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Mike Pence, the “Billy Graham Rule” and Pharisees

Of late the secular world has mocked a Christian. It’s not news.

Except that the Christian they mocked was the Vice President of the United States, which tends to be news. Further, the mocking ensued because Pence had said he chooses to honor his wife by not spending time alone with women, including eating in restaurants alone with them.

Gasp. Yawn.

This week Vice President Mike Pence was called everything from crazy to bizarre to employing ‘benevolent sexism’ to being a misogynist. In one of the more tame news articles about the issue was the UK Guardian. I chose The Guardian over CNN, NPR, Time Magazine etc. specifically because the media outlet is not American and hopefully they would have some objectivity. Author of the article, Jessica Valenti, opened it this way:

this week a Washington Post article about Karen Pence revealed that the vice-president will not eat a meal with a woman other than his wife. Those on the right are commending Pence’s marital devotion and moral fortitude, claiming that such a rule is a smart defense against sexual temptation.

One conservative blogger questioned where there was ever a good reason for a married person to eat out alone with a member of the opposite sex; the former CEO of the blog RedState chimed in to answer: “Planning your spouse’s surprise party or funeral and that is it.”

penceLeft, VP Pence with wife Karen at Pre-Inaugural dance. Source

So far, so good. Valenti ended her article this way:




Pence is a misogynist. We know it from his voting record, we know it from the things that he’s said about women’s rights and now we know it because of his odd personal rule not to dine with women alone. But let’s not let one man’s sexism distract us from his whole party’s sexist agenda.

OK, so maybe the objective perspective I was hoping for isn’t there after all. But are we surprised? No.

Alternately, The Baptist Press wrote:

Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary President Daniel Akin responded that he has made the same commitment to his wife Charlotte … Akin, author of two books about marriage based on the Bible’s Song of Solomon, told Baptist Press, “The day I married Charlotte I made the same pledge to her that Mike Pence has made to his wife. I have never broken it. I promised her I would never be alone with any woman other than she. I did not make this promise because I am afraid of women or think they are of lesser value and worth than men. I made it because I know the sinfulness of my own heart.

“The Bible teaches us that King David was a man after God’s own heart,” Akin said in written comments. “But because he was at the wrong place, at the wrong time and with the wrong person, he lied, committed adultery and murdered. I doubt I love God more than David. If something like that could happen to him, then it could happen to me. My goal is to go to my grave being faithful to Charlotte. I really don’t care what the world thinks when it comes to this issue.”

Akin’s explanation goes to the heart of Godly conduct. There is a difference between loving God and wanting to honor Him through our behavior, and men who want to appear sincere because they seek man’sglory and applause.

In the late 1940s and 1950s, the Rev. Billy Graham became the
‘primary engine of America’s Cold War religious revival.’ Source
Courtesy of Billy Graham Evangelistic Association BY TIM FUNK

Mike Pence’s vow comes from what’s colloquially called “The Billy Graham Rule.”

In 1948 when the famed traveling evangelist was starting what became his itinerant global program, Graham realized that certain problems had consistently plagued previous traveling preachers. At that time, Graham was also grievously affected after reading the 1927 book by Sinclair Lewis, Elmer Gantry.

Gantry is an incendiary indictment upon huckster preachers. Author Lewis exposed the fictional character’s hypocritical mindset from the inside of the huckster’s conscience and showed the true evil of religious charlatanism. The book infuriated America. Here is Wikipedia with a synopsis of the book’s reception:

The result is a novel that satirically represents the religious activity of America in evangelistic circles and the attitudes of the 1920s toward it. On publication in 1927, Elmer Gantry created a public furor. The book was banned in Boston and other cities and denounced from pulpits across the United States.

Elmer Gantry had a profound effect not just on America, but on the young up and coming traveling evangelist Billy Graham, who urgently and vocally stated he wanted to avoid any perception of similarity to the scurrilous Gantry.

Adding insult to injury, Graham was particularly stung after seeing an Atlanta Journal Constitution photographic array that juxtaposes one photo of a smiling, hearty, waving Graham with another photo of men carrying away two huge bags of money after the Crusade’s love offering in that city. Graham wrote,

The day after the closing meeting on December 10 [1950], the Atlanta Constitution, accompanying its wrap-up story of the Crusade, printed two pictures side by side. In the first, I was grinning broadly and waving good-bye as I stepped into a car for my departure to South Carolina. In the next, two Crusade ushers, with a uniformed police sergeant between them, could barely wrap their arms around four bulging money sacks. “GRAHAM ‘LOVE OFFERING’ COLLECTED AT FINAL SERVICE,” read the caption. I was horrified by the implication. Was I an Elmer Gantry who had successfully fleeced another flock? Many might just decide I was.

Graham wanted at all costs to avoid that perception. Graham’s main concern, as he wrote in his autobiography and stated in interviews and press conferences, was public perception. Obedience to Biblical precepts were not mentioned nearly so often and never as the main reason Graham instituted his Rules, one of which involved the ‘never alone with women’ vow. There are actually 4 “rules” the then-group created for themselves as a boundary of their personal conduct while away from home. One was the aforementioned “never eat alone/be alone with a woman”. Also, never to inflate attendance numbers and always report honestly. Third, be scrupulous and transparent in finances. Last, they would avoid criticism of local churches.

