My Christian Sisters and the Pence Rule (Why Aimee Byrd Is Misreading Scripture)

Aimee Byrd from the Mortification of Spin podcast has written a new book challenging the core idea behind the so-called “Mike Pence rule” (or “Billy Graham rule,” as it was originally called). For those unfamiliar with the term, the Pence rule is the personal practice some Christian men have adopted of never eating, drinking, or spending alone time with an unrelated woman. A woman might also practice the rule in reverse. So, whether in business settings, church counseling, or friendships, men who practice this rule will always make sure to have a third party present when meeting with women other than family members.

The idea is to avoid not only temptation, but also the appearance of impropriety and the possibility of false accusations, especially in the wake of numerous high-profile sexual harassment scandals, when such charges abound. For example, even if you never do or say anything inappropriate in unsupervised meetings with members of the opposite sex, he or she can still accuse you of doing so. What now? It’s a he-said-she-said situation, and unless witnesses to separate incidents come forward to corroborate the charges against your character, no one can know for sure. You will take an inevitable hit on some level in the eyes of many. You will be Justice Clarence Thomas.

Feminists haven’t responded well to this renewed interest in a kind of principled segregation of men and women. They’ve attacked it as oppressive to women, essentially disadvantaging them in the workplace. Even Christians have railed against the rule. Writing in the New York Times Katelyn Beaty called it the “sanctified cousin” of Harvey Weinstein-ian sexual harassment. Byrd favorably quotes Beaty in the Twitter rollout for her new book, “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” (subtitle: “Avoidance is Not Purity”). Elsewhere, she aims her own rhetorical volleys at the Pence rule, describing it as “pickpocketing purity, stealing unearned virtue at the expense of another’s dignity.”

The difficult thing for the Aimee Byrds of the world is how current events seem to recommend the Pence rule more highly with each passing day. The resignation of Chicago megachurch pastor Bill Hybels over allegations of sexual misconduct (several women are accusing him of inviting them onto his private yacht and into his hotel room and talking crudely), only seems to reinforce the need for calculated distance between men in ministry and the women they serve–for the protection of both parties.

Byrd doesn’t see it that way. Writing in First Things, she renews her call for godly, one-on-one friendships between the sexes, and insists that “by putting up fences, we foster an individualistic, self-protective morality.” She sees this message as “antithetical to our Christian anthropology,” and calls readers to “protect one another from abusers, not from godly friendship.”

At the root of Byrd’s Christian anthropology is a particular reading of verses like 1 Timothy 5:2, where Paul instructs the younger overseer not to rebuke older men, but to appeal to them as fathers, and likewise treat older women as mothers and younger men and women as brothers and sisters “in all purity.”

Byrd concludes from this that “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.” And that means no precautionary fences like the Pence rule.

In her podcasts and interactions on social media, she’s made it clear how literally she takes the “brothers and sisters in Christ” metaphor. If intimate, one-on-one interactions with our biological brothers and sisters aren’t a threat to our marriages, Byrd argues that neither should intimate, one-on-one interactions with Christian siblings be a threat.

How do we reconcile this with the fact that we sometimes feel attraction for Christians of the opposite sex which we do not feel for our biological siblings? Byrd thinks we should (and can) simply transmute these desires into platonic, spiritual love. She approvingly quotes Archbishop Joseph Chaput, who says:

“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.”

Elsewhere Byrd writes that while we are sexual beings, “our sexuality doesn’t merely express itself in the physical love making that a wedded couple exclusively shares. Our sexuality also expresses itself in brother and sisterhood as we relate to everyone.”

In short, Byrd believes we shouldn’t be restraining or mortifying our sexual desires for brothers and sisters in Christ, but “rightly acting on” and “expressing” them in non-sexual ways. If she explains how, precisely, this is done, I have not seen it (and her book is not yet available). In her views so far expressed, we should behave no differently with Christian siblings than we would with our actual, biological brothers and sisters. That means not only keeping our relationships with opposite-sex Christians pure, but refusing to “put up fences” that get in the way of deep friendships with each other. Fences like the Pence rule.

Byrd believes the New Testament backs her up on this. But do the biblical uses of “brothers and sisters in Christ” language really bear the load she places on them?

Setting aside the places in the Gospels where Jesus refers to all believers as His “brothers,” and “sisters,” as well as the gender-neutral rendering of “adelphoi” and its derivatives, the 1 Timothy verse is one of only two places where “brothers and sisters in Christ” language is used in the New Testament. The other is James 2:15, in which James writes that if one sends “a brother or sister” away hungry and naked, his profession of love is dead.

