Mike Pence, the Billy Graham rule and the gospel

Billy Graham

[Jesus said:] ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matthew 5:27-28)

If you haven’t seen the news this week, the internet has been astir with the news that Vice President of the US Mike Pence follows the ‘Billy Graham rule’. Basically, to avoid temptation, he takes measures to avoid being alone with another woman, or being at a social function with alcohol involved where his wife is not present. The rule is named after Billy Graham, with which it originated. (See the link above for more information about the history of the rule).

It’s been interesting to look at the responses. Some people have ridiculed Mike Pence on a number of fronts – how, in this day and age, can a man not have a business lunch with a woman (for example)? On the other hand, some Christian folk have stood up to defend him and commended him for taking steps to protect his marriage. Marriage breakdown is a huge issue, and it’s right to be concerned about it.

Personally, I have mixed feelings. As a Christian, I believe we should be concerned with sexual purity – both within and without marriage. Hebrews 13:4 puts it starkly: “Marriage should be honoured by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral.” I’ve argued before that sexual sin is serious business – and I stand by what I said then. However (and you knew this was coming, didn’t you?), I believe the Billy Graham rule is misguided.

Let’s start with Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount that I quoted to begin with. “You shall not commit adultery” – one of the Ten Commandments. You’d think that one would be a relatively straightforward one to keep, right? Either you’ve slept with someone you’re not married to, or you haven’t. Unfortunately, it’s not so simple. Jesus makes the commandment far beyond what we do with our bodies – he extends it to include our minds as well. Any man who has ever looked at another woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (And, of course, this applies for women too – lust is not an exclusively male problem).

Jesus was here was speaking against the Pharisees – those who believed that they were righteous because they were almost fanatical about obeying the law. Jesus said shortly before these verses, “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (v20). The message is striking: what God demands of us is moral perfection – a perfection that we cannot achieve by following the Law. The Pharisees made a big show of obeying the law, they probably had laws (way beyond the Ten Commandments) about what you were allowed to do and not do with women around. But Jesus says, no – the righteousness God requires is an internal righteousness – one which goes to the heart. The heart is where evil springs from – the heart is what must be changed. We cannot impose righteousness on ourselves by rules – only God can change our hearts.

I’ve recently been reading Colossians, and these verses sprang to mind:

Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: ‘Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!’? These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.

Paul here says that there are rules in the world which people follow, rules that – although they have an appearance of wisdom, actually ‘lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence’. I think this is what’s going on with rules like the Billy Graham rule. Those who follow these rules appear to be doing something wise, appear to be taking appropriate precautions – but actually the rules themselves do not have any value in preventing sin. (I wonder how many people who followed the Billy Graham rule have fallen into sexual sin?) It would be perfectly possible, for example, to follow the Billy Graham rule and yet be addicted to pornography. The outward appearance looks very different from the inward reality.

So how should we live in the way that God wants us to? More than that – how can we? This is what Paul addresses in Galatians 5. I won’t quote all of it, but the summary is this: there are two ways of living – either according to ‘the flesh’, or according to the Spirit. The flesh means our natural desires, our sinful state where we desire what is contrary to God’s will. This, of course, includes sensual indulgence. But Paul’s genius is that he extends this to include legalism as well – that is, living by a set of rules. If we live by a set of rules, we may appear to be godly – but we are simply fooling ourselves. The only way to live a godly life is to live by the Spirit of God, to live a life of love as we are transformed by the Spirit, as we walk in step with Him.

The problem with laws – legalism – is that it only focusses on the ‘Thou shalt not’. How can I, as a man, love my female neighbour if I have a law which prevents me from getting to know her?

In fact, as I hinted at above, legalism may in fact exacerbate the problem. If a man believes he’s doing OK because he’s keeping the Billy Graham rule, and yet spends a lot of time fantasising about women he’s not married to, then he’s simply fooling himself.

A personal anecdote…

I’d like to put some flesh on what I’ve written above by sharing a little of my life story. I wanted to share how this has worked out in my own life, and how I believe my experience shows that the Billy Graham rule is not correct.

I spent a lot of my time at theological college was spent worrying about adultery. I knew in my heart of hearts that I wasn’t strong enough. We often heard and talked about stories of pastors who had failed in this way, and how it wrecked their ministries and personal lives. I spent quite a bit of time in prayer asking God to help me!

I also tried to steer clear of getting ‘too close’ to a woman – especially any woman I found attractive. Although I didn’t consciously live by the Billy Graham rule, I think subconsciously I followed something like it: it was very rare that I would ever have a one-on-one private conversation with a woman. However, I still didn’t feel ‘safe’ – I still didn’t feel like the laws I lived by would help me.

Fast forward to today: God has indeed answered my prayers and changed my heart. I feel like I have a whole new perspective on the world. It’s too long to go into here (maybe another blog post… or a book…) but I have come to believe that God has designed men and women for each other – not just within marriage – and intends men and women to be friends. This is exactly what Joshua Jones argues in Forbidden Friendships: Retaking the Biblical gift of male-female friendship.

As I said above, the problem with the law is that it stops with ‘Thou shalt not’. Christians, on the other hand, are called to do more than that: Christians are called to love one another. Peter says “love one another deeply, from the heart” (1 Peter 1:22), and I believe that includes love across the gender divide. Sexual sin is a horrible thing – but I have come to believe that one of the best antidotes we have to sexual sin is healthy relationships with those of the opposite sex.

Clearly, more needs to be said on this – and the Forbidden Friendships book is a good start – but this is a blog post and I don’t want to go on forever. The ‘in a nutshell’ of all this is that I am much more open to forming good friendships with women and believe that this actually (1) fulfils better the great commandment (to love God and our neighbour) (2) better equips me to combat sexual sin.

Conclusion

I applaud anyone who takes sexual purity seriously. Our culture seems to value fidelity a lot less than in days gone by. Mike Pence is honestly trying to protect his marriage, I believe he is sincere, and should be commended. I also think it’s not right to jump to conclusions about what someone does and does not believe – I don’t want to critique the man, only the rule itself at face value.

However, I believe that the gospel calls us to a more radical heart transformation. The gospel calls us to love, not simply to avoid 50% of the population of the world because we might be tempted to sin. The Pharisees were using their laws to get out of their obligations to love their neighbour. We may laugh at them, but our human hearts are tempted to use the law in the same way.

I’ll leave the last word to the apostle Paul:

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’

… Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. (Galatians 5:13-14, 24-25)

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