Our homiletics professor caught everyone offguard with his question: “What would you do if you had been invited to speak at a country church and upon arriving early found that no one was there yet except one young woman who was standing outside the locked building in the rain?” Then he sharpened the dilemma, “Would you invite her to sit in the car with you?”
Not one of us fledgling pastors-in-the-making knew how to respond. Leaving a lady out in the rain rankled our sense of chivalry, but young ministerial imaginations recoiled from the thought of some suspicious saint arriving to find us alone in the night outside a dark building with an attractive woman who wasn’t our wife. “Put her in the trunk!” one enterprising theologue finally offered. The chortle of nervous laughter testified to our appreciation that someone was relieving the uncertain tension in the room. “And don’t close the lid!” someone else followed through. More laughter. But seriously, by this time we were baffled. What was the right thing to do?
I’ve never forgotten the day we were confronted with the pinching alternatives of that hypothetical situation. I’ve never forgotten because what was then purely hypothetical has emerged as the distressingly actual scores of times in the last 25 years. I’m sure that you too have faced these same kinds of uncomfortable predicaments.
I’m driving across town on a hot day when suddenly my attention is drawn to a figure on the sidewalk about a block and a half ahead on the right. Sure enough, it’s one of the teenage girls from the church. Should I stop to pick her up? I immediately wonder. Boy, she’s not dressed very modestly, I notice. That’s not going to look very good to have her in the car, especially dressed like that. I’m within a block now. But if she sees me drive by without offering a ride, what kind of testimony will that be? my mind worries. And what will her parents think of their pastor’s apparent lack of common courtesy? I’m within 100 or so feet now, and hearing the sound of the car behind her, the girl turns. . . .
Or here’s another dilemma. Should I make a call on this woman alone in her home? I ask myself, as I listen to her voice on the other end of the phone requesting a visit to “help clear up some questions about what it means to be saved.” My mind scrambles for an alternative. Maybe I could suggest that we meet for lunch in the mall. At least the mall is a public place, my mind gropes. No one could accuse us of being alone together. I try to visualize the scene through someone else’s eyes. Somehow a corner table in the mall looks too cozy in my imaginary eye. But with my wife at home with the flu and no one else on staff at the church, I’m not sure what else to offer. Sensing my uncertainty about the appointment her voice grows more urgent. “Pastor, I just feel that I’m finally ready to do business with the Lord. Can’t you please give me at least an hour of your time today?”
Or how do I respond when I’m staying in someone’s home during special meetings, and the man comments as I start up the stairs on the way to bed that he won’t be seeing me in the mornings? He has to leave the house at 5:00 A.M. to drive to work in the next county, he explains, but his wife will fix breakfast for me whenever I get up. I better get up and leave at the same time, is my first frantic thought. But is that ever early, another side of my brain shoots back. And where will you go? this more practical side of my brain asks. And besides, you can’t do that anyway. You’ll offend these people. It’ll look to them as if you’re suspicious of her. Or at the very least, this other side of my brain continues, they’re going to be embarrassed to discover that they made you uneasy about the arrangements while you’re here this week. The good man, all unsuspecting of my anxiety, is turning away from the stairs now. “Have a good night’s sleep, preacher,” he calls as he stretches out a hand to turn off the light.
Establishing Some “Nevers”
These are exceedingly uncomfortable situations and, unfortunately, the resolutions to them sometimes feel even more uncomfortable. But over the years I’ve developed a short list of “nevers” to guide me through the thicket of such questions. They have seldom been easy to implement; but for the most part I have found that once people understand my sincere interest in preserving not only myself but also them from any appearance of evil, they are generally more than sympathetic to suggestions as to how to ensure that we both remain beyond question about our relationship.
To begin with a general, philosophical consideration, never risk your moral testimony. To observe this rule, I’ve sometimes had to risk other things— including money, inconvenience, misunderstanding, and even relationships. Perhaps you may disagree, but my personal belief is that a minister ought to forfeit nearly anything in order to avoid having his moral integrity questioned. Once a man is suspect in this area, he seldom emerges from under its shadow.
A fundamental precept for preachers is the Scripture’s demand that a “bishop must be blameless” (Titus 1:7). The root of the word “blameless” is the term “called.” Prefixed to it is the preposition “in,” and preceding this compound term (“called in”) is the negative particle, “not.” The combination, translated “blameless,” refers to being a man who is “not called in.” What does that mean? It means that a preacher’s life is to be so free from suspicion that he is “not called in” question about his actions. I tell the men on our church board, “The issue is not whether you could defend yourself if you were questioned about what you were doing or why you were in a certain place. The issue is whether your doing it or being there would call you into question in the first place. Your testimony ought not be defensible. It ought be unquestionable.”
