Culture Friday – Polyamory and the Billy Graham Rule


MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: It’s Friday the 6th of March, 2020. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Megan Basham.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. First up: Culture Friday.

BASHAM: A couple of weeks ago we talked about HGTV’s highly-rated show House Hunters featuring a throuple—that is a polyamorous relationship among three people.

After that, I came across several other examples of how quickly polyamory is following the trajectory of the LGBT movement. Basically, it’s being positioned as a civil-rights issue.

Last year, the American Psychological Association created a task force to promote “awareness and inclusivity” of these kinds of relationships.”

CBS produced an original documentary series on the subject which the news division promoted with the sub-title, “Fighting the stigma of consensual non-monogamy.”

And then there’s the popular ABC sitcom, Single Parents. Here’s how that show recently characterized a throuple:

AUDIO: How does this work? Anybody ever feel left out? We have a three-pronged approach for working through the sticky stuff. Radical honesty. Active listening. And open communication. And it just works. Now I want to be in a throuple.

So it’s understandable that Christianity Today wanted to run an article to help pastors and churches deal with this issue.

The controversy came with the way the authors addressed it

Preston Sprinkle and Branson Parler said that while these relationships are sin, Christians should focus on how “good things” like hospitality and a desire for community draw people to polyamory.

They also advised pastors to avoid a list of “do nots” when teaching on sexuality. 

A lot of other Christian leaders took issue with that advice. 

The list included Albert Mohler, and fair journalistic disclosure, he is on World’s board, and Culture Friday regular, John Stonestreet.

Another critical voice in this debate was Owen Strachan, and he joins us now on Culture Friday. Owen Strachan is Director of the Center for Public Theology and author of Reenchanting Humanity.

Owen, good morning and welcome to Culture Friday for the first time. We thought we would just throw you into the deep end of the pool here. 

OWEN STRACHAN, GUEST: Yeah, getting me started slowly. I very much appreciate that. It’s great to be with you two.

EICHER: So, Owen, you have thought about this quite a bit, just quickly hit your main objections.

STRACHAN: Yeah, polyamory—multiple loves, from the Greek—is a real issue as you two have said—three or more people in a consensual sexual relationship. And it is a rising concern. So, as you mentioned just a few minutes ago, it’s appropriate, fully appropriate to address this issue and try to equip pastors and Christians beyond that to speak to it. The issue I took with this piece by Preston Sprinkle and Branson Parler for Christianity Today is what you noted a minute ago. That there are good things that draw us to polyamory. I noted that as well as the idea that pastors should not teach negatively about sexual sin. Those two realities, as well as just the general tone of the article that’s hard to sum up quickly in this interview. But the general tone of the article is essentially that, yeah, this is an issue but in general, polyamory really has some positive things to commend it—even though the article did technically say that it is sin to be in a polyamorous relationship. For those reasons, very quickly, I had some significant concerns.    

BASHAM: Since the criticism hit, Sprinkle has said he should have added the word “just” in several places. So he wrote, “Instead of addressing homosexuality, educate your people on the meaning of marriage…” 

He now says he should have written, “instead of just addressing homosexuality.”

Would that have addressed the issues you had with the article?

STRACHAN: That would have ameliorated my concerns to a degree. It would have lessened them somewhat. Nonetheless, I don’t think the tack the article takes is fundamentally the Biblical tack. In other words, polyamory is not a sort of neutral issue with some negative elements mixed in as well as some positive ones. To be in a polyamorous relationship falls in the kind of category that the Apostle Paul is addressing in Romans 1:18-32 where you’re in this kind of pagan sexual relationship, you’re following the lusts of your flesh. There’s nothing good in a section like Romans 1 or other texts we could mention—1 Corinthians 6—that draws us into sin. These are things to be repented of. We’re supposed to think that whole pursuit, even if it was just in my mind, that’s sinful. And that’s a misfiring of my being, of my mind, of my heart, such that that desire is corrupted. It’s not that there are some good things in that desire and some bad things. That is a bad desire.

BASHAM: Just real quick, do you see a connection between how some churches, some pastors have dealt with other sexuality issues—homosexuality, shacking up, adultery, fornication, that sort of thing. Do you see a similarity between how that was addressed and how we’re now addressing polyamory?

STRACHAN: Yeah, I don’t doubt that there are pastors who have failed to educate their people well on let’s say what is called heterosexuality, sexual sin in that form. So we can say that that may well be true. In general, though, this view that Sprinkle has championed is part of what you could call the sanctifiable sin view. We’ve seen this applied to so-called gay Christianity, to the Revoice Conference, and other such matters, that there are good things mixed into sinful things in terms of our pursuit of homosexuality, for example. And what I and others have been trying to say is that, yes, it is human to want community and love and affection with others. 

