Last week, we looked at the content of Titus’ teaching to the various groupings in the Church on the island of Crete. Today, we conclude this section of the letter by discussing the instructions regarding process. Again, we start by reminding ourselves of the text:
Titus 2:2-6 Teach the older men to be temperate, worthy of respect, self-controlled, and sound in faith, in love and in endurance.
3 Likewise, teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good. 4 Then they can urge the younger women to love their husbands and children 5 to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God.
6 Similarly, encourage the young men to be self-controlled…
From the bits I’ve put in bold, you’ll notice that Titus is to teach everyone but the younger women. Why?
To some extent, I suppose, the older women are better placed to model the kind of behaviour Paul says is appropriate – particularly in a society in which gender roles and responsibilities were so starkly different. But the main reason, we assume, is propriety: being and being seen to be above reproach as a leader in Titus’s contact with young females. This wouldn’t have been controversial in a culture in which women and men who were not part of the same kinship group didn’t mix. In today’s culture, where mixed socialisation is the norm, it understandably provokes quite a strong reaction!
Let’s break it down a bit, starting with what should (hopefully) be the least controversial application: where there is a significant power differential, interactions should be transparent and accountable. For too long in the church’s history, this was ignored, and we’ve witnessed the damage that’s been done. Now, at long last, churches have policies that require this transparency and accountability, most notably the requirement that no adult is ever alone with an underage person in their care.
An important point for later: this isn’t because we assume that most/all adults in our churches are incapable of restraining themselves from behaving inappropriately toward children without such safeguards, nor does it imply anything negative about children. No, we do so for two main reasons: (1) because, sadly, a very small but not negligible number of adults will take advantage if the opportunity is given; and (2) it’s a way of making it clear to everyone that we’re serious about preventing this unspeakable, un-Christian conduct.
The same principle extends to others who are vulnerable, whether through disability, age, economic status, etc. – ensuring transparent accountability through appropriate safeguards. With underage children it’s simple, as the law now defines how interactions take place; the more difficult question is: what are appropriate safeguards in other areas, including interactions between adults?
It becomes problematic when we talk of any restrictions on interactions between adult Christians of different gender, and specifically the interactions of male leaders with females (which is what this passage in Titus 2 touches on). This is because there are competing concerns.
A while back, there was discussion of Vice President Mike Pence’s policy of not having a meal with a woman, unless his wife was also present – with articles entitled “How Mike Pence’s Dumb Rule puts women at a disadvantage.” This brought up the so-called “Billy Graham rule” which lies behind it, and led to some Christians making similar arguments against it. For example, my colleague, Mike Frost, recently posted on Facebook which sparked significant discussion:
“Hey, I’m all for accountability and marital fidelity, but this rule a) assumes men are sexually uncontrollable; b) reduces women to merely potential objects of lust; c) restricts opportunities for women to network with male colleagues; d) infuses relating with the opposite sex with fear; and e) denies the possibility of healthy, godly relationships with members of the opposite sex. Besides, not even Jesus followed the Billy Graham rule (hint: Samaritan woman).”
Now, I respectfully disagree with my colleague on some of this. As I was hinting at above, if we replace “women” with “children,” I don’t think it would be a convincing argument against having the kind of restrictions we now (happily) work with to ensure transparency and accountability when it comes to children’s ministry. (I know the situations aren’t entirely comparable – read further, below.) The “Billy Graham rule” doesn’t assume men are sexually uncontrollable, but it acknowledges that a small number do lack control, and when it happens it can cause great damage. It doesn’t reduce women to merely potential objects of lust, just as our child protection policies don’t do that in respect to children. It doesn’t have to make relating to the opposite sex fearful – indeed, it may liberate it from fear (like it has with children’s ministry) by setting healthy parameters, and open up greater possibility of health, godly relationships with members of the opposite sex.
Further, to choose (like Mike Pence does) to adhere to this principle isn’t an admission that you personally can’t control yourself, or that women are simply objects of lust. Like our child protection practices, it also sends a message that we want to be faithful, transparent, and accountable – that we are publicly committed not to repeat the pattern of some of the spectacular moral failures committed by church leaders.
There are however, a couple of problems I do see with the rule. The first is that it can sound like we’re putting women permanently in the role of potential victim / weaker party who needs protecting. When it comes to our policies around children, that is indeed the case, because our children do need protecting – and that’s why I was hesitant to use the analogy, in case it’s misheard. Women are adults equal in status to men and should be treated as such; yet how frequently do we see men using their power (either physical power or status) to mistreat women in all spheres of life! Our response needs to avoid being patronising on the one hand, and failing to redress an obvious imbalance on the other.
The second is Mike’s point (c) above – which was also made in many secular articles – about it potentially restricting women from networking opportunities with male colleagues. In a world in which men still wield a majority of the power (whether in society generally, or in the church), this is a legitimate issue of great significance. As I said earlier, there are competing concerns which need to be weighed.
Here’s my personal take: without expecting anyone else to do as I do – which is why I won’t ever call it a “rule,” but a “practice” – I choose to weigh sending a very clear message about transparency and accountability over the potential restriction it may place on women’s access to power. In doing that, I am also very conscious of proactively finding other ways to include and promote the cause of women in the – admittedly limited – areas in which I have any influence. And I tend to do informal networking with both males and females in groups, anyway. I have plenty of strong friendships with women which I manage to maintain without having to hang out socially one-on-one. I do have business-related meetings in visible office settings, which are purpose-oriented and quite different in tone from informal socialisation. My practice isn’t because I feel I need to protect myself from myself – or from women in general – but to make my commitment to integrity clear to everyone.
I also respect those who, like my colleague, weigh the competing concerns differently, as this is not a clear-cut area – and an important discussion to have.
To think about
What are your “rules” or “practices” in this area, if any? Why do you have them? Has this caused you to re-evaluate them, one way or another?
There’s also the question of private interactions between adults of the same gender, in regards to same-sex attraction. This is why a “rule” won’t work for everyone. For those in Christian leadership who struggle with same-sex attraction yet are committed to sexual purity, a similar, self-imposed practice regarding one-on-one interactions may be appropriate.