Hospitality as Friendship: A Billy Graham Rule Proposal

A proposal for married men and women to transform our view of friendship.

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.

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The Other Woman

Thinking about this passage from Brian Jay Jones’s lovely biography of George Lucas:

What wasn’t right was that George and [then-wife] Marcia’s thirteen year marriage was quickly imploding, largely because of Lucas’s own neglect. He knew he could be difficult to live with. “It’s been very hard on Marcia, living with somebody who is constantly in agony, uptight and worried, off in never-never land,” Lucas told Rolling Stone. Charles Lippincott, Lucasfilm’s master of marketing, wasn’t entirely surprised…”George would take problems to bed with him,” said Lippincott, “and [Marcia] said this caused a lot of problems.”

But it went deeper even than that; for George Lucas, movies would always be the other woman. As devoted to Marcia as he might be, there was forever one more movie, one more project, demanding the time and attention he couldn’t or wouldn’t give to his wife.

I’ve read a lot of Christian books and heard a lot of Christian speakers talk about strategies for avoiding adultery (the “Billy Graham rule” is a timely example). But I don’t believe I’ve ever read an entire chapter or listened to an entire session by a Christian on strategies for avoiding having an affair with work. Why is that? Why, for people who believe that husbands ought to sacrifice themselves for their wives as Jesus Christ sacrificed himself for his Bride, is the threat of all-consuming careerism not taken more seriously?

Right out of college I spent over a year working in the marketing department of a well-to-do mortgage firm. It wasn’t a particularly good experience, but it was at least eye-opening. I heard the way professional men and women casually talked about how little time they spent at home. If you want to know how what is supposed to sound like complaining can actually be a form of bragging, hearing professionals talk about their time away from home is an education. It was remarkable to me how easily a company that was explicitly “family-oriented” corporate rhetoric could nonetheless cultivate this kind of attitude.

Even worse, it’s scary how easily the veneer of godliness can be applied to this “other woman.” If a man is working long nights and weekends so he can spend time away from his family and with a female coworker, he would be (rightly) rebuked. But if he’s working long nights and weekends just because he derives from his career a peace and identity and thrill that home cannot match, what do we say then?  If you want to get really uncomfortable, go back to that previous sentence and replace the word “career” with the word “ministry.” The temptation for celebrity pastors to put their spouse and family on autopilot must be sore indeed when there are so many book deals and conference invitations to be gained.

It’s sobering to think how many Christians might pat themselves on the back for not being the foolish young man whom Solomon sees going by the house of the forbidden woman, when the only reason why is that they are still at the office with the “other woman.” “The safest road to hell,” said Screwtape, “is the gradual one–the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”

Policing the Purity Police

As someone who is generally sympathetic to the ideological quadrant from whence arguments like this one come, I am slow, usually, to critique writers who call for more purity, more clarity, and more protection for men and women in the church. That said, I think telling brothers and sisters in the local church that they ought not communicate ever over text message is an unhelpful burden that probably causes more issues with church unity (which is as just as much a command as sexual purity) than it solves.

But let me say one thing. Every time a piece like this one makes waves on social media, I honestly can’t figure out which is more discouraging: The original, misguided argument, or the patronizing, vaguely antinomian response. No, I don’t believe a wholesale prohibition of texting is wise or helpful. But I also don’t believe that such an idea is inherently worse than its opposite, or that the so-called “purity culture” which it represents is actually a more live threat to the lives and marriages of believers than adultery is.

I’ve said this before, but it bears saying again. It just feels like whenever the same anti-purity culture personalities pile on a sentiment like the one in the article, what they are really protesting is far more than just the article, or tweet, or policy in question. It feels like they are protesting the motivation behind it. It feels like what is really offensive in this scenario is the notion that men and women have moral obligations of sexual purity on them and that these obligations might actually matter more–for them, their families, and for the church–than convenience or fun. I’ve never been able to shake this suspicion when I see conversation about how harmful the “purity culture” can be. I absolutely agree that virginity and chastity aren’t the chief values of the Christian life, and that a person without either is no further from the gospel than a person without kindness or patience. 100% correct. But the Christian faith demands holiness in our sexuality, and it’s not shy about suggesting drastic measures to pursue it–such as, say, excluding a person from the fellowship because of who he is sleeping with.

Is there a point to be made about unnecessary sexualization of male-female friendships in the church? You better believe it. A church body that looks like a middle school dance, with boys on one side and the girls on the other and awkwardness in the middle, is a deeply sad sight. When the Bible says to love, serve, prefer, forgive, bear with, rejoice with, admonish, and care for one another, it is not addressing only males or females. And evangelicals have often failed to grasp this. I heard a man once advise single guys in the church not to date the girls there because a breakup would cause awkwardness on Sunday morning. That kind of advice reinforces all kinds of bad ideas about how men and women should relate to one another in the body. We can, must, do better.

But I’ll be honest. I don’t think we’ll get there if we make critiquing purity culture a priority. The article about texting was written by a man who sounds like has some ill-formed notions of what the church community should look like. But that doesn’t mean all of his notions are wrong. He is absolutely right that 1) adultery is wicked, 2) sexual sin begins way before the clothes come off, and 3) preventing sin, abuse, and devastated families requires active obedience, not just passive. Do many of the people calling his article “outrageous” and “sexist” and “ridiculous” agree with these 3 points? If so, why the outrage? Why the scorn? Why can’t we admonish someone for following his noble intentions to an ignoble end? Why is the reaction to an article like this so fervent, so incandescent in its sarcastic dismissal of the very idea that we ought to fight for sexual purity, rather than merely hope for it?

