When news of Matt Chandler’s “inappropriate” online relationship popped up in my phone notifications last week, I was in the middle of a church staff retreat with my copastors, who are all male. I interrupted one of them to read the story aloud.
The news landed like a lead balloon between us, and then we came together as a group and talked about how stories like this make us feel and whether our own ministry friendships might be “inappropriate.”
The larger evangelical world was shaken too. Twitter exploded with a reanimated debate over the Billy Graham Rule, and many called on The Village Church to publicly release the investigation report. “It is always best practice to release the result of an independent assessment,” said Rachael Denhollander to The New York Times.
God’s call for truth and justice demand that leaders get to the bottom of what happened at The Village Church. But as one of the pastors of my local village-with-a-small-v church, that’s not the most important story for me to pay attention to. The question that matters more is not “What happened there?” but “What’s happening here, in me and among us, when we read stories like this?”
More specifically, how do scandals both small and large distort our view of male-female friendships in Christ? And when we read these narratives—one after another in the midst of an ever-accruing abuse crisis—how do our minds close off to the possibility of healthy brother-sister relationships in the church?
The stories we hear powerfully shape our imaginations, both positively and negatively.
For example, seeing Beth Moore teach the Bible has inspired a generation of women to pursue ministry they might not have otherwise considered. In the context of marriage, focusing on good stories from our shared pasts can help heal and improve those relationships. And on social justice issues, representation matters, because stories kindle our imagination for the diverse good that’s possible.
But painful news of scandal and failure affect us, too. They disciple us to be afraid, says Catherine McNiel, author of Fearing Bravely. Those fears are both particular and personal: For the 1 in 3 women (and 1 in 4 men) who are survivors of sexual assault, reading headlines about abuse and impropriety might trigger deep-seated trauma.
For those in vocational ministry, these scandals can leave us feeling trapped in a Catch-22 situation.
“It makes me second-guess everything I do,” one male pastor shared with me. “I could get in trouble for reaching out to a woman I’m pastoring, or in trouble for failing to ‘care for the flock’ if I don’t. I’m damned if I do, and damned if I don’t.”
Women feel a similar tension in the wake of community reactions to sexual scandal. Will we be frozen out as men retreat behind the “safety lines” of the Billy Graham Rule? Or will we get hurt if we stay engaged?
Horror stories of abuse and scandal trigger our “lizard-brain” fears, writes Russell Moore, and we run the risk of being paralyzed with despair. In those situations, says Brené Brown, always ask: “What’s the story you’re telling yourself?”
For many men and women, the story they might be telling—learned from headlines over the years—is that any male-female relationship is fraught with danger.
A case like Chandler’s “yet again sends the message that men, especially pastors, cannot have healthy sibling relationships with women,” writes Aimee Byrd, author of Why Can’t We Be Friends? “Be careful not to talk frequently with us! Be careful not to be too familiar with us! Be careful not to joke around us! You will not be above reproach.”
In the wake of scandal and sin, our deep-seated desire to protect the church from future harm often works itself out in a fresh iteration of policies and principles that are meant to demarcate male-female boundaries. In this case, for example, some leaders’ instincts to double down on the Billy Graham Rule seems understandable.
But, as I’ve written elsewhere, it’s not enough to legislate against sin. We need the Cross, and we need God’s grace. If all we do is avoid getting things wrong, we can’t grow a community of thriving relationships. The fear of the Lord—not the fear of sin—is the beginning of wisdom (Prov. 9:10).
Our news feeds contribute to this problem. A bad-news diet gives us a partial and distorted vision of what’s possible. The stories out there tacitly teach us that healthy community isn’t realistic or even desirable for my church in here.
I’m concerned by this dynamic. I’m concerned that when stories of scandal ring in our ears and wring out our hearts, our vision for what the community of faith could and should look like becomes stunted and malformed by fear. I’m concerned that we despair, withdraw, and give up because our fear of getting it wrong overrules the command to love the brother and sister right next to us.
How, then, can we cultivate communities with healthy male-female relationships?
The gospel does instruct us to take an honest and unflinching look at sin, but it also calls us to look beyond it. We are brothers and sisters in Christ, and avoiding each other for fear of doing harm falls far short of what the Father envisions for his family.
Just as I ultimately want more from my marriage than to “avoid having an affair,” and I want more for my children than “not landing in jail,” so too the Scriptures call us to a bigger vision for church than “We had no sex or abuse scandals.” We are called to love one another, which includes but far exceeds the bar of “Don’t hurt each other.”
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that we avoid telling or reading stories of sin in the church. I’m not advocating for naiveté, gaslighting, or silencing. What I am saying is that we must take care to be formed by other stories too.
We need narratives that teach us what to aim for. We need a biblically based (but not fear-fueled) theology of men and women, fleshed out by real-life, godly examples of men and women in partnership together. And we need to seek out and share testimonies of health where we see them: places where men have not given up working with women, and where marriages can flourish without going all “Billy Graham Rule or Bust.”
Redirecting our gaze is critical to this project. The mission of God depends on men and women faithfully working together in gospel work. We cannot afford to shrink back from that work just because we’re too afraid to put our hand to the plough with someone of the opposite sex.
Testimonies of those who’ve done this well are gateways to hope, guiding our minds and imaginations back toward what is beautiful, lovely, excellent, true, and praiseworthy (Phil. 4:8). Proclaiming God’s faithfulness in the past is a powerful way to store up our hope in the future (see Psalms 105 and 106).
For example, when I first started dating, I quickly realized that my own upbringing had taught me firsthand how infidelity, addiction, and hostility could wreck things. When I tried to envision myself as a happily married person in my 70s, my imagination sputtered.
So as a 20-year-old student, I started working with a therapist, but I also went looking for incarnational stories of hope among our congregation. I invited myself to dinner and asked time-tested couples to tell me their stories. Slowly, my vision for what was possible grew.
The same holds true for male-female friendship. I’ve seen it in my own work life. As my copastors and I sat together last week and talked about the news of yet another scandal, we felt the pull to shrug and sigh. We mourned and then half-joked about quitting.
But then we took the opportunity to reflect on our own relationships. We told one another stories of healthy male-female friendships from our own community and beyond. We gave reminders of decades-long marriages and fruitful ministry partnerships. And we told quiet stories of a long obedience in the same direction—stories that would never make the news but that shored up our hope in God’s church.
Bronwyn Lea is the author of Beyond Awkward Side Hugs: Living as Christian Brothers and Sisters in a Sex-Crazed World and the pastor of discipleship and women at First Baptist Church of Davis.