The following are some rough and random thoughts on the Graham/Pence Rule, which, in response to the allegations made against Bill Hybels and others, is being discussed again.
Although it isn’t a position that I have encountered that much in the wild, some Christians believe that the Graham/Pence Rule should be a hard-and-fast rule for all Christians to follow (I don’t follow it, for the record, although I would definitely be minded to under slightly different circumstances). However, this rule gets its name from self-imposed prudential principles adopted by two men in highly unusual positions.
Billy Graham, for instance, adopted it as one of a number of principles to protect him from the sort of moral failure that had afflicted other Christian evangelists and devastated their witness and ministries. The ‘Billy Graham Rule’—which involved never being alone with a woman who was not his wife—was designed to avoid temptation, the appearance of impropriety, and the danger of false accusations.
Billy Graham was someone who frequently travelled without his wife and family and stayed alone in hotels. As an extremely famous figure, he would be less likely to enjoy privacy in public or visible places. Many thousands of admiring women came to hear him speak. Such a way of life exposed Graham to great emotional excitement and exhaustion, to specific pressures and constraints, and to uncommon temptations and dangers. In light of such factors, the prudence of Graham’s principle should not be lightly dismissed. Its prudence is harder to oppose when one considers how Graham’s ministry was distinguished from those of so many others by its avoidance of scandal.
Tish Harrison Warren’s article on the subject of the Graham Rule presents some principles that she and her husband use to avoid temptation in their marriage. She opposes the Graham Rule, believing that ‘in its most pristine form’ it makes friendships between the sexes impossible. She presents the Graham Rule as legalism and argues for the alternative of wisdom and virtue.
However, wisdom and virtue are not uniform for every situation. Nor does holding that something is a matter of wisdom mean that we are each free to choose our own preferred course of action: a failure to take a path that is wise in your particular situation is something for which you can be held sinfully culpable. While Warren is surely justified in opposing a legalistic general imposition of the Graham Rule, Graham’s own self-adoption of the principle certainly looks a lot like wisdom in the extreme context of his unusual calling. A great many men in ministry who have fallen into sexual sin could have benefited from adopting it.
Sex and power are entangled in all sorts of complicated and inconvenient ways. Sex can be a source of a sense of power, and power can also be a strong aphrodisiac. Politics is never far from erotics. Likewise, spiritual influence often has an erotic component, which, in the hands of foolish or immoral people, can easily be abused. Unless guardrails are established—and especially high ones where the danger is most pronounced—boundaries can easily be crossed when people are weak or wicked.
Here we should consider that women can naturally respond to charismatic preachers and leaders, who speak to their most intimate spiritual needs, who show a concern for them that their husbands might not, and who have an aura of high competence (similar things can happen with charismatic professors and young female students). This presents temptations to many men for which they might be quite unprepared, perhaps especially if they have not previously been recipients of much female attention.
Indeed, it is very easy for both parties in such an interaction to be flattered by the other’s attentions and for them to fall into sin if they are not guarded against it. Morally compromised men in such situations can also use their power to abuse women or take advantage of the inclarity of women’s feelings towards them. Much as therapists must be alert to the phenomenon of transference, so pastors need to be exceedingly wary of the emotional dynamics of their pastoral relations with others, especially those of the other sex.
We would be foolish to think that most people who end up falling into adultery go into it willingly and with their eyes open. All too often, it begins with a licit yet unguarded relationship. A faithful pastor receives the admiration of a congregant for the wisdom of his spiritual counsel. Struggling with insecurity or a sense of being underappreciated, he is flattered by and, over time, begins to feed more and more upon this person’s admiration. The admiration is that bit more gratifying as he finds the congregant rather attractive and more so as things develop.
