Within the continuing online discussion about the representation of women in Christian conferences, the issue of policies placing restrictions upon direct interactions between men and women has been raised. Such policies, it is claimed, are a direct obstacle to equality and women’s full participation in the church.
Specific examples of such policies include expecting a door to be left open when a man and a woman are alone together (or insisting on the presence of a third party either inside or within earshot of the room in such instances) or not travelling or eating together without a third party. These policies stand in the way of the integration of ministry teams, for instance. The example of resistance to a male pastor spending time alone with a young female intern is one that was raised. Rather than having such an over-cautious approach to interactions between the sexes, the suggestion is that we should treat people as adults, able to maintain professional boundaries and exhibit self-control.
The concerns being raised here are not without a measure of validity. The idea that every private interaction between a man and a woman must be viewed with suspicion can be quite poisonous, encouraging a prurient imagination. Also, many policies designed to maintain healthy interactions between the sexes more generally have been overly cautious and restrictive.
Preventing Cultures of Abuse
The danger of presuming that, where a man and a woman are alone together, something inappropriate must be occurring needs to be balanced by the danger of the assumption that there are not particular dangers of inappropriate actions in such contexts. Policies whereby men in church leadership ensure that they are not left alone with women have often been developed in direct response to the widespread problem of clerical sexual abuse. The expectation that such abuse can be prevented by telling abusers to exercise self-control, keep professional boundaries, and act as adults is both naïve and dangerous.
While it is by no means the only element of a culture that can be conducive to abuse, a culture of extreme trust in its members, which affords people many opportunities to be alone with persons of the other sex, has definitely been a key contributing factor to many cases of clerical sexual abuse. Most people don’t want to believe that their church leaders could possibility commit such evil crimes.
Codes of conduct that place limits on the sorts of interactions that can occur between the sexes are designed to encourage both vigilance and trust. They have the benefit of not being judgments upon the character of any particular individual or the risks of any particular interaction if they are applied consistently. As soon as people begin making exceptions—there is always a tendency to believe that our situations are the exception—matters become considerably more complicated. Transparent practice in such regards can encourage trust by making provision for people’s safety. It neither gives occasion to a culture of gossip nor denies the legitimacy of wariness about certain sorts of interactions.
Such restrictions are not a silver bullet that prevents abuse-harbouring cultures from developing. There are many measures that must be taken, both to place obstacles in the way of abuse occurring and to ensure that it is dealt with swiftly and effectively when it occurs. Just as fire requires three key elements, so a culture of abuse requires various elements to develop and continue. Codes of conduct limiting unsupervised interactions between male church leaders and women can be one way that the fuel of abuse cultures can be cut off.
The Church as a Unique Social Space
One of the responses to the above argument for codes of conduct would point out that such policies are designed principally for professional relations with clients and vulnerable persons: when the same policies are applied to colleagues, matters become much more complicated. In addressing this response, it is important to begin by unsettling any attempt tidily to apply the professional/client framework to the Church. This division doesn’t neatly map onto the realities of a congregation. The professional/client division isn’t the same as the clergy/laity division, for instance, for there are various appointed and even full-time offices in a church that are not ordained. Nor is there often any tidy division between those who minister in a church and those who don’t (nor should there be).
More importantly, however, churches represent a very particular type of social space, one that is largely sui generis. The church is a more familial space, where intimate relationships are supposed to exist. The church is a ‘household’, not a ‘professional’ environment. Paid church ministers are not professionals, but persons with vocations, who cannot separate their work from their personal identities in the way that ‘professionals’ can. Church leaders can have incredibly close mentoring and pastoral relationships with co-workers, relationships that are far more intimate than those that exist in other contexts. Within such a context there is considerably higher risk of abuse. Even where abuse does not occur, there is a much greater danger of unhealthy dynamics developing in the relationships between people. A male church leader’s spiritual leadership of a woman can invite very problematic blurring of lines. And yet we can’t easily reject the close ‘household’ relationships of the church without transforming it into something different entirely.
Treating a wider range of church workers as colleagues would by no means provide a tidy solution here. Those are very often the relationships in which clerical sexual abuse or sin occurs. For instance, even as a supposed ‘colleague’, a young female intern under the mentorship and spiritual leadership of a pastor has a form of personal relationship to him that is attended by many particular dangers and temptations.
Towards Full Integration?
