Sin Fences and Mike Pence(s)
(Sorry, had to make it rhyme.)
There's been controversy over Vice President Mike Pence following the so-called Billy Graham Rule. I'm a little late to the party, but I thought I'd offer my take.
The famed evangelist, Billy Graham, set a rule for himself saying he was not allowed to be alone with a woman not his wife. No going to dinner alone, no driving in a car alone, no being in an office alone. The goal was to prevent himself from ever being tempted to cheat on his wife.
Mike Pence, turns out, follows this rule as well.
Building sin fences
One of my favorite classes in college was called Hebrew Prophets. It was taught by a passionate, and very knowledgeable, Old Testament scholar.
Honestly, I have no memory as to the context of this point he made, but the point itself stuck in my mind. It was this charge, "Don't build sin fences."
He said we often take sins we commit and build fences around them, making sins out of things that might lead to sin — a sin fence, so to speak. The problem with sin fences is that not only do they create a barrier separating us from sin, but they often also create a barrier separating us from other people.
And that's exactly the problem many people have with this rule.
It takes away opportunities for women
When it comes to doing business, many deals have to be made one on one. Hiring, sales, promotions, development meetings, these are all often done one on one — and often over lunch. For a leader to cut out every female worker from these kinds of meetings can only hinder their career.
No, it's not always necessary to have those meeting over lunch, or alone in your office. But any barriers you're creating for the women that don't apply to the men will most definitely set them back in some manner.
As Christians, we should be champions of equal opportunity for women. Because they're loved by God and made in his image.
It takes away our Christ-given freedom
One of the reasons for this rule is that not only does it protect a man from adultery, but it protects from the appearance of adultery. As I’ve mentioned before on this site, the appearance of evil is not something we’re meant to avoid. Jesus didn’t, why should we?
Fear of appearing like we're sinning only increases our fear of, and focus on, sin itself. Christ's sacrifice not only cleanses us from our sin, but gives us the freedom to do good without fear.
Grace not only gives us freedom from guilt, but also freedom to love — to care for one another without hesitation. No, we shouldn't go looking for sin. But we also shouldn't fear it so much we push others away.
We should be very careful to create Christian rules where the Bible gives freedom. If we build a wall to separate us from the beach, we'll never be able to help save someone pulled into its tide.
Creates sexual tension where there is none
Another problem with this rule is that it treats women like sexual objects, rather than human beings to be loved. Yes, men lust. We have thoughts and desires and do stupid things with those thoughts and desires. But the constant reinforcing of those thoughts often simply makes the problem worse.
Like you reading “purple elephant” will automatically make you picture a purple elephant, a rule saying you might accidentally have sex with your female coworker over lunch will automatically make you imagine the act, even though you probably wouldn’t have thought of it otherwise.
Virtue ethics over bumpers
Author and professor of English at Liberty University wrote a fantastic article about this controversy on Vox. Her thesis is that “Virtue Ethics is better than the Billy Graham rule.”
Virtue Ethics, or Virtue Theory, is an approach to ethics that emphasizes character over the establishment of rules. It says that the best way to be an ethical person is to work on building habits, or virtues, that guide your actions.
This theory doesn’t completely shun rules, rules are absolutely important. But like lane bumpers in bowling, you shouldn’t rely on them forever, you should be building the character that allows you to work without them.
The Bible talks about character in this way as well. Galatians five is all about this freedom we have in Christ. Verse one says, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” Later, Paul continues, “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”
No, we should not use our freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but we also shouldn’t weigh ourselves down with a slavery we are now free from. Our guide is love, not law.
Verse 16 says, “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” Paul’s solution for an ethical life was not a list of rules, but a charge to walk in freedom with the Spirit.
The true way forward
Finally, a thought from Dallas Willard — Christian philosopher and theologian. He begins by quoting Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
“Dietrich Bonhoeffer observes that ‘The essence of chastity is not the suppression of lust but the total orientation of one’s life toward a goal.’ Healthy abstention in chastity can only be supported by loving, positive involvement with members of the opposite sex. Alienation from them makes room for harmful lusts, and so this discipline must be underscored with compassion, association, and helpfulness… To practice chastity, then, we must first practice love, practice seeking the good of those of the opposite sex we come in contact with at home, work, school, church, or next door. Then we will be free to practice the discipline of chastity as appropriate and gain only positive results from it.“
The way to instill virtue is to practice the habit of the good. This doesn’t mean we should shun rules completely. But when our rules harm us, hold us back, or create barriers between those we’re meant to love, we should let the freedom of Christ be our guide.
The solution is not to disregard sin, or the danger and power it can have over a persons life, but to realize that the freedom and grace God gives us is even greater, even more powerful. And our job is to pursue it, to use love as our guide.
To walk in the Spirit.