The congregant, in turn, is flattered by the attention that such a man is giving her, attention that she may not be receiving from her husband. Both of them find that the subtle but growing sense of the other’s attraction to them creates a delightful charged character to their interactions, and come to value each other’s attention over that of their own spouses. Chemistry is fun! Before too long, unless they arrest things, unguarded affections will become subtle flirting, which will in time become strong emotional attachment and then actual adultery. People can become hooked before they know it.
It is important to consider boundaries. Boundaries can be both internal and external. In the practice of their vocations, pastors, like professors and counsellors, will encounter many people with weak or lowered boundaries. They will encounter highly impressionable people who develop intense attachments to them, attachments that will occasionally have an erotic component. Many others will lower their boundaries with them.
And pastors can struggle with all sorts of weak boundaries of their own. Pastors can be incredibly lonely and relationally isolated, bearing many people’s burdens, but with no one to bear their own, which makes them vulnerable to affection. If they experience tensions in their marriages, the stark contrast between the appreciation shown by others and the lack of appreciation of their wives can leave them open to temptation. Pastors shoulder a lot of emotional weight and can struggle with weariness, bitterness, and self-pity. Their insecurity can also make them susceptible to flattery, much as it makes them more susceptible to criticism.
Developing and maintaining healthy internal boundaries requires constant work on one’s self, habits, and relations. It requires working to maintain a strong relationship with one’s spouse. It requires dealing with one’s insecurities. It requires developing a far thicker skin to both criticism and flattery from all but carefully chosen quarters. It requires seeking truthful and righteous sources of encouragement, so you won’t be vulnerable to the lips of the flatterer. It requires being alert to and on guard against the temptations that power opens one up to. It requires addressing one’s loneliness and finding appropriate sources of emotional support and encouragement. It requires intense concern for one’s own spiritual, psychological, and relational health before you consider helping others. It requires eating and sleeping well, so that you are less likely to be weak and weary. It requires diligent investment in your family’s well-being. It requires deliberate development of better routines and robust habits, so that you are less at the mercy of your impulses in weak moments.
It also requires the establishing of external boundaries. The claim that purity is not avoidance is misguided. Purity will often require avoidance of situations that would be dangerous for us. Of course, purity is not mere avoidance (and purity isn’t merely a matter of not sinning). However, avoidance will often be the prudence that is part and parcel of the pursuit of purity. Scripture commonly connects fleeing from evil with the pursuit of righteousness (e.g. 1 Corinthians 6:18; 1 Timothy 6:11; 2 Timothy 2:22). Fleeing from youthful lusts or from the temptation of money may require plucking out offending eyes.
The external boundaries we set up, to avoid finding ourselves in a position of temptation for which we are unprepared, will generally not involve complete avoidance of something. More commonly they will involve avoidance only in particular times and contexts where we would be more vulnerable and principles for careful negotiation to minimize exposure to strong temptation at other times. They will also involve structures of accountability or principles of engagement.
It should be noted that Warren’s list of principles that she and her husband follow are far from universally applicable. They wouldn’t have been the most helpful for someone in Graham’s position, for example. However, even beyond Graham’s extreme case, most couples should be exceedingly wary of following Warren’s tenth principle (‘If ever there is even the faintest attraction to someone—even distant potential weirdness—we tell our spouse that day’): it could easily be a recipe for serious marital tensions.
Seriously, guys, don’t try this at home.
Warren’s principles also seem to depend heavily upon spouses whose lives, work, and friendship groups largely overlap. Most couples probably won’t find themselves in this situation. Of course, a society where a great many men and women spend much of their time in close interaction with members of the other sex in contexts where their spouse is neither present nor a regular participant is no small part of our problem here. Warren’s principles might not be very helpful for such persons.
Warren’s principles also rest a lot upon maintaining a close and communicative marriage. This is very good, as far as it goes. However, the challenge comes when there is marital tension or distance (physical or otherwise). It comes when communication is weak, one spouse is lonely, self-pitying, angry, bitter or resentful, insecure, or weary and someone of the other sex shows them attention or affection. What happens then? Will loose principles which allow for exceptions suffice? The dam isn’t built for the regular high tide, but for the thousand-year flood. It is easy to claim that the dam is working really well, when it hasn’t yet really been tested.
