the same time, I want to humbly offer a word of caution: Sometimes, practical tips like the ones I've described can lead to practical problems.
Jon Acuff of Stuff Christians Like fame discovered this when he wrote a post on "Awkward opposite sex friendships," inspired by his decision to request a male driver when he spoke at a conference. In the post, Acuff acknowledged some of the difficulties that can come up when Christian men work or have other public interactions with women:
What about having a one on one meeting with a woman? Is it enough to just leave the door open? Or do you have to have three people present at all times? I know churches who use both approaches.
What about a lunch meeting? A married friend recently told me that if he couldn't go out to lunch with females he couldn't do his job. Is lunch with a lady a date? What if it's a business lunch? The CEO of Zondervan is a lady, what if she calls me and says, "Jon, we'd like to give you a 37 book deal and your own Honda Ruckus Scooter for a cross country tour called 'Ruckus by Ruckus,' can we go out to lunch to discuss the details?" Do I have to invite someone along with me? What if my wife is not available that day?
Acuff knew that he was broaching an "awkward" subject, and admitted he didn't have any hard and fast solutions, but I doubt he was prepared for the way his comment section exploded on the post. While some of his commenters agreed that his boundaries were justified, many others wrote to tell him just how many difficulties such boundaries can cause for working women.
The dissenters' consensus seemed to be not that there shouldn't be boundaries, but that those boundaries should be drawn in a way that respects women as working professionals trying to do their jobs. Several of them asked Acuff to stop and think about what it's like to be a woman who's told that a man doesn't want her driving him solely because of her gender. Turning down even a one-time ride can give a woman the unpleasant impression that she's viewed not as a professional person but as a sexual temptation waiting to happen.
Admittedly, it's a much harder task to create boundaries when you try to factor these things in. But when we don't, we run the risk of going to un-Christlike extremes. Christian women working for churches and other ministries have been left out of important discussions and meetings because of unrealistic boundaries. A commenter on Acuff's site confessed that years ago, he and several other seminary students working at a restaurant had refused to give a ride home to an older woman with car trouble, because, well, she was a woman.
One prominent pastor used to say that if he were driving alone in his car on a rainy day and passed a woman from his church walking down a road, he wouldn't stop to pick her up. Now, maybe I'm being naïve, but would someone tell me exactly how much two people can accomplish in a car while one of them is driving it?
On a more serious note, this anecdote makes me wonder if this man had ever preached on, or even read, the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Or did he feel okay about it because the beaten-up man in the story wasn't a beaten-up woman?
Of course, as I stressed earlier, boundaries are crucial in preserving marriages. But overdoing those boundaries can reduce interactions between Christian men and women to something that looks like the "wicked city woman" skit on I Love Lucy. To avoid this problem and to create boundaries that really work, I believe we need to learn to see each other—and ourselves—in a more holistic way. What I mean is, instead of viewing the women in their world as potential problems to be avoided as much as possible, and viewing themselves as explosives wired to go off if the heat gets too high, Christian men might want to try something different. They might practice viewing everyone concerned as human beings who are made in God's image, and are therefore to be treated with respect, courtesy, and an approach that's neither too familiar nor too distant.
As we discussed Hyatt's post, Her.meneutics writer Ellen Painter Dollar came up with an analogy I really like:
I think of a parallel to weight loss advice. No one says to people trying to lose weight or maintain weight loss, "Never go to a wedding or holiday party again. Never walk into a bakery again." Instead, they offer strategies for how to minimize temptation in situations where temptation will be greater. Seems like that's a more realistic approach to this topic.
Because women aren't about to vanish from either the church or the workplace, it may be that men are better off learning to deal with our presence than trying to minimize it. There's plenty of room for debate about what such an approach might look like. But to base our boundaries on this idea might just be healthier, not only for men's and women's careers, but for their marriages and spiritual lives as well.
Gina Dalfonzo is editor of BreakPoint.org and Dickensblog. She wrote "The Good Christian Girl: A Fable" and "God Loves a Good Romance" for CT online, and "Bill Maher Slurs Sarah Palin, NOW Responds," "The Social Network's Women Problem," "Facebook Envy on Valentine's Day," "What Are Wedding Vows For, Anyway?" "Why Sex Ruins TV Romances," and "Don't Think Pink" for Her.meneutics. Her book, "'Bring Her Down': How the American Media Tried to Destroy Sarah Palin," is now available on Amazon.
Sarah Hinlicky Wilson and Lauren Winner debated the topic of male-female workplace boundaries for Christianity Today in 1999.