Sexual Scandals in the Pulpit: Billy Graham’s Answer

Sexual Scandals in the Pulpit: Billy Graham's AnswerScandal after scandal has wrecked the American church in recent days, undermining confidence in pastors and other spiritual leaders, particularly in the largest and highest profile congregations. The most recent has served as a kind of wakeup call for Christians frustrated with the drumbeat of fallen preachers — especially those caught in sexual sin. And one journalist is challenging pastors to adopt a rule that helped America’s most famous evangelist maintain the purity of his witness. It’s a call with a great deal of scriptural support, and one we should take seriously if we hope to stem the tide of scandals.

Last month, Pastor Tullian Tchividjian of Florida’s Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church stepped down after admitting an “inappropriate relationship.” Offering a brief explanation in The Washington Post,  Tchividjian concludes by asking the public to respect his privacy and the privacy of his family while they rebuild and reconcile. He also requests prayer “that God will bring restoration through this process and healing to all involved.”

In 2009, Tchividjian became a leading voice in the conservative Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) after taking the reins of Coral Ridge from D. James Kennedy, co-founder of the Moral Majority. Tchividjian didn’t share his predecessor’s appetite for politics in the pulpit, and drew flak for refusing to discuss contentious topics like abortion and homosexuality. But he also had little patience for moral rule-keeping — a stance over which he and The Gospel Coalition parted ways.

Tchividjian’s zeal for rooting out legalism was a zeal for the good news of God’s unmerited grace. But as WORLD magazine’s Marvin Olasky points out, rules can’t justify us with God, but they can go a long way toward keeping Christian leaders out of temptation. That’s why, in light of this latest heartbreaking scandal, he proposes pastors revive “the Graham rule,” named for Tchividjian’s grandfather, the Reverend Billy Graham.

For decades, America’s pastor (now 96) counseled presidents, traveled the world, and led evangelistic crusades that brought tens of thousands to Christ. Through it all, he guarded his witness by vowing never to find himself alone with a woman other than his wife. It’s a rule Olasky thinks pastors today, surrounded as they are by moral failings, should seriously consider adopting.

“Clearly, we need God’s grace,” he admits. “Any list of rules we impose drops us into legalism — and the Bible clearly shows us that legalism doesn’t work. Sometimes, though, we drop into antinomianism, the idea that we should scoff at all rules, and that doesn’t work either. When I interviewed Tchividjian four years ago, he was hard on rule-keeping, and he’s right when we confuse simplicity with salvation — but some simple rules make good sense.”

In the wake of the Coral Ridge pastor’s affair and resignation, Olasky thinks we’d be foolish to discount the noetic effect of sin — its power to distort even the most godly shepherd’s thinking and judgment. And he has little patience for abstract, high-minded talk about de-sexualizing male-female relationships in the church. That’s all well and good, but scandals like this one have become an epidemic, and he thinks we need to focus on containment measures, not philosophizing.

“With the Tchividjian tragedy in front of us,” Olasky writes, “we should begin with something concrete. A simple starting-point suggestion: Male leaders of Christian organizations should publicly sign onto the heart of the Billy Graham rule: No closed doors when sin is crouching at the door” (Genesis 4:7).

It’s a call with ample scriptural backing. From the late chapters of Genesis, the heroes of the Bible have joined battle against sexual sin. And importantly, a pattern emerges of avoiding temptation rather than confronting it head-on. Men of God like Joseph didn’t overestimate their integrity but fled opportunities to fall (Genesis 39, 1 Corinthians 6:18).

And megachurch pastors, as high-profile targets, should take Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 10 especially seriously: “So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it” (1 Corinthians 10:12-13).

The credibility of the Church, not to mention the integrity of marriages, is at stake. And though God forgives, measures like the “Graham rule” offer a second line of defense for pastors and elders already held accountable by their fellow believers. It may be inconvenient, but Christ didn’t mind a little inconvenience. He endorsed far more drastic measures (Matthew 5:29-30). It’s time we take sin as seriously as He does.

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