Others have argued that the problems here result from the very fact that we segregate genders to begin with. However, it is by no means clear that our more integrated society has discouraged inappropriate relations between the sexes or occurrence of abuse. Do levels of sexual promiscuity and infidelity dramatically decrease in fully integrated societies, for instance?
Serious cases of sexual abuse are not hard to find among the most vocally ‘progressive’ of men, Hugo Schwyzer being a recent example (in the wake of the Schwyzer revelations I read a few women observing that progressive men were often perceived as greater dangers than their non-progressive counterparts). Being perceived as an ‘ally’ of women and arguing for a relaxation of boundaries and differences between the genders can often be a self-serving tactic of serial abusers.
John Howard Yoder is an example that comes to mind here, an influential theologian and church leader who used his mentor-protégée relationships with up-and-coming women ministers as a ploy by which to interact in highly inappropriate ways with them. The fact that a highly respected theologian was taking interest in them and their work and championing their cause was intoxicating for many of these young ministers and Yoder was happy to exploit this fact. These inappropriate relationships were then rationalized with a theology of the brave new form of church in which traditional social and physical boundaries between men and women could comfortably be overcome.
It is important to make clear that those arguing for changes on these fronts are not, in the majority of cases, seeking to rationalize inappropriate relationships. My point is not to accuse people of bad motives. Rather, I am drawing attention to the proven attraction that such movements have for abusers, ones in which they can receive a lot of female attention and applause and bring younger women into intoxicating relationships of dependence upon them, giving them the ideal environment for abuse.
The dangers of these relationships aren’t limited to the avenues that they provide for abusers. Further dangers arise in the way that the intense emotional and spiritual bond that they can create between a man and a woman can undermine or usurp the exclusivity of the marital bonds of both parties.
Jesus’s Challenge to Boundaries Between the Sexes
Challenges to social boundaries between men and women can be important. We see a number of examples in the gospels where Jesus had sorts of private interactions with women that would scandalize many of his contemporaries (e.g. John 4:27—Jerome Neyrey’s comments on this passage are helpful) and perhaps some Christians of our own day too. Barriers limiting interactions between the sexes were one of the social boundaries that Jesus directly challenged in his ministry.
While our natural tendency is to read this challenge purely as a rejection of unenlightened prejudice (and such a challenge needs to be heard), it is also important to recognize that Jesus’s actions in this regard are partly related to his establishment of a startling and complex new form of social space based around the fictive kinship of the ‘household of God’. Furthermore, we ought not to jump to the conclusion that Jesus’s challenges to these social boundaries represented a wholesale rejection of them. As we shall see, many aspects of such boundaries were maintained within the earliest churches.
Jesus treated women as persons with equal dignity to men, not as a foreign species. He took an interest in women as persons. Jesus had women among his travelling company of disciples, although not among the Twelve, who were his most immediate companions. He defended women from false accusers. He addressed women in his teaching. He was ministered to by women, upon whom he depended for much of his support (Luke 8:1-3). In all of these things, we must learn from him.
The sorts of interactions that Jesus had with women undermine any ‘quarantining’ of the sexes from each other. Men and women should minister with and to each other, fellowship with each other, learn from each other, and receive the blessing of each other. However, even here we see distinctions being made. Those chosen as his closest companions were all male, for instance, and, despite his boundary-breaking interactions with women, Jesus is far from championing a gender neutral and entirely integrated social order.
Differentiated Church Ministry
One of the claims of those arguing against policies limiting men and women’s interactions is that they are one of the obstacles placed in the way of women ministering within the Church. The irony of this is that, in many contexts, it has been these very policies or social boundaries that have provided the greatest impetus towards women exercising positions of leadership within the Church. It is this sort of situation that we witness in the New Testament epistles.
In Titus 2:3-5 it is the task of the older women to teach the younger women about their Christian duties, not Titus’s. Titus, however, is called to address the younger men. The pastoral role of the elder women to the younger women is parallel to Titus’s pastoral role to the young men.
In 1 Corinthians 9:5, we see that the apostles were typically accompanied in their travels by their wives. Clement of Alexandria remarks on this: ‘But the apostles in conformity with their ministry concentrated on undistracted preaching, and took their wives around … to be their fellow-ministers in relation to housewives, through whom the Lord’s teaching penetrated into the women’s quarters without scandal.’ I have argued in the past that Andronicus and Junia (Romans 16:9) were probably one such apostolic couple.
