Larissa Boyce was 16 years old when Larry Nassar first abused her. She reported the former national team doctor for USA Gymnastics immediately but was rebuffed by Michigan State University authorities. “Instead of being protected, I was humiliated,” she told Christianity Today in February 2018. “I was in trouble and brainwashed into believing I was the problem.”

Salma Hayek was an emerging star in American films — rare for a Mexican actress — when Harvey Weinstein agreed to collaborate with her on “Frida.” The juggernaut Hollywood producer sexually harassed her relentlessly, ultimately holding the film project hostage until she agreed to a scene intended only for his gratuitous enjoyment. Hayek was silent for years, but not without struggle. “I had been proud of my capacity for forgiveness,” she wrote in The New York Times, “but the mere fact that I was ashamed to describe the details of what I had forgiven made me wonder if that chapter of my life had really been resolved.”

Monica Lewinsky was a 22-year-old White House intern who, in her words, “fell in love with [her] boss,” President Bill Clinton. His adulterous abuse of power and privilege not only touched off a national political scandal, but also cost Lewinsky her reputation. “I was branded as a tramp, tart, slut, whore, bimbo, and of course, ‘that woman,’” she told the audience at a TED Conference in 2015. In late 1998, she said, her parents feared she would be “humiliated to death — literally.”

Understanding the Origins of Skewed Sexual Dynamics

Why do such horrors happen? And how do they happen? When observing the fallout of sexual sin, it is easy to focus blame “out there.” But of course, Christians know better. Sadly, such news is peppered with stories of affairs, harassment, even assaults and cover-ups occurring within churches and Christian ministries, too. The log, unhappily, is in our own eye. 

It feels satisfying, to tut-tut the shameless when they behave shamefully. But abusers tend to be highly skilled manipulators. They weaponize the shame they ought to feel over their actions, transferring it instead to their victims.

Whether in the world or in the church, the answers as to why and how can be found in Genesis 3. As a consequence of rebellion against the Creator, relationships between the human sexes are specifically broken, and the two genders begin an ongoing struggle for dominance. 

Knowing the “why” in theological terms may be helpful, but it is not adequate for preventive measures. Understanding the “how” of sexual predation is crucial to restraining and responding to it, both civically and pastorally.

It is tempting to place the preponderance of blame on external social forces. As Wall Street Journal columnist Daniel Henninger has pointed out, abusive behavior does not occur in a vacuum: “Incidents of sexual abuse on this scale don’t randomly erupt,” he wrote in December 2017. “They grow from the complex climate of a nation’s culture …. These men are a product of their times.” If this seems too easily to absolve perpetrators of their individual aberrance, Henninger’s point is precisely that it is self-restraint — the conscience of the individual — that has eroded in our pleasure-seeking, sexually “liberated” culture. 

Certainly the range of socially acceptable sexual behavior has broadened in a generation. There is now very little social stigma associated with sexual intimacy between consenting adults who are not married — or, for that matter, who are not in a committed relationship of any type. For Henninger, it is only logical that some men will push the boundaries further and further as they seek self-gratification without regard to its cost. One problem with men such as Weinstein, then, is that their consciences have become seared: “They … have … no … shame.”

The Complexity of Shame

Attributing gross sexual misconduct to a lack of social embarrassment is appealing. Shame is a potent, multifaceted motivator. It is no accident that many of David’s prayers recorded in the Psalms look confidently toward deliverance from shame for God’s people, as well as a corresponding comeuppance for His enemies. (Psalm 31:17 encapsulates both ideas, for example.) Shame is the thing the righteous Joseph wished his fiancée Mary to be spared when he discovered her pregnancy. Paul was not too cerebral to shame the Corinthians when, for example, they tolerated scoffing at the Resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:35), and the imagery of Christ putting “rulers and authorities … to open shame” on the cross in Colossians 2:16 is a powerful reversal of appearances.

The desire for vindication goes deep, and it can be a holy desire. Indeed, under the guidance of a well-formed conscience, shame can lead to the godly sorrow that produces repentance — as it did for the Corinthians (2 Corinthians 7:10). It feels satisfying, then, to tut-tut the shameless when they behave shamefully. But our extremely complicated relationship with shame should give pause, if for no other reason than that abusers tend to be highly skilled manipulators. They weaponize the shame they ought to feel over their actions, transferring it instead to their victims.

