As a woman whose vocation is in the context of local church ministry, I have the honor of working alongside many pastors on a day to day basis. Which is why when there is a breaking headline in the Christian news world that a prominent pastor has resigned due to marital unfaithfulness, it always saddens me for many reasons.
First, the devastation on the family is massive. At the end of the day no matter how many people you lead, one thing I find humbling as a leader is the continual reminder that family serves as a reminder to us that it does not matter if you lead tens of thousands or if you lead a church of one hundred- to your children, you are simply a dad or a mom and to your spouse you are simply a wife or a father. To see our sin affect our children and spouse is gut wrenching. In times like this, my prayers primarily revolve around the suffering family.
Then there is the reality of the church family or the wider network of people that are influenced by a pastor which must bear the cost of their leader’s sin. We are all prone to filter the cost of our sin through a very individualistic lens. We see our sin as primarily impacting our own relationships with the Lord and maybe for very grievous sin, our immediate family as well, but times like this serve to remind leaders that there is always a cost to the family of God. Both our sanctification, as well as the consequences of our sin, benefit and cost the community we are embedded in. Times like this bring out both the beautiful aspects of the bride of Christ, as well as many insensitive comments that remind us (and the watching world) that we are still a spotted and wrinkled bride.
But specifically I want to write as a woman serving in ministry alongside many men. High profile pastor infidelity like this typically triggers a response of articles encouraging leaders not to meet one on one with women, even in public settings. Jokes are made about staying away from your assistant. Attitudes surface that imply all women are dangerous- “good pastors” protect themselves from them through instituting policies and practices that keep them from developing a friendship with a woman.
The practice of not having female friendships does not ultimately prevent adultery. Neither does the commitment to not meet, even in public settings like coffee shops, prevent pastors from committing adultury. If you have spent anytime in vocational ministry, then you know several pastors who have held to that rule for most of their ministry and still end up committing adultery. Leaders do not accidentally slip into an affair. Affairs start long before a one on one meeting, they begin in the mind and heart.
It begins with entertaining lustful thoughts about another, or catching yourself thinking about them when you are not together in ways that feed your pride- wondering what you can do or say to impress them or garner their attention. It starts with not deeply investing in your own marriage and entertaining an idea that someone else would treat you better (and feeding the kind of pride it takes to sustain the belief that you deserve something better then God’s already given you). In a church setting, pastors will interact with women and hopefully more and more are finding ways to bring women leaders into their circle of influence in order to disciple and encourage them to serve their churches through the gifts God has given them. If in this process, a female becomes a temptation, then there are two responses godly men can practice.
First, recognize there is more then one category of women the Bible gives us. If she is acting or begins to act like a Proverbs 5 women, then follow the biblical wisdom God gives us to guard your life. Keep to a path far from her and do not go near the door of her house (proverbs 5: 7-8). But if your interactions with this woman proves that she is more of a Proverbs 31 woman, then you do not need the same protection from that kind of woman that wisdom speaks to in Proverbs 5. A Proverbs 31 woman is one that postures herself in such a way that it is noticeable that her husband can have full confidence in her. She brings him good and never harm. A strong leader, a good pastor, should be able to discern between the two. (Proverbs 31:11-12)
Yet, it is still possible, given our fallen world, to be leading and still find yourself attracted to or drawn to the opposite sex. The answer is not to pull away from that particular person especially if they are a trustworthy colleague in ministry. The answer is to practice self-control while you take the time to pursue greater love for the woman (or man) who sin has morphed into an object that fills your imagination.
The answer is not a blanket legalistic rule that protects you from all womankind thereby dehumanizing and objectifying us as a people who godly men need to be “protected” from. But there are habits and disciplines that can be put in place that train ourselves to view the other gender through the biblical lens we have been given to view each other- as brothers and sister. Pulling away and drawing a boundary with someone who has been nothing but professional, respectful, and kind to you is unloving in the name of legalism. The real answer is to love that person with a deeper brotherly love.
The problem between men and women in the church is not infidelity. The problem is not cultivating this brother/ sister relationship with the church body. You may need to be alone in a hotel room to have sex with a woman who is not your spouse, but lust for approval, sex, or admiration can happen in the lobby on a Sunday between services. As I read articles about what pastors should do to “protect” themselves, I find myself wondering if the goal is to have a bare minimum standard that we don’t commit adultery or if the goal is that we learn to relate to each other as brothers and sisters participating together fully in God’s kingdom, free of the sin that prevents that.
The latter is much harder then the former to cultivate and it must start with realizing that it isn’t just having an affair with someone that is the sin to protect yourself from, because it actually isn’t just about you at all. Entertaining sexual thoughts about a man or woman who is not your spouse, trying to attract their attention or approval, finding your pride to be stirred by their respect, all of that is unloving to them, your spouse, and your church community. It isn’t really being the brother or sister you have been called to be and it both objectifies them and robs the body of Christ from the beautiful practice of brotherly love.
Think about your relationship with your biological siblings. Brothers and sisters are not “careful” around one another, they do not “guard” their conversations. They have a particular way in which they relate to one another that makes it obvious to all that they are siblings. A sister is not someone you are trying to draw the respect of to feed your ego, because a sister has seen the moments where you are a complete idiot and still loves you. Your siblings see your greatest faults and still love and care for you. You don’t care to project an image that attracts them, because as siblings you already have the deepest status of relationship possible and the only type of human relationship that we will carry with us into eternity.
Words cannot really describe what it feels like to be in settings where men feel they have to protect themselves from you. It’s dehumanizing. The pervasive struggle of leaders with sexual sin is not the fault of woman anymore then the pervasive racism in our midst is the fault of minorities having a different skin color. The struggle comes from being embedded in a culture that worships consumerism and sexuality. The pollution in our air is so thick that it then colors the lenses in which we view all relationships around us.
As a sister to many dear brothers whom I deeply love, I can do nothing about changing the fact that I’m female. If my very fact of being female makes me dangerous then the only way I can love them is through my absence. But as a leader who is female, I can be safe by constantly striving to be a better sister- not just in the times we meet, but in every thought, every attitude, and every action when we are apart. Where I fail to do that in even the smallest ways, basking in the gospel of grace and mercy deepens my love for God and simultaneously my brothers and sisters. It is a constant practicing of coming to the Lord to clean me from that pollution of consumerism and sexuality that colors the way I see everything and seeking to have the Lord’s eyes and his heart for the brothers around me. Similarly, had the pastors and men in my life not treated me like a sister, I would have never had opportunity to be nurtured, discipled, and developed by some of the greatest pastors, leaders, and thinkers to be positioned for leadership opportunity.
When my husband and I say our final goodbye on this earth, we will not meet in eternity as husband and wife, but as brother and sister. There is great richness in living in a deep community practicing this authentic brother-sister relationship that we will enjoy for all eternity, co-laboring together in his mission and serving one another in the deepest ways possible. Love protects the other from harm and from sin, but it does not protect the other from itself.