Near the end of her article, Warren writes:
I also recognize that there are some men or women who, due to pornography or sexual addiction or particular patterns of weakness, may not be able to have relationships with the opposite sex. These men and women should admit that to themselves and their community honestly and seek help. But we must all recognize that those are unique boundaries for a particular area of unhealth (like alcoholics wisely avoiding bars) and not a generally applicable principle that assumes that women are an inherent threat to all men.
In light of the huge scale of the problem of porn use and addiction among Christians and pastors, perhaps stronger boundaries are much more needed.
The resistance to the idea of erecting boundaries and avoidance of particular contexts, interactions, and practices as elements of our pursuit of purity is often based upon a sort of heroic conception of virtue that simply does not adequately reckon with the sinfulness and the weakness of the human heart. The righteous man isn’t a match for every temptation that will come his way and his wisdom is found in his flight from and avoidance of many of the most dangerous temptations to which he would be exposed.
Faced with the crumbling of many of the boundaries that once protected us against our temptations, the result is as often as not the overwhelming and undermining of Christians’ virtue, rather than their healthy development of more robust virtue in response to the exposure to danger. Flattering themselves that they are strong and mature enough to face temptation, many Christians end up watching the same depraved, violent, and sexualized entertainment on their TVs and computers as their non-Christian neighbours. Although they may feel guiltier about it, they still end up with secret porn addictions, while still perhaps feeling superior to other Christians who have set up strong limits on their Internet use. They may look down on the weakness of their neighbour who feels the need to disconnect from social media, yet they spend much of their time losing their cool or indulging their laziness or envy on Twitter and Facebook, feeding a preoccupation with its immediacy that eclipses their spiritual horizon.
The pride many Christians have in rejecting the legalism of fundamentalism’s excessive boundaries often does not seem to be manifested in greater holiness of life, a more intense hunger for righteousness, wiser behaviour, and deeper virtue, but in more thoroughly rationalized dabbling in the dirtiness of the world. Even many Christians who are earnestly pursuing holiness can far more easily be overcome by sin in a society where the boundaries that once protected us from temptations or from acting upon them are so lowered.
Reading Christians of past ages, one is often struck by their strong sense of a need for renunciation of anything that would hinder or trip them up in their pursuit of holiness. Their strong rules around entertainment or interaction between the sexes seem so excessive to us today—surely purity is not avoidance! Yet it is hard not to wonder whether this is simply because we have such a high tolerance for sin, provided that it is perceived to occur among consensual adults and to be a tolerable cost incurred by our increased enjoyment of autonomy. Likewise, we seem to have little sense of our weakness and corruption: we all have a fifth column within our hearts.
The overwhelming majority of people have sexual relations outside of or prior to marriage. 40-50% of marriages end in divorce. The overwhelming majority of affairs begin in the workplace and with friendships. The majority of Christian men watch porn at least once a month. All of these figures are dramatic increases upon what they would have been a century ago and are exceedingly high among Christians, not just outside of the Church. Many of the Christians succumbing to these sins are typical and sometimes prominent members of our churches, not scandalous sinners.
If we really cared about purity, perhaps we would recognize our vulnerability to temptation and flee from some of the factors that clearly contribute to these problems. Yet we seem to value high levels of autonomy over deliverance from the clutches of vice. We are also proud in our supposed strength and maturity.
People complain that the Graham Rule is built upon fear, yet I see little evidence that most people fear falling in these areas enough. Scripture warns us to flee sexual sin, alerting us to the fact that it can lead people to their death. When we see Christian ministers losing their integrity, falling away from Christ, losing their marriages and families, losing their vocations, causing their churches to implode, should we not fear? Should we not be warier to avoid the places where they fell? Fear is a perfectly appropriate motivator when it comes to dealing with the destructive power of sin in our lives and communities and one that Scripture often employs. The idea that fear is an inadmissible spur to preventive measures against sin is dangerous foolishness. We aren’t remotely near sufficiently fearful in our dealing with sin.
