The long shadow of Modesto

Gina Dalfonzo at Her.meneutics drew my attention to Michael Hyatt's recent blog post on the importance of guarding one's marriage, in part by setting specific boundaries regarding one's interactions with members of the opposite sex other than one's spouse.  To which I have to say, basically:  what Gina said.  Yes, yes: guard your marriages, but be cognizant of the costs that certain self-imposed boundaries may have in a world where work is no longer a man's domain.

I add this:  every evangelical man who sets restrictive limitations on his private interactions with women other than his wife (like the boundaries mentioned by Hyatt) is being influenced, whether he is aware of it or not, by the Modesto Manifesto -- an agreement made between Billy Graham and several close friends and colleagues in 1948, wherein they, after prayerfully considering the temptations that had destroyed the ministries of other travelling evangelists, committed to each other to go above and beyond in order to shield themselves from occasions of sin or even the appearance of scandal.  The covenant extended not only to marital fidelity, but also financial accountability, honesty in reporting the results of their outreaches, and the avoidance of division within the body of Christ.

This attention and concern is most laudable, and clearly had a lasting legacy in the integrity with which the BGEA has carried out its ministry for most of a century.  But might I suggest that, just because certain measures were appropriate for the patron saint of American evangelicalism to undertake more than sixty years ago, it does not necessarily follow that they are appropriate for evangelical men in a variety of personal and professional contexts today.

Graham and his partners were aware of the heightened vulnerability that they faced by virtue of the public nature of their ministry -- they had seen too many others fall prey to the spiritual pride that can infect successful religious leaders to consider themselves immune.  They probably also realized that long weeks of travel, separated from their wives and families, might lead to the fatigue and loneliness that could overcome good judgment and character in a moment of weakness.  Further, on at least some accounts, they seemed to be somewhat paranoid (although perhaps not unjustifiably so) about being set up -- they knew that a simple allegation of misconduct could ruin a reputation, even if there were no truth in it, and so they took pains to avoid even the circumstances in which such allegations could arise.

Graham et. al. were also ministering in a cultural context in which an innocent interaction between a man and a woman-not-his-wife could be a cause of scandal -- a situation that, as Dalfonzo's treatment implies, no longer obtains.  In fact, the opposite is the case: a Christian man's unswerving refusal to ever be alone with another women, whatever the mitigating circumstances, now has the potential to discredit the faith, as atheist blogger Hemant Metha's stunned reaction to John Acuff's treatment of the topic a couple years ago illustrates.

To his credit, Graham himself eventually relented to the persistent appeal of one Hillary Rodham Clinton for a personal meeting and agreed to share a meal with her in a public restaurant, recognizing that the pragmatic commitments of his early ministry did not match the pastoral needs of the late 20th century.  This was, I am convinced, no compromise of his principles, but a sensible accommodation to changing circumstances.

How do I know about the meeting between Graham and Clinton?  One of Graham's biographer's told me.  This biographer also happens to have been one of my mentors -- a man who, to my ongoing gratitude, did not fear to meet with me behind closed doors, to offer me much-needed professional and personal support, just because I am a woman.  I owe a great deal to my relationships with other women's husbands, and my life would be deeply impoverished if any number of godly men of my acquaintance had believed it necessary for them to eschew the company of women other than their wives.  I am thankful for many married friends who have cultivated strong marriages that can not only endure, but strengthen -- and be strengthened by -- relationships that reach beyond themselves to a broader circle of friends, male and female.

This is what I ask of my brothers: when it comes to establishing boundaries for yourself beyond those dictated  by scripture, please do not uncritically adopt those described by role models, whether they be Graham, Falwell, Haggard [shudder!], Hyatt, Acuff, or your own beloved pastor.  Search the scripture, and search your own heart, your own marriage, and your own vocation.  Choose the boundaries that make sense for your life and your situation.  Discuss them with your wife.  Be ruled by neither fear nor complacency, but by wisdom.

In turn, I pledge: I will not take your marriage for granted.  I will not assume that, as long as my own intentions are chaste, I have no responsibility for the welfare of your marriage.  If I am a friend to you, I am a friend to your wife and to your marriage.  I will always honor her primary claim on your loyalty, especially in her absence.  I will do what is in my power to build up your relationship with each other.  If ever, for whatever reason, whether temporarily or permanently, the welfare of your relationship with her demands that you limit or avoid contact with other women (or just me in particular), I accept that without recrimination, shame, or subterfuge.  I hope that you will continually devote yourselves to growing in your affection for and understanding of one another, and I thank you both for cultivating the bonds of trust that enable you to share your lives with others.


Oblate X said...

Well said!

Elizabeth Rooney said...

I have long thought this- you've articulated it so well. Thanks for putting it out there!

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