Within the New Testament we see elder women/widows and deaconesses appointed in formally acknowledged leadership positions in the Church. This sort of leadership of women was not exercised over men and functioned under the authority of male Church leaders. However, it would be a lot more prominent, authoritative, and formal than women’s ministry would be in many circles today, largely because male leaders would have exercised less direct pastoral leadership over the women in their congregations. That would have been undertaken primarily by older women, with whom the male pastor would have had more direct interaction.
The New Testament church was a place where the genders were far from integrated in an undifferentiated manner. Differing instructions were given to men and women in the context of worship (1 Corinthians 11, 14, 1 Timothy 2). Differences between men and women were seemingly emphasized, rather than downplayed in many of these cases. We also see restrictions being placed upon women’s speech in certain forms of assemblies or actions. The fact that the genders weren’t treated as interchangeable and apt for complete integration is not presented as a failure, but as an expression of the glorification and restoration of the created difference between man and woman, a difference that always found its primary meaning in the context of worship.
Gender Distinctions in the Ministry of the Church Today
The modern Church has a level of gender integration that represents a radical departure from what has been the norm for most of the Church’s history, where strict boundaries between the sexes were maintained, often involving men and women being seated separately. While I would not advocate a return to this practice, I believe that the gender neutral approach to Church is a radical departure from the biblical pattern.
In many contexts that have emphasized the biblical teaching about women not exercising pastoral authority over men, there has been a removal of women from church leadership roles more generally. The pastoral ministry of the Church has often become focused upon one man. This can become problematic when a wide range of pastoral issues and concerns and many different types of persons need to be addressed: few pastors have this degree of pastoral sensitivity or awareness, nor should they necessarily be expected to. Men are seldom the best situated sensitively to address many pastoral issues for women. God has gifted other women for this form of leadership. The scriptural pattern seems to suggest a more differentiated and delegated pastoral ministry.
Especially in preaching-focused circles, the pastoral ministry of the Church has become focused upon one event and a particular occasion: the weekly sermon. This, of course, exacerbates the first issue considerably. The importance of the less formal, centralized, or visible aspects of pastoral ministry can become downplayed. Once we assume the notion that being a pastor is primarily exercised through preaching or through the content of teaching, a lot of the other problems with certain contemporary Protestant and evangelical understandings of pastoral or priestly ministry follow. Women need direct pastoral guidance or oversight, but much of this guidance and oversight does not need to be provided by a man, nor does it need to be provided in front of the whole congregation in a Sunday morning sermon. This focus upon the pastor and the weekly sermon has squeezed out women’s pastoral ministry to women, downgrading its importance considerably.
A further problem arises from the fact that the same words can mean very different things depending upon the way that they are framed and speaker and context are crucial to this. This is especially important in areas where tensions, sensitivities, differentials of power, or sexual differences exist. When divine commands addressed to a specific group are voiced by someone outside of that group, especially when that person enjoys a measure of privilege relative to that group, that voicing can (often rightly) be experienced as an attempt to bolster a human power relation.
This is particularly relevant to some circles in which the biblical command for wives to submit to their husbands is experienced as ‘men, make your wives/women submit to you’. Men haven’t been given this authority, just the duty to love their wives. When the divine command to women starts to function as a prerogative claimed by men, as they are the ones who enjoin women to obey it, much changes. Framing the divine command by existing power relations between men and women we experience a catastrophic distortion of the actual biblical teaching on the matter.
We all too easily think of leadership as a generic thing, unconditioned by gender. This cuts both ways in gender debates in the Church. For one side, any reference to women’s leadership is presumed to mean that women can exercise any sort of leadership over both men and women. For the other side, any challenges to women’s leadership are treated as if they disqualify women’s leadership in its entirety, producing churches where women play little of a responsible leading and teaching role at all (there are many other problematic assumptions that limit women’s leadership beyond the teaching of Scripture, but I am dealing with only one of these here).
It seems to me that the Bible advocates a robust and formally established pastoral ministry exercised by women in every church, even though it is male Church leaders who represent and guard the whole ‘household’. The male Church leaders are expected to stand back and to let the women carry out this vocation, as they have not been called to minister in this manner. If this were in place and given its due importance and honour, I suspect that our debates about such things as women’s ministries and clerical sexual abuse might take a rather different form.