Larissa Boyce believed she was the problem. Salma Hayek was too ashamed to speak. Monica Lewinsky participated in a consensual affair with President Clinton but was nevertheless “made a scapegoat in order to protect his powerful position.” In these women’s cases, at least, the men responsible for their shame have all paid the price, whether in full or in part: Larry Nassar is in jail, Harvey Weinstein lost his company, and Bill Clinton was impeached (and while his post-impeachment legacy emerged relatively intact, some former defenders are reexamining their position). If acts of sexual aggression are stigmatized, good. But that alone is hardly sufficient restitution for victims. And what of the many, many instances where violators have not been held to account?

Regulating Restraint

In a March 2017 profile of second lady Karen Pence, The Washington Post referenced a 15-year-old comment made by her husband, Vice President Mike Pence: “He never eats alone with a woman other than his wife,” the Post wrote, “and he won’t attend events featuring alcohol without her by his side, either.” (This does not mean, as has sometimes been misrepresented, that he refuses to meet one-on-one with women.) The “Pence Rule,” as it has been called, is an iteration of a commitment the late evangelist Billy Graham made, together with his organization’s leadership, to “avoid any situation that would have even the appearance of compromise or suspicion” with women, a pledge that also addressed financial integrity, local church relationships, and publicity.

Such rules are rooted in scriptural commands to guard against sin. Graham himself highlighted 2 Timothy 2:22 (“flee youthful passions”). Paul wrote to the Ephesians that “sexual immorality … must not even be named among you” (Ephesians 5:3). Christ prescribed extreme measures to avoid sin in Matthew 5. There are many other similar passages, and there are many Christian men (this writer included) who, in partnership with their wives, take them seriously enough to craft guidelines of one form or another.

Despite becoming part of the recent discussion surrounding the Nassar and Weinstein events, the Graham Rule clearly does not aim at preventing that type of beyond-the-pale behavior. Instead, it is deployed against less extreme (though not less sinful) forms of sexual harassment, as well as consensual affairs. It also serves the obvious purpose of immunizing men against claims of harassment, whether merited or not. In this respect, then, the Graham Rule serves to protect men’s reputations as well as their souls. 

Upholding the Needs of Others

Increasingly, men and women are working in close proximity to each other away from their homes, often in equal numbers and on equal professional footing. This context is dramatically different from the one in which the Graham Rule was codified in 1948. In fact, the closest historical analog for this situation in the last century and a half may well be the interaction between the sexes within the church. When Paul wrote to the Galatians that “in Christ there is neither male nor female,” he surely meant not to obliterate all distinctions of gender. Rather, he showed how men and women in the church ought to value each other — as equals, entitled to the respect of full kingdom citizenship and gifted for the good of the body as a whole. Should not the way we treat each other in the workplace mirror this?

An axiom of Christian life is that every action must be considered with the good of others in mind. “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit,” Paul admonished the Philippians, “but in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3). In applying rubrics such as the Graham Rule, this deference must be a guiding principle. And this is where, if Christian men are hearing some of their sisters, there is an opportunity to follow a more excellent way.

Researcher and author Halee Gray Scott has studied at length the reaction of women to the Graham Rule as applied both inside and outside ministry settings. Here are some of her findings:

“Christian women often report feeling awkward or alienated in the workplace. They also feel diminished to nothing more than a sexual object.”

“In my research, I heard from a high-ranking female executive who described the loneliness and impotence she felt due to exclusion from work lunches and company leadership retreats. A female seminary student told of the difficulty in getting a ride to a class with her male peers. … Hundreds of women testified with a similar story: Male colleagues claimed they were unable to work or meet with them because of their gender.”

Scott is careful to take at face value the best intentions of men who follow the Graham Rule. She is also not alone in pointing out two undesirable features: First, that women face professional limitations because of the rule’s application; and second, that they are made to feel more sexualized, not less, by the men who apply it. Ironically, both echo (if faintly and unconsciously) a power play uncomfortably reminiscent of Harvey Weinstein. The result is that Christian women are shown a picture of themselves that looks more like Proverbs 7 than Proverbs 31.

What might it look like, then, if Christian rules for sexual restraint were grounded in deference? What if, in their professional and social interactions with women, Christian men were primarily oriented toward honoring the worth, interests, and goals of women? And what if safeguarding the reputations of women were the overriding concern of Christian men, even above protecting their own? What rules might emerge?

It is good to avoid sins of commission, but it takes stronger stuff — Spirit-led stuff — to form consciences for eternity.

Halee Gray Scott offers a few suggestions based on her research. One is to “start (or continue) the big-picture conversation about what it means to be men and women serving together in the context of a hypersexualized culture.” No institution should be better equipped than the church to put forth a positive vision of restraint and respect between the sexes because there is no stronger basis for such a vision than equality in Christ.

