Misogyny in Missions {part 2}

by Editor on July 4, 2016

I love writers who get me thinking – whose words promote discussion and exchange of ideas. I often have that reaction to Jonathan’s writing, and his thoughts on the “Billy Graham Rule” (and the thoughts in the post he referenced) definitely stirred a lot of ideas in me, reflecting both on Scripture and on how this works out in practice – especially as a single woman in ministry.

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“All things are permissible, but not everything is beneficial.” (1 Corinthians 6:12, 10:29)

This is a great guideline for Christian behaviour. Just because I have the freedom to do anything does not mean I should use that freedom to sin, or cause others to sin. In regard to gender separation, some people would argue that the BGR (Billy Graham Rule) is a small sacrifice in order to protect a greater good. Sure, I could have lunch with my opposite-gender coworker, but it’s a simple thing to not do, in order to protect my reputation/purity/spouse/ministry/whatever. The problem I have with this idea is that it implies (or even says outright) that cross-gender friendships are not beneficial. I realise that some cultures do have strict taboos, but theologically I take issue with making this part of Christian culture. Humanity, male and female together, was made in the image of God – we need each other in order to have full expression of our God-reflection.

We desperately need this full expression in the church. Too often in the church women don’t advance or have their voices heard because no one in power will talk to/meet with/befriend them – for the sake of propriety. If we limit cross-gender working relationships, our churches will lack the insight single women have to give. As a single woman in ministry I met one-on-one with pastors and bosses and coworkers – most of whom were men, and often married. If my male coworkers had time with the pastor we all worked under but I didn’t, that would have spoken volumes about my value/worth as an employee – or my relative lack of it.

It is possible to do this well, with integrity, without restricting the access and influence of women. Our meetings weren’t secret. We usually met in public (lots of cafes!) during business hours – part of the work day. In most cases I knew their wives well and we socialised together outside work. When single coworkers married I usually got to know their wives and they became part of my social circle. While I had less time with the pastors, given that they did not have an intimate mentoring role in my life (though often their wives did invest in me more deeply), I still felt very valued and heard, and one-on-one time was an important part of that.

“Reject all appearance of evil.” (I Thessalonians 5:22)

A big reason given for BGR type restrictions is to “avoid the appearance of evil” as a Biblical command – but that’s not what the Bible says. 1 Thessalonians 5:22 says to reject all kinds of evil – “appearance” was a mistranslation which has been corrected. But even if we accept the “appearance of evil” translation, what is it about cross-gender friendship that we think looks evil? What is wrong about a man and woman having a conversation, or a meal? If I lack the ability to recognise innocent (and beneficial!) friendship, the problem is in my own mind and heart.

Many times Christian friends have told me sincerely that a man and woman cannot be close friends without at least one of them developing “feelings” for the other. That isn’t true in my experience, certainly not as a blanket rule. Sure, there is a place for wisdom – and Jonathan’s call to honesty is crucial – but there is nothing inherently evil about a cross-gender friendship! A man and woman talking together are not on the precipice of potential sin. And where does this leave our same-sex-attracted brothers and sisters? This seems to tell them they can’t have friendship at all – not just no romantic attachment, no family life in their future, but no close friends. What a horrible, isolating message. We are built for intimacy – and when we reduce intimacy to sex, we all lose.

I realise that concern with “appearance” is often connected to protection from false accusation – if everyone knows I never spend time with someone of the opposite gender, they won’t believe a false rumor should it crop up. I actually went through a period of extreme caution around any one-on-one time with men, in response to a specific “threat” – a former leader in the ministry spreading slander alleging impropriety among the remaining leadership. In this case there was a clear “danger” of false accusation and guarding against that protected a vulnerable ministry. I relaxed my extreme precautions when the threat was over. The problem with this as an all-the-time precaution is it does nothing to address issues of mind and heart – it only addresses how others see me. There is a dangerous sense of safety in being a “whitewashed tomb” – but if my heart is clean and honesty keeps me accountable, there is no need for legalistic rules that don’t fix anything.

Strict BGR restrictions can actually fan the flames of heart issues. If I buy into the appearance-of-evil thing, that it is somehow potentially sinful for a man and woman to spend time together, I will look at any interaction with suspicion. It may stroke my ego – that this person has something else on their mind when they look at/talk to/think about me. It may stoke my paranoia – that this person may be dangerous to me, may want something from me. It may stir gossip – that the two people I see talking must be doing something more in private. In each case, it makes me feel wary of cross-gender friendship – I can’t trust people, as they may be snares, predators, or deceitful. Instead of encouraging healthy relationships within the church, such separation and legalism encourages suspicion and gossip.

