Why the “Billy Graham Rule” is a good thing

One of the highest privileges of being a pastor’s kid is seeing, over the course of two decades, the inner life and thought of a ministry family in a way that no other eyes can possibly see. I’m grateful to be a “PK” for many reasons, but chief among them is the empathy and grace for those in ministry (surely not enough, though) that come from spending many years watching genuine love meet genuine care in what is almost certainly one of the most emotionally demanding and vulnerable vocations in the world. It’s nearly impossible to watch a truly Christian, truly compassionate minister wear a congregation like a burden on his soul and not come away with a measure of sober thankfulness and understanding for others like him.

I get reminded of this often nowadays. That’s part of the reason I tend to push back against broadly sweeping, wholesale criticism of organized religion and its clergy. I recognize that there are indeed many people who have suffered at the hands of self-seeking ministers or power-drunk churches; and I freely acknowledge that a prophetic word of rebuke needs to be spoken to these people, urgently. But my own experience growing up in ministry has left me indelibly convinced that overstating the villainous nature of the clergy or the problems with the American church is not only untrue, but Satanically prevents people from experiencing the grace of Christ in a life-changing way.

I say all that to reinforce a principle that I think is important: When godly men and women share wisdom and practical counsel, gleaned from a lifetime of faithfulness to Christ and to others, we ought to listen. It would be a profound mistake to instinctively look for the error or the selfishness in the advice given by those whose lives are a testimony to Jesus, even if–and this is crucial–the advice grates against our modern sensibilities or individual personalities.

For that reason, I think Marvin Olasky is exactly right in urging us to take the “Billy Graham Rule” seriously. Olasky, pivoting off the recent confession of marital infidelity and consequent resignation from ministry of Graham’s grandson, Tullian Tchividjian, wonders whether the recent upshot of ministerial sin (particularly sexual sin) could have been thwarted if more ministers had emulated Graham’s famous personal dictum to never meet with or travel alone with a woman other than his wife (This point is evergreen and doesn’t require any further query into the details of Tchividjian’s resignation).

Olasky also responds to criticism of the principle in the form of a ChristianityToday.com piece by Halee Gray Scott. Scott criticizes Graham’s rule for stifling the influence of women in ministry and argues that the rule unhelpfully plays into the “hypersexualization” of contemporary Western culture. Scott:

It’s the refrain recurring throughout many ministries: male and female working relationships are tricky and fraught with tension.

As a researcher who focuses on female Christian leaders, I hear it over and over. The first female vice president of a Christian organization confessed she missed out on opportunities to advance her projects because the president made businesses decisions over lunch, and he promised his wife he wouldn’t eat lunch alone with women. It was enough to make her want to quit. A female pastor in Minnesota told me about being overlooked for staff development opportunities, while the lead pastor invested in her male coworkers. A female seminary professor shared the too-familiar struggle of trying to find a mentor among her all-male colleagues. But it’s a tension the gospel demands we work through. In Ephesians 4, we see God’s intention for ministry is a productive, collaborative environment between men and women.

Such a collaboration is impossible, Scott argues, when the church unwittingly affirms the world’s worship of eros by prohibiting close friendship and ministry partnership through policies like the Graham rule.

Olasky’s response is, I think, a fair one:…

[B]ut since the real root issue is original sin, and the way it noetically affects our ability to recognize our weaknesses, shore ourselves up, and build relationships, it’s not enough to say, as Scott does, that “We can pioneer a middle way. … We can stand firm against the tide of culture by committing to relate to one another as family members.” That’s a worthy goal but an abstract one. With [pastoral sin] in front of us, we should begin with something concrete.

I agree. The problem is not that Scott’s concerns about an unnecessarily partitioned church are unfounded (they’re not), it’s that her approach to the question of opposite-sex relationships doesn’t seem to prioritize in accordance with Scripture. Biblically, the primary relational obligations of a husband and wife are to each other first, preempting other relational obligations in the church. This doesn’t undermine biblical community but instead forms the basis of it by privileging the one interpersonal relationship that in its very existence portrays the Gospel. Marriage is not something in which individuals gain membership but a spiritual reality that transforms individuals into a mysterious one-flesh union, a union that is in its very nature different than and relationally primary to all other relationships.

The “Graham rule” is not valuable because it is a 100% effective tool against sexual sin (nothing this side of glorification is that). Actually, the opposite is true–the Graham rule is wisdom because it is honest and self-aware about how precarious the fight against sin really is. Scott’s critique that the Graham rule “hypersexualizes” male and female relationships confuses a cause with an effect; it’s not the rule that creates hypersexualized relationships but our own indwelling sin. Personal principles like the Graham rule are indeed only necessary because we live in a fallen world, but we should be careful of an over-realized eschatology: The Church is an embassy of the coming Kingdom, but it is not a rabbit-hole escape from the fallen culture we live in now.