Another of Scott’s recommendations is to “establish clear, wise boundaries in advance.” The problem is not that rules are bad. When constructed collaboratively and transparently, rules offer safety and comfort. Today’s rules may not prohibit all private meetings, but they may require prior notification of certain types of one-on-one meetings or allow for spousal access to calendars, emails, and text messages. These arrangements might look different from the Graham Rule but could better fulfill its original intent to honor the primacy of marriage and the integrity of others.

Responding Faithfully

There is more to consider here about the church’s collective approach to sexual restraint. Despite even the wisest guardrails, sinful men have fallen and will continue to fall. But the believing community’s response to such failures is a powerful signal to perpetrators, their victims, and the world.

It is obvious that the church should be a place where victims are safe, the vulnerable protected, and abusers called to submit to civil authority. Sadly, this does not always happen. Attorney Rachael Denhollander is another person abused by Larry Nassar (one of more than 250). Her extraordinary victim-impact statement at his sentencing garnered tremendous national attention, not least because of her eloquent presentation of the truth of the Gospel — the necessity of repentance as well as the promise of forgiveness. She has been a consistent advocate for abuse victims, including those whose abuse happened within the church.

Discouragingly, this advocacy has not gone well. At a church she formerly attended, Denhollander raised concerns about its support and restoration of exiled leaders from Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM). Using her legal investigative skills, she compiled evidence indicating that SGM had responded poorly to actual and alleged incidents of abuse within its community. Denhollander told Christianity Today that, rather than amplifying her voice, her status as a victim of abuse was used to discredit her argument. Her family soon left the church (see Editor’s Note below). The case is a sobering reminder that, in the quest to prevent and respond to sexual violence, the church is prone to failure on both counts. Denhollander views the SGM case as an example.

In her interview, she identified two causes for such failures. One is an institutionalization of the self-protection reflex latent in the Graham Rule. There is a powerful temptation for a church to hide abuse in the name of protecting its reputation, its “ministry,” or even, misguidedly, the Gospel itself. Another is a basic misunderstanding of the theology of grace and repentance that creates pressure to protect even manipulative abusers — in violation of 1 Corinthians 5. “[T]he Gospel of Jesus Christ does not need your protection,” Denhollander said, speaking forcefully against these impulses toward concealment. “It defies the Gospel of Christ when we do not call out abuse and enable abuse in our own church …. Obedience [to Jesus Christ] means that you pursue justice, and you stand up for the oppressed, and you stand up for the victimized, and you tell the truth about the evil of sexual assault and the evil of covering it up.”

Abusers need to know that their predation will be met with consequences. Victims need to know they have a place to turn where someone will listen. And the world needs to see that the church is serious about protecting the vulnerable. Though it may not seem so at a time when scandal occurs within the church, an open, faithful response that communicates these truths can ultimately contribute to restraining future evil.

Showing True Strength

The two greatest commandments of the law — loving God above all else and loving others as oneself — are both positive exhortations rather than negative prohibitions. A moment’s reflection on God’s purposes for His people reveals the reason: He is concerned not only with how we act, but why. It is good to avoid sins of commission, but it takes stronger stuff — Spirit-led stuff — to form consciences for eternity. What good is it in God’s eyes if men follow the Graham Rule but lack genuine respect for women? Simply avoiding violence against women is not enough; rather, masculine strength should support the confident expression of feminine strength. One does not abuse what one truly values.

Even before his visit from Gabriel, Joseph knew enough and loved enough to use his power to protect Mary. Jesus demonstrated startling deference when He spoke to a Samaritan woman in public, breaking a social taboo but remaining quite safe from sexual sin. These women subsequently performed unique, irreplaceable roles in God’s plan. Let Christian men today behave similarly so that a future Larissa Boyce, Salma Hayek, and Monica Lewinsky will be known first for the irreplaceable value they bring to athletics, film production, and communications — and not as victims.

Phil Mobley is a writer and consultant living in the Boston area.

Editor’s Note: After this article was published, the pastors of Immanuel Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, released a statement acknowledging that they responded poorly when the Denhollanders voiced concerns about inviting leaders of Sovereign Grace Ministries to speak at the church. The statement reads, in part, “As we interacted with the Denhollanders over their departure from Immanuel, we expressed things which we now deeply regret. In hindsight, we see they were sinfully unloving. We have since thoroughly repented to the Denhollanders and to the church we serve, seeking to confess every known sin. In return, the Denhollanders and our church family have been very gracious and forgiving. The Denhollanders have assured us that there is no longer any breach in our relationship and that all of our wrongs against them are forgiven. It is a deep joy to us that the gospel can restore our relationships when we fail. It is a deep joy to us that the gospel can restore our relationships when we fail.”