Christianity,  Theology/Bible

Treating young women as sisters in absolute purity

Yesterday, I wrote about how pastors are to relate to different sex and age groups within the congregation. The apostle Paul helps us to think through this in his instruction to young pastor Timothy in 1 Timothy 5:1-2. Here’s the rendering I provided yesterday:

Do not speak harshly to an older man but exhort him as you would a father.
Do not speak harshly to younger men, but exhort them as brothers.
Do not speak harshly to older women, but exhort them as mothers.
Do not speak harshly to younger women, but exhort them as sisters, in all purity.

Everything that we observed yesterday—about treating people with respect and about honoring each member’s age and station in life—carries right over to the pastor’s treatment of younger women. The pastor must not speak harshly to “younger women” but must exhort them with the same respect and honor that he would owe to his own flesh-and-blood sister.

But notice that Paul adds one additional element when it comes to the younger women of the congregation—purity. Paul says Timothy is supposed to treat these young women “as sisters, in all purity.” The word translated as “purity” only occurs two times in all of the New Testament—here and in chapter 1 Timothy 4:12: “Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.” The word indicates moral purity, but its connection with younger women here certainly means that Paul has sexual purity in mind.

It is likely that Paul adds a word about sexual purity because there is a particular pitfall that is all too common—sexual immorality. A pastor who has learned the art of communicating with warmth and compassion can easily find himself in a situation of emotional connection with a woman that he ought not have such a connection with. And so Paul says that there must be no hint of impropriety in his ministry to younger women.

But it is important to notice that Paul places two obligations on Timothy’s relationship to younger women. Timothy must treat them “in all purity” and treat them “as sisters.” Pastors have an obligation to get this balance correct.

On the one hand, he must relate to these young women “in all purity.” That means that he must learn to think about and to talk to these women in ways that neither imply nor intend any sexual possibility. There are certain emotional and physical connections that are only appropriate to marriage. And the faithful pastor must avoid making those connections with women who are not his spouse. He must relate “in all purity.”

On the other hand, the pastor has an obligation to relate to these young women as “sisters.” This means that a pastor must not simply withdraw from relating to the women of his congregation. He may make private efforts to gouge out his own eye or cut off his own hand (Matt. 5:28-30). But the pastor’s quest for personal holiness does not authorize him to cut off the eyes and hands of Jesus (1 Cor. 12:21). And that is what these younger sisters are—members of the body of Christ. A pastor must not simply tune these women out as if they weren’t members of the body of Christ.

A female seminary student once told me a story about a time she said “hello” to a male classmate before class started. His response to her was “I’m married,” and then he turned away. This misses the mark. A pastor must strive for holiness, but he must be careful not to let his striving turn into stiff-arming the younger women of the congregation. How arrogant it is to assume that if a female says “hello” that she is trying to be a home-wrecker. No one should be naïve about the fact that there are promiscuous women in the world that all men need to beware of (see Prov. 5). Likewise, a pastor must be vigilant. But he must also not be so cynical that ordinary conversation with a Christian woman be interpreted as a sexual advance.

What does it communicate to a sister in Christ if a pastor treats her like that? It tells her that his mind is preoccupied with things it ought not be preoccupied with. It also communicates that he thinks her very existence is a threat to holiness. It communicates that he is not thinking of her as a sister “in all purity.”

Sibling relationships help us to remember that it is possible to have a warm brotherly love for a person of the opposite sex that involves no sexual intention or possibility. And that is why Paul presses the familial analogy in this teaching about sexual purity. We all know what it’s like to have female family members—perhaps a mother or a sister or an aunt, etc. And thus we can imagine what it is like to have relationships in which sex is the farthest thing from anyone’s imagination. Paul wants pastors to retrain their minds to think of the younger women in the same way—as family members.

Even though the so-called “Billy Graham Rule” has been much maligned of late, I believe there is great wisdom in it. Every one of us must be vigilant about holiness, and every one of us would do well to develop habits and disciplines that keep our eyes on the path in front of us. A pastor must be exemplary in this regard. He must also be exemplary in relating to all the members of the congregation as family members. This balance is not beyond the realm of possibility. It can be done. Indeed, it must be done. And we must not let worldliness and carnality steal the wholesome vision that the apostle Paul has set before us.