Of course, we need Christian courage, courage that is confident in the power of grace over sin, a courage that isn’t satisfied by mere avoidance, but which throws itself into positive duties of service of God and neighbour. However, the notion that such courage involves either a negation of appropriate fear of sin, or a rejection of the need for avoidance of key dangers is a grievous error.
Warren’s counsel falls far more on the side of those who are wary of the idea that men and women can ‘just be friends’. For Warren, men and women can be friends, but it requires real caution. This much is good, being far more realistic than many of the positions out there.
Far too many are studiously oblivious to the significant differences between men and women when it comes to friendship more generally and cross-sex friendships more particularly. Even within the same ‘friendship’, men and women will often regard the relationship differently: a great many women think that they are ‘just friends’ with men who are sexually attracted to them. Men are more likely to harbour feelings for their female friends and to want for the friendship to become something more. Men and women have different tendencies when it comes to what they look for from friendships. Men are more likely than women to look for romantic and sexual relations, while women are more likely to look for support and protection.
Mismatched desires and expectations are a common feature of such relations: men can feel trapped in the ‘friend-zone’, while women can be annoyed by their male friends’ romantic or sexual expectations of their friendship. This doesn’t mean that friendships can’t exist, but it does make them rather more complicated to negotiate.
There is also the fact that male and female modes of friendship differ more generally. Male friendships are far more commonly situated in larger groups of friends and are forged through doing things together or around a common interest or passion. Female friendships are much more likely to be emotionally intimate and dyadic—more face-to-face than shoulder-to-shoulder. Male friendships tend to be rougher than female friendships—men often bond through shared struggle and rough treatment of each other. They also tend to involve much less direct communication and, when communication does occur, it is more likely to be externally focused.
The sort of friendships that are being discussed when people wonder whether men and women can ‘just be friends’ are far more typically dyadic face-to-face relationships. However, while such relationships may be close to women’s more typical forms of friendship, they tend to differ significantly from men’s. Female friendships tend to be far more emotionally intense than male friendships: teenage boys, for instance, are much less likely to have BFFs or to experience the same dramatic break-ups with their friends.
C.S. Lewis’s definition of friendship, in contrast to many of those implicit in contemporary accounts, is one that has a shared regard for a common interest, good, pursuit, or truth at its heart. There is a sort of erotic element to friendship, but the eros is a shared desire for something else that binds the friends together. This sort of friendship is also one that is by its nature highly welcoming of third parties that share the same interest. Lewis discusses how easily friendship can shift into eros in relations between the sexes, while also observing that such relations can highlight the difference between friendship and eros, as friendship is not exclusive or jealous in the ways that our erotic bonds with another are.
It is important to be more critical of the unexamined assumptions about and theories of friendship that underlie many contemporary discussions of the subject. For instance, the commonality of a narrow focus on dyadic friendships may be suggestive of a conceptual cloudiness and practical imprudence. There is a degree of exclusivity implied in the way that such friendships are described that should provoke serious questions about the nature of the bond being discussed.
Friendship, as Lewis describes it, arises out of a more general companionship in a larger group, as two or more persons find a specific common interest that gives them a kinship of spirit, a kinship that they are eager to find others to share in. Indeed, where such friendship genuinely exists between the sexes, one would expect that the concern to extend it would be more pronounced, in order better to distinguish it from the exclusivity of eros and to protect it from the ever-present danger of straying in that direction.
Now, Lewis’s discussion of friendship is limited in certain respects. It centres a form of friendship that is more typical of men, raising questions about the dyadic friendships that are more common among women. Such friendships are far more likely to be characterized by an intensification of ‘affection’ in their basic relational character (employing Lewis’s taxonomy), an intensification of affection that is less open to outsiders.
