Home Pastors Articles for Pastors The Scandal of Evangelical Christian Friendship

The Scandal of Evangelical Christian Friendship

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(RNS) — A few years ago, at the end of a conference, I was asked to get my ride to the small regional airport a few minutes away about six hours before my flight.

Another female presenter had to be at the airport then, and the young man assigned to drive guests to the airport wasn’t allowed to drive alone with a woman. As a seminary student he was required to adhere to the Billy Graham Rule, which meant not being alone with a woman who is not his wife.

This rule was a practice developed by Billy Graham in his travels as a world-renowned revivalist. This rule has been widely adopted among evangelicals, most famously by former Vice President Mike Pence, but with varying interpretations and applications.

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I think of him now and then, this brother in the Lord, (whose request I honored). I hope at some point in his training he received discipleship that would help him relate to his siblings in Christ in ways that are more biblical than Victorian, more Pauline than pornified and more Christ-like than cultural.

The other woman going to the airport that day was old enough to be the seminarian’s grandmother. I was old enough to be his mother. Both of us, according to Scripture, ought to have been treated as his sisters in Christ.

Even so, I understand the complexities and the competing concerns. Like all matters of Christian life and belief, getting this question right requires achievement of a delicate balance.

On the one hand, Christians believe in and celebrate the createdness and goodness of our sexed 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 slip toward Gnosticism.

On the other hand, Scripture instructs believers who are not married to each other to treat one another as brothers and sisters. This is a weighty command with serious moral implications: to treat a brother or sister as a potential sexual partner is, after all, to indulge a rather disordered 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 ought to have the most robust and healthiest understanding of friendship, including, or especially, those between men and women.

Indeed, the Bible models various kinds 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, his crucifixion and his resurrection. Later in church history, Priscilla and Aquila risked their lives for their dear friend and co-laborer for the gospel, Paul.

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Karen Swallow Prior, Ph. D., is Research Professor of English and Christianity and Culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. She is the author of Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me (T. S. Poetry Press, 2012), Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More—Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist (Thomas Nelson, 2014), and On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books (Brazos, 2018). She is co-editor of Cultural Engagement: A Crash Course in Contemporary Issues (Zondervan 2019) and has contributed to numerous other books. Her writing has appeared at Christianity Today, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, First Things, Vox, Relevant, Think Christian, The Gospel Coalition, Religion News Service, Books and Culture and other places.