Setting God-Honoring Boundaries for Purity: Advice for Women from Wise Christ Followers

A reader commented on one of my blogs about sexual purity and Christian leaders:

I have appreciated your thoughtful response. I do wish you could do an article on how to protect yourself from ungodly leaders claiming to be spiritual... I am dumbfounded when I read about a wife texting a “godly” leader and she hasn’t shared her texts with her husband from the beginning. …she should be communicating with a husband-wife team and possibly have another woman she trusts reading the responses as well. Being asked to send photos of yourself, not to mention nude photos should be a definite alert. How did it even get to that point? Being asked to keep things secret is always an alarm point for me, and I let people know I keep myself free to always share things with my parents since I don’t have a husband. It saves me a lot of trouble if I let people know that upfront.

Let me be absolutely clear upfront. This blog is not about blaming victims of sexual abuse or about excusing the abuses of leaders. (Nor is it about women being the problem.) As I’ve written before:

Sexual involvement with one who has come to seek emotional help or spiritual guidance should not only be considered fornication or adultery—it should be considered sexual abuse. Sexual activity that comes out of a ministry context is comparable to child sexual abuse, where the supposedly mature and stable adult figure takes advantage of his or her authority and credibility to initiate or allow a sexual encounter with the immature and vulnerable. In such cases, the person in ministry is not a victim but a predator. And it is all the worse because we are trusted representatives of Christ.

[When some have] said, “These were adult women who were consenting adults,” they failed to recognize the imbalance of power between an established Christian leader with great verbal skills who is in the obvious power position and who exerts influence on someone. While it isn’t a righteous response, it’s understandable that someone could not only be flattered by the man’s interest but also reason, “I thought doing this was wrong, but he knows the Bible far better than I do, maybe it’s really okay.” Is that rationalizing? Of course. But when Jesus talked about abusive leaders being wolves among the sheep, surely he wasn’t putting equal blame on the sheep as on the wolves.

Obviously it is sin for anyone to commit adultery, either to initiate it or to voluntarily engage in it. But the greater sin is committed by the one who uses his or her power position to manipulate or seduce another. All sins are evil (James 2:10) but Jesus spoke of “greater sins” (John 19:11). All sin is wrong, but some sins are worse than others (Matthew 10:14-15).

This is why we need to create a culture in our churches and ministries where when people bring up concerns about a leader’s actions, they are taken seriously and the claims are thoroughly investigated, not automatically dismissed based on the leader’s word alone.

Still, I believe it is wise for Christian women, just like men, to have clear boundaries when it comes to purity and relationships, and to teach boundaries to their children and teens. This isn’t about legalism or about earning our salvation, or about following a list of rules just to appear more godly. It’s simply about being wise, and honoring God in our choices by guarding our hearts (Proverbs 4:23). (And as I’ve written before, because boundaries protect us, they actually bring freedom and joy, not misery and confinement.)

The following advice comes from a Revive Our Hearts conversation between Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth and Mary Kassian, two sisters I greatly appreciate. Though this is geared towards women, the principles are applicable to both men and women:

Nancy: I know when I’ve talked in the past about hedges and boundaries on this program, invariably we’ll get emails from listeners saying, be more specific. “What are some of your hedges? What are some of your boundaries?” I’ve always been hesitant to do that because I don’t want to say that the hedges that I’ve put in place in my life are exactly in every detail what someone else should put into their life. But I have found that women have been helped as I’ve been willing to share some of the practical hedges that I’ve put into my life.

I’m a single woman. Mary, you’re a married woman. [Note: Nancy married Robert Wolgemuth in 2015.] Let’s just for the sake of mentoring and encouraging women who are listening and may not have been mothered, may not have been counseled in some of these practical areas, let’s start with you as a married woman. You love Brent. You’ve been married thirty years now. You want to protect your marriage. You want to guard your own heart. So what are some of the practical ways that you've set out to establish hedges and boundaries to protect that relationship?

Mary: One of the practical ways is what I call a seclusion hedge. And that is to ensure that I interact with men that I am not married to, men who are other than Brent, in a public venue and not in a private venue. I avoid places that are secluded. So if I’m meeting with someone, a colleague, it will be in a room where others can watch or that has glass doors, or glass windows, or we leave the door open. I avoid being in secluded, private, isolated places with men that I’m not married to.

Nancy: I know we practice that within our ministry. I don’t meet in a room alone with a man without the door being ajar or windows in the room. Some people see that kind of thing and think that seems so extreme. That seems obsessive. Yet I’m thinking, if you don’t violate that seclusion principle, you’re unlikely to be in an emotionally or physically adulterous relationship. People probably never have an affair with someone that they've never been alone with in a private setting.

