Unintended Consequences of the “Billy Graham Rule”

Today we are going to talk about the “Billy Graham Rule”.

grahamFor those of you who don’t know, Billy Graham was one of the most influential and respected ministers of our day.  He is (amazingly) still alive, though he is now retired from active ministry and has been for years.

It has been said that Billy Graham would never meet with a woman alone for any reason, under any circumstances.  Why?  Because as a hugely influential public figure, he recognized that he was under immense public scrutiny and even a whiff of scandal would have brought all the celebrated work of his crusades down in flames.  He did not want that.

The “Billy Graham Rule” worked very well for him:  nowadays when people think of Billy Graham they think of a man of sterling integrity whose public ministry made an immense impact for the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Yet this rule has now become standard operating procedure in virtually every conservative Christian organization.  And there have been unintended consequences.

For starters, the “Billy Graham Rule” reflects negatively on the men who invoke it.  Imagine yourself in this scenario:  You are a woman starting out at a major Christian ministry.  You wish to develop a solid professional relationship with a male coworker with whom you will be working closely, one in which you can share ideas and collaborate freely.  What better way to start than by going out to grab lunch?  But he turns you down, invoking the “Billy Graham Rule”.  What is your first reaction?  Is it to praise him for his sterling integrity, upstanding character, and fortitude of will in the face of temptation?  Or is it to wonder what is going on under the surface–why would he even need a rule like this unless he was already struggling with temptation?  (Perhaps he is secretly attracted to other female staff members?  Perhaps his relationship with his wife really isn’t all that and he feels the temptation to let his gaze wander?  And what about the other male staff–are they struggling with this too?)

Tracey Bianchi writes at Christianity Today about her experience of just such a scenario.  Her piece provides a window into how we look to those on the outside of evangelicalism or to those who are coming into evangelicalism.  Links from Christianity Today typically require subscription after a certain period of time (I’m not sure how long), so for the benefit of those of you who are unable to get there while the link is still free I will quote copiously:

…Somewhere along the line, though, Billy Graham’s personal decision for his ministry became a “rule.” Under the power of fear and misunderstanding, Graham’s rule became indicative of how men and women should lead together in all Christian organizations and ministries. At times, this rule has actually taken priority over the way Jesus related with women. Think about it: Jesus met alone with women like the woman at the well. He allowed a “sinful woman” to wash his feet with her hair. He consistently met with women, encouraged them in their faith, and partnered with them for kingdom work. Why are our churches, ministries, and Christian organizations less inclined to follow Jesus’ lead than Billy Graham’s?

The fact is that most Christian organizations have more male than female staff—especially at the top. When the Billy Graham Rule is enforced, then, female staff aren’t able to work effectively with those in the top tiers of leadership. Women are marginalized and cut out of opportunities to network, share their ideas, and advance in the organization. Even if women are invited to speak up or are represented at important meetings, the real decisions are often made over coffee, a long lunch, the hour-long car ride after a seminar, or 18 holes on the golf course. When women are erased out of these moments, organizations suffer.

Adhering to the Rule also infuses tension and fear into the DNA of an organization. Consciously or unconsciously, staff are told to view one another as temptations and threats rather than colleagues with brilliant minds and gifts for the kingdom. This actually makes working together to accomplish common goals more difficult.

The Rule also reflects negatively on the men who enforce it—a fact that many don’t consider. I honor what my colleague was trying to do when he made this statement to me. He was trying to do what he felt was right and protect both of us. My immediate reaction, though, was one of embarrassment for him. Instead of finding myself impressed by his fortitude and upstanding nature, I wondered if he had a secret attraction to our female staff members. I suddenly mistrusted him and worried about his relationship with his wife and family. I started to question, Why would a man need a rule like this unless he already felt tempted? I got very nervous and suspicious. No longer did I view him as a collegial equal but instead, I now feared he was a potential predator. This made me question our other male staff. Were they struggling with this, too? The heart of the rule was to protect us from worrying about sexual temptation in the workplace. But enlisting the rule did the opposite: Now I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

Many women who experience the Billy Graham Rule for the first time have similar reactions. Rather than praising the man who issued the edict, women wonder whether they should be worried about their coworker. Worse, the Rule actually makes many women nervous to be in any room with men, and they may begin to obsess over how to be appropriate and not appear to be a temptation—what they should wear, where they should sit, and more.Is this how men want to affect their female colleagues?

…True, women and men do not always work together with integrity, but having the rule will not prevent this. If Christian women and men cannot model how to honor one another and serve together with integrity, who will? If we continue to hide behind the Billy Graham Rule rather than engage with our colleagues of different genders, we will miss out on the contributions that men and women bring together to the places we serve. Rather than let fear and mistrust inform our partnerships, let’s choose mutual respect like Jesus modeled when he chose to work alongside and honor women—even if that means going out for lunch.

