I got in trouble in high school. Not as a student—as a teacher. A senior girl came to school in a shirt that had Mickey Mouse silkscreened on the front. As her first-period teacher, I neglected to send her home.
See, this conservative Christian school had a rule against any printing on shirts. It was there, ostensibly, to guard against kids wearing shirts with beer brands, swear words, or other objectionable content emblazoned across their chests. I hadn’t sufficiently considered Mickey Mouse’s pernicious effects on our student body. When the rule says any print, any print can get you sent home. Mickey was guilty.
Christianity hasn’t cornered the market on creating broad rules that overshoot necessity, but we are certainly chief vendors. It’s human nature to prefer clean lines, black and white borders that subject any nuance to be quashed into an appropriate category where it will be judged in or out.
The recent verbal brawl over the Billy Graham Rule, or BGR as it’s known for those who prefer to make life simpler, is but a symptom of the larger syndrome.
Nuance is harder; individual cases are more time-consuming and subject to, well, subjectivism. Make the rule, make it tight, and feel good about how righteous you are for carrying it out scrupulously.
Except Jesus seemed to be pro nuance. We’d rather deal with rules than humans, but the latter is precisely what Jesus insisted we do.
When the Pharisees wanted to make broad rules (and extremely narrow ones), Jesus said things like, “Hey, whoever is without sin, cast the first stone.” “If your kid falls into a well on the Sabbath, are you going to pull him out or not?” “You tithe a tenth of your spices, but you have completely stonewalled justice, mercy, and faithfulness.”
Jesus, in fact, went and hung out alone with a woman by the side of a well when he knew she had a rough reputation. We all know how that turned out.
This rule that’s been newsworthy lately throws into relief what we already knew about ourselves—there is a Pharisee in us all. We prefer the safety of barricades to the risk of self-evaluation. We would rather sacrifice the beauty of the Samaritan woman’s story to the fear or our own vulnerability.
This matters, beyond the BGR.
For those unfamiliar with the rule, its unwritten code is that a pastor (almost universally presumed male) will refuse to dine, ride share, travel, or generally co-exist with a woman as a matter of business or friendship in order to avoid temptation or the appearance of evil. It’s not in the Bible, but it was determined by Billy Graham, which is the same thing to many of us. If evangelicals were Catholics, he would already be canonized; we wouldn’t wait.
I am not speaking ill of Mr. Graham. He is worthy of great respect and admiration for his work and personal integrity. The rule that appropriated his name, however, is part of the Mickey Mouse Shirt Syndrome. It encompasses an entire group (in this case, an entire gender) within the barricade of a rule made for a fraction of its population. It aims at an ant and hits an elephant.
Hitting an elephant has severe consequences for not only the elephant, but everyone around it.
Jesus appears to be taking away our elephant guns with his interactions. He looks at each person individually. He listens to each of them personally. He refuses to care what anyone thinks of his reputation.
When a man looks lustfully at women, he lays the blame precisely where it should be—at the man—and tells him to fix his own inner life. He does not create universal rules for how women should therefore dress and how men should therefore never consider giving a chariot ride to a woman. He tells them, through the hyperbole of poking out one’s eye, to do the hard work of looking into their own hearts and repairing whatever has led them to that place.
We create barricades when fear is greater than people. We also construct them when appearance is more important than truth.
First, we have to realize that the KJV translation of 1 Thessalonians 5:22 (avoid all appearance of evil) is faulty (other translations correctly replace it with “avoid all forms of evil”). Even if it were not, however, why are we creating rules for behavior based on the perception of people who ought not be jumping to negative conclusions about their brothers and sisters anyway? Are we really willing to allow that riding in a car with another person is sinful but making judgments about their integrity without evidence is not?
There is a greater issue at stake when we begin to shoot elephants. Our broad rules become vehicles for self-righteousness, and we ignore the actually-present sins of pride, judgmentalism, and disregard for the bystanders who get hurt.
In this case, the bystanders are getting hurt.
This isn’t a full court press on the BGR issue or women in leadership, but it’s useful to explore exactly how bystanders get hurt in one instance in order to grasp the scope.
I work for a denomination that ordains women and believes that it offers us equal chances at opportunity. Yet, in my time as a pastor, I have lost count of the conferences, seminars, lunch meetings, and even ball games male pastors have gone to together and have not once inquired as to whether I would be interested. Not once. It would toss too much chaos into their plans for transportation, meals, and conversation. And these are men who are considered supporters of women in ministry.
Women are routinely not considered for leadership positions in the church, even in churches that support them, and it is rules like this that keep that status quo. When we cannot access the same opportunities and are not offered the same chances at leadership training, we are perceived as non-leaders. It’s a cycle that we cannot break on our own. We’re bystanders, and the elephant guns are taking us out without our consent.
Niebuhr said, “Sin is a corruption of something good, and this corruption is caused by an excess rather than a defect of some vitality of life.” The impulse to protect one’s marriage, or one’s school, springs from good intent. It’s a noble desire to be faithful to a spouse or protect students from fearful, harmful images. But when our zeal for good is corrupted by our more powerful zeal for easy answers and self-preservation, we wander into sin of a different, more insidious kind.
One thing they taught me in seminary—it’s the pastors who accept their fallibility who are less likely to fall. Those who think too much of their righteousness are most vulnerable. That was statistics, not assumption.
Mickey Mouse never returned to school. I wonder, sometimes, about the girl behind Mickey. Did she return, after graduation, to a faith that taught her a shirt was more important than sitting in English class? That what was on her body mattered more than what was in her head and heart?
Her teacher went on the seminary and the pastorate, where I have encountered many more Mickey Mouse rules. So like Niebuhr, I try to look behind the rule to the intent. Like Jesus, I try to look at the person before I make a rule. Like me, I often break the rules.
Jill Richardson is the pastor of Real Hope Community Church near Chicago. She is the author of six books and a national speaker, as well as a contributor to books from Dayspring, Lillenas, and Christianity Today. Jill’s doctorate in "Church Leadership in a Changing Context" is helping her with her passion—passing on a healthy, creative church and doing it with the next generation. She is a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Bethel Seminary (St. Paul), and Washington University. Her focus is on church leadership, creative preaching, immigration and refugees, women’s issues, and intergenerational leadership. She has an unnatural love for Middle-earth, chocolate marzipan, old musicals, fish tacos, oceans, cats, and Earl Grey. She believes in Jesus, grace, restoration, kindness, justice, and the Cubs. You can find her work at jillmrichardson.com.