Boundaries, not rules

April 26th, 2017

About a month ago, the Internet erupted over a tidbit in a years-old interview in which Vice President Mike Pence said he would not eat alone with women or attend an event where alcohol was served without his wife. As others have pointed out, this is a variation on “the Billy Graham rule,” a rule of never being alone with a woman that the famous evangelist abided by in order to avoid even the appearance of impropriety or infidelity. Many conservative Christians still follow this rule, seeing no reason for men and women who aren’t married to one another to meet one-on-one.

Despite the accusations of sexism and prudishness from the Left, boundaries are not necessarily a bad thing. Many of us in churches are well-acquainted with Safe Church and Safe Sanctuary policies when it comes to children, and keeping some of those same guidelines in place for adults meeting one-on-one is reasonable. As a female minister, I am called on to counsel male parishioners one-on-one behind a closed door, but we can easily be seen through a window and I prefer someone else to also be in the building. It is not unusual for me to have lunch or coffee with a male colleague or mentor in a public place, a situation quite different from a candlelit dinner after-hours.

While the Billy Graham rule might function well in a primarily male-dominated public sphere, much of the world no longer looks like that. Women are lawyers, doctors, scientists, politicians, and clergy. Women have had to deal for a long time with the “boys’ club” dynamic, with deals getting made on the golf course or over after-dinner cigars where women either aren’t welcome or are explicitly not invited. But putting a religious veneer over a sexist policy does not make it any better.

At best, these kinds of strict rules do prevent some impropriety or, at least its appearance. At worst, they perpetuate an idea of women as perpetually sexual beings longing to use our wiles to seduce powerful married men the second we’re alone with them. By our mere presence, women are a temptation, not a colleague, mentor or mentee. Besides the heteronormativity at the heart of these rules (How does the rule apply in the presence of LGBTQI individuals? Should I excuse myself from meeting alone with a lesbian?), this propagates a toxic masculinity as well — that men are weak and unable to interact with women on any other level besides a sexual one.

As somewhat of a traditionalist at heart, most of my close friendships are with other women, but in a professional capacity, I would not have had the same opportunities for collaboration and growth if men had not been willing to meet with me one-on-one. Some of my closest advisors and most enthusiastic advocates have been men who saw me in my full personhood, as a child of God with a variety of spiritual gifts, not a temptress or seductress.

I believe that we can set fair and flexible boundaries for our physical and spiritual safety and for the protection of our marital relationships without discriminating on the basis of gender. I believe that men and women can be friends, colleagues, partners in ministry for the spread of the Kingdom of God. Hard-and-fast rules like the Billy Graham rule and its various iterations foster mistrust and skepticism between the sexes, rather than collegiality and cooperation. Every couple’s marriage is different, but too often these rules are an easy way out of doing the hard work of open communication and building trust. Certainly there might be a situation that is uncomfortable, and an individual should trust his or her intuition and excuse himself or herself from that situation. We should have appropriate boundaries, but rules should not prevent us from ministering to or with entire swaths of the human population.

comments powered by Disqus