Like many other aspects of evangelical purity culture, the “Billy Graham Rule” entails a burden which falls much heavier upon women than upon men.  Faced with such a rule, women are forced to obsess over how to carry themselves in professional settings–what to wear, where to sit in meetings, etc.–without being or appearing to be inappropriate.  Women are made to feel nervous about being in any room or any situation with their male coworkers, lest they should force them to struggle with temptation.  Men:  Do you really want to impact your female coworkers this way?  Is it right for you to place a burden like this upon them?

Consider this issue through the guiding principle that every person you will ever come eyeball to eyeball with is a person for whom Christ died.  In light of that, is it right that a rule which made perfect sense for one Christian public figure who faced intense public scrutiny should become standard operating procedure throughout evangelicalism–when said rule places an inordinate burden upon women by hampering their professional development and forcing them to obsess over whether their actions and behaviors are leading male coworkers into sin?

Men:  I have said this before and will say it again.  YOU DO NOT GET A PASS!!!!!  You do not get to shift the responsibility to women for your inability to control your own sexual passions.  At some point you have to step up and learn a little self-control.  When Jesus says that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart (Matthew 5:28), he goes on to say in the very next verse, “If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away.  It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.”  Jesus does not give you the option of shifting the responsibility to women, and I do not either.

The Unresolved Tensions of Evangelical Purity Culture

Lately we have been talking about unresolved tensions, both in my own life and in the world of evangelicalism at large.  Today we are going to talk about the unresolved tensions of evangelical purity culture.

In any discussion of evangelical purity culture, I feel it is important to state at the outset that reserving sex for marriage is an important discipline of the Christian life.  There are good reasons for this, and there isn’t a single place in all of Christianity which will tell you otherwise, except perhaps the most liberal of the liberal mainlines.  Yet in most places, though the Church lays down some pretty hard and fast boundaries concerning sexual purity, there is a surprising amount of freedom within those boundaries as believers are free to negotiate the territory on their own without celebrity pastors, authors, bloggers, and other authority figures rushing in with all sorts of dogmatic pronouncements on anything and everything.

harrisBut in the world of evangelicalism, Josh Harris’ 1997 book I Kissed Dating Goodbye was a gamechanger.  Packed with youthful fervor for holy living and the oh-so-romantic sepia-toned image of a young guy rocking old-school charm in a pressed white shirt, wool sportcoat and tipped fedora, the book swept through the hearts and minds of evangelicals everywhere.  Suddenly it was no longer enough to not jump in the sack before you got married, you couldn’t even kiss or hold hands before you got married.  You couldn’t even have any sort of romantic feelings for anyone of the opposite sex unless it was someone whom you were seriously intending to marry.  Purity conferences, purity rings, and purity pledges were all the rage in evangelicalism through the late 90’s and deep into the 00’s.  In evangelical youth groups all across the board, the discussion was all about sex and the not having of it.  Many of you probably came from such youth groups.  Why?  Because this was how you distinguished yourself as a Christian and showed yourself faithful to Christ.

Thankfully the purity culture movement is now dead.  In most parts of evangelicalism, at least.  But dead movements, like dead people, never just go away.  They always leave behind a stinking, rotting corpse.  In this case the corpse is an entire generation of young and young-ish adults who grew up in a purity-culture-obsessed evangelicalism and now have all sorts of unresolved tensions about dating and relationships and even their own self-conception that were brought on by purity culture.  Even those who are now married are having difficulty in their relationships because of the unresolved tensions of purity culture.

At this time I direct your attention to a group discussion at The Toast consisting of five young writers who grew up in an evangelical purity culture shaped by Josh Harris’ I Kissed Dating Goodbye.  In this post they share their thoughts on the book, on growing up in purity culture, and on the unresolved tensions in their lives as a result of growing up in purity culture.

These writers come from a progressive perspective which may be unnerving to conservative evangelicals.  After all, much of what progressive Christianity has to say on the subject of sexual purity is vague and generally not distinctively Christian.  It takes the sovereign, self-determining individual as the starting point, as does much of Western liberalism in general.  This is a problem, because the whole point of Christian sexuality is that you are not your own.  You are not an autonomous, disembodied unit; instead you are now part of the body of Christ and you should conduct your sex life accordingly.  Scripture is quite clear on what this looks like:  Adultery, sex outside of marriage, homosexual activity, lasciviousness, public celebration of lust, debauchery, coarse jesting, obscenity, etc. are all strictly forbidden.  Christianity is all about our integration into realities much bigger than ourselves; thus any truly Christian sexual ethic must come from outside of ourselves.  It has to be revealed to us via Scripture; we are incapable of figuring this out on our own.  We are being conformed to the image of Christ, but we are not yet there, at least not enough to fully understand the guiding principles behind Scriptural prohibitions with respect to sexual activity.  Much of what progressive Christianity has to say about sexuality does not seem to recognize this.

