(RNS) — A few years ago, at the end of a conference, I was asked to come to the small regional airport a few minutes away about six hours before my flight.
Another presenter had to be at the airport at the time, and the young man in charge of driving guests to the airport was not allowed to drive alone with a woman. As a seminary student, he had to adhere to Billy Graham’s rule, which meant not being alone with a woman who was not his wife.
This rule was a practice developed by Billy Graham during his travels as a world famous revivalist. This rule has been widely adopted among evangelicals, most notably by former Vice President Mike Pence, but with varying interpretations and applications.
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I think of him from time to time, this brother in the Lord, (whose request I honored). I hope that at some point in his training he received discipleship training that would help him relate to his brothers and sisters in Christ in a way that was more biblical than Victorian, more Pauline than pornographic and more Christian than cultural.
The other woman who was going to the airport that day was old enough to be the seminarian’s grandmother. I was old enough to be his mother. According to Scripture, we should both have been treated as his sisters in Christ.
Even so, I understand the complexities and competing concerns. Like all matters of Christian life and belief, resolving this issue requires striking a delicate balance.
Technology has introduced increasingly intimate forms of connection: SMS, Facebook Messenger and Instagram DM. These complications have been the source of recent controversies over male-female contact that make the Billy Graham Rule ban on sharing airspace somewhat moot.
On the one hand, Christians believe in and celebrate the creation and goodness of our gendered bodies (and all that is inherent in being created male or female). To ignore this physical aspect of our being is to deny reality and to slide into Gnosticism.
On the other hand, the scriptures ask believers who are not married to treat each other as brothers and sisters. This is a weighty commandment with serious moral implications: to treat a sibling as a potential sexual partner is, after all, satisfying a rather messy desire.
Despite the challenge of this tension – that we are sexual beings who are also called as Christians to live as family members – Christians more than anyone else should have the strongest and healthiest understanding of friendship, including, or especially, those between men and women. women.
Indeed, the Bible models various types of close friendships between men and women. Jesus shared an intimate friendship with Mary and Martha, even staying with the sisters in their home and raising their brother Lazarus from the dead. Another Mary, Mary Magdalene, was so close to Jesus that she was there as a witness to his trial, crucifixion and resurrection. Later in church history, Priscilla and Aquila risked their lives for their dear friend and gospel worker, Paul.
These are examples of friendship forged in the context of serving together in ministry. Such friendships are also repeatedly among those at the center of controversy and debate in recent days. Men and women serve together in the church in various ways. Sometimes friendships develop naturally. The Bible makes it clear that this is good and right.
Yet when friendships between men and women in the church are discouraged or automatically viewed with suspicion, this attitude, paradoxically, creates situations more conducive to sin and abuse. Hiding what might otherwise be a normal, healthy, even casual friendship in the parlance of “ministry” seals the relationship with baggage and runs the risk of spiritual abuse. If people can’t just be friends, after all, they have to define relationship in some other way.
Someone recently observed that maybe evangelicals have such a hard time with friendship between men and women because our view of marriage today is too much about sex and not enough about friendship.
I would suggest the opposite: the modern companion marriage model places so much emphasis on friendship that when one spouse inevitably fails to meet all of our friendship needs and we seek to meet those needs elsewhere, the friendships that result are confused with sexual relations.
In other words, maybe because we’ve confused marriage and friendship so much, we don’t know how to have heterosexual friendships that aren’t inherently sexual. A spouse should be a friend, of course. But “friend” – even “best friend” – is a demotion of “husband” or “wife”.
Broad and varied friendships of varying depths and lifespans are wholesome and good—and biblical. I have reading friends, movie friends, theology friends, author friends, news junkie friends, friends sharing funny memes, childhood friends, social media friends, dog buddies, word buddies, and work buddies, to name a few.
Some of these friends are men. Some are women. None of my friends share all of these interests. My husband shares some of these interests, but not all.
All friendships require boundaries of different kinds, even same-sex friendships.
Billy Graham’s rule is of no help to those whose sin occurs in a homosexual affair, after all. And while I’m at it, it doesn’t always take two to tango: How many strict rule-breakers watch porn? Technology has introduced increasingly intimate forms of connection: SMS, Facebook Messenger and Instagram DM. These complications have been the root of recent controversies over male-female contact that make the Billy Graham Rule’s ban on sharing airspace somewhat moot.
Opposite-sex friendships have particular calls for wisdom and safeguards. But also, family relationships need healthy boundaries. This is true of all relationships, of which friendships are only one type.
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I appreciate my male colleagues who don’t refuse to discuss work or chat over lunch or coffee because I’m a woman. I cherish the male friend who sends me book recommendations non-stop. I’m grateful to the head of ministry I met in the green room of a conference event who engaged me in an extended conversation that didn’t end abruptly just because everyone had drifted out of the room. On the contrary, he honored and respected me as a human being.
I am grateful to men who will pick me up or drop me off at the airport at a business event without the need for an attendant or engaging in awkward conversation about such normal circumstances.
Even outside of an enduring friendship, men and women need to live, work, worship, and be together in many other ways. Thus, universal man-made rules cannot replace biblical wisdom, the common humanity God has given us, or the scriptural injunction to treat one another as brothers and sisters.