Admittedly, it is impossible to preclude every accusation. But having certain non-negotiable standards which your people come to know are inviolable will go a long way toward averting suspicion. What you want is to have such a conspicuous reputation for scrupulous care about your moral testimony that if one of your people heard someone raise a question about your actions your church member could confidently reply, “Our pastor would never do that. He never. . . .” You can see the benefit of being known for certain “nevers,” starting with “never risk your moral testimony.” More specifically, here is what that philosophical consideration translates into on the practical side.
(1) Never permit a circumstance where you will be in an automobile, a church building, a home, an office, or any other enclosed space with a woman alone other than one who is a member of your own family or one who is quite elderly—and I mean quite elderly. There will be dozens of reasonable- sounding excuses for breaking this rule; but there will seldom, if ever, be one that is compelling enough to do so. And there is nearly always a way to avoid making an exception to it. I often return to the answer our homiletics professor finally gave to the class. It was so obvious once he stated it. “You never sit alone in a car with another woman. Insist that she get in the car—and you get out and stand in the rain,” he admonished.
Keeping a standard like this requires that when one of our youth leaders takes young people home in the church van, he (or she) never concludes the run with only himself and one young person of the opposite gender. It requires that when one of our staff meets with a woman in his office he always leaves the door ajar. It requires that we never enter a home to deal with a lady, even on door-to-door evangelism, unless there is another adult or older child present. One of the most difficult situations I’ve faced in attempting to keep this policy occurred when our church took on its first full-time secretary. How does the pastor of a smaller church have a secretary without working alone together in the same building day after day? The answer was again obvious but very inconvenient. One of us would have to work in another place. Given the accessibility that a church secretary needs, the equipment that she uses, and the nature of her work, the only option was for me to move my study to our home. In our case, this actually required the finding of a different house—one that had a room large enough and separated enough from the household to accommodate a large library and to be conducive to study.
Today our church has four full-time pastors and several ladies who do secretarial work. We still, however, face regular logistical problems that require our showing a lot of patience and flexibility to avoid ever having only one pastor and one secretary alone in the office building at the same time. But I believe that every one of our staff would testify that the non-negotiable standard is worth its trouble to maintain. And I believe our people are appreciative of the fact that they can say to any one who raises a question, “Our staff are never. . . .”
(2) Never meet with a woman, even in a public place, by herself. The situation may be entirely innocent and your own motive may be entirely pure, but only you and God know these things. Men look on the outward appearance, and what men will see is two people—a pastor and a woman who is not his wife—in a car, or in a home, or in an office, or having lunch at the mall. Beyond that, are you sure that your heart will remain entirely right? Even if yours does, can you guarantee that hers will, or that her motives are even pure to begin with? Unfortunately, women like Potiphar’s wife are with us to this day.
I arrange for all meetings with ladies to take place either at the church office when other staff members are in the building, or at our home when my wife is present in the house. Personally, I am uncomfortable with meeting a woman for counseling at her home, even when her children are present, unless her husband is also in the house. In the case of a widowed or divorced woman with children, I take with me my wife, one of my own older children, or one of the staff. The guiding principle here is that the appointment have about it the appearance of something professional rather than personal. Hospital calls are an exception to the above guidelines in that the context or the emergency nature of the situation is inherently professional. I will, therefore, make brief calls on church ladies who are in the hospital. I do, however, leave the room’s door ajar. If the call requires a longer stay I take someone with me.
(3) Never physically touch, other than by brief handshake, a woman other than one in your own family. This is a rule that is frequently transgressed by preachers in a society accustomed to seeing celebrities, athletes, old friends, and political personalities embracing almost as casually as they extend handshakes to one another. But I personally think that it is a mistake for a man of God to follow suit. To begin with, there is no compelling necessity for this more intimate contact. In addition, such embracing tends to break down the inherent reserve that men and women normally have toward one another physically. If a relationship to another woman is so close as to compel the feeling that she must be embraced upon seeing her, then I would suggest that this good and healthy reserve may have already been eroded.
Implementing this policy on a practical level means that our staff do not put their arms in a friendly fashion around the teenage girls in our assembly. Nor do we physically pat them on the back when they have won a race at the summer picnic or burst through to a major spiritual victory at camp. (Although our youth pastor sometimes humorously tells them, “I’m patting you on the back on the inside!”). Nor do we put an arm around the shoulder of a woman who has responded to the invitation at the conclusion of a service.