But consider that the burden of purity culture has fallen disproportionately upon women.  How right is it that we were part of a movement whose message was that women are essentially the property of their parents until given to their husbands on their wedding day, that women are essentially a commodity whose worth rises and falls like a stock, said worth entirely tied to their virginity and ability to bear children?  Consider also that the impact of purity culture has been felt all around the world, in people of all races.  Surely we will someday have to answer for the fact that a movement originating in the world of white American evangelicalism has had adverse effects upon people of all races in all parts of the world.

Also consider that Christianity (and evangelicalism in particular) has taken on board an awful lot of bad Western philosophy over the course of its history.  Dualism, in which the spiritual is considered good and the material evil, is all over the place.  Our bodies and everything else about this material world are considered evil and subject to decay and eventual destruction; our purpose is to escape our bodies and the material world for an eternal, spiritual home with God in the sweet by and by.  These ideas, which have their roots in first century gnosticism and in the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle prior to that, are all over the place in evangelical hymnody, in how we talk about death, and in how we talk about the last days.  This dualism lies at the heart of purity culture:  The body (or “the flesh” as it is frequently called), and all the sexual desires associated with it, are evil and must be kept under the strongest possible subjugation so that the spirit may remain pure before God.

Yet we are not divided into two: flesh and spirit.  We are each singular creatures, with a body and a spirit seamlessly integrated into one being.  We are not going to some faraway spiritual kingdom to dwell with God in a state of disembodied spiritual bliss; instead we are going to a redeemed and restored version of this present world.  And when we are resurrected at the end of the age, it is not going to be a spiritual event but instead a bodily resurrection.  The body you have now is the exact same body you will have then, though it will be redeemed and restored.  Anything we say about human sexuality must take this into account.  Purity culture does not.

The commands of Scripture with regard to sexual purity are clear.  But evangelical purity culture goes way beyond those commands and places burdens upon people that are impossible to bear.  The weight of these burdens falls disproportionately upon women.  That is not right.  Someday we will have to answer for that, just as we will someday have to answer for the fact that this movement, though it is strictly a white American evangelical movement, has placed unbearable burdens upon people of all different races all over the world, as noted above.  Purity culture is a dead end, and the sooner it is consigned to the ash heap of history, the better off we will all be.

Charles Featherstone on Belonging and Being Known

Today I wish to direct your attention to a piece by Charles Featherstone:  “On Knowing, And Being Known“.

One of the frequently recurring themes in Featherstone’s writing is the desire for belonging and connection with others on a deep level and how modern, rationalistic society mitigates against this.  At one point, back in medieval times, it was possible for a person to go by many different names in different stages of life (this was the norm in many pre-modern societies).  The people whom you lived and interacted with in your family and in your community knew you well enough that it did not matter what name you went by.  Nowadays, however, things are different.  Everyone has a fixed name tied to a fixed and proper surname tied to a unique identification number tied to a whole host of other documents and other things which purport to describe and explain, in exact and excruciating detail, who we are.

One of the greatest lies of modernity is that this way of knowing and describing who we are is all that matters.  That the modern State, with its control of all the documents which purport to confer identity upon us and the processes by which said documents are issued, is ultimately the end-all, be-all of our identity, of who we are and who we can claim to be.  Yet this way of knowing is woefully incomplete (and I think we all know this) because it fails to take into account the knowledge of character and personality.  It is knowledge disembodied, cut off from the relationships of family, church, and community which form us and define us–the people closest to us who know all our character traits, personality quirks, likes and dislikes, hopes, dreams and deepest desires.  The people who see us know us and love us as we really are.

Featherstone aches for this sense of belonging, of being part of a community where he knows and is known by others on a very deep level.  As an autistic individual I can relate to this, as my ability to form attachments, to experience belonging and connection with others is impaired.  Yet I deeply desire these things; I am after all a human being and that is part of being human.  The end result is that I spend my days with a deep-seated and pervasive longing for something which can probably never be mine for as long as I live.

Now I am part of a church community where I know I belong and I have many friends who know me well and love and accept me, and I know this.  Yet it has taken a long time to get to this point.  And though I know all this in my head, it is very difficult for me to feel it in my heart.  Why?  Because I am different.  In each of the social environments of which I am a part (church, work, small group, Thursday night running group, etc.), there is some part of me which others do not share.  Many of my running friends do not share my evangelical commitments and many of my church friends do not share my interest in running.  Even among my evangelical friends, there are few who share my spiritual journey or understanding of certain important political/theological issues.  This is hard for me because these things set me apart from others when what I crave is to be in closer communion with others.