My father practiced, to my knowledge, the “Billy Graham rule” his entire ministry. It was not out of a desire to mute the women in the church or showcase his own godliness. It was instead a personal principle that safeguarded Dad and the people he ministered to. If a woman needed counsel, Mom would come along. Oftentimes it would be my mother who was able to speak most powerfully into another woman’s life. Those situations reinforced Dad’s belief that his marriage was indeed part of his ministry, not merely an accessory to it. And it was helpful: Again, to my knowledge, my father was never once accused, falsely or truthfully, of an inappropriate sexual relationship.

We should, like Scott says, strive to bring men and women together in the local church for Kingdom work. That is part of the reconciliation that Christ has accomplished for us. But such union need not preclude being zealous for the purity that God demands of all of us. Billy Graham’s rule isn’t Scripture, but it is a Scripture-honoring habit that comes from years of godly ministry and experience. That’s not something we should sidestep lightly, or, I think, at all

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Pornography and the Culture of Death

The culture of death is the live manifestation of a pornographic worldview.

In pornography, the human body is both worshiped and despised. It is worshiped as a source of pleasure and delight superior to all other pleasures, and then, when the pleasure is past, it is despised as a meaningless, identity-less mass that can be used and discarded at will.

This is precisely how the culture of death works. The youth, vitality and independence of the human body are holy characteristics, which bestow meaning and purpose on the person. When Ezekiel Emanuel says he hopes to die at 75, he’s worshiping the body. When the spirit leaves the temple, the people despair. When the body has crumbled, the meaning and transcendence are gone. All that is left is avoiding becoming a burden to others (read: the otherwise independent others).

Yet in the end the body is also despised. The advocates of assisted suicide insist that people (not just patients, mind you, but doctors as well) must be given the right to choose when their quality of life is just not worth it anymore. This is a despising of the body, an elevation of the human will (the right to choose) above the human person. In this mindset, it is right that people be able to decide the relative value of their lives, and act accordingly. To infringe on their will is an infinitely greater crime than to mutilate their flesh.

This logic is the essential reason Planned Parenthood exists. The narrative works like this: We must protect women from the excruciating effects of unwanted pregnancy in any and all cases (worship of the body), and to do so means we must redefine humanity itself so as to exclude the flesh whose very existence challenges the physical autonomy of the mother. That’s why, in this way of thinking, “My body, my choice” doesn’t apply to the infant. The infant doesn’t have a body, it is a body–a character-less, will-less, and if need be, purposeless weight of “tissue.” What separates the body of the unborn from the body of the woman and the body of the abortionist is will.

Pornography is the culture of death’s literature. For in pornography we see human bodies humiliated for the sake of the ones with the will to pleasure from it. The body is worshiped, yes (that’s why the actors and models look notably dissimilar to the men and women you work with), but it is also despised for the sake of will. Lost in pornography is any sense of the beautiful, or the precious, or the valuable. If a character in a pornographic film suddenly started monologuing about the imago Dei, audiences would laugh or fast forward, even if by their enthrallment they are indeed affirming that the human body is fearfully and wonderfully made.

To understand the culture of death, we must understand how pornography has hijacked our basic categories of what it means to be a person, what it means to have a body, and why we should care about either one. If death is a cult, consider pornography its liturgy.

Millennials and their stories

Not all generational critiques are made equal. To say that baby boomers were like this or that Generation Y’ers acted like that carries with it inherent risks of overgeneralization, ad hominem, and just pure nonsense. And of course, all observation is done by an observer, and observers need to be observed too. When it comes to commenting on generational characteristics/flaws, one can never be too mindful of the proverbial plank and the proverbial speck.

But let’s put that aside for a moment and consider millennials. I am a millennial. My wife is a millennial. My closest friends are millennials, and a fair amount of my reading and personal formation has come via millennials. Millennials are many good things. They tend to be energetic, generally polite, and creative in ways that make them stand out from the averages of their parents and grandparents. But I’m afraid that one characteristic that is defining many millennials is one with very serious and troubling implications: Millennials are all about “my story.”

