If you’re going to follow the Billy Graham Rule …

In his autobiography, Billy Graham writes about a group of evangelists who recognized the serious threat of sexual immorality. This could be a special threat for men (these were all men) who were traveling and separated from their families. So they all pledged “to avoid any situation that would have even the appearance of compromise or suspicion.”

From that day on,” Graham writes, “I did not travel, meet, or eat alone with a woman other than my wife.”[1] This has become known as the “Billy Graham Rule.” It came into popular discussion recently when the Vice President said that he keeps the same boundaries. Now it’s back in popular discussion because people have contrasted Pence with Harvey Weinstein.

Let’s first acknowledge the noble intent in the Billy Graham Rule. I’m tired of the headlines about sexual immorality involving Christian leaders. You are, too, I’m sure. One study had 38.6 percent of clergy admitting to some “sexual contact” with a parishioner, 12.7 percent admitting to sexual intercourse.[2] Those numbers terrify me. I don’t want to believe them. Let’s be thankful for a group of leaders who resolved to not become one of those headlines or statistics.

We can also acknowledge that a meeting or meal alone isn’t the root problem here. Some people have built straw men on this point, then kicked them over with self-righteous vigor. “I can go to lunch and keep my pants on.” Yes—and we congratulate you for that. The meal isn’t the problem. There are surely some deeper issues of accountability, the state of the heart, etc. But it’s probably true that being alone in one setting makes it easier to be alone in another—a slippery-slope, if you will.

Also, being alone develops intimacy. And intimacy can lead to sexual attraction. And sexual attraction is one of the leading causes of sex. But again, we shouldn’t confuse intimacy for the root problem here. We shouldn’t confuse intimacy for a problem here. We’re created for intimacy. Even, dare I say, with people we may find attractive.

The Billy Graham Rule doesn’t deal with the root problems of accountability and lust and the state of the heart. But I bet it has prevented some people from falling into inappropriate sexual relationships over time. Let’s not condemn it through and through.

The problem with the Billy Graham Rule is the way it puts women at a severe disadvantage in any majority-male industry (or vice versa). A lot happens during a meal or a one-on-one meeting or a car ride—planning, mentoring, trust- and camaraderie-building. As many decisions are made at lunch tables as in conference rooms. They may become official in the conference room, but they really happened at lunch. The man who can go to lunch with his boss gets an edge over the woman who can’t (or vice versa, again).

So what do we do? I’m not ready to write off the Billy Graham Rule for everyone. Though I think there are deeper issues at root, ones that I’d like us to get to, I expect this Rule has been helpful, even necessary, for some men and women. I don’t follow the Billy Graham Rule myself, nor do I advocate it for others. But if a person thinks it a good buffer, I don’t want to discourage them from it.

Here’s a different option for anyone who thinks they should stick to the Rule: make the Rule universal, not gender-specific. Don’t do one-on-one meals or meetings or travel with any colleague, male or female. Find ways to keep all of these interactions in a group setting. You probably don’t love that idea. But right now, you’re denying important opportunities to people because of their gender. You can’t do that. Follow the Rule with everyone or get rid of it altogether.

Regardless of whether you follow this Rule or not, more important to get serious about those root issues. How are your systems of accountability? How’s your heart? Who are you talking to about any of the vices that may be taking root in your life?


[1] Just As I Am, p. 128.

[2] This was a survey of 300 pastors in Richard Allen Blackmon’s The Hazards of Ministry (1984), a Ph.D. dissertation for Fuller Theological Seminary. It was a long time ago. Several other follow-up studies had similar results. I’d like to believe the numbers would be lower today, but haven’t found a good recent study to cite.

Theology and Sex: Do we write a Three Views book or a new creed?

Earlier this week, Tim Tennent posted an excellent article to distinguish perspectives and positions in theology. If you haven’t already read it, you should go do that. You might notice my comment at the bottom of the post. I build on that below.

Here I’m going to: (1) summarize how Tennent defines perspectives and positions and draw some logical conclusions for the church, (2) note how these categories should alter what I wrote last week on the UMC Divide, (3) ask whether human sexuality is a theological perspective or position, and (4) make a note on the crisis of authority in the post-Reformation Church.

A Summary of Perspectives and Positions according to Tennent

Theological perspectives allow for a “generous orthodoxy” (my words). We have different views about these matters, but we’re not calling anyone a heretic or unChristian for disagreeing.[1] Want to see all the sides of one of these debates? Zondervan has made a whole series for it––31 volumes. You can get Four Views on HellFive Views on the Church and PoliticsTwo Views on Women in Ministryor even Four Views on God and Canaanite Genocide.

