Even “egalitarian” evangelicals can’t seem to shake off their fundamental discomfort with sexuality and how it impacts male/female relationships outside of marriage.
In his insightful response to the recent revelations that egalitarian extraordinaire Bill Hybels of Willow Creek Community Church might have behaved inappropriately with female colleagues, flirting and displaying affection with women not his wife, initiating intimate moments with women in hotels and on business trips, Dan J. Brennan puts it out there plainly — even those evangelicals who espouse that there is “no male or female in Christ” are often pretty clueless about sex and the power dynamics involved in it, and have little idea how to construct close friendships and partnerships between males and females without ongoing sexual tension.
One of the fallouts of the Willow Creek smackdown between Hybels vs Beach/Ortbergs is that a gift-based egalitarian model has not adequately challenged the high anxiety for male leaders to surrender power in one-on-one relationships between men and women. In the egalitarian conversation, there is this huge blindspot or weakness when you have so many egalitarian male leaders who can only speak about this in theory or about a few occasions.
Brennan writes out of personal experience in discovering this blindspot.
I was in for a big surprise when I started to go public about my friendships with women a little over ten years ago. I thought evangelical egalitarians would enthusiastically see all the benefits of intentional spiritual friendships out in the open. It was quite a jolt to me when I began to run into skeptical egalitarians.
To say I encountered spiritual anxiety among these unconvinced Christians would be an understatement. It was not that they were opposed to cross-sex friendships. They had plenty of opposite-sex friends.
What, then, were they anxious about? It soon became clear to me: my intention to practice dyadic opposite-sex friendships before a watching world. They were highly anxious in men and women sharing authentic power and risk in one-on-one relationships with no one else around. Friendship was not foundational to any Willow Creek model. It was not even up there on the high priority list.
Dan Brennan goes on to mention that Christian leaders I admire, such as Scot McKnight and David Fitch, have advocated strongly for women in ministry and leadership, but have still advanced an egalitarian model that seems to have no room for close friendships between men and women who are not married. The specter of sexual temptation erects boundaries even when people are strongly committed to gender equality based on the mutual giftedness of men and women. Close friendships are not even on the radar.
Men, in particular, if the Hybels example holds up, have a hard time giving up an ingrained sense of power and privilege over women when it comes to sex. How else can one explain a man who was able to strongly advocate gender equality and to work with colleagues so well for years turning around and inviting some of them to join him in his hotel room or into settings which can only be described as “romantic”?
Where’s any sense of egalitarianism in that? That is not the mentality of mutual respect. Rather, it exhibits the sense that I, as a male, have the right to exert my will toward women for my own ends. There is no sharing of power here. There is no equality, no matter my theological position. You, a woman, can be my friend, but I reserve the right to ask for “benefits” if I feel the impulse.
Spiritual intimacy (shared power and vulnerability) between a male leader and a female leader alone is unheard of in the Willow Creek model. It’s not addressed or encouraged in any of these blogs, articles, and books by people shaped by this egalitarianism. In this model, it is giftedness that is at the heart of egalitarianism, not friendship.
In the gifted model a man is never confronted to be attentive to shared power in one-on-one relationships when one else is around.
In a 2014 article by Ty Grigg at MissioAlliance, the author reminds us that egalitarians are not suggesting we erase all boundaries. Instead, he encourages us to learn to view one another and the wisdom of appropriate boundaries through a different lens.
Grigg is writing about those on the other end of the evangelical spectrum, who think having “rules” (like the so-called “Billy Graham Rule”) should guide us in our relationships between men and women. However, as he observes, rules like this do not build trust or help us cultivate wisdom and true mutuality between men and women.
Boundaries in any relationship are essential. But when the boundaries become the focus, the relationship turns into an abstraction. We dehumanize the other gender to protect the boundary. Fear based boundaries, like the Billy Graham rule, block out mutual trust. Building trust requires hundreds of small positive interactions. When you take away those interactions, trust has no way to progress healthily. Where there is little trust, fear and suspicion grows. Where trust is lacking, there can be no real relationship or ministry.
As a male pastor, I communicate fear when I tell a woman to leave the door open when she comes in to my office. I communicate fear when I tell a woman that we cannot meet because there are not enough other people around. I communicate fear when I say we have to take separate cars. Pastors sacrifice their call to pastor the other gender on the altar of rule-keeping and appearance-managing and holy code-checklisting. This sounds more like the Pharisees than Jesus.
Rather than erecting boundaries by establishing rules, Grigg suggests that we follow Jesus in choosing boundaries that are based on hospitality.
Hospitality is concerned with the physical and emotional elements that make a space safe. The focus is not on the host’s needs but on what makes the guest feel safe and at ease.
…For example, I would not meet another woman in my bedroom, because that space is dripping with the intimacy of life with my wife and the privacy of where I sleep at night. Nobody would feel comfortable meeting in there. I would not have a candlelit dinner alone with a woman at a nice restaurant, not because it’s breaking a rule, but because it feels inhospitable. The space would be working against us, not for us.
He reminds us that Jesus broke all kinds of gender-based intimacy codes in his own day — meeting with the Samaritan woman by himself, allowing “fallen” women to touch and exhibit love in public toward him, even appearing to Mary alone in the garden after the resurrection. Women traveled with Jesus and the disciples and supported him financially, making them part of his inner circle of associates. To the Pharisees and others, this must have seemed utterly compromising and morally dangerous.
In our sexualized society, it is easy to understand why some people might want to erect strong, rule-based boundaries about cross-sex relationships. I have news for you. Those boundaries haven’t stopped or even slowed down immoral behavior, and if I read Paul correctly, trying to control sin by implementing law only exacerbates the problem (Romans 7).
I believe God calls us to maturity and wisdom in all of our relationships. I have long been “egalitarian” in my theological position (I’d rather say I believe in full partnership and mutuality between men and women). But this article has caused me to question a huge blindspot in egalitarian teaching and practice.
We have not truly learned to welcome each other, live with each other, and serve one another as true brothers and sisters until we can learn to be friends. Without benefits.