Millennials tend to think of the world as a movie in which they are the star. That’s not just a verbose way of saying that millennials are vain; rather, that’s how millennials relate to their world. They tend to understand the facts, events, and realities around them either in relationally immediate or relationally nonexistent categories. Either something is crucial to their well being and their life, or it’s totally irrelevant. Thus, many younger millennials are totally apathetic about politics, but the ones who care often care in a possessive, personal way. A millennial who doesn’t feel that politics is part of their “movie” often comes across as lazy and uncaring about the world, when in reality they just can’t comprehend why emotional capital should be spent on something that doesn’t involve them.

On the other hand, a millennial who cares about politics will often display an inordinate amount of passion and sensitivity about politics; to cross their views is to cross them personally. And here is where this characteristic of millennials becomes most troublesome. Because millennials view their lives as individual narratives in which the rest of the world plays a supporting role, they tend to be fiercely protective of their identities. The key part of a millennial’s identity is not (often unlike their parents) their religion, their ethnicity, or their family name. Rather, a millennial’s identity rests chiefly in their story. A millennial’s story is the fundamental part of who they are, the most important thing about the most important part of their “movie.” And it’s often the one thing that must never be challenged or questioned.

For a millennial, a story isn’t just a mark of identification, it’s a holy source of authority. I say holy with all seriousness. Even millennials with deeply held religious beliefs often talk about those beliefs not as universal realities that concern billions of people and with trans-historic importance, but as a part of their individual story. To disagree with someone’s religion is, for a millennial, not so much a challenge to an objective set of truth claims as it is a personal challenge to someone’s identity, worth, and value. To question my religion is to question me, and to question me is to try to invade my “movie” to create your own.

Now, when it comes to religion, that characteristic has been true of many people, not just millennials. But in millennials, we often see this tendency exhibited in most subjects, not just religion. This is precisely why The Atlantic ran a recent cover story on the “coddling of the American mind,” a movement within American higher education that seeks to cater to millennials’ emotional mores through academic suppression. It’s important to remember that the young adults who are asking for administrative (and sometimes legal) intervention to prevent being confronted with offensive content are not faking it. They are not putting on airs. They are genuinely unable to process the stress and the epistemological labor of learning and being in a context that is not immediately friendly to their stories. They can’t go forward until they are reassured that who they are is who they are supposed to be, and that nothing and no one can ever legitimately challenge that.

What’s fascinating is that while the stories of millennials are often invulnerable to critique (because they are not an arguable set of facts but an extension of personal identity and experience), they are, ironically, often applied in an authoritative way towards others. For a millennial, an anecdote isn’t just an argument, it’s the best argument. A personal story in which someone is wounded or hurt by a particular law or politician is in fact far more effective and persuasive to a millennial than a complex series of logical arguments. This effect is compounded greatly by the fact that, in the age of the internet, information and knowledge are accessible to the same millions of people within seconds. Everyone is now an expert, and the best experts are not the ones who can string together the best facts and the best logic but the people who can tell the best story. That’s why anti-vaccine blogs flourish despite sharing the very medium that offers anyone without a medical degree some level of knowledge about inoculation. The anti-vaccination movement thrives not on strong logic but on strong stories (some of which are undoubtedly true).

Because millennials see their stories as authoritative, they are often as surprised to hear their narratives challenged or questioned as would be a 14 year old fundamentalist hearing the Bible questioned his first day of public high school. To say that a young twentysomething’s testimony of self-empowerment from the porn industry is incorrect and foolish is the height of arrogance to a millennial. To insist that abortion be illegal in the face of a personal story about a life seemingly saved from poverty by the termination of a pregnancy sounds not just callous and cold but breathtakingly ignorant to a millennial. That’s because what is being challenged is not merely philosophy or ideology but–in a very real sense–a sense of self.

What’s needed from the church in ministry to millennials is a presentation of Christian truth that is invasive. The gospel invades not only our intellectual presuppositions but also our baseline sense of identity and autonomy. The movie of our life in which we are stars is not, in fact, our movie, but the creative work of a Writer and Director whose authoritative control is both good and good for us. If we try as Christians to reach unbelieving millennials by appealing to their felt needs (“You should really feel the peace that Jesus gives,” “I’m so happy because of Christ”), we may unwittingly affirm their most un-Christian convictions.

There’s nothing but freedom in realizing that not even my story is ultimately about me. There’s nothing but peace and real lasting joy in losing ourselves for the sake of another, and for the sake of each other. To be invaded is a wonderful thing. There is a story better than my story, and it goes on and on, forever.