But we’re not supposed to sanctify our sin in that respect. Instead, we’re supposed to repent in full of our sinful desires, of our sinful actions. There’s no part, in other words, of what draws us to sin that is a good thing. If a person is drawn into some kind of terrible, incestuous relationship with a child, or an act of molestation—a terrible thing to talk about in public here, but here we are—we’re not supposed to look back and say, ‘You know, that really was my love for children. I guess it went awry at a certain point.’ But, again, there’s kind of a positive element, kind of a negative element. That itself, my friends here, is a softening of what the Bible teaches us about our sin. We’re supposed to look back at that instinct or behavior—either one—and think that is desperately wicked and evil all the way through and I need to repent of it and ask God to actually give me a true love for children instead of what I had just manifested.

BASHAM: Turning now to another subject that can sometimes be a bit of a hot potato among Christians…

Friday, Beth Moore said that Christlike manhood is “Safe enough to be alone with a woman…It was all about Jesus being alone with the woman at the well.”

Now, this sparked a lot of conversation among my female friends, as most of us took it to be a reference to what’s known as the Billy Graham rule. It’s also frequently mocked in the press as the Mike Pence rule. That is, not meeting alone, in private, with a woman who’s not your wife.

Some women told me they really resent this rule. They feel it’s unfair and leads to their being shut out of professional opportunities. 

However, the few times it’s come up in my professional life, I’ve been pretty thankful for it. 

Now let me give you a quick personal story to set up my question. When I was in my twenties I was working at a large church where the Billy Graham rule was official policy. I had a meeting off-campus with a staff pastor, an older man, and he said he could pick me up and we’d drive together. It would’ve been an hour drive each way. When I declined, he really acted like I was being silly. He kind of tried to strong arm me by telling me how inconvenient it was for him to drive separately.

I’m a rule follower by nature, so my fear of trouble outweighed how embarrassed I felt to stick to my guns. But, honestly, the whole thing made me really uncomfortable. 

A few months later it came out the pastor was getting divorced. There were rumors of involvement with another woman. 

Now, as a tough mom and wife today, I’d probably have no problem telling that pastor to buzz off. But as a naive young woman, it was hard to say no. And I always think, I’m so thankful our head pastor instituted that policy!

So, Owen, since I have a job where I can just ask theologian what they think, what Biblical principles might apply to this debate over whether the Billy Graham rule is a good idea?

STRACHAN: Yeah, I love that story, Megan, and I love your instinct as well, and commend you for it and your pastor as well. Fundamentally, the biblical principle that drives the men I know who would seek to follow this kind of guideline or rule—call it what you want—is their desire to protect themselves, their wives, and then other women who are not their wife. So, we recognize in a text like Ephesians 5:22-23 that the marriage relationship displays nothing less than the gospel of Jesus Christ. And so that’s going to motivate you to do anything you need, really, to safeguard your vows. Of course, you’re going to do that within reason. You’re not going to treat women who are not your wife, you know, like they’re an alien species or anything like that. No one commends that. 

You want to be warm and welcoming to the degree that you can to all people, men and women  alike. And yet you want to live a very careful life. You know that without holiness, no one will see the Lord. And so the men I know who are adopting this kind of principle are following it in some form as a guideline. They’re not doing it because they want to harm women. They’re actually doing it because they want to protect women, they want to protect their marital vows and they’re willing to go even to slightly socially awkward lengths in our kind of egalitarian age. We need to name it as what it is. They’re willing to go to those lengths in order to guard their covenant and guard their vows. And I commend them for doing so. I don’t think they’re doing something shameful or worthy of scorn. You know, Nick and Megan, as I wrap this up, we don’t need fewer careful men in this world who are willing to go to great lengths to protect their marriage. We need more men of that kind, to be honest.

EICHER: Well, Owen Strachan is Director of the Center for Public Theology and author of Reenchanting Humanity

Owen, thanks so much.

STRACHAN: Thank you, Nick and Megan. I appreciate it very much.


(Photo/Creative Commons, Flickr)

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2 comments on Culture Friday – Polyamory and the Billy Graham Rule

  1. Aargh …. My two best friends are having a fight.
    The only two podcasts I listen to whenever they come out are your wonderful work and Preston Sprinkle’s, “Theology in the Raw”. I love them both as Bible-focused sources wrestling with tough issues with balance and fairness.
    Now they are wrestling with each other!

    They need to talk to each other. My friends need to set the example for us all that we should go directly to the person we disagree with to find answers. They are both really good friends of mine and I am sure they can be friends too if they give it a chance. Please, please reach out to Preston Sprinkle.

  2. Thanks you for linking Dr. Preston Sprinkle’s clarification and apology. You are such a good example of fairness in this way. For those who want a paragraph summary try this …
    “But if I were to write that article again, I would have worded that original line as such:
    “We can acknowledge that many of the there might be some elements that draw people to polyamory—deep relationships, care for others, hospitality, and community—that are good things longings.”

    Apart from the laborious use of the word “that,” I think this way of saying things might be a clearer way of communicating what we were trying to say. And I sincerely apologize to those of you who were trying to interpret what we were saying in charitable ways and yet were still troubled by our wording. I’m truly sorry. Clarity is a virtue and sometimes I fail at it.

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