“A perverse person stirs up conflict, and a gossip separates close friends.” (Proverbs 16:28)

Sometimes we as the church just need to calm down – enjoy healthy friendships and be family to one another without making a fuss about it. As a single woman I have become annoyed on multiple occasions at assumptions made (and gossip spread) by and among church people. If a man and woman are seen having coffee, suddenly people are talking about them and whispering that they’re an item. We can’t see two people together without making huge leaps, big assumptions. Why is that? Why do we assume that if a man and a woman are talking, there is something “going on”? Can’t two people having lunch be, you know, eating? Yes, we all know of situations in which there was something nefarious going on, but the problem wasn’t in public – it was in private.

One issue I have with this sort of gossip is that it can push what should be a healthy friendship underground – if meeting publicly occasions gossip, is it better to meet privately? But as Jonathan pointed out, secrets are a bigger problem. And imagine what this does to dating – it’s impossible to get to know someone without the whole community being engaged, watching with bated breath, making it much more pressured. Community involvement in a relationship is good – but until there is commitment, let’s leave space for healthy and innocent friendship.

A note about abuse

I know many women who have a paranoia response as a reaction to past abuse – and far too many women have experienced abusive, misogynistic or exploitative treatment. This is an important reason that the church needs to demonstrate healthy relationships between men and women. We need to know – and show our children – what this looks like! I need to see what healthy interaction looks like (both in and out of romantic relationships) so I can identify unhealthy/abusive interaction when I see it. Radical separation of genders can leave people more open to abuse. We learn that certain people are/aren’t safe, rather than certain types of behaviour/interaction are improper. I think it can also play into the sense of entitlement connected with rape culture – all women are sexually “dangerous” and therefore any woman who gives me a little of her time must be “up for it.”

“Don’t cause another to stumble.” (Matt 5:29-30, Matt 18:6-9, Rom 14:20, 1 Cor 10:31-32)

This concept appears several times in the New Testament, in the words of Jesus and the writings of Paul. There are two concepts – to prevent oneself from stumbling, and to protect others from stumbling. To prevent myself from stumbling, Jesus advocates radically removing from myself that which is a problem. If I have trouble being in a room with another person without seeing opportunity for sin, the problem is not the other person – it is my own heart. I need heart surgery, not to remove the so-called “opportunity”. Removing the opportunity does nothing to address the problem.

Paul depicts believers with different convictions in fellowship with one another, neither group needing to be “corrected”. So while I disagree with the need for strict gender separation, and will happily engage in respectful discussion about this practice, I will also do my best to respect the consciences of those I interact with. If a couple has decided between them that they will not be alone with a member of the opposite gender, I will not seek to break their trust.

Conclusion

I think strict BGR behaviour stirs fear, lack of trust, and assumptions about the thoughts/motives of others. I also think it means we miss out on full and free fellowship – we lack what the other half of our community has to offer. There are great benefits to cross-gender friendships which we lose when we create legalistic rules as a huge buffer from actual sin. Instead, wouldn’t it be great if we all cultivated healthy friendships with each other? Let’s practice being family to one another, with innocence and purity, calling out the best in one another.

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TC_headshot-sqTanya Crossman went to China to study for a year and ended up there 11 years, working for international churches and mentoring Third Culture Kids (her book about TCKs will be released later this year). She currently lives in Australia studying toward a Master of Divinity degree at SMBC. She enjoys stories, sunshine, Chinese food and Australian chocolate. | www.misunderstood-book.com | facebook: misunderstoodTCK | twitter: tanyaTCK

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  • Anisha Hopkinson

    Tanya this is so great! I LOVE your conclusion. For the last 10 years I’ve worked in aviation, a male dominated industry, and meeting with men has been a crucial part of my job. I’m now in mission aviation and encountering the BGR as colleagues follow it. What a shock to the system! I understand they are genuinely trying to honor their spouses and I respect that, but it makes me feel like a “threat” and an inherent opportunity for sin.

    • Tanya Crossman

      Thanks, Anisha! These sort of rules can make it feel that Christians are suspicious of one another. It totally makes sense that you’d feel a “shock to the system” when you saw the contrast between secular/mission circles of the same industry.

  • Dalaina May

    GREAT article! I am married and have 2 female teammates. I am delighted that my husband has authentic friendships with both of them outside of my own relationships with them.

    THIS -> “But even if we accept the “appearance of evil” translation, what is it about cross-gender friendship that we think looks evil?” Exactly.

