Between Legalism and Licence: Wisdom and the Billy Graham Rule

Yesterday I wrote about why speculation is not necessary and not helpful in response to the speculation following Matt Chandler’s announcement. Some people have asked then whether we can or should say anything at all.  I think we can respond to things that are in the public domain. The story is unavoidably there, not just in the Christian news but crossing over into the secular media as well.

My concern is the way in which speculation is building around things not said. Not only does this mean that people are assuming that there must be more to the story than already said, there may be but we simply don’t know, but the reason why people seem to be assuming there must be more to this appears to be that they are taking Chandler’s statement and related statements from Acts29 and the Village Church to be saying things that they are not saying specifically about friendship.

Specifically, the assumption is that if nothing else more serious is going on, then the decision to discipline Chandler would imply a negative attitude to friendship between men and women, the suggestion that platonic, brotherly-sisterly friendship is not possible.  It’s important therefore to note that, whatever we think about the statement, Chandler explicitly made it clear that the issue was not that there was friendship and contact between him and the female congregation member but rather that there were concerns about how that friendship and contact was playing out.

But the view is now out there and so the narrative seems to have quickly become that unless the church are hiding darker secrets, then they must be against brother/sister relationships in church, that they must frown upon friendship across the genders and that they must therefore be signed up to the Billy Graham rule.

I mentioned the so-called Billy Graham rule yesterday, so what exactly is it? Well perhaps the best thing to do is to go back to source. I note that when people talk about it and criticise it, they often tend to quote the Wikipedia article on the subject.  However, we might do better to go direct to source.  The Billy Graham website has an article on the subject and describes how Graham and his team back in their YFC days made a resolution together in response to dangers that they perceived could shipwreck their ministry.  It quotes Graham himself at length. He says:

The second item on the list was the danger of sexual immorality. We all knew of evangelists who had fallen into immorality while separated from their families by travel. We pledged among ourselves to avoid any situation that would have even the appearance of compromise or suspicion. From that day on, I did not travel, meet or eat alone with a woman other than my wife. We determined that the Apostle Paul’s mandate to the young pastor Timothy would be ours as well: “Flee … youthful lusts” (2 Timothy 1:22, KJV).”

The first thing we should spot there is that this is the second item on the list. The Billy Graham rule is not just a rule about relationships between men and women. It’s a rule about integrity more generally.  It also dealt with financial integrity and about relating to and being accountable to the local church.

The second thing to observe is that the rule is often framed as misogynistic. The implication is that Graham feared women as being a danger, that it was impossible to be friends with them because they would become a snare to him, women were always temptresses.  Then a whole theology has been built around that. Those who follow the rule must presumably see women as always a threat, always a snare because they see Eve as carrying responsibility for the Fall and leading Adam into sin.

However, look at what Graham actually says and there is nothing at all about women being a snare. Rather, there seem to be two things at play. First, a recognition of what their own weak point might be as youngish men on the road.  It’s not that women are deceitful, it’s that the human heart is deceitful.  Then, there is a concern for appearance, or the danger of false appearances. Graham did not want to be in a position where there would be “an appearance of compromise and suspicion.” 

The third thing to observe is this, that this is not so much a rule that Graham set up for others as a resolution, a conclusion that Graham came to in his context the context is of someone who will be travelling a lot away from home and who is frequently in the public eye, who will find himself in countries where there is huge hostility to the Gospel.  He will be aware about the way camera angles will mislead. It would take only one picture and one headline to create a scandal and that would not only be detrimental to Graham but to the woman concerned.

This is important because I think that the danger for us is that we bounce between legalism and licence. It’s legalism when we take a personal resolution from someone’s own specific context and turn it into a hard and fast rule on a par with Scripture that all most follow. And yes, that at times has happened with the so called Billy Graham rule.

Now, the rule might have worked for Billy Graham  in the 1950s and 60s when in effect, it was unlikely for him to naturally end up in one to one meetings with women.  However, even for Graham, a strict interpretation became impossible when women were increasingly in public life. So, he did meet for dinner with Hilary Clinton.

If, we make it a legalistic rule, then we end up in a situation where we struggle with what Scripture says. Wasn’t Jesus’ meeting with Mary at the tomb a breach of the rule. We find that it creates problems in the modern workplace. It also doesn’t work in terms of pastoral work.  There are plenty of contexts where a pastor would speak to a female member of the congregation one to one. Finally, a legalistic approach doesn’t allow for the complexity of sexuality and attraction.  What about same sex attraction?

I can’t help feeling that the legalistic version is driven by fear and it has an air of monastic retreat about it.  If I hide myself away, then I can stop myself being tempted. Yet, the human heart is deceitful and lust will find its way in.  The fear driven approach may create an unhealthy perspective on women so that men are awkward in their dealings with them. 

Further, whilst you as the pastor are observing these strict rules so that you never have contact with the women in your church beyond speaking from the pulpit, there are others who couldn’t care less about integrity and holiness who are quite happy to step into the void Absalom style.

So, maybe the answer to the risk is more friendship not less. We need teaching and modelling on what good, healthy, brother-sister relationships should look like in the church.

Yet if there is a problem with legalism, the opposite danger of licence is just as dangerous.  There’s a risk that we just become careless about how we relate to others and we mock the attempt by some to find ways to show integrity and care.  Indeed, I’ve often added a third category of “magic” the idea that I’ll just be okay because God will supernaturally protect me because of my ministry or because I pray first without any concern to my responsibility.

Hence, my primary point here which is that we need grace filled, gospel centred wisdom. I believe that this is what Graham was seeking to follow rather than a legalistic rule.  Gospel centred wisdom makes me do the hard work of asking what faithfulness, purity and love look like in the specific situation I find myself in.

I think that wisdom on this matter needs to consider the following.

  • That women are not by nature temptresses and seductresses. This should not be the basis for how we relate to them. They are made in God’s image, fallen because of sin and redeemed in Christ.
  • That the  human heart is sinful. I can be tempted and it is good to be wise both to where I know the risk for me personally to be and where I know others have fallen. An opposition striker may get past the best defence and score but this doesn’t mean I have to give him an open goal. I cannot completely get rid of temptation but I do not need to give it an opportunity.
  • That platonic friendship or brother/sister relationships are possible and good within the church but also that an illicit sexual relationship is not the only other possibility. We are not dealing with a binary issue as I said the other day. There are other ways in which a relationship can become unhealthy and inappropriate.

At this point, I think it is worth remembering too that when we get married, something changes. The husband and wife become one flesh. There is a danger that their exclusive relationship becomes an isolated one.  However, we cannot ignore the fact that the couple have that new identity. Something has changed and yes, that does mean that other relationships change. The day I got married, my relationship to my mum and dad changed. The day I got married, my relationship to friends and acquaintances changed.

So, I wouldn’t want to give micro-management level instructions, to re-impose an old rule or bring in a new one but I would encourage married couples to consider the following which I think is wisdom.

  1. Do give attention to cultivating friendships. Don’t become inward looking.  However, rather than having your friends and her friends, all of your friends should be friends with both of you. This doesn’t mean that you have to always see them together but it does mean that your attitudes and perspectives reflect that. For example, conversations shouldn’t be an opportunity to backbite about your spouse and friends should not be seeking to take sides when there are problems. 
  2. Do think carefully about context and purpose. Why are you meeting? What is a fitting setting for that?
  3. Do be wise about visibility and secrecy. Stay clear of anything that suggests the latter. 
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