Male friendships can be affectionate, of course. However, it should be noticed that the intensely affectionate male friendships that people point to as examples of this good—e.g. Frodo and Sam in The Lord of the Rings, or the friendships forged in war—are friendships where that deep affection has grown out of the binding power of a common quest or testing experience. Friendship develops into something more affectionate through shared struggle and growing familiarity; close affection is not its starting point. As the companionship of a group of men is testing through shared struggle it can deepen into a powerful fellowship of brotherhood, with friendships becoming highly affectionate and emotionally expressive. Such relationships are extremely rare in the modern world, though.
Greater conceptual clarity really is essential here. When we talk about ‘friendship’—and especially between men and women—what precisely do we have in mind? Are we talking about dyadic bonds of growing mutual affection? Are we talking about an enjoyment of companionship in community? Are we talking about non-dyadic groups of people of both sexes bound together by the intensity of a shared pursuit or common love? Are we talking about friendships that are ordered away from exclusivity, or friendships that are intensifying it? And we should bear in mind that much of what we call ‘friendship’ falls rather short of what that term has often been used to denote in more careful discourse on the subject.
The idea that someone observing the Graham Rule cannot have friendships with the other sex is one that typically contains unhelpful yet undeclared assumptions about what friendship must be. Is it the case, for instance, that Billy Graham had no strong and meaningful relationships with women outside of his family?
The fact that Christians are referred to as ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’ is often taken as invitation to overplay a familial analogy. However, one’s relationships with Christians of the other sex is not held in check by either the natural dampening of attraction caused by the Westermarck effect, nor by the incest taboo: there are crucial differences between relations between natural brothers and sisters and between male and female Christians.
Yes, we have a deep spiritual kinship with each other. However, this is a kinship that has a particular character: a kinship discovered in our common orientation towards and fellowship in Christ, not in private affectionate relationships that move in the direction of exclusivity. Further, Christians have generally recognized that this kinship is one that must occur within clear bounds of propriety, bounds of propriety that are quite different from those which exist between natural brothers and sisters.
Arguments in favour of increased cross-gender friendships should not be dismissed by using ad hominem arguments. However, it is important to register the way in which various of the men who have most prominently advocated for such friendships and encouraged people to be less wary of them have had abusive relations with the other sex, failing to uphold crucial boundaries. They might not be the best examples to follow here.
Hugo Schwyzer, who was once vocal as a highly progressive Christian, wrote a piece in The Atlantic, praising Christians advocating for friendships between men and women. A few years later, we all discovered that he had been sleeping with his students, with porn stars, and with other women whose trust and friendship he had exploited.
John Howard Yoder advanced a bold theory of ‘non-genital affective relationships’ between the sexes. The Church should be a radical new community, where the fact that we are truly brothers and sisters allows for affectionate touching and physical contact between the sexes, contact that would be erotically charged outside of the Church, but which familiarity should enable us to overcome. Yoder’s own ‘experiment’ in non-sexual touching involved him touching or making advances on over fifty different women who came to him as a mentor, authority figure, or friend.
The reviews of Dan Brennan’s book, Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions: Engaging the Mystery of Friendship Between Men and Women contain comments like the following:
Dan Brennan is a public figure. He speaks and writes and puts himself out there as the expert on friendship between men and women. But be warned. If the author of a book can not live out what he writes, then should his book really be read? I’ve known Brennan for 10 years and over the course of time he has blown up multiple relationships with women that were once “very close friends.”
For a variety of reasons he is unable to do what he suggests that you do – sometimes those friendships blew up over sexual issues (one friend of 20 years that he wouldn’t stop kissing—and wouldn’t even admit that it was a problem); another friend who he physically tried to attack (me—Dan and I were close friends for 10 years. You can see my name in the front of his book); a whole variety of friends who he now calls “crazy” because they disagreed with him on what exactly friendship should be. He is a man who is not in control of his own actions—who often claims he cant even remember his own actions, including kissing 3 friends on the lips multiple times.
