During his career, evangelist Billy Graham vowed never to meet, eat, or travel alone with a woman other than his wife, a strategy to protect his marriage and to avoid the even the appearance of an inappropriate relationship. The “Billy Graham Rule” or the “Modesto Manifesto” continues to be enacted by male Christian leaders today, especially those working in ministry.

Similar restrictions come up in other work settings, including on Capitol Hill, the National Journal reported earlier this month. According to their sources, some male members of Congress won’t meet one-on-one with female staffers “for fear that others would get the wrong impression.”

It’s the refrain recurring throughout many ministries: male and female working relationships are tricky and fraught with tension.

As a researcher who focuses on female Christian leaders, I hear it over and over. The first female vice president of a Christian organization confessed she missed out on opportunities to advance her projects because the president made businesses decisions over lunch, and he promised his wife he wouldn’t eat lunch alone with women. It was enough to make her want to quit. A female pastor in Minnesota told me about being overlooked for staff development opportunities, while the lead pastor invested in her male coworkers. A female seminary professor shared the too-familiar struggle of trying to find a mentor among her all-male colleagues.

But it’s a tension the gospel demands we work through. In Ephesians 4, we see God’s intention for ministry is a productive, collaborative environment between men and women.

The source of ministry lies in the giftedness of anthropoi, humankind, both men and women (Eph. 4:8). Robust, successful ministry occurs when “the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part.” Paul presents a vision of ministry where each flourishes in his or her giftedness. When tensions between the genders keep us from exercising our God-given talents, we need to address the root issues to find a healthy way forward.

Part of the reason for the difficulty in these relationships has to do with the historic novelty of men and women working together in the corporate sphere—just 40 years, a mere fraction of human history. But most of the awkwardness is due to the hypersexualized environment in which we live.

The way forward lies in recognizing how the hypersexualized culture has affected each of us, warping our vision of one another.

The sexual objectification of women and men in Western culture is extensive and well documented. The rise in porn usage among men and women, the prolificacy of embedded sexual content in movies and television, and exposure to unwanted sexual content on the Internet go on to influence how we see real-life men and women in other settings. Culture is something one can’t escape, for it seeps into us unseen, like the oxygen we breathe, affecting the way we perceive the world, the way we think about ourselves, and the way we relate to one another.

We must examine our hearts and habits to determine the extent of that influence. Given the barrage of women’s magazines, advertisements, and reality shows like The Bachelor, the porn culture surrounds us regardless of whether or not we view porn. (For me, my self-worth was once dominated by self-image, an eating disorder consuming more than a decade of my life.)

An honest acknowledgment of the way we tend to sexualize others is the first step. From there, we have to commit to cease doing so in order to forge wholesome, mixed-gender alliances to advance God’s work in the world.

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The way forward lies in shoring ourselves up in other kinds of love.

Our highly sexualized culture is grounded in our relational poverty. Social isolation among Westerners continues to rise, just as friendships fade and families split. In this state of relational poverty, Americans know little about the range of rich loves we find in intimate and genuine relationships. In his book, The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis elucidates the four classical loves: storgē, philía, agápe, and éros. Many have never experienced these loves in all their fullness.

Storgē is affection, most clearly exemplified in the love a parent has for their children. Many come from homes bereft of this affection, where parents are distant or addicted. Most American children grow up with single or divorced parents. Lewis considered philía, or friendship, the least valued of all the loves because so few people actually experience it. His words still hold true: more Americans than ever say they have “zero” close friends. We can have thousands of connections on Facebook without the true intimacy and connection of philía. Lastly, agápe is gift-love, impossible to experience apart from the grace of God.

A prudent and temperate response to the hypersexualized culture begins in understanding its root desire: What is it that we’re really longing for? To what is the porn culture an answer? When our righteous desire for love is satisfied in these other loves, we’re less likely to lean towards and look for éros, the sexual, romantic love, in inappropriate places.

The way forward lies in a commitment to building relationships as prescribed by the Scriptures.

The solution isn’t to try and build mixed-gender working relationships with anthropological naiveté, free of boundaries, as if the broader, sexualized culture does not matter and has no influence. This love-starved, porn culture is the world in which we must strive to model genuine partnerships between men and women. We can pioneer a middle way, acknowledging the surrounding culture but refusing to segregate ourselves according to gender.

The culture is a powerful force in shaping our thoughts and perceptions, but so, too, are the Scriptures and the Christian faith (Rom. 12:2). In 1 Timothy 5:2, the apostle Paul asks that Christians are treat “younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and the younger women as sisters, with absolute purity.” The family of God is, indeed, a family. We can stand firm against the tide of culture by committing to relate to one another as family members.

The ability for men and women to partner together in ministry is one of the most important tasks before the church today. Both men and women are gifted for ministry (Eph. 4:7-8), and when the participation of women is hindered, the work of ministry suffers (Eph. 4:16). Women’s contribution to ministry matters because every part of the body of Christ matters.

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