You can call it obsessive. But I so value the marriages of my colleagues and the men that serve in our ministry, the men that I work with. I’m thinking it’s worth it for them and for me, for their marriages, for my life, to put some of those boundaries up. Is this a biblical mandate to keep the doors open? I’m not going to call it that, but I think there’s a lot of wisdom in it.

Mary: I think there is a lot of wisdom in it. Proverbs tells us that the wise person foresees danger and takes precautions.

Nancy: Prudent.

Mary: Is very, very prudent. It’s just a smart thing to do. When Brent does that for me, I appreciate that I know that he’s not going to be having meetings off somewhere with a woman alone. And he knows that I will honor him in the same way. It's just a way of respecting my marriage, and it's a way of respecting the marriages of other people as well.

Nancy: I think another way of putting up appropriate hedges and boundaries is in the whole area of communication. This is something that I’ve watched just take down a lot of women and a lot of marriages. The whole email/Facebook communication; how can we think about that in a wise way rather than a wild way.

Mary: Well, I think that we need to be careful with where we go in our communication. If I communicate with someone other than Brent, another man, I try to avoid really personal topics. I can confide in girlfriends, but I can’t confide in other men. If I’m having a heartache, or if I’m having something very personal going on in my life, or if I’m having a struggle in my marriage, it’s just inappropriate for me to be sharing personal information.

If I do share personal information, I need to be very cautious to share that information in a way that my husband is aware that I’m sharing it or that he is included in it. So if I’m saying something personal, how I really enjoyed church this weekend, I might type something like, “My husband and I really enjoyed being at church this weekend.” Or I would use “we” phrases and always make sure to make it very clear that I am married and I’m committed to my marriage. I am not just an “I;” I am a “we” in terms of being a couple. That just draws that boundary very, very clearly right up front that this is place, this is a line that is not getting crossed.

Nancy: I know some couples who have practically handled that in relation to their Facebook account. They don’t have their own individual Facebook accounts; they have a Facebook account. If they're going to do it all, together. It has both of their names on it. So when you're communicating with the one, you realize the other partner has access to that, is seeing that material. I think that helps keep away from private or secret communication that could become a time bomb waiting to go off.

Mary: It really could become one. I appreciate Brent often will CC me on an email if he’s communicating with a woman and needs to set something up or tell her something. If it’s just purely business, he doesn’t always do that. But if there's anything of a private or personal nature, he'll CC me on it, or he will tell me about it. I will do the same for him. That just really honors, it nails down those hedges and boundaries. It honors our marriage. It keeps us safe.

Nancy: I don’t want to belabor the point too much, but I think as much as we have seen of emotional adultery, sometimes leading to physical adultery, but illicit relationships being fueled through email, through Facebook, through instant messaging, through various social media, these things can be great blessings if they are used in a wise way. But we're seeing just monumental collapse of trust and covenant and breaches of fidelity and faithfulness through these means.

I talked recently with a couple, a man who is in full-time Christian ministry. His wife has become addicted to Facebook, and through means of Facebook she has reconnected with an old sweetheart who she is now carrying on an emotional affair with, and it is devastating her marriage. I assume it’s devastating his as well in his situation.

But this is something that is rampant even among believers. Nobody wakes up in the morning and says, "I think I’m going to have an affair." They first breach smaller, individual, single hedges or boundaries and then find that leading to another, leading to another, leading to another larger compromise. And it's like Proverbs says, “The end leads to death” (see verse 27). 

Mary: It does lead to death. You and I have both seen it numerous times where just a little compromise, because it's not sin just to send an email, and it's not sin to share a little bit, and it's not sin to share a little bit more. But there's an erosion that takes place, and a chipping away at those boundaries. Those boundaries get pushed to different levels and different places. And you cross more and more boundaries until every boundary is crossed, emotionally, if not physically. 

So to protect ourselves, to keep ourselves safe, to keep ourselves pure, to honor our marriages and the marriages of those around us, we do need to establish those types of boundaries.

Listen to the full podcast.

Also see Mary’s Personal Hedges Worksheet. She writes, “A hedge is a personal rule that minimizes a woman’s exposure to an unwanted sexual risk. It’s a boundary that helps her protect her own sexual purity as well as the sexual purity of the men around her. It’s a strategy whereby she seeks to honor God and lessen the opportunity for sin. This worksheet is to help you establish what your personal hedges are.” You might also like to check out Mary’s book Girls Gone Wise in a World Gone Wild.

See also my blog Pursuing Sexual Purity in Your Marriage and my book The Purity Principle.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries