Sex Scandals and the Gospel Spirit

When news of Matt Chandler’s “inappropriate” online relationship appeared in my phone notifications last week, I was in the midst of a church staff retreat with my co-pastors, who are all men. I interrupted one of them to read the story aloud.

The news landed like a lead balloon between us, and then we got together as a group and talked about how stories like this make us feel and whether our own ministerial friendships might be “inappropriate.”

The wider evangelical world has also been shaken. Twitter exploded with a reignited debate over Billy Graham’s rule, and many called on The Village Church to release the inquiry report. “It is always better to publish the result of an independent evaluation”, said Rachel Denhollander at The New York Times.

God’s call for truth and justice requires leaders to get to the bottom of what happened at The Village Church. But as one of the pastors in my local village-with-a-little-v the church is not the most important story that I have to pay attention to. The question that matters most is not “What happened there?” but “What happens here, in me and among us, when we read stories like this?”

Specifically, how do scandals, big and small, distort our view of male-female friendships in Christ? And as we read these stories – one after another amid an ever-escalating crisis of abuse – how do our minds close to the possibility of healthy relationships between brothers and sisters in the church?

The stories we hear powerfully shape our imaginations, both positively and negatively.

For example, seeing Beth Moore teach the Bible inspired a generation of women to pursue a ministry they might not otherwise have considered. In the context of marriage, focusing on good stories from our shared pasts can help heal and improve those relationships. And on issues of social justice, representation matters, as stories fire our imaginations for the diverse good that is possible.

But the painful news of the scandal and failure affects us too. They teach us to be afraid, says Catherine McNiel, author of bravely fearing. These fears are both specific and personal: for 1 in 3 women (and 1 in 4 men) who sexual assault survivorsreading headlines about abuse and impropriety can trigger deep trauma.

For those in vocation ministry, these scandals can leave us trapped in a no-win situation.

“It makes me question everything I do,” one pastor told me. “I could get in trouble for reaching out to a woman I pastor, or in trouble for failing to ‘take care of the flock’ if I don’t. I’m damned if I do, and damned if I don’t.

Women are feeling similar tension following community reactions to the sex scandal. Will we be frozen as the men retreat behind the ‘safety lines’ of Billy Graham rule? Or are we going to get hurt if we stay engaged?

Horror stories of abuse and scandal trigger our “lizard-brained” fears, writes Russell Moore, and we run the risk of being paralyzed by despair. In these situations, said Brené Brown always asks, “What’s the story you’re telling yourself?”

For many men and women, the story they could tell – learned from headlines over the years – is that every male-female relationship is fraught with pitfalls.

A case like Chandler’s “sends the message yet again that men, especially pastors, cannot have healthy sisterly relationships with women.” writing Aimee Byrd, author of Why can’t we be friends? “Be careful not to speak frequently with us! Be careful not to know us too much! Be careful not to joke around us! You will not be above reproach.

In the wake of scandal and sin, our deep desire to protect the Church from future harm often results in a new iteration of policies and principles intended to delineate the boundaries between men and women. In this case, for example, the instinct of some leaders to double rule Billy Graham seems understandable.

But, as I wrote somewhere else, it is not enough to legislate against sin. We need the Cross, and we need God’s grace. If all we do is avoid making mistakes, we cannot develop a community of thriving relationships. The fear of the Lord, not the fear of sin, is the beginning of wisdom (Prov. 9:10).

Our newsfeeds contribute to this problem. A diet of bad news gives us a partial and distorted view of what is possible. The stories the low tacitly teach us that a healthy community is neither realistic nor even desirable for my church here.

I am concerned by this dynamic. I fear that when stories of scandal ring in our ears and twist our hearts, our vision of what the community of faith could and should look like becomes stunted and distorted with fear. I fear that we will despair, withdraw and give up because our fear of being wrong overrides the command to love the brother and sister right next to us.

How, then, can we cultivate communities with healthy gender relations?

The gospel teaches us to look honestly and unflinchingly at sin, but it also calls us to look beyond it. We are brothers and sisters in Christ, and avoiding each other for fear of doing harm is far short of what the Father envisions for his family.

Just as I ultimately want more from my marriage than “avoiding an affair,” and I want more for my children than “not landing in jail,” so the scriptures call us to a greater vision for marriage. church that “We had no sex scandals or abuse. We are called to love one another, which includes but goes far beyond the bar of ‘Do no harm’.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that we avoid telling or reading stories of sin in church. I’m not advocating naivety, gaslighting, or silence. What I a m to say is that we must take care to be formed also by other stories.

We need stories that teach us where to aim. We need a Bible-based (but not fear-fueled) theology of men and women, fleshed out with real, godly examples of men and women in partnership. And we need to seek out and share health stories where we see them: places where men haven’t given up working with women and where marriages can flourish without becoming “Billy Graham Rule or Bust.”

Redirecting our gaze is essential to this project. God’s mission depends on men and women working faithfully together in the work of the gospel. We can’t afford to back down from this job just because we’re too afraid to put our hands in the plow with someone of the opposite sex.

The testimonies of those who have done this well are gateways to hope, guiding our minds and imaginations to what is beautiful, lovely, excellent, true, and praiseworthy (Phil. 4:8). Proclaiming God’s faithfulness in the past is a powerful way to keep our hope alive (see Psalms 105 and 106).

For example, when I first started dating, I quickly realized that my own upbringing had taught me firsthand how infidelity, addiction, and hostility could wreck things. When I tried to imagine myself as a happily married person in my 70s, my imagination soared.

So, as a 20-year-old college student, I started working with a therapist, but I also went looking for stories of embodying hope among our congregation. I invited myself to dinner and asked struggling couples to tell me their stories. Slowly my vision of what was possible grew.

The same goes for male-female friendship. I have seen it in my own professional life. As my co-pastors and I sat together last week and talked about the news of yet another scandal, we felt the need to shrug and sigh. We cried and then half-joked about quitting.

But then we took the opportunity to reflect on our own relationships. We shared stories of healthy friendships between men and women in our own community and beyond. We recalled decades-old marriages and fruitful ministerial partnerships. And we told quiet stories of long obedience in the same direction, stories that would never make the headlines, but that strengthened our hope in God’s church.

Bronwyn Lea is the author of Beyond Awkward Side Hugs: Living Like Christian Siblings in a Sex-Crazed World and the pastor of discipleship and women’s training at First Baptist Church in Davis.

Barry F. Howard