Last month, I wrote a post about the Billy Graham Rule and it strongly resonated with thousands of people both positively and negatively. I was invited to be a guest on a Christian radio talk show. The amount of attention the article received was surprising. The response has been eye opening. This post is a reflection on what I have heard.
The Pharisees were the good guys.
In 167 B.C., Antiochus Epiphanes marched into Jerusalem, massacred the Jews, worshipped Zeus in the Temple, sacrificed pigs on the altar, and banned the practice of Judaism. Sabbath keeping, circumcision, and teaching Torah were outlawed. Some defied the ban and sought to live according to the law. They were called the Hasidim, the pious ones, from whom the Pharisees and Essenes are descendents. Pharisees were the ones who did not bend the knee to idol occupation and cultural syncretism but said, “As for us, we will be faithful and keep covenant with God.” Anything that threatened their purity to the Lord was zealously avoided. Yes, the Pharisees were the good guys. At least they thought so.
We are not all that different. A central mark for evangelicals is purity. We have traditions and rules, informed by Scripture, to help us stay clean and in close relationship with God. These rules help us to avoid any moral threat or temptation to sin. They keep us separate from the world. We imagine a good Christian as one who does not conform to this world (Romans 12:2). There are worse things to be than a Pharisee.
But we know them as the bad guys. They may be the foil to Jesus in the gospels but the Pharisees and Jesus are not polar opposites. They are not the evil to Jesus’ goodness; they are not the shade to the Light. The failure of the Pharisees was that their desire for purity in the name of God blinded them from seeing God in their midst. For all of their good intentions, the Pharisees had a vision problem, a failure to imagine the magnitude of God’s reign in the person and the work of Jesus Christ (Luke 11:31-32). As the bad guys, we hold the Pharisees at a distance. We will not entertain how much we are alike. Ironically, the best antidote against evangelicals becoming full-fledged Pharisees is to note our similarities.
Jesus cast a different vision for life. In the ministry of Jesus, something radically shifted. The new age had begun and with its inauguration came a radical call for the transformation of life – on the outside and inside. Even though the old age was still present alongside the new, Jesus’ disciples were to derive their identity and ethic from the new, not the old. His ethic was not based in purity, but love. Jesus rejected rituals for the sake of appearances (Matthew 6), legalism (i.e. Matthew 7:8-9), and the exclusion of outsiders. He taught his disciples to reflect the Father’s character – God’s love, forgiveness, mercy, and holiness – “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48) While the Pharisees were worried about sin’s contamination, Jesus knew that holiness is contagious. Jesus associated with sinners without fear of corruption – not because he was God – but because he was living in the dynamic power of God’s reign. This same power is at work in all Christians through the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:10ff.). Jesus taught the way to holiness was not through building fences but through extending mercy.
In the conversation about how men and women relate to one another in the church, our imagination for sin and disaster is much stronger than our imagination for God’s reconciling love and holiness. We are still taking our cues from the old age, not the new. The moral failure story triumphs over the transformation now available in the death and resurrection of Christ.
If our vision for life in Christ is focused on protecting ourselves from external temptations to sin and our internal evil impulses, then by all means we should adopt the posture of the Pharisees, and defend against all threats – including relationships with the opposite gender.
But if our vision for life in Christ is focused on being transformed toward holiness, wholeness, reconciliation, and love, in response to the love and mercy we have been shown by God, we should lean toward relating to the opposite gender with trust, respect, and honor.
What does this look like for me? Last week there was a public lecture on being present to others in grief. I invited another woman from Life on the Vine to come with me because I knew it was a topic of interest for her. I meet regularly with women over lunch or coffee to talk about life and ministry. Even though I co-pastor with a woman, we would never imagine dividing up pastoral care according to gender. My wife always knows my schedule and the church trusts that the pastors have discernment, character, and integrity. I do not receive such trust lightly. If I were to break that trust, then I would no longer be able to pastor. Most caring professions have a code of ethics. If you violate the code, you are disciplined and can even lose your license. In the same way, pastors are given much trust, and with great trust comes a greater accountability if that trust is ever betrayed.
In our community, Life on the Vine, we believe that Christ is restoring all things, including relationships between men and women. Men and women are leading together in every area of ministry so it is not unusual for a man and woman to meet. When cross-gender meetings become normalized (as they are in the marketplace, education, and health industries), people in the congregation no longer are scandalized or suspicious of such meetings. We can extend hospitality to one another without fear.
Good hospitality does not follow a rigid blueprint, but it adapts to each situation. Good hospitality is attentive to the power dynamics along with the various commitments and convictions that each of us holds. It does not cross boundaries inappropriately but it also does not assume excluding boundaries automatically. Sometimes it initiates. Sometimes it waits for an invitation. Good hospitality is hyper-contextual, sensitive, and aware of self and others.
We are not being sensitive to the women who have felt marginalized and dehumanized by men who have placed strong boundaries between them solely because they were women. I have heard men say, “But the purpose of this rule is to show honor and respect to woman,” while many of our sisters and mothers in Christ are saying to us, “This rule excludes and shames me.” If men truly want to show honor, begin by asking the women how this rule has felt. That is what good hospitality would do.
There is also a hidden cost that men pay when they follow this rule rigidly. In an over-sexualized culture, men can experience much healing and redemption from friendships with women. Objectification of women is harder when you actually know and care for a few women. Men lose out on the unique voice of wisdom and nurture from the church’s mothers. Sadly, men do not feel the loss because it has rarely been experienced. Just as the Pharisees never felt the loss of the kingdom because they never experienced the kind of holiness that Jesus embodied in his merciful presence with the unclean.
Pharisees may keep us out of the wrong bedroom but Jesus wants to radically change how men and women relate to one another.