Perhaps you think things like the Billy Graham rule are too far and not helpful. You could be right. But if such a rule makes you angry, perhaps you should ask yourself why. Does it make you angry because it seems to get in the way of sexual obedience? Does it make you angry because it seems to undermine faithfulness to the covenants we make with our husbands, wives, children, and church members? Or, is it possible that it makes you angry because it cuts at your sense of freedom, happiness, autonomy, and fun? Is it possible that your resentment of “purity culture” is rooted less in the (real) damage that it does to the cause of Christ and the kingdom, and rooted more in resistance to the idea that God could make counter-cultural demands of us?

If your right arm offends you, cut it off, even if you’re holding your phone.

The End of “Choice”

I looked over at my wife, who was reclined on the nurse’s table but still close enough to hold my hand. Her eyes were filled with tears, the tears of the sweetest kind of joy and relief and thankfulness. The nurse had a club-looking instrument on my wife’s belly, and right in front of me, on a screen not much bigger than a current iPad, a bean-shaped figure appeared in a hazy monochrome.

“There’s your baby,” the nurse announced sweetly. “It’s got a beautiful heartbeat.” Continue reading “The End of “Choice””

The Sexual Revolution Still Hates Women

Rebecca Traister, writing in New York Magazine, says that when it comes to sex, women are in a permanent position of disadvantage and injustice in our culture. All sex–even consensual sex–is dominated by a “power imbalance” that favors men and prioritizes male desires. Sex used to be feminist, Traister argues, but then looming specter of patriarchy intervened, and now women can’t even win for losing:

It’s rigged in ways that go well beyond consent. Students I spoke to talked about “male sexual entitlement,” the expectation that male sexual needs take priority, with men presumed to take sex and women presumed to give it to them. They spoke of how men set the terms, host the parties, provide the alcohol, exert the influence. Male attention and approval remain the validating metric of female worth, and women are still (perhaps increasingly) expected to look [like] porn stars…

[T]hen there are the double standards that continue to redound negatively to women: A woman in pursuit is loose or hard up; a man in pursuit is healthy and horny. A woman who says no is a prude… a man who says no is rejecting the woman in question.

Traister bemoans these “sexual judgements” and the way they position women to either leave unsatisfied or shamed. Even if consent and safety are present, women in today’s sexual marketplace too frequently disappear into the desires and dictates of men, leading to what one writer that Traister cites calls “Sex where we don’t matter.”

To which I say: Yes! Traister is exactly correct. The Sexual Revolution’s marketplace is indeed brazenly anti-women. When sex is a public commodity, women and children always have the worst, least valuable shares. This isn’t a wrinkle of sexual revolutionism; it’s a feature.

But Traister doesn’t want to challenge the reigning sexual nihilism of her time. In fact, she wants to make clear to anyone who might misinterpret her that casual sex and hookup culture are by all means beautiful and good. “This is not pearl-clutching over the moral or emotional hazards of “hookup culture,” she quickly clarifies. “This is not an objection to promiscuity or to the casual nature of some sexual encounters…Having humiliating sex with a man who treats you terribly at a frat party is bad but not inherently worse than being publicly shunned for having had sex with him, or being unable to obtain an abortion after getting pregnant by him, or being doomed to have disappointing sex with him for the next 50 years.”

If that isn’t a perfect summary of the self-deluded state of the modern secular self, I don’t know what is. You can see Traister’s thought process working towards the obvious truth: That maybe a culture of casual and irrelevant sex lends itself to an erotic Darwinism where the powerful and energetic will subdue others. You can hear the beginnings of a profound dissatisfaction with the terms of the Sexual Revolution. But in the end it is all stamped out by the glitz of modern accessories to our individual autonomy. Having humiliating sex becomes better than not having enough sex. Being taken advantage of is not as bad as carrying a child. Evil is bad, but at least it’s not boring.

But Traister’s honesty betrays her worldview. Her observations of the inequalities of casual sex are more durable than her rote progressivism. Traister begins the piece, after all, quoting a fellow feminist’s story about a drunken, unsatisfying sexual experience she once had with a group of frat boys. The fellow writer consented and everything happened seemingly according to the rules. The problems start when she wakes up. “But in the morning, she wrote, ‘I feel weird about what went down.'” There you go. When the alcohol stops coursing and the bodies stop moving, all that’s left is the throbbing of the soul, even if through cultural re-education and indulgence all that the mind can muster is, “That was weird.”

Rebecca Traister writes from the front lines of the Sexual Revolution’s civil war. It’s a civil war between nature and rhetoric. The rhetoric says, “We’re all equal and entitled!” The nature says, “I am stronger and more important than you.” Sex in which women “don’t matter” isn’t a rotting leftover from the Puritans; it’s the fresh du jour of the Darwinian world outside the world of transcendence, meaning, love, beauty, devotion, and God.  The chains of marriage and monogamy are loathed by the same culture that excels in sex trafficking, campus rape, and human consumerism.

Listen to Allan Bloom:

In all this, the sexual revolution was precisely what it said it was–a liberation. But some of the harshness of nature asserted itself beneath the shattered conventions: the young were more apt to profit from the revolution than the old, the beautiful more than the ugly. The old veil of discretion had had the effect of making these raw and ill-distributed natural advantages less important in life and marriage.

But now there was little attempt to apply egalitarian justice in these matters…The undemocratic aspects of free sex were compensated for in our harmless and mildly ridiculous way: “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” was preached more vigorously than formerly; the cosmetics industry had a big boom; and education and therapy in the style of Masters and Johnson, promising great orgasms to every subscriber, became common…These were the days when pornography slipped its leash. (The Closing of the American Mind, p. 99)

Welcome to the Sexual Revolution, where the sex is free because the women foot the bill.