If you look at this book and something in your gut says, “something isn’t right here”, then you are correct….This book and author are not what they claim to be.
I was one of Dan Brennan’s first cross-gender friendship “experiments” and it is time for me to speak up. I am not against cross-gender friendship; I have had several cross-gender friendships, but the one I had with Dan has been the most unhealthy. He had taken the teachings of Leanne Payne and distorted and misused them, creating unhealthy emotional attachments with women. I did not realize until it was too late just how controlling he was or how painful this would be. I shared a significant amount of personal information with him, and when the relationship turned sour I did not feel that I could share in public what had happened. I felt I had to protect his methods (which should be public) in order for him to protect my personal information (which I shared in private). BTW, he also shared personal information from woman to woman, so that I knew too much about the other women he was “counseling.”
Caveat emptor, folks.
Social perception is something that we should take into consideration here too. Propriety isn’t merely about acting in an appropriate manner, but about acting in a way that is mindful of people’s perceptions. Here it is important to bear in mind that, despite vocal progressive opposition to the Graham/Pence Rule, public opinion is surprisingly conservative on the matter of being alone with the other sex in various situations. If we are to avoid scandal or hint of impropriety, we may well need to be especially careful here.
It is important to recognize that much of the push for the ‘why can’t we just be friends?’ position arises from unusual conditions in contemporary society. In particular, the concern for close interactions between the sexes is often advanced in order to protect women’s equal potential for advancement in institutions and workplaces, where more segregated forms of sociality, or exclusion from the closest interactions with superiors, peers, and mentors would advantage men over women.
However, it is imperative that we recognize that the radical integration of the sexes in the workplace and society is a break with most traditional forms of society. New principles of production and social ordering, built around deracinated and de-particularized androgynous individuals, have steadily paved over more traditional and organic forms of sexed society and displaced the old familial and social order. Although many workplaces still retain some of the organic segregation of the sexes—largely as a residual effect of the differing typical preferences of the sexes—they increasingly involve working closely for sustained periods of time with persons of the other sex who are not members of our families. We really aren’t mindful of just how radical the development of the unisex workplace is and how disruptive of natural sexed ways of life its demands can be.
The paving over of our natural sociality in the workplace requires us neatly to compartmentalize or separate things that aren’t so easily separated. Sex and power must be neatly detached. Sexed forms of sociality must be suppressed. Our private and professional selves must be compartmentalized, our natural affections and characters from our rule-governed behaviours. Professional relations between the sexes must be scoured of all eros. At work we must operate and treat others as neuters, rather than as sexed persons. But nature isn’t so easily subdued to our wishes and our society’s desired outcomes are constantly frustrated as a result. For instance, men continue to act and interact in a virile manner that presents obstacles to women’s advancement. They continue to manifest a different form of affinity to and different tendencies in relationship with other men than to and with women. And women, for their part, continue to exhibit more typically feminine forms of sociality, even when these are in some degree of tension with institutions that have been ordered around masculine tendencies.
The ‘why can’t we just be friends?’ position and the resistance to the Graham/Pence Rule are, when examined, seldom merely concerned with arguing for the possibility of healthy and prudentially pursued friendships between the sexes in some cases (I don’t know many who would have a problem with that: most of us have a number of friendly relationships with persons of the other sex). Their aim tends to be more far-reaching: a thoroughgoing integration of the sexes, ensuring, for instance, that nothing of much significance can occur in realms that are more exclusive to men.
