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Presumed Guilty

by Lynda Schultz  
6/07/2008 / Leadership

Toward the end of my seminary career, I interviewed for a job in one of my denomination's larger churches. It was a rare plum since not many ministry opportunities for women were available in the early 70s.

There were several reasons why I turned the position down. Chief among those were the working conditions.

The previous pastor had run off with a woman from the church who was not his wife. Understandably, the congregation was hurting, and the present pastor felt the pressure. I was to be church secretary (another of the reasons the job didn't appeal to me) and was informed that the pastor and I would never be alone together in the office, or any place else for that matter. I've often wondered who would have served as our chaperone during office hours and how an office could be efficiently run under those circumstances.

While I understood the reasons behind the restrictions, I turned down the job because I didn't think it was possible to have a good working relationship with the church or with the pastor where trust did not exist. And, I confess, I resented being judged guilty just because some other woman was.

In almost forty years in ministry, the issue has raised its ugly head on more occasions than I care to count.

Recently, it came up during a discussion about a colleague's ministry assignment. Again, I understood the reasons for all the precautions, but I did not share the conclusions.

There was no question about our colleague's moral character, but in order to "protect" him from being tempted and possibly falling into the sins that others had committed, he was being "encouraged" to confine his discipleship, leadership training, and mentoring, to groups of men, rather than mixed groups or groups of women (we are not talking about one-on-one here). As it happens, this particular man is highly regarded as a teacher and mentor. He is tremendously gifted and everyone who has ever been under his ministry wants to repeat the experience.

I confess that my hackles rose immediately. The women who had been, or might be, participants in any of his courses or seminars, were guilty until proven innocent. Their very presence represented a temptation that surely couldn't be resistedlong before any one of them had done anything to be branded a "temptress" The judgment assumed that at least one of them would want to be that temptress and attributed to her more power to tempt, than this man of God had at his disposal to help him successfully resist. Besides that, gifted women, ready for leadership, were being marginalized and denied the opportunity that the most qualified leader among us could give.

Subliminally, we were also saying that we were not sure our man could resist a "temptress" in his class which was as good as saying let's just consider everyone guilty right from the start.

My own perverse nature came up with another possibility. Being part of a group made up of people of the same gender really offers no protection from sin. What if, as a woman leader, I am tempted into carrying on a sexual relationship with one of the women in my group, or maybe some male student in my colleague's group, decides to proposition him, providing the very temptation that we are apparently so eager to protect him from?

Logically, we have to follow our line of reasoning right to its end. If my colleague can't have women in his class because they could be a temptation to him, then neither should he have men in his classthey also represent a potential temptation.

If we can't trust, then let's at least be fair, and declare that temptation is not gender specific.

As an interesting parallel, experts suggest that some people among the growing number of allergy sufferers today may have been overprotected from allergens from birth and therefore, denied the opportunity to face, and build up resistance, to all the things that cause allergies. My mother used to say that a person had to eat a peck of dirt during his lifetimeI assume to build up that healthy hardiness that our predecessors were famous for. Exposure to dirt and germs is not necessarily a bad thing.

I am not advocating chaining our leadership to a lamppost in a red light district in order to test their resistance, but I am saying that unless they learn how to face temptation and overcome it in the strength of the Lord, they will never build up any resistance. No matter how much we try to create a bubble of protection around them, at some point in time they will have to face the real world and be exposed to its diseases. Without having built up that resistance which is an important part of spiritual growth, they will be that much more susceptible to a hard fall. Temptation is inevitable in life, and even more so in ministry.

Others will argue that, considering how many public figures among church leaders have done damage to the name of Christ, to the church, and to their own ministries and reputations because of moral lapses, we need to be careful. But, in being careful do we need to presume guilt, and in doing so deny the sufficiency of God's grace to keep us where He has led us?

The Lord Jesus ministered to women (John 4) and was accompanied by women (Mark 15:40, 41). He was accused of keeping company with tax collectors and sinners and being a drunkard and a glutton (Matthew 11:19), but never of being a womanizer. He was the model of purity despite being tempted in all the ways we are tempted (Hebrews 4:15). He never sinned and He promises to keep us from sinning (Jude 24)if that's really what we want.

The Bible teaches us that sin is not the fault of a third party; it comes from inside each one of us (James 1:14). Changing conditions on the outside will not prevent anyone from getting what his, or her, own desires insist on having. Those very conditions provide the proving ground for our faith and spiritual growth. Spirituality is tested and refined in the fire.

It is possible for any one of us to lapse morally. That's why the closeness of our walk with the Lord is so vitally important. However, if the mere possibility of committing a crime were enough to convict us, we'd all be in jail.

I would like to be trusted until I really have done something to betray that trust. And personally, I'm getting very weary of my gender being held against me, being used to justify someone else's weakness, or being considered a good reason to marginalize me.

My colleague deserves to be trusted, and so do the people who want to sit under his ministry. My task as a sister in Christ is to pray that he, and they, will walk so closely with the Lord that there will be no room for temptation to squeeze in to cause any one of them to fall.

Lynda Schultz is a freelance writer currently serving with FEBInternational, the overseas arm of the Fellowship of Evangelical Baptist Churches in Canada. She works in resource development and discipleship in Caracas, Venezuela.



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