    • Thanks, Dalaina! I think it’s sad when we spend so much time worrying about what might look bad that we miss out on the good right in front of us.

  • e kadera

    Friendships between men and women serve to break down gender stereotypes. I think that is the main reason overtly and covertly patriarchal churches are against them. Friendships are bad for sexist stereotypes.

    • Wow. “Friendships are bad for sexist stereotypes.” That is an excellent point.

    • Wow, great insight. Thanks for sharing!

  • Kathy

    Excellent article!! This sentence particularly: “There is a dangerous sense of safety in being a “whitewashed tomb” – but if my heart is clean and honesty keeps me accountable, there is no need for legalistic rules that don’t fix anything.”
    I’ll be sharing this with our mission community. Thanks!

    • Thanks, Kathy. I hope your community has some good conversations!

  • Richelle Wright

    Thanks for writing, Tanya… and for thoroughly showing the other perspective of what many would argue are biblical arguments supporting the status quo of many organizations.

    I truly appreciated the gentleness of this paragraph: “Paul depicts believers with different convictions in fellowship with one another, neither group needing to be “corrected”. So while I disagree with the need for strict gender separation, and will happily engage in respectful discussion about this practice, I will also do my best to respect the consciences of those I interact with. If a couple has decided between them that they will not be alone with a member of the opposite gender, I will not seek to break their trust.”

    In some senses, I was blessed to grow up in a situation where I had lots of guy friends and I wasn’t the least bit interested in dating – I never ever considered the idea that I couldn’t just be friends with some guy just because I also thought he was cute. I never made assumptions that a guy and a girl talking, having coffee, eating lunch were anything more than friends – unless it became a consistent, clear pattern that endured. So, I was surprised at my reaction after first marrying – my husband often had the closing shift with a really cute gal – and I remember it was the first time I ever felt panicked about what “could” or might happen even though my husband never gave me any reason to suspect anything. The whole problem was me and my insecurities. So we talked about it. We were already beginning the process of applying to work in overseas ministry and I brought up every single one of the arguments above. Instead of getting angry or telling me I was stupid, he found a compromise. He couldn’t change his work responsibilities, but to help me – he suggested I come pick him up from work on those nights, sometimes even hanging out with him and the gal as they closed the store.

    His response in that situation… and as I’ve watched him over nearly 22 years of marriage – gives me confidence, and as a result, what we’ve found far more effective than the BGR is a system of mutual accountability between the two of us – and at different times and depending on the situation, a few other trusted friends.

    That said, I totally get why some people choose to set that BGR boundary, why some organizations enforce it as “company policy.” I also see (and have personally experienced) how as cultural mores have changed in the past 30+ years, it is time to change what might have once been effective (because in many, if not most circumstances, it served its purpose – although we can all point to abuses). I believe that sort of change best happens gently, when we, as you pointed out, choose to respect others differing stances, figure out a way to work within the given constraints and assume innocent/good motivations – instead of oppression, misogyny, abuse, “good ‘ole boys club,” etc. – unless or until it becomes clear that that is the case.

    Thanks again for your thoughtful words.

    • Thanks for sharing such a nuanced view with such kindness, Richelle. I really love the way that you and your husband had an honest conversation and came up with your own way forward that was caring to everyone in the situation. I appreciate the chance to join this conversation together!

  • Sashi

    Love this Tanya! I am in vocational ministry, where both colleagues are married men. We have to meet to discuss various things, sometimes all 3 of us, but often it’s just me and the senior pastor or me and the youth pastor. I am incredibly grateful for the attitudes of my colleagues and their spouses ( and mine!) as well as the members of our congregations. They are my brothers, end of discussion.
    I was single til my mid 40s and I’ve had many male friends, especially at College (which I attended in my 30s). I’ve appreciated their particular viewpoints, humour, prayerfulness, leadership, servant-heartedness, and just to be able to play pranks and have fun together. It was difficult when a respected Christian lady who held the ‘opposite sexes can’t be ‘just’ friends’ influenced so many of my female cohorts, that it resulted in them missing out on the richness of friendship with their brothers-in Christ (for fear that people will think there’s more to the friendship) or to start second guessing their brothers-in Christ if they chose to spend time with them ( ‘he must be interested because he is spending time with me’). So unhelpful.
    I hope many folk read this article and think through how we can have healthy relationships in churches, Bible colleges, schools, universities that cuts across artificial gender divides.

    • Thanks for sharing your experiences, Sashi! I love the phrase “artificial gender divides” – I think a lot of the “divide” is human-made, in our heads.

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