With barrage of men-behaving-badly stories hitting the press, a lot of attention is being paid to the Mike Pence rule—the vow for a married man to avoid being alone with a woman other than his wife. When I was in seminary, it was better known as the Billy Graham rule (and that’s how it’s listed on Wikipedia). The origins of this rule can be traced back to one of the oldest stories in human history.
In the book of Genesis, the patriarch Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers. Joseph became the property of an Egyptian politician named Potiphar. Despite his low position, he served faithfully and was eventually put in charge of all the slaves in his master’s house. It was then that Joseph drew the attention of Potiphar’s wife, who lusted for the young man; she relentlessly pursued him and he continually spurned her advances. One time, however, when Joseph was alone with the lady, her harassment became so intense that he resisted her by literally running away—leaving his cloak behind. In anger, she accused Joseph of sexually assaulting her, citing the abandoned cloak as proof. As a result of the accusation, Joseph was thrown into prison.
This is possibly the most cited account of sexual purity in the Scriptures. I'd suggest that it's greatly influenced the way the American church has approached impropriety. Surely the Pence/Graham rule could have helped here: if Joseph had never been alone with Potiphar’s wife in the first place, he wouldn't have ended up in prison. As a ministry student, this cautionary tale of Joseph was framed in my mind by stories of ministers caught in moral failures. It was a source of fear. Since pastors were to live above reproach—and my integrity was to be fiercely protected—I would try to faithfully avoid being alone with any woman who wasn't my wife.
In recent years, however, I began to look again at this encounter. Subconsciously, the real lesson I derived from this story was that women who are not my wife could very well be temptresses; that's why I should avoid being alone with them at all costs. But what I failed to see in this biblical text is what is often the case in the book of Genesis: there’s a reversal at play here. While men are generally perceived as being powerful and women powerless, in this incident the woman was wielding the power. Joseph was a slave and had no choice but to be alone with Potiphar's wife. Sure, he had the power to flee from sin, but his righteous reaction was essentially powerless; he couldn't escape the false accusation of the powerful.
This, along with other biblical texts and real-life examples, led me to conclude that the Pence/Graham rule just isn't righteous enough. In its stead, I now live by something even greater. I call it the Rule of Jesus.
In the Gospel of John we read that Jesus led his disciples from southern to northern Israel. On the way he made an unusual stop in Samaritan territory. While his disciples were away (somewhere?), he lingered alone by a well. There he was approached by a woman with a sexually checkered past. Instead of fleeing the scene to avoid isolation with a potential seductress, he conversed with her. Even more, he engaged with her at the deepest of all levels: he spoke to her spiritually. It's even more fascinating because there's a biblical equation hidden in this scene: men + women + wells = romance; remember that Isaac, Jacob, and Moses all met their wives because of wells. Maybe this is why, when the disciples returned to find Jesus alone at the well with this woman, they were speechless.
They probably couldn’t believe he violated "the rule."
It's highly unlikely this was an isolated incident. Jesus was supported by women throughout his ministry, so it isn't a stretch to think he was alone with them. And if we truly believe what the Bible teaches about the incarnation (that Jesus was not only fully divine, but fully human), we must accept that Jesus could have yielded to sexual sin. Why, then, in the face of temptation, didn't he avoid being alone with women? It's a powerful answer: he cared for them too much to manipulate them for his desires.
When you're a novice, rules have their place. But when we grant mere guidelines equal status with biblical commands, we're no different than the Pharisees.
Look, don’t get me wrong: I choose to avoid certain situations—whether it's with a female or a male. For example, I don’t meet people at my house alone. If I have a meeting or counseling situation, I find a place that’s in full view of others, whether in a public place or an office with a glass window. And if I’m ever to be alone with another woman, I let Kelly know in advance, and then I usually include stories about my wife in the conversation as a subtle reminder to the both of us that I’m happily married. There isn't an issue with men being alone with women; it only becomes an issue when men don’t treat women like Jesus would.
My lament about the Pence/Graham rule is that this goal for integrity often limits opportunities for women. I know of ladies in Christian organizations who have struggled to advance professionally because they could not get equal access to men in charge (whether it was not being invited to meetings or missing out on career altering conversations in car rides). I know women of God who would benefit from the camaraderie of men of faith—and vice versa—but are unable to do so because of this rule. If the cost of my potential fallenness as a man must be paid by innocent women, I’m missing the point of sanctification. As I raise my daughter to become a leader in Christ's church, I’m grieved at the thought of her talents being ignored by Christian men more concerned with protecting personal piety than unleashing gifts for the betterment of the Kingdom.
Every day I struggle to let Jesus have dominion over my life, but I'm continually striving to live life under his rule.
Just days after I published this, news hit of another prominent Christian leader accused of scandalous behavior (no hyperlinks for voyeurs). In this incident, however, all the alleged impropriety took place digitally. While the leader claims innocence, the lessons learned from the incident advocate for a more robust Pence/Graham rule. Two quotes:
"I should not have engaged in ongoing communication with a woman other than my wife. I failed to exercise wise caution and to protect myself from even the appearance of impropriety, and for that I am profoundly sorry."
"I have long made it my practice not to be alone with a woman other than [my wife] . . . Upon reflection, I now realize that the physical safeguards I have long practiced to protect my integrity should have extended to include digital communications safeguards."
So now even digital conversation with some one of the opposite sex is frowned upon. While the specifics of this incident will continue to emerge, I cannot recommend such isolation in communicating with the opposite success. Doing so limits the robust nature of humanity to ones sexuality.
If, as leader claimed, the allegation is false, then there should be no worries; as Jesus said, "the truth shall set [him] free." And regardless of whether the allegation is true or false, this is less an issue of male/female interaction and more about awareness of the sinful nature. I'm reminded of additional wisdom that Jesus offered, when he advised us, "be wise as serpents, but innocent as doves." It takes work to navigate the middle ground. Offering simplistic explanations to complex issues might be convenient, but not necessarily biblical.
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