SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Because of sexual harassment, we had to terminate a deacon in a church I once pastored. No one wanted to do it, because he had served for 40 years, and because his wife was one of the kindest, godliest women any of us knew. They were pillars in our church. But it had to be done.
The man would approach young women at church, hug them close, and ask if they wanted to go for a ride. “Would you like to go to the coast?” was code for who-knows-what, because no one took him up on the offer, so far as we knew. But the implication was uncomfortable and the hands-y hugging very inappropriate.
Even then, 20 years ago, we knew what we had to do. After meeting with his accusers, then him and his wife, we removed him from office. What would Jesus do about sexual harassment? Put a stop to it.
It’s surprising how little comment there has been recently from church leaders on the subject of harassment and the Christian’s responsibility. Perhaps because it’s patently obvious that sex belongs within marriage, and no one should harass anyone about anything. But given the proliferation of accusations, from Hollywood to the halls of Congress, perhaps we should review the subject — for ourselves and for our children.
What are we teaching young men about their behavior, and young women about their value? Jesus has a few lessons:
Jesus was respectful of women. Some of His last words from the cross concerned the salvation of lost men and the future care of his mother. Some of his most tender sayings were to women, “Little girl, arise,” “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.” And in the presence of Lazarus’s grieving sisters, Jesus wept.
Jesus was honest with women. The woman at the well in Samaria is a good example of this. Pointing out the woman’s sexual past would be uncomfortable for most men, but in the context of ministry — especially as it related to her salvation — it was necessary. But we note that Jesus conducted a challenging conversation in a public place. And only as it related to sin, repentance and forgiveness.
Jesus stood up for women. Jesus was willing to confront the accusers of the woman caught in adultery. As they took up stones to kill her, Jesus issued the warning that caused them to drop the rocks and walk away. The law said stone her; mercy said forgive her. And the truth was that no one in that circle was sinless except Jesus. In this instance, the boys club was closed. The boys went home mulling their own complicity, and the woman was spared.
Jesus did not exclude women because of controversy. Here is the difficult part for men in leadership today: how to include women fully in the workplace without being overly familiar. Jesus’ entourage at times included His mother, Mary Magdalene and several other women. Whether their traveling together was unusual for the time, I don’t know. But I do know that if not for the women, Jesus would have died with almost no one in attendance and there would have been no plans to prepare His body for burial. It was women who anointed His hair, washed His feet, ran to the tomb, and cried out His name upon recognizing Him, resurrected, in the garden.
The easy answer for men fearful of accusations would be to isolate themselves from women in the workplace. And there is wisdom in the usual precautions: have a glass installed in the office door, don’t spend time alone unnecessarily, don’t dine privately with women. Billy Graham’s “Modesto Manifesto” is a good guideline for men today, but it’s not an excuse to exclude women from ministry or leadership.
At the highest levels, with Vice President Mike Pence being a recent example, leaders who exercise caution are as likely to be criticized as those who exercise none. But, with the right motivations, standing up for women means being as concerned for their reputations as we are for our own.
My mother quit a job once after only a month. That was very unlike her. She was excited about her new work at the beginning but quickly soured on it. “It wasn’t a nice place to work” was the only explanation she would offer to me as a pre-teen.
Years later she gave an account that sounds much like the news stories we hear today. No one in management would listen; resignation was my mother’s only choice. What followed was months of unemployment and the beginning of a long rough patch for us as a family. Actions — and inaction — have consequences. How differently it might all have turned out if someone had stood up for her and put a stop to the harassment.