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Image Credit: “Teens sharing a song” by SCA Svenska Cellulosa Aktiebolaget. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons

How a Christian college unravels

Photo: Richard Arthur Norton, CC License http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5/deed.en
Photo: Richard Arthur Norton, CC License http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5/deed.en

I want to double back to the comments from the US Solicitor General that I highlighted a couple days ago. I think it was a rare but not shocking moment of clarity from the legal forces behind same-sex marriage legalization about what the endgames of a Court ruling in their favor would really be.  Continue reading “How a Christian college unravels”

Why seminary needs fiction

812tYQPrHnLI enthusiastically commend to you Rod Dreher’s new book How Dante Can Save Your Life. It’s a fascinating, joyful, sobering and at times deeply moving testimony of power, not only to the The Divine Comedy in particular but to literature in general. Rod calls himself a “witness” and not a scholar. That’s the idea, but I would nonetheless urge literary scholars to read his book and savor the way a medieval text can speak so pertinently into a 21st century soul.  Continue reading “Why seminary needs fiction”

How “Red Letter Christianity” misunderstands the Trinity

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Karen Swallow Prior, an English professor from Liberty University and a research colleague of mine via the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, has written a helpful perspective on the popular “red letter” interpretation of Scripture. Christians who identify themselves as “Red letter Christians” argue that the recorded words of Jesus deserve special attention and/or status of interpretative control in reading the Bible. Unlike a more traditional evangelical hermeneutic, red letter interpretation does not begin with the assumption that all of biblical canon is authoritative, but imparts authority to non-Jesus texts to the degree that they appear consonant with the “message” of Jesus.

Dr. Prior’s piece lays out a few of the problems with this interpretative approach. Excerpt:

Furthermore, isolating the red letters apart from their narrative context breeds contempt for that context, particularly the hard parts of Scripture. This leaves believers with no adequate answer to the kinds of charges made increasingly by anti-theists. Thus when Richard Dawkins asserts in The God Delusion that the “God of the Old Testament” is “jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully,” too many Christians are ill-equipped to respond.

Yet, Dawkins’ hermeneutic—which consists of interpreting passages completely severed from the interpretative framework of the text as a whole—is not all that different from the hermeneutics wrought by the “Jesus-first/Bible-first” dichotomy. Under this spell, Christians are left much like the Enlightenment thinkers of the eighteenth century who are said to have drawn the carriage curtains closed when rolling past the mountains because they could not reconcile such wild irregularity with a worldview based on order and symmetry.

“Contempt for context” is well-said. The “red-letter” hermeneutic unwittingly creates an internal dissonance within the biblical narrative. One cannot logically receive the claims of Jesus’ divinity without also receiving His claim that He fulfills the Old Testament Scriptures, a claim that is incoherent unless one believes that the entire biblical canon is already authoritative and divine by the time Jesus comes to fulfill them.

Yet this isn’t the only problem with the red-letter approach. In fact, I would argue that the disregard for context, while a serious problem, is tertiary compared to the difficulties it creates in Trinitarian theology.

The doctrine of the Trinity teaches not only that God exists as One in three distinct Persons, but that those distinct Persons relate to one another in God’s redemptive work. Thus, the Father sends the Son to redeem humans by paying the penalty for sins back to the Father (Romans 3:25). Even more, the Father raises the Son from the dead to in order to vindicate the Son’s claim to be one with His Father. He raises the Son BY the power of the Holy Spirit, which the Son gives to those adopted into Him by the Father (Romans 1:4, 8:11). So each Person of the Trinity serves the Others in an eternal, God-glorifying mutuality of redemption.

Now red-letter Christians would agree that the Holy Spirit inspires the words of the Bible. But by privileging the words of Jesus as some sort of hermeneutic control over the rest of the canon, they obscure the relationship between the Spirit and the Son. The Holy Spirit is the spirit of the Son. The Spirit that inspires the writing of Scripture does so in service of the Son. That’s why Jesus tells the disciples that the Spirit would bring to their remembrance all Jesus had told them and would guide them into all truth (John 16:13).

This means that when Jesus speaks, He speaks by the Spirit, and likewise the Spirit speaks the words of the Father and the Son. So what Jesus says is true and trustworthy and eternal not primarily because He is a distinct Person of the Trinity, the Son, but because He speaks by the Spirit the words of the Father.

So that leaves with us an interpretive choice to make. Either the Spirit has spoken by the Old Testament prophets and by Paul, James, Peter, etc, or He hasn’t. Either the Holy Spirit has inspired the whole Bible, or it hasn’t. We may choose to believe either way, but we cannot believe in some Holy Spirit inspiration for certain Scriptures and less of it for others. Being genuinely Trinitarian in our theology and our worship requires humbly acknowledging the incredible way the Persons of the Trinity speak and act in harmony and accordance with one another. When Jesus speaks by the Spirit, He speaks the words of God. When Moses and David speak by the Spirit, they speak the words of God. The only way to get around this is to say the Spirit did not inspire these other writers, which of course leads to a total collapse in any rational confidence in the Bible.