While we celebrate that “generous orthodoxy” regarding perspectives, we allow no such variance for our positions. These are the core doctrines of the faith, “matters where the church has historically spoken with a single voice,” according to Tennent. You hopefully won’t find Two Views on Whether the Son was Created or Three Views on Christ’s Nature: Human, Divine, or Both? That’s because these matters are settled in the church. The early church convened councils, wrote creeds, and excommunicated people over them.

If someone teaches a belief contrary to a Christian position, there is no room for “generous orthodoxy.” We’re dealing with heterodoxy or heresy. The proper response isn’t to write a Three Views book, it’s to correct or excommunicate the heretic.

Perspectives, Positions, Sex, and the UMC Divide

Given the current controversy in the American church and especially the United Methodist Church, the elephant in the room throughout Tennent’s article is our theology of human sexuality. Which category does it belong to––perspective or position? Though the article doesn’t mention human sexuality directly, readers surely glanced in the elephant’s direction while they read this line in a paragraph on core doctrines: “We are told that we are ‘on the wrong side of history’ and we should ‘get with the times.’”[2]

Whether we treat this as a matter of perspective or position will change every aspect of how we handle this controversy. A few people took issue with the comparisons in my last post between United Methodists who flout our stance on baptism and those who flout our stance on same-sex marriage. To use Tennent’s definitions, I believe they were arguing that one is a perspective (generous orthodoxy!), the other a position (heresy!) That misses the point, as I was comparing the two regarding fidelity, not doctrine. If covenant matters, then all of the covenant matters.[3]

Though the categories of perspective and position don’t change that part of my post, they do draw two other parts into question.

1 — I listed several areas where a United Methodist church and clergyperson would be expected to keep covenant. That list is a medley of the two categories. It includes perspectives like women in ministry, itineracy, and baptism practices.[4] It also includes United Methodist doctrine, which in itself is part perspective (e.g. Wesleyan soteriology) and part position (e.g. the bodily resurrection).

Underneath that list, I said, “These questions do not ask for full agreement, only obedience.” That was a statement too broad for a medley of perspectives and positions. You don’t have to fully agree on itineracy, just obey. But on the eternal divinity of Christ, you must agree.

The denominational perspectives require obedience for the sake of fidelity.
The positions require agreement for the sake of orthodoxy.

The other item I included in that list was same-sex marriage. Is it a perspective that requires obedience or a position that requires agreement? This brings another part of my post into question.

2 — I said that I believe the church needs dissenters who will keep dissenting. I included those with different views on same-sex marriage as needed dissenters. If this is a perspective, then we should welcome appropriate debate on the issue. If it’s a position, then as Tennent says, it is “not a point of discussion;” debate and disagreement about same-sex marriage should be tolerated no more than Arianism.

I treated our debate over same-sex marriage as a matter of perspective, not as a matter of position. (Or at least, not as a matter so settled as to close the door on discussion.)

Is our theology of human sexuality perspective or position?

If we say this is a perspective, we can keep full communion, even while differing on this matter of theology.[5] But we’ll have to answer why the church’s consistent historical position on sexuality has come back up for debate. If the church has always taught sex as unitive (uniting two into one flesh) and procreative––prohibiting it whenever it didn’t have these two meanings––what permits us to question these now? Could historical teaching on Christ’s humanity or eternal divinity also come back into play?

If we call this a position, we’ll say the church has historically spoken with a single voice. This is not a point of discussion. We cannot keep full communion with those who disagree. They’re not orthodox Christians. But if we rely on tradition here, we’ll have to answer how the situation is different from as recent as the 15th century, when women’s ordination and the confessional view of baptism looked much closer to prohibited positions than permissible perspectives. Moreover, we’ll need to answer whether Protestant churches have truly held to the historical position of the church––that sex must have a unitive and procreative meaning. The Roman Catholic Church would surely argue that our perspective on contraception is a violation of the church’s historical position on sexuality.

I don’t conclude here with an answer. Tennent’s post has given me helpful categories to name my confusion. I’m a traditionalist on human sexuality. From Scripture and the church’s tradition, I’m convinced that sex is properly unitive and procreative. But I’m unsure whether I can call this a perspective or a position. The difference is glaring. Do we write a Two Views book with each other (it’s already out there), or do we say this is no point of discussion and correct or excommunicate the heretic?