According to Graham’s autobiography Just As I Am,the magazine Christianity Today has a short recounting of how this ‘rule’ began:

“Sinclair Lewis’s fictional character Elmer Gantry had given traveling evangelists a bad name. To our sorrow, we knew that some evangelists were not much better than Lewis’s scornful caricature. One afternoon during the Modesto meetings, I called the team together to discuss the problem. Then I asked them to go to their rooms for an hour and list all the problems they could think of that evangelists and evangelism encountered. When they returned, the lists were remarkably similar, and we soon made a series of resolutions that would guide us in our future work.”

I make the point that it is good that men (and women) want to conform to God’s standards of behavior with respect to personal piety. It’s good. However where the sticky wicket comes in is the motivation for doing so. Is the person doing it to please God, or men? (Galatians 1:10).

Graham says of the issue, “There is always the chance of misunderstanding. I remember walking down the street in New York with my beautiful blond daughter, Bunny. I was holding her hand. I heard somebody behind us say, ‘There goes Billy Graham with one of those blond girls.'”

Graham and his associates also charted a careful, if rather unusual strategy to ensure the evangelist would not be tainted by the suspicion of sexual impropriety. From that point on, Graham would not to travel, meet, or dine alone with any woman other than his wife Ruth — even his very own daughters when they came of age.

~Source, Billy Graham, Elmer Gantry, and the Performance of a New American Revivalism, a dissertation by Kurt A. Edwards

The favorable side of adopting “rules” are that they can be a personal stamp on biblical precepts, applied to life. Following rules is to be done unto the glory of God to the praise of God. Personal piety is an act of worship, it’s not an external performance. The danger with man-made “rules” are more numerous. You have the danger of hypocritical piety. You have the danger of elevating your rule over the Bible. You have the danger of the rule becoming codified into tradition. You have rather than upholding God’s precepts, disobedience of them. In Graham’s case, if Mr Edwards’ quote is correct, Graham chose to sacrifice his relationship with his adult daughters so as to avoid perceptions of impropriety and man’s disapproval.

The Bible says in Ephesians 6:4, “Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.” And in Colossians 3:1 we read, “Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged.”

Early Graham Crusade poster

Here at Ligonier, Jerry Bridges discusses:

The most proximate cause of the Pharisees’ antagonism toward Jesus, however, lay in His ignoring of their hundreds of elaborate but petty rules that they had devised for interpreting the law of God. Not only did they devise these hundreds of man-made rules, but they had also elevated them to the level of Scripture, so that to break one of their rules was to violate the law of God itself. And yet these rules not only obscured the true intent of God’s law, but also, in some cases, actually violated it (see Mark 7:9–13).

Are Billy Graham’s four “rules” God-honoring, or Pharisaical? Again, it depends on the reason for creating the rules and it depends a few other things, too. Here, Cameron Buettel’s recent series at John MacArthur’s site helps. He wrote that there were several biblical earmarks of these corrupt [Pharisaical] characters. One of them is:

If You Supplement Scripture with Man-Made Rules, You Might Be a Pharisee

The Pharisees were far more fixated with enforcing their own pharisaical legal code than they were with administering God’s law. They did this by adding mountains of unbiblical fine print to biblical commands as well as inventing their own doctrines apart from Scripture:

Cameron wrote in another part to the Legalism series,

Thankfully, we don’t have to live under the oppressive minutia of pharisaical rules. Nonetheless, many Christians do live their lives in bondage to a similar strain of legalism—one where their Christian identity is largely defined by man-made rules.

That was certainly the case in my earliest experiences as a new Christian. The church I attended had roots in the holiness movement, and the pastor was certainly old school. He believed that salvation was solely by God’s grace, but maintaining that salvation was another story altogether.

My early Christian education primarily revolved around what not to do. Drinking, gambling, dancing, and close proximity to the opposite sex were all strictly taboo. Maintaining that code of conduct made me a member in good standing at my local congregation. Admittedly, I believe following those rules spared me from a lot of personal grief as a young man. But trying to live out those prohibitions was detrimental to my theology—I developed an inverted view of sanctification, believing that good works were the requirement rather than the natural fruit of spiritual regeneration. Source

Establishing our own rules bounding our personal godly conduct can be good. However, they can easily morph into external appearances for man’s approval. As I read numerous and voluminous primary and secondary sources in Graham’s case, Graham had primarily instituted the rules known as the Modesto Manifesto due to his intent to avoid public perception as an Elmer Gantry huckster-type character. And that’s not a good enough reason. (Matthew 23:5).

If one plans to institute rules for one’s life along biblical lines, I believe President Akin’s intent proves the more eternal one. It is an intent grounded in the question, ‘Do I love God more than I love the applause and regard of men?’ It is, ‘Am I being faithful to His precepts and carrying them out in life, to His glory?’ Only the individual man or woman knows their most secret temptations, and appeals to the Spirit might have resulted in their decision to establish personal rules. Others deal with temptations a different way. Ultimately, don’t let the rules become all.

As Buettel stated, we need to be wary of  ‘adding mountains of unbiblical fine print to biblical commands as well as inventing our own doctrines apart from Scripture’ in order to pursue holiness. Though personal rules might help. It’s the Holy Spirit who conforms us to Jesus, through our resistance to temptation and mortification f sin, not how well we appear to others.

For you did not receive a spirit of slavery that returns you to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” (Romans 8:15).