A much better course is to affirm that the Holy Spirit, the Spirit from the Father and of the Son, spoke through the authors of Scripture in an authoritative way for every context. The fulfillment of all inspired Scripture happens in the person and work of Christ. So all of the Bible points to Jesus, not because His spirit is distinctly true apart from the other Persons of the Trinity, but because the Triune God uniformly speaks the truth about Himself. Rejecting “red letter Christianity” is necessary if we are to properly understand the nature of our Triune God, and worship and trust Him as He desires.

What happened to the “Emergent Church”?

As far as I can tell it, the “emerging church” is dead.

The time of death is difficult to establish, much like the time of birth was. But there’s no question to me now that the whatever internal mechanisms the emerging church

"A Generous Orthodoxy," by Brian McLaren
“A Generous Orthodoxy,” by Brian McLaren

movement contained are no longer functioning. Its leadership seems largely to have abandoned its project. Compared to the flurry of publishing in the early to mid-2000s, the last few years of evangelical writing have hardly broached the topic. Perhaps most significantly, its most popular champions have almost uniformly given up the pretense to reforming evangelicalism and are now either squarely in the mainline Protestant tradition or else out of the game altogether.

If you type in EmergentVillage.com in your browser, you won’t be reading the latest thoughts of postmodern evangelical theology. THAT site apparently doesn’t exist anymore. EmergentVillage.com is now a home decor shop, which is probably not as ironic as it feels. There is indeed a blog with the name “Emergent” in it at Patheos Progressive Christian, but the site seems to be operated mainly by a few non-clerical mainline Protestants, and–if I may add–doesn’t seem to generate much traffic.

The “emergent movement,” as keynoted by men like Brian McLaren, Doug Pagitt, Tony Jones and Rob Bell seems to have little to zero traction. What’s fascinating about these men is the way their recent intellectual output seems to fold neatly into categories that they fiercely protested being placed in. McLaren of all of them seems to have maintained his “conversational” tone. Pagitt and Jones continue to produce their own content, yet neither of them seem to have much use for the emergent movement anymore. Jones will occasionally highlight something about it, but his mentions nowadays feel more occasional than regular (and almost never venture beyond his personal blog page). There’s very little focused attention like the kind that was given to the movement a few years ago.

Bell’s case is more interesting. Of the four Emergent pastors I mentioned, Bell is by far the most well-known. He went from pastoring a several thousand-member church in Grand Rapids to becoming something like Oprah’s official spiritual guru, landing his own television show and accompanying Oprah on her massive, pseudo-sacramental speaking tours. That’s quite a turn, of course, for a pastor whose theology embraced Emergent principles like authenticity and community. I wonder how many Emergent teachers would have identified Bell’s current trajectory as a desirable one back in Emergent’s heyday; I would guess very few.

Doctrinally, it’s interesting to me that a movement that placed so much emphasis on “conversation” and positioned itself as an inter-evangelical dialogue has become solidly progressive in its ethics and soteriology. As Scot McKnight pointed out in an important lecture on the Emergent Church in 2006, the movement distinguished itself largely by its refusal to be “pinned down” on areas of theology and draw meaningful doctrinal lines. Yet between Bell, McLaren, and Jones–and I think its fair to sum up the most active remnants of Emergent in terms of those three men–all of them have affirmed the goodness of LGBT sexual relationships, have repudiated penal substitutionary atonement, and have explicitly distanced themselves from most traditional evangelical camps.

Bell and Jones have been especially aggressive in this. Bell was quoted recently as predicting that churches that didn’t embrace same-sex marriage would “continue to be irrelevant” and dismissed those churches that used “letters from 2,000 years ago as their best defense.” In November of 2013, Tony Jones used his blog to “call for schism” in evangelicalism, urging his readers to separate immediately from any church that didn’t allow women to be pastors.

Now the important thing about those two comments is this: Even if you agree with both sentiments, it is unquestionable that the absolutist and dogmatic nature of those comments clangs loudly against the kind of gentle, “let’s talk about this” tone that characterized much of Emergent literature for many years. If nothing else, we can conclude one thing from all this: The Emergent Church movement has largely folded into a rigidly doctrinal camp with specific theological boundaries that match up well with mainline Protestantism.