Also, in each of the social environments of which I am a part, it seems as if the others have a shared life together–shared experiences, shared memories, etc.–of which I am not a part.  I hear them talk about it in their conversations and inwardly I fill with regret and envy because I want so badly to be part of that shared life, to have a part in all those shared stories and shared memories.

All of this is part of the deep-seated and pervasive longing which I feel for something which, as noted above, can probably never be mine.  To be perfectly clear, this is not anyone’s fault.  If you are reading this and you are my friend, please do not blame yourself.  Know that this is simply an unresolved tension in my own life, one which will probably remain unresolved for as long as I live.  As noted in my recent posts on spiritual dissatisfaction and unresolved tension, unresolved tension is something which we evangelicals really do not know what to do with.  Yet it is important to learn to live with unresolved tension because it forces us to recognize that we don’t have all the answers and it forces us to learn to trust.

I will conclude with this:

I want to be more than who and what I say I am. To have something bigger than a self to point to. To know that, in love, others have considered me, and seen something in me, that I could not see without them. And help me become something I could not be — without them.

That I am part of a people who are part of me. Who shape me and are shaped by me. This is what I mean by knowing.

Read:  Charles Featherstone:  “On Knowing, And Being Known”

Michael Spencer on Dissatisfaction and Unresolved Tension

While we are on the subject of dissatisfaction and unresolved tension, I would like to direct your attention to a series of posts written by Michael Spencer several years back.  These posts deal with unresolved tensions of evangelicalism with respect to the Christian worldview, Christian experience, Christian community, and Christian commitment.  He follows this up with responses to those who are dealing with the unresolved tensions in those areas.

The first post of the series deals with the Christian worldview.  Reading and understanding the Bible is not enough in much of evangelicalism; instead one must be prepared to give an answer for a whole host of questions including but by no means limited to:  Was the world created in six actual, literal days?  Did the sun actually stand still that day over Jericho?  Will there be a Rapture at the end of the age where all who believe in Christ are secretly spirited away before the Antichrist comes to power?  Go against the evangelical party line on these questions and more and…well, good luck with that.

The second post deals with Christian experience.  Evangelicals have made a specialty of big, bold, bodacious claims about all that God is doing in the world and in their lives.  But what about when religious experience (or the lack thereof) fails to sustain our faith in God?  There is a wealth of explanations out there:  human beings are sinful, God is sovereign, people experience the Holy Spirit differently, many exemplary Christians had seasons of minimal experience of God, etc. etc.

The third post is about Christian community.  While there are many wonderful examples of good Christian community in evangelicalism, there are also lots of places where we just don’t get the Christian community thing right at all.  An outsider could read the Bible and get a basic idea of what Christian community is supposed to look like, but there are way too many places in evangelicalism where Christian community is trumped by racial prejudice (as in the South of the 1950s) or by niche marketing, as is the case in many places today.  On top of that, there are actual breakdowns of Christian community where lots of people get hurt.  And yet, in far too many places where Christian community fails, the blame is shifted to those who say that Christian community is failing.

The fourth post is about Christian commitment.  A growing number of evangelicals are unwilling to do what is required to meet the standard for Christian commitment.  Not in the sense of atheism or agnosticism, although the refusal of these people to do what is required by the culture of evangelicalism to demonstrate their commitment to the cause of Christ may cause a lot of people to think them atheist or agnostic or at least moving in that direction.  But they are not rejecting Christianity so much as opting for “None Of The Above” instead of any of the options which evangelicalism presents as acceptable expressions of Christian commitment.

Following these posts, Spencer responds to those who are dealing with these unresolved tensions in two parts:  Part 1  Part 2

Chaplain Mike on Spiritual Dissatisfaction

Today I wish to direct your attention to a post by Chaplain Mike at internetmonk.com on the subject of dissatisfaction in spiritual formation.  His jumping-off point is a quote from Dallas Willard:  “It is spiritually formative to be dissatisfied and unable to resolve it.”

Evangelicalism does not know what to do with spiritual tension and dissatisfaction.  It is difficult to imagine anyone saying that it is good to be in a place where you don’t have the answers and cannot satisfy the longing within–except possibly as a prelude to saying, in a prosperity gospel kind of way, that these negative experiences teach us to trust God and when we trust God He blesses us.

But what if dissatisfaction is a good thing, in and of itself–not because it helps you in the long run or because you learn from it or because God uses it to bring you to a better place–but simply in and of itself?

Through dissatisfaction we learn to live with the questions, we learn that we don’t have to have an answer for everything.  We learn that we don’t have to, and in fact we can’t, improve Jesus’ reputation by pretending we have all the answers when we really don’t, but instead by showing that we don’t have all the answers and that we are okay with not having all the answers.  This is called trust.