Categories
culture life politics

Billy Graham Rules!

Right now the Big Thing On Twitter™ is the “Billy Graham Rule.” A new debate was flared up by news that Vice President Mike Pence practiced his own form of the rule. Some well-followed progressives wasted no time before lambasting Mr. Pence as a sexist. Some well-followed progressive evangelicals likewise jumped in by chastising the rule and Christians who practice it. Apparently, pastors who won’t meet 1 on 1 with a woman who is not family are guilty of “anti-gospel” objectification.

I’ve defended the Billy Graham rule before. I’ve also written about the many issues I have with the particular quadrant of progressive evangelicalism that concerns itself with “purity culture.” While some of the critiques that come from this space are good and helpful, a suffocating amount of them are, in my view, thinly-veiled gospel revisionism, pretenses for protesting the Bible’s clear teaching on fornication, marriage, and homosexuality. Most of the derogatory comments I’ve seen from bloggers about the BG rule confirm this suspicion. I cannot imagine this kind of hostility against a personal policy designed to protect spouses and families, except hostility that is aimed at a much wider target.

But I honestly have no desire to retread my arguments in favor of a Billy Graham rule. I do favor it, but I don’t necessarily look down on men who don’t. Issues of prudential wisdom require context and nuance. Where Scripture refuses to lay down a binding on the conscience, we shouldn’t either.

I have only one last comment about this whole thing. I think every Christian should ponder the wisdom of G.K. Chesterton:

A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth: this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert-himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt…

For the old humility made a man doubtful about his efforts, which might make him work harder. But the new humility makes a man doubtful about his aims, which will make him stop working altogether.

This is the key to understand the dispute over the Billy Graham ruleThe men who I have known that take painful care to avoid situations of either temptation or compromising appearance do not doubt the value of the women in their church. They do not assume that their sisters in Christ are temptresses waiting for an opportune moment of either pleasure of blackmail. Rather, the men in my life who taught and modeled to me the value of the BG rule had a low view of themselves, and they were absolutely OK with that.

It’s this attitude that cuts so cleanly against the grain of contemporary culture. It makes absolutely no sense to Millennial ears why a person would doubt their own resolve, their own courage, their own fortitude, and seek to strengthen themselves through weakness. Such a worldview violates every possible permutation of the spirit of the age, which is: “You are enough, you are in control, and your self-actualization is what will bring you happiness.” This is the mantra of the book club, the religion of the Disney Channel. It is the air we breathe. And it has become so intrinsic to every corner of our culture that we only notice it when someone actually rages against it to the detriment of their career or reputation.

Chesterton’s point is the essence of the BG rule. A high view of my marriage covenant, a high view of the reputation of others, and a low view of myself: That’s what it’s all about. Those first two sound fine in the age of expressive individualism. The third one is heresy, and it is the worst kind of heresy–the heresy that puts the unspoken question into the air, “So what are you doing to do?”

Categories
Christianity ethics

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