The “Billy Graham Rule” (alternatively known as the Mike Pence Rule) is once again a live topic of evangelical conversation. I appreciated Tish Harrison Warren’s thoughtful list of principles that she and her husband follow rather than the Rule, which she argues stifles male-female friendship and insulates Christian men from the influence of godly women. My friend Jake Meador offered what I think is the right response to Tish’s argument, acknowledging valid concerns while pushing back gently on the assumption that rules about private encounters between the sexes are always too harsh. As Jake wrote, “The material factors of daily life in the modern west undermine the strength of marriage. In a world of weaker marriages, something must exist to protect them.” I think he’s right.
I also think it’s worth exploring Jake’s point a little further. Could it be that one reason modern American marriages are vulnerable enough to need the Pence rule is that our cultural conception of “friendship” is too atomized and individualistic? We tend to think of friendship as something individuals do, cloistered together in the coffee shop or wordlessly taking in the latest Marvel film. Consider how drastically high school and college-aged friendships tend to drop off as people age and marry. Why is this? Probably because for many of us “friendship” is more of an event than a sharing of routine life. As marriage and job give new shapes and rhythms to our lives, friendships wither because the events of adolescent friendship wither.
What does this have to do the strength of marriages? Well, I suspect that many of us don’t re-imagine friendship as we get older. Rather, we simply transfer the same mindset to adulthood, so that our “friends” are the ones who share the new events: church, the office party, the gym membership, the little league games, etc. In this, though, we hang on to the individualistic mindset. We don’t think of our families as units capable of giving and receiving friendship. Our individual relationships take priority, and thus, table-for-two “friendships” tend to form outside the home and marriage bond, often with the potential of cultivating the kind of relational intimacy that threatens marriages.
The critic of the Pence rule simply responds that men and women need to assume moral responsibility and be wise as they cultivate meaningful friendships with each other. The advocate of the Pence rule argues instead that close-quarters relationships between unmarried people is unwise in our culture of vulnerable marriages. But what if our response was not merely to govern the 1-on-1 time between unmarried men and women, but to redefine friendship entirely so that our spouses, our homes, and our back yards were more essential than coffee shops and lunches? What if we thought of hospitality as friendship?
While marriage does not swallow up individual identity, it does permanently redefine it. The husband and wife are not two but one. Not even their bodies belong to the respective selves anymore, but each one belongs to the other spouse in a gentle mutuality. When Paul warns those eager to be married that their spiritual energies will be divided after marriage, he is not describing an obstacle that the married person has to leap over. He is telling us what God’s will is for married Christians—namely, that they must consider their spouse even in terms of their own relationship with Christ. This means that while the husband and wife remain individual selves, their selfhood is no longer singular but plural.
What does this mean for hospitality and friendship? Everything.
We ought to remember that the Graham/Pence rules are unique in their application to their namesakes. Billy Graham spent more time away from his spouse and home than most people ever will. He lived on the road and in hotels. This is an intense calling that is not normal for most of us. Graham’s aim was to protect his witness and his ministry from both temptation and rumor, which are, I think, two aims that every Christian man and woman should strive to pursue. But we shouldn’t assume that we must pursue them in the same way that Graham did.
Rather, for most of us, our daily rhythms of life can and ought to be shaped by the home. This is what Jake was referring to when he wrote that Western life undermines marriages. It does this by keeping husbands and wives and children apart from each other, in economic models that would be completely unthinkable to almost any culture before the late 19th century. Christians don’t have to accept this arrangement in their own homes and lives. We should follow Flannery O’Connor’s advice instead and push back against the age as hard as it pushes against us.
One way to do this is through recasting friendship as hopsitality. A few weeks ago I read Rosaria Butterfield’s new book The Gospel Comes With a House Key, a manifesto for a recovered Christian hospitality that is messy, unorganized, non-impressive, and radically ordinary. The hospitality that Rosaria describes in the book is a whole-family hospitality that re-imagines friendship in terms of homes, not simply individuals. In hospitality married men and women can form authentic friendship with other married men and women in a way that reinforces the covenantal reality of two becoming one instead of undermining it. What is the appeal of stealing away for a coffee when one’s home can be open and friendship expressed holistically? Why cloister people in event-oriented friendship when you can receive or be received into the home, and deepen your friendship and affection for people as they are in covenant, and not just as they are individually?
The challenge for us is that this is difficult. It requires not just changing our paradigm of friendship but being willing to come up short in “hosting.” Some might object that living rooms do not offer the privacy of corner tables. My point is not that hospitality-as-friendship is easy, but that it is healthy and right and deeply spiritual. Couples receiving singles and other couples into their homes is not only rewarding, but encouraging. It often explodes the myths we tell ourselves about our own home or marriage. Hospitable marriages go beyond event friendship to spiritual discipleship. I don’t avoid talking to my female friend when she and her husband are with me and my wife in our home. My wife isn’t “careful” not to speak a certain way with the other husband. Instead, we are experiencing the friendship of families: Knowing each other individually and corporately, and our affection growing in kind.
Hospitality as friendship can strengthen marriages and friendships by delivering us out of the adolescent and deeply modern attitude that friends are people you “hang” with until you find something better to do with your life. No Starbucks or movie theater can receive a friend as warmly as a boiling kettle or a well-worn sofa can. The reality is not that men and women cannot be friends. It’s that no one can be a friend as something they’re really not. Let’s be families and homes instead of atomized individuals.