Yet such a unisex approach to society, where sexual difference is removed from civil, economic, and public life, can be very damaging. It denies both sexes more organic forms of sociality and forces them into situations that can be stifling or oppressive for them. For instance, within the unisex workforce, men lose much of the deep male companionship and potential for friendship that they once enjoyed. Male friendship, as it thrives in realms of shared labour or activity, is easily disrupted when women are admitted to those realms and is not as readily privatized. The more affectionate relationships between men that can emerge through shared struggle are lost as the natural ethic of the male workforce—one of brotherhood, camaraderie, manhood and manliness, standing in the male group, mutual dependence, honour, strength, virility, and a code of male provision and protection—is paved over by a gender-neutralizing code of professionalism for individual wage-earners.
The workplace, for all of its many problems, was never merely a realm of wage-earning for men, but also served other natural ends, ends that were bound up with their realization of their male identities. As men have lost such realms to gender-neutralization, it should not surprise us that masculinity has become much more puerile and performative, focused ever more narrowly upon the bonds that men can form through sports, drinking, and consumption of entertainment and involving an insecure acting out of stereotypes, or that men have become abject and emasculated.
Lewis observes the way that women’s determined entry into male social groups and domains has ‘banished male companionship, and therefore male Friendship, from whole neighbourhoods.’ Men increasingly have to interact on women’s terms, emasculating them and starving them of relationships that they need for their social and psychological well-being. The isolation and anomie experienced by many men today is in no small measure related to their loss of male community, to their loss of supportive bonds forged through shared labour and struggle with other men, to their loss of the firmer and dignifying forms of identity enjoyed in such contexts, to their loss of a male society to give them standing and confirm them through rites of passage, to their loss of contexts where they can be emotionally expressive in more typically male ways, which women are often unprepared to handle. For their part, women are also increasingly starved of the affectionate companionship of other women, creating a deep psychological hunger for which participation in gendered movements offers limited relief.
Of course, we should not be unmindful of the reasons why so many women pressed for admission into the workforce and male realms more generally, as these domains became detached from and rapidly marginalized the old familial and household order. However, this doesn’t mean that this reaction to dysfunction is a healthy one, rather than one that reinforces our problems and introduces many more (natural dynamics between the sexes keep breaking through the paving of the rule-governed behaviour of the workplace, producing countless workplace romances and cases of infidelity and producing quasi-marital dynamics to develop between co-workers). Merely excluding women from such realms would not be a solution either: that too would just reinforce an injustice, rather than addressing it.
The example of Jesus is often appealed to in the context of this discussion. Yet Jesus was so far from practicing unisex sociality that he surrounded himself with twelve men, with a core group of three men, and a particularly close male friend. The Last Supper, for instance, was an exclusively male event.
There were women among Jesus’s followers and Jesus had compassionate and affectionate dealings with several women in the gospels. However, as a man, Jesus overwhelmingly affiliated and associated with other men, not as a form of prejudice against women, but as a natural expression of his maleness. This can be difficult for egalitarian moderns to come to terms with, but it is important that we seek to attain some understanding of it.
Furthermore, the gospels depict women as having a peculiarly gendered relationship with Jesus, one coloured with eros and requiring more careful boundaries than his relationships with men required. Women were attached to Jesus’s body and showed extravagant affection for him. In John’s gospel we see Jesus depicted as the divine bridegroom. The people are prepared for him by John the Baptist, who characterizes himself as the friend of the bridegroom. He begins his ministry at a wedding ceremony, performing the duty of the bridegroom in providing wine. He meets the woman at the well, as the patriarchs met their wives at wells. He saves the woman caught in adultery. His feet are washed by Mary of Bethany with her hair in an action with erotic overtones, as she treats him in a way that one could only imagine a woman treating her husband. He brings the Woman of Israel to birth through the labour of the cross. He encounters Mary Magdalene like Eve in the garden. Perhaps especially in the gospel of John, women are not just like the men in their relationship to Jesus: they are associated with a form of relationship with Christ that has a distinctively feminine character, one framed by motherhood and wifehood and with a quasi-erotic relationship with his body. The men, by contrast, are associated with Christ’s mission to a degree that the women are not. Now, we should be careful of the conclusions that we draw from the contrasts here, but the asymmetry needs to be recognized.
