The multiple recent allegations of sexual impropriety lodged against megachurch pastor Bill Hybels are provoking heated discussion about how churches should respond to allegations of sexual abuse and how Christian men and women should relate to one another. Christianity Today quotes words of vague assurance from the elders of Willow Creek Community Church, who promise to “walk alongside Bill in stewarding his season of reflection” and profess their commitment “to working together on appropriate next steps with him.” I’ve never before heard the consequences of sexual misconduct charges described as a “season of reflection.” This language downplays the accusations, as though pastoral abuse of women were just part of Hybels’s spiritual journey.
In his response, Hybels presents himself as a victim of circumstance. “I placed myself in situations that would have been far wiser to avoid,” he said. “I was naïve about the dynamics those situations created. I’m sorry for the lack of wisdom on my part. I commit to never putting myself in similar situations again.” He repents of being too generous, too liberal, too trusting of women in a working friendship. Given that at least seven women have come forward with complaints of misconduct, his self-evaluation needs to go deeper than logistics.
It’s true that Bill Hybels should avoid the women. But what about the sin?
How do we evaluate the condition of the church today, with #ChurchToo stories of sexual abuse shared by victims on social media sounding as sinister as the #MeToo movement that first gave women a voice? What do these accounts reveal about the church’s message about men and women made in the image of God?
Many respond that we all should follow the so-called Pence Rule, named for Vice President Mike Pence, who never eats alone with the other sex or drinks any alcohol at events that his wife does not attend. To this rule Christians have added other prohibitions, such as sharing a car ride or an elevator, or even sending a text message to the other sex without some sort of chaperone. As one tweet put it, “Only friends around witnesses. Pence Rule does work.” Will this really stop abusers? Will it curb sin? And what does Scripture teach us about how to relate to one another?
By putting up fences, we foster an individualistic, self-protective morality. As Richard Bauckham writes, fear-based measures send the message: “My responsibility for others is purely negative.” This message is antithetical to our Christian anthropology, wherein we are created for eternal communion with the Triune God and his people. The Christian message is not “Friends only with witnesses,” but rather, “Friends promote holiness.” We need to protect one another from abusers, not from godly friendship. That likely requires case-by-case boundaries, promoting the exercise of wisdom in different circumstances, rather than coercion both from predators and from imposed moral systems. The church should model real friendship, as well as call out predators. An expanded Pence Rule, with its basis in fear, won’t help us develop the discernment to know the difference.
The Pence Rule calls us to a kind of avoidance that will never comprehend purity. Purity is not a negative condition of abstention. It does not separate Christians from the joy of fellowship. In his book Strangers in a Strange Land, Archbishop Charles Chaput argues for a much more holistic and active kind of purity:
Purity is about wholeness or integrity. It means that the body, mind, heart, and soul are rightly ordered toward God. Every element of who we are is doing its part to bring us to union with God, which is our ultimate happiness. Given the strength of the sexual desires we all feel, rightly acting on those desires is a key part of maintaining purity. For single people and celibates … it means offering those desires up to God and seeking to channel them in our love and service for others.
We practice purity by responding to God’s love for us, rightly ordering our desires back to him, and loving as he loves. Our communion with God overflows into our other relationships. Our status as brothers and sisters in Christ is foundational to how we treat one another in God’s household and interact with all men and women made in his image. We do not downplay the evil in the world or the temptation to sin in our own hearts. We avoid sin, not Christian love. We are called to exercise love, wisdom, and discernment in purity, not to fence ourselves off from engagement with the other sex.
This is what we see in Scripture. “Therefore, brothers and sisters, in view of the mercies of God, I urge you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God; this is your true worship. Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God” (Rom. 12:1–2). This is not an individualistic, self-protective morality, but a life-giving, covenantal love that produces holy fruit. Paul’s Christian ethics take sin seriously while calling us to our greatest good: “Let love be without hypocrisy. Detest evil; cling to what is good. Love one another deeply as brothers and sisters” (Rom 12:9–10). This is the message and model the world so desperately needs to see.
Aimee Byrd is author of No Little Women and Why Can’t We Be Friends?