All the uproar about the so-called Pence Rule a few months ago was puzzling to me. It was puzzling because the practice has been around a lot longer than Mike Pence has been in office. And it was puzzling to me because I had never thought about it as a rule so much as simple common sense.
If you’re unfamiliar with the “rule,” there are as many variations as there are practitioners, but the basic idea is avoiding compromising situations by avoiding being alone with someone of the opposite sex. Vice President Pence caused controversy this year when it became known that he will not have dinner with a woman without his wife present. To call it controversy is not totally accurate—he was attacked as a misogynist and a religious extremist.
But this behavior has been common in evangelical circles for as long as I can remember, and I think that in light of the current firestorm of sexual harassment and assault accusations in our country, it makes sense and it protects everyone involved.
I have read articles by Christian women attacking the “Pence Rule.” In business and politics, the idea is that it disadvantages them in the workplace. In the church, they say it sends the message that they are either second-class Christians or sirens to be feared. I cannot speak to the former, but I can the latter.
As a pastor, I am not afraid of the women in my church. They are great friends and dear sisters. I am thankful for their ministry—and they are full participants in the life of the body with the exception of teaching in mixed company (which is an entirely different discussion). They serve in our music ministry, they teach Sunday school and children’s church, they lead our prayer ministry, they are active on our finance team, they participate in our security—and without their effort and organization we would not have a benevolence ministry to care for needy families in our area and we wouldn’t support missions anywhere near the level that we do. I am thankful for the women of our church (and the other churches where I’ve served) and view them as my fellow-laborers in the ministry.
But our ministry together must be protected. A church and its ministries cannot function properly without the trust and confidence of the body. Rumors and accusations, no matter how baseless, undermine that confidence and pull the wind out of a ministry’s sails. I personally know of a church that was nearly destroyed when a false accusation of an affair was made against a deacon. It was absolutely not true, but it exploded, caused a lot of collateral damage, and led directly or indirectly to the church losing more than a quarter of its members.
It is sad that we live in a world where false accusations are spread; it’s also sad that we live in a world where some of the accusations are true. But on this side of eternity, it’s our reality and we have to work within the world as it is, not in the world as we wish it would be.
That’s why it’s so important that we remember what God’s Word says, “Abstain from all appearance of evil” (I Thessalonians 5:22). What you’re doing may be totally innocent, but if it even looks like something could be wrong—stay away. Is that fair? Probably not. Is it wise? Absolutely. The Bible advises us on how to approach life in a way that glorifies God. The “Pence Rule” should not be a legalistic rule we use to judge other people, but a tool we use for our benefit and preservation. Properly implemented, concepts like this protect people. It protects women from sexual assault and harassment because some men can’t be trusted. (There are a whole lot of men in Washington, Hollywood, and my own town who I wouldn’t leave alone with my wife, daughter, mother, or sister for two seconds!) It protects men from false accusations (because ‘innocent until proven guilty’ does not exist in the court of public opinion). It protects both men and women from false accusations, and it protects the church from getting a black eye when people do things they shouldn’t.
I am not a perfect man and don’t pretend to be, but I have built metaphorical fences around my ministry, knowing that lives and churches can be destroyed by just one accusation.
- Many of my counseling sessions (with men or women) happen in a public area of the church, before or after services. It is possible to have a one-on-one conversation in the auditorium or fellowship hall where other people can see what’s going on without overhearing confidential information.
- If I’m counseling with a woman in a private area like my office, I make it clear upfront that her husband, my wife, or another trusted lady from the church will be present.
- If I’m counseling with a minor, I make it clear upfront that another trustworthy adult will be present—preferably a parent.
- I don’t travel anywhere alone with a woman or child to whom I’m not related.
- I have given my wife permission (and passwords) to access my phone, my email, and my social media accounts any time she wants. She did not ask for this; I volunteered this because I wanted total transparency.
- I have no access to the church’s money. I am not a signer on the accounts, I do not collect or count offering, and I do not have access to any safes. When I need something for the church, I turn in receipts for reimbursement or get a check from the treasurer and bring back a receipt. I don’t unilaterally approve expenditures over $100 without a vote of the church (or consultation with a committee or the deacons, in the case of budgeted items or benevolence). This, again, is by my choice and in the interest of transparency.
This is not an exhaustive list of the fences I have built, but you get the idea. These guidelines were not forced on me by anyone outside because I was untrustworthy; I have willingly adopted these practices so that there wouldn’t be any question about my trustworthiness. I have seen churches betrayed by their pastor; I never want my church even to suspect that I have betrayed their trust. I was abandoned by an unfaithful spouse and endured a pain greater than I could imagine; I never want to put my wife through the pain of even thinking that such a betrayal is possible. It doesn’t make me better than anyone else. It just means that the protection that comes with a little bit of Biblical wisdom and common sense are worth the short term inconvenience. And they have never isolated me from ministering to the women and children of the church.
There is one word of caution, though. Articles by Christian women opposed to the “Pence Rule” have cited some bizarre examples where men were more concerned with observing the rule than helping women who needed help. One writer compared such men to the religious crowd who refused to help the injured traveler before he was finally helped by the good Samaritan. That comparison is accurate if these fences are taken to an extreme. As in everything, there must be room for grace.
Case in point: I don’t travel anywhere alone with women I’m not related to. Nevertheless, I was contacted one afternoon by a 70-year-old lady in my church who was being harassed by scammers on the phone. She was out running errands and was so shaken up that she was in no condition to drive. My wife was unavailable, so I picked her up at the bank and drove her—alone—to the police station to file her report. My wife eventually met us at the police station to check on her. The fences are there for everyone’s protection, but in truly extenuating circumstances we have to use discernment about whether the fences help or hinder ministry. In this one case, I could not have left this lady by herself at the bank or allowed her to drive herself to the police department in her condition. But actual emergencies are rare.
Avoiding the appearance of evil is a command we should follow. Human ideas on how to do this are guidelines. We must have guidelines to protect us, but we must not let our guidelines become rules that prevent us from obeying God’s other commands and doing ministry. Follow Biblical wisdom, use common sense, and build some fences that protect everyone while still allowing you the freedom to do what God has called.
Note: Since everything today is treated as a political issue, I must include the disclaimer that my defense of Vice President Pence on this issue is not a blanket endorsement of the current administration. I have been a vocal critic of the unreserved endorsement offered to the President by many high-profile evangelicals. During the 2016 campaign, I preached about how all of the candidates held positions that should be objectionable to followers of Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, I encourage Christians to pray for our leaders whether or not they personally voted for them.