As modern individualists, our tendency is to think of both men and women as assorted individuals with some lowest common denominator set of traits or tendencies in common. We are much less equipped to think of men and women as solidarities, rather than as characteristics of detached individuals. To be a man is to be one of the men, to be associated with the men, to affiliate with them, and to act with them. Masculinity is not something that each man must performatively realize for himself, but something that each and every man enjoys in companionship with other men. To be a man is to be one of those who stands over against the women in the dance of society.
Jesus manifests a form of maleness and male sociality that is not hermetically sealed off from association with women, lacking in regard, concern, affection, and compassion for women, or concerned with accruing its own power at the expense of the good of all. However, there is pronounced asymmetry, degree of separation, and profound attraction between the sexes maintained. It stands in radical contrast with our flattening out of the sexes in society. Jesus’s coming doesn’t lead to a flattening out of the sexes, but the emergence of a more pronounced textual expression of femininity in response to his masculinity. He comes as the bridegroom for his bride, as a manly hero whose advent elicits desire and joy in women. As they relate to Christ, both the masculinity of men and the femininity of women are brought to the fore in ways that accentuate their distinct glories.
Finally, although this may not be a primary consideration, it is also important to bear in mind the pattern of the Church’s historic practice here too. Many seem to be ignorant of the widespread practice of sex-segregated seating in traditional Christian worship, for instance, continuing down to the present in some quarters of the Orthodox church and only recently abandoned elsewhere (e.g. the 1917 Code of Canon Law, Canon 1262, §1 declares, “It is desirable that, in harmony with ancient Church order, the women in church be separated from the men”).
This practice—which would scandalize most moderns—existed for the sake of propriety. It was also expressive of the natural ordering of the human race: not merely as a vast collection of atomized individuals, but as the great asymmetric pairing and magnetic polarity of male and female, a disjunction that represents an ordered whole in charged, fruitful, and beautiful internal relation.
Church history clearly records some close friendships or affectionate relations between men and women and many of us enjoy such friendships. However, Lewis rightly observes the way in which we are ‘bedevilled by the egalitarian idea that what is possible for some ought to be (and therefore is) possible to all.’ Some men and women can just be friends in certain ways. A great many can’t. And the flattening out of the sexes and their relations is a matter of profound foolishness, the fruit of which is seen in innumerable cases of sexual license, infidelity, and broken and weakened marriages.
From the example of Christ, we should learn that a recognition of the alterity of men and women and a healthy degree of separation and distinction between their respective domains of activity and sociality should never involve a separatism. It should never involve an isolation from, an unconcern for, or a lack of involvement with the other sex. There are countless ways that strong, meaningful, affectionate, and compassionate relationships can and should be enjoyed between the sexes in beautiful and prudential ways. Learning how to relate well to the other sex in various contexts is simply a basic element of growing to psychological and social maturity. The Graham Rule doesn’t preclude this, although it imposes closer restrictions than many of us believe that we currently need to adopt. Whether we follow it or not, we should be characterized by mature involvement with the other sex, one that is genuinely mindful of their otherness while also mindful of their similarity, one that displays the wisdom of serpents and the innocence of doves, one that maintains distinction and distance, without falling into detachment.
In our current social context, where external boundaries are low or non-existent, we must be far more vigilant to establish robust internal and personal boundaries where we can. Many of us will have little choice but to negotiate situations within which we will be exposed to more temptation than is good. The question of whether to adopt the Graham Rule is moot for many, as they must spend much time alone with persons of the other sex in the course of their work. In such non-ideal circumstances we must be wise, self-controlled, students both of the ways of our own souls and of the deceptive paths of sin. We must, where we can, support others in virtue and seek their support in our commitment to it too. We must seek to become people known for holiness and integrity in our conduct, fleeing evil and pursuing purity in all things, presenting a model of faithfulness for all to see.