Sometimes, in the emotion of an invitation, a lady will instinctively reach out to embrace a pastor or to lean against him. These awkward situations can almost always be precluded by extending your arm full length to take one of her hands in a handshake— with your elbow rigidly locked in place. If you think that this sounds extreme, view the sight of her throwing herself sobbing into your arms at the front of the church—through her husband’s eyes, or through the eyes of any other man sitting in that service who has trouble keeping his hands off of other women. I have, two or three times in 20 years, had a woman emotionally, spontaneously cling to me upon receiving news of a death or some other tragedy. In every case other people have been present and the pathos of the whole circumstance was such that no one would think ill of either of us. But apart from those very isolated instances, none of which have been at my own initiation or in my own control, I have never found it necessary to practice any physical greeting or sympathy with ladies other than a brief, firm handshake. Let your wife be the one who extends the warmth of those physical sympathies to the ladies of your church.
(4) Never compliment a woman on her appearance. You do not want to be known for noticing the appearance of women other than your wife. Save your compliments for her. In addition, godly women will not be comfortable with your having noticed how they look. In fact, this is one area where women, if anything, are more vulnerable to temptation than men. A woman’s comment on his tie or the colors in his suit does not generally unduly influence a man, but a man’s noticing her clothing or attractiveness can linger with a woman and engender an inappropriate appreciation for his attention. This is especially the case when her own husband is inattentive and uncomplimentary of her appearance. Thank the women of your church for their faithful service to Christ, express your appreciation for their good testimony as wives and mothers, but never compliment them on clothing, jewelry, color of eyes or hair, complexion, and so on. There is no reason for you to do so. There are many very important reasons for you not to.
I want to reiterate that keeping these policies is often extremely inconvenient and sometimes personally embarrassing. There are times when you, as a man of God, will find yourself having to figuratively “get out and stand in the rain.” But to this day I do not regret every effort I ever made to avoid breaking the rules with which I began the ministry.
What About the Internet?
Speaking of rules—have you put some in place to guard your testimony and avoid temptation if you’re connected to the Internet? Surveys assert that the sites most frequently accessed by Internet users are pornographic. In spite of the temptations of being online, I’ve heard men defend their unguarded access by paralleling the Internet with shopping in a secular bookstore. Barnes & Noble, for example, stocks seedy books. In fact, it has whole sections of gay and lesbian titles and pornographic magazines. But as a Christian shopping there, they argue, you just don’t pick up and glance through those books. In the same way, you just don’t go to inappropriate sites when you’re surfing the Internet.
I’d like to challenge that analogy. Connecting to the Internet is not like visiting a Barnes & Noble. It’s like having one. But even worse—it’s like having one that stocks every conceivable form of seduction and perversion on the shelves of a room built into the privacy of your own home. You’re the only one who has a key to the door, and when you enter and shut the door behind you, you’re all alone in there—with millions of pages of tempting trouble. Not good. Not safe.
Beyond that, since the surveys reveal that many of our neighbors also have their own private Barnes & Nobles and that the #1 category of sites they access are pornographic, our testimonies can be “called into question” just by having the same unguarded access to these sites that they do— whether we ever open them or not.
For several months a committee of laymen in our church has been hammering out a tight Internet policy to which we’re going to ask all of our church leadership to adhere voluntarily. It includes minimum demands about passwords, filters, locations of personal computers within our homes, and times when our leadership may or may not access the Internet. Beyond the demands will be further suggestions that we will strongly urge upon anyone who wants to be qualified for leadership in our assembly.
It will not always be convenient to follow our policies consistently. But neither would it be convenient to amputate a right hand or gouge out an eye. The Lord counseled both of these alternatives to “looking on a woman to lust after her” (Matt. 5:28–30). What would He say about putting some inconvenient Internet policies in place in order to limit temptation and safeguard our testimonies?
Jill Morgan, the daughter-in-law and biographer of the godly G. Campbell Morgan, commented in her splendid account of his ministry that “no breath of scandal ever brushed his life.” I like that “ever.” We would all like such an “ever” to be said of us when we reach the end of our ministry. I’m convinced that if it is, it will be the result of a lifelong discipline to keep certain “nevers” as inviolably and graciously as we can.
Dr. Mark Minnick pastors Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Greenville, South Carolina, and serves as adjunct professor of preaching and exposition at Bob Jones Seminary.
(Originally published in FrontLine • November/December 1999. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)