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The "Billy Graham Rule" Strikes Again... In the Second Century Church

On April 20, 2017

I cannot express how much I appreciated Tina Osterhouse’s recent essay, “Why Christians Can Do Better Than The ‘Billy Graham Rule.’” I have been confronted with this rule growing up in a Christian church, participating in various venues at a Christian college, serving as a youth pastor, etc. And every time, it's baffled me.

“What am I, an animal?”

Of course, there was no room to ask that simple question, for to even doubt such rank legalism was immediate evidence that I was ripe for the fall, pretending to be “wiser than Solomon and stronger than David.” It was only a matter of months before I’d be “purpling” with some temptress who was also apparently as mindless and indecent as myself.  

The rule had the typical variations, such as the blanket “never be alone with a woman who is not your wife” (begging the question about regular conversations with my mom, sister, grandmother, and most importantly, good friends), or “never drive home a woman who is not your wife” (what if she’s the last person in the building and has no ride home… and there’s no taxi service… and, we’re Christians who should take care of one another? Answer: Never! She might sue you for an unverifiable rape that never happened!).

It rarely occurred to anyone that this entire approach to male-female interactions said more about male insecurity and immaturity than anything else. Indeed, rules like these are based on a reductionist narrative of male-female relationships. The rule implies that male-female relationships primarily consist of sex instead of viewing male-to-female relationships as a subset of the more fundamental human-to-human relationship.

Well anyway, it had not struck me until today that, because early Christianity was largely a women’s movement, that Christians struggled with this same issue nearly two millennia ago. I was reading the most excellent book The Patient Ferment of the Early Church (Alan Kreider) when I stumbled across his discussion of the interaction between male and female missionaries and itinerant prophets—particularly in situations where women worked alone (which was apparently not uncommon):

When the itinerants entered another kind of town, one in which there was "only one Christian woman and no other believers," "Clement" reports that their approach was even less evangelistic. They didn't seem to have been surprised to find an isolated Christian woman in the town. She may have represented a widespread phenomenon in which believers, possibly especially women believers, were scattered by economic forces that they could scarcely comprehend. As an isolated Christian, the solitary woman may have been praying for believers to join her in life and prayer.

This is precisely what our itinerants failed to do. They didn't show concern to encourage the Christian sister spiritually or to assist her in bringing good news to the townsfolk. Why not? Possibly because women were reputed to have irresistible sexual allure; or possibly because the itinerants "saw their honour defined particularly in relation to the sexual purity of females. " In any event, "Clement" was worried about protecting the prophets' reputation rather than supporting their isolated sister. If they visited her, what might unbelievers think? Their dealings with the isolated Christian woman must be transparently chaste; there must not be a whiff of sexual impropriety! So not only were the itinerants not to stay with her; they were not even to pray with her, not even to read the Scriptures with her. Let them "flee from there as from a snake, as from sin." Poor evangelists! And who knows? As happened elsewhere, the woman—patiently, unbothered by the male Christians—might find other ways to build a believing community. (Patient Ferment, 77)

Yes, this proto-Billy Graham Rule, as it were, was a direct hindrance to the vital “ferment” of Christian communities and to the proclamation of the gospel in the second century.

It seems rather clear from Jesus’ life that, while patience and wisdom are always needed, some “risks” (if they can even be called that) need to be taken for higher-level priorities. That appears to be the case with his personal interaction with the woman at the well in John (given their relative privacy; note v. 8 and v. 27), and in the Mary-Martha pericope in Luke. As I recently observed in a review of Wright’s excellent Surprised by Scripture:

Wright’s overall position resonates with Philip Payne’s Man and Woman, One in Christ, and more recently with Cindy Westfall’s Paul and Gender. I was not aware, however, of one interesting detail in the Mary/Martha pericope in Luke 10: “Mary was sitting at Jesus’ feet in the male part of the house rather than being kept in the back rooms with the other women…. Jesus declares that she is right to do so” (70; italics original).

Amazing! Because there is no question that many today would have condemned this “unnecessary” crossing-of-lines because of “temptations”—especially in the context of one’s home, in a teacher-learner situation, and where one woman was in the back-room with multiple men in the male part of the house. Jesus just didn’t care—or at least didn’t care as much as other things, such as what they were talking about.

Again, Christians are faced with a different ethic for life together: what if we love one another, and that is what protects us from ungodliness, instead of cultural fear and cooties? What if the countless romance novels and movies have it wrong—sexual consummation is not the ultimate termination of an intimate relationship? What if there is such thing as healthy, sustainable male-female relationships between those who are married? If so, what are we doing to show that? 

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