The Crisis of Church Authority

Most of the church’s major theological crises were settled when there was a definable church. Then, as now, they did not have one side arguing from the Bible and another denying the Bible. Instead, they had two sides arguing their position from the Bible. They were able to convene ecumenical councils as one body, identify orthodox belief and heresy, and write creeds that specified Christian belief.

A theological crisis like this over human sexuality reveals the trouble with church authority after the Reformation. A denomination can convene a council, but that council speaks for the denomination, not for the Church universal. A council speaking for a denomination is, by definition, clarifying a perspective, not a position. Without an ecumenical council, where do we go to confirm and clarify positions in question?

I write about theology, ministry and the UMC, usually about twice a week. Click here to subscribe by email.

I don’t have comments here any more. If you’d like to discuss it with friends, share it with them and discuss. If you’d like to discuss it with me, send me an email. I’d love to hear from you.

[1] Well, most of us aren’t, anyway.
[2] When I run a Google search for “wrong side of history” and “church,” six of the first seven articles are about human sexuality.
[3] For a better direct comparison between doctrinal points, see my discussion of our treatment of human sexuality in relation to same-sex marriage.
[4] That we would include baptism as a perspective is especially interesting, and almost all of us would. Tennent supports this by saying that both views of baptism have theological arguments to support them and that historically, “the church has not found common ground on every aspect of baptism.” We can certainly say this today, but could 15th century theologians have said the same? Or would they have called baptism (or at least infant baptism) a matter “where the church has historically spoken with a single voice”––a position?
[5] This point especially comes into focus as the UMC and The Episcopal Church discuss full communion.

The Image of God and Creation

With respect to Earth Day, here’s an early excerpt from a book I’ve been working on (working title Theology for Normal People):

Scripture connects our status (the living images of God) and our purpose (rulers) most explicitly in caring for the earth. God makes us in his image so that we may rule over all the creatures of the earth.

Some people today have let that authority go to their heads. They see it as license to do whatever they please with God’s creation. I’ve heard people use their “dominion over the earth” to explain everything from disregard of the environment to abuse of animals. Here’s how one well-known writer explains her “Christian worldview” related to the environment:

The ethic of conservation is the explicit abnegation of man’s dominion over the Earth. The lower species are here for our use. God said so: Go forth, be fruitful, multiply, and rape the planet—it’s yours. That’s our job: drilling, mining and stripping. Sweaters are the anti-Biblical view.[1] Big gas-guzzling cars with phones and CD players and wet bars—that’s the Biblical view.[2]

Please don’t take anything in that quote as the “Biblical view.” Though the author quotes some parts of the creation account (note: you won’t find “rape the planet” in there), you could wonder if she had ever read the rest of it. Did she miss the part where God calls his creation good and delights in it?

Did she miss the part where God still claims ownership of it? “To the LORD, your God, belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it” (Deuteronomy 10:14).

Even if she understood the earth as God’s gift to us—after all, “The highest heavens belong to the LORD, but the earth he has given to mankind” (Psalm 115:16)—what kind of way is this to treat a precious gift?

The brilliant poet and farmer Wendell Berry gives us much better theology to live by:

The ecological teaching of the Bible is simply inescapable: God made the world because He wanted it made. He thinks the world is good, and He loves it. It is His world; He has never relinquished title to it. And He has never revoked the conditions, bearing on His gift to us of the use of it, that oblige us to take excellent care of it. If God loves the world, then how might any person of faith be excused for not loving it or justified in destroying it?[3]

When we take extra care to protect and preserve this earth, we don’t do it because we idolize creation in any way. We do it because we bear the image of the God who created it and loves it and calls it good.

When we make small decisions (like in the clothing and foods we purchase) or large decisions (like adopting pets from shelters) that support the humane treatment of animals, we do it because we bear the image of God. This is how God desires his creatures to be treated.

In our current culture, many people debate the scientific findings about what’s good for our earth and what’s not. Sadly, some Christians have allowed their political leanings to take them beyond the science to an entrenched stance against any concern for our environment. We may debate the science. We should certainly do our best to learn what truly benefits the earth and what harms it. What we have no excuse for, as Christians, is to behave as if God’s creation is anything less than a precious gift.

[1] She was arguing against someone who wore a cardigan sweater while he talked about turning down the thermostat.

[2] From Ann Coulter in “Oil good; Dems bad,” Jewish World Review, October 13, 2000. Some people have asked me if this was an attempt at irony. “Surely no one really believes this!” Go back to the original source and see its full context. No irony here.

[3] From “God and Country” in What are People For?: Essays, p. 98