In interpreting these passages we need to pay attention to context. 1 Timothy 5:2, for example, appears in the context of rebuke, as given to an overseer (Timothy). Paul is saying, “respect your elders as if they are your literal parents, and your juniors as if they are your little siblings. Don’t chew them out, treat them as you would your family. Appeal to them and patiently instruct them.”

Right away we should notice something: The thing Paul is condemning here isn’t prudential barriers between men and women, but harshness and disrespect by ministers in correcting members of their flock. Thus, to use the metaphor (and “brothers and sisters in Christ” is a metaphor, more on that in a moment) to break down all natural and biological barriers between people is a misapplication, in context.

The concept that all Christians are siblings is only one of many scriptural metaphors for the Church. We are also collectively the bride of Christ (Eph. 5:32, Rev. 19:70), the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:27), a nation of co-laboring priests (1 Peter 2:9), sheep (John 10:27-28) and branches on the vine (John 15:5). Obviously, no one takes these instructive figures in their natural sense, or tries to work out their implications beyond the contexts in which they appear (if they did so, many of these metaphors would contradict each other. We cannot be Christ’s body in the most literal sense, since His resurrected body is at the right hand of God the Father – Acts 7:55-56, Rom. 8:34, Eph. 1:20, Col. 3:1, etc.). We cannot be both His bride and his siblings, in the natural sense, for obvious reasons.

These metaphors are all meant to deepen our understanding of a single theological reality: our union with Christ and consequent union with one another in Him. To use them in ways not explicit (or at least implicit) in their context is to mishandle Scripture.

For example, my wife is my “sister in Christ,” metaphorically speaking. To be precise, the spiritual union I share with her in the Gospel is of exactly the same sort as the spiritual union I share with all Christian women, excepting that I, as her husband, also have a unique role in imaging Christ to her, per Ephesians 5). This does not mean, however, that I should behave toward her in the same way I would naturally behave toward my two biological sisters. Far from! In addition to my metaphorical relationship with my wife as spiritual sibling, I also have a natural relationship with her (which, in Christ, is sanctified for a supernatural purpose: namely, a marital and sexual relationship which visibly portrays the mystery of Christ and His Church).

Byrd’s categorical mistake should be getting clearer, now. The grace of union in Christ does not abolish or supersede the natural distinctions of male and female, husband and wife, brother and sister. It adds to and sanctifies them. Given her apparent reading of the sibling metaphor as abolishing or superseding the biological realities that make close male-female friendship so fraught, it’s fair to ask why she doesn’t follow liberal theologians in taking Galatians 3:28 (“There is neither Jew nor Greek…slave nor free…male and female”) as an abolition of all natural distinctions between the sexes within the church. Does Byrd (who is an otherwise conservative Protestant) support female presbyters and pastors? If not, why not? There is, after all, “neither male nor female” in Christ Jesus!

The answer, of course, is that she does not. She rightly recognizes the abolition of distinctions between male and female as pertaining only to the context in which this figurative statement appears. Jesus does not make an end of men and women. We are still gendered beings. We will be so for eternity! The liberal theologians who take this metaphor too literally are wrong.

But Jesus does make an end of the divide that kept women out of the Holy of Holies, which kept them from having direct, sacramental access to God, which kept them from receiving the sign of the covenant, and which kept them women first, and members of God’s people, second. Through our union with Christ, we have a more perfect union with one another than was ever possible before.

Nevertheless, grace doesn’t destroy nature. In becoming brothers and sisters, my wife and I do not cease to be man and wife. In becoming equal members of the household of God, males and females do not cease to be males and females. And in becoming brothers and sisters in Christ, unrelated men and women do not cease to be natural candidates for sexual partnership. Even after we are married, members of the opposite sex do not lose their allure. Introducing safeguards to maintain holiness and purity with our spiritual siblings (as Paul instructs) and just as importantly, fidelity to our covenant spouses, is not the “sanctified cousin of Weinstein-ian abuse,” or a method of “pickpocketing purity.” How silly. It is a recognition that the family of redemption incorporates rather than erases families of creation. It is most of all an acknowledgement that we are not yet perfect, that we still suffer from indwelling sin, and that we are still in peril of acting in ways that defile both nature and grace.

 

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