Alastair Roberts on Fundamentalism, the Graham-Pence Rule, and Purity as Avoidance

I’m becoming an Alastair Roberts fanboy. I can’t wait for his Crossway book on a theology of gender—except that the guy can write 4,000 intellectually rich and biblically sound words a minute, and I actually want to get through the book so I’m hoping the editors can help him reign in the page count just a bit. The guy is ca-ra-zy prolific, like no one I’ve ever seen, including Alan Jacobs. And his British accent increases his apparent intelligence by about 10%, much as going on TV adds ten pounds.

I’m sure Roberts is fallen and finite, but I can’t help but feel he’s been raised up for such a time as this—our big, bad gender this that’s going on right now.

And inside a huge and super helpful analysis of the Graham-Pence-but-not-Tish-Harrison-Warren rule, he made a little comment that I couldn’t help noticing (HT: the proprietor of exegesisandtheology.com):

The pride many Christians have in rejecting the legalism of fundamentalism’s excessive boundaries often does not seem to be manifested in greater holiness of life, a more intense hunger for righteousness, wiser behaviour, and deeper virtue, but in more thoroughly rationalized dabbling in the dirtiness of the world. Even many Christians who are earnestly pursuing holiness can far more easily be overcome by sin in a society where the boundaries that once protected us from temptations or from acting upon them are so lowered.

Reading Christians of past ages, one is often struck by their strong sense of a need for renunciation of anything that would hinder or trip them up in their pursuit of holiness. Their strong rules around entertainment or interaction between the sexes seem so excessive to us today—surely purity is not avoidance! Yet it is hard not to wonder whether this is simply because we have such a high tolerance for sin, provided that it is perceived to occur among consensual adults and to be a tolerable cost incurred by our increased enjoyment of autonomy. Likewise, we seem to have little sense of our weakness and corruption: we all have a fifth column within our hearts.

If my own fundamentalist tradition has erred, it’s in being uncertain of or forgetful of the T in TULIP, in talking as if the fifth columnists aren’t inside the walls, as if all serious threats are external.

Let me offer, though, two Bible verses that fit Roberts’ read and don’t fit the way the cool kids talk:

Make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue. (2 Pet 1:5 ESV)

In other words, the life of Christian virtue requires effort.

And now, speaking of Graham and Pence,

Do not enter the path of the wicked,
and do not walk in the way of the evil. (Proverbs 4:14 ESV)

In other words, there are plenty of times when you literally, physically just don’t go there, wherever there is, because of that fifth column inside you. You don’t make provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts. You consider yourself, lest you also be tempted, even while you’re in the midst of trying to restore a sinning brother.

Now one more Bible passage—because we’ve got to hold these truths together with Col 2:

“Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. (Colossians 2:21–23 ESV)

It is the strength of the fundamentalist tradition to have a titanium backbone about stuff we won’t do, no matter the looks we get (and I’ve gotten looks). It is the weakness of that tradition to allow our traditional abstinences to become petty, to harden into arrogant shells that keep us from seeing the way times have changed, or the places other Christians are in their spiritual maturity, or the fact that our hearts don’t always keep up with our rules. But if, as I’m coming more and more to believe, every legitimate Christian tradition/group exists to give its gifts to Christ’s body, let’s magnify our office (humbly): you who have been influenced as I have by Protestant Christian fundamentalism, continue to quietly be willing to aim hard at holiness. Don’t let the worst and most painful kind of mockery, the kind that comes from other Christians, dissuade you from that calling to be always in pursuit of purity. Purity is more than avoidance, but not less.

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

7 thoughts on “Alastair Roberts on Fundamentalism, the Graham-Pence Rule, and Purity as Avoidance”

  1. I think we need to avoid the Billy Graham – Pence rule as much as possible because of Trump. If this is something that Pence does, then I want no part of it. I will encourage my daughter to pick up single men and drive with a new one to work each week. I think that most Christians will avoid anything remotely related to the Trump administration. If this is something that Pence does, this is just proof that this is a bad rule to have.

  2. When i say “single” men, I meant that I will encourage my daughter to pick up one man at a time to ride with her to and from work. I don’t care if these men are single or married. I will also encourage my daughter to start picking a new man to go out to lunch with, just by themselves, every week. I think as Christians we need to avoid giving any appearance of acceptance of the Trump administration.

  3. I did not know that Graham had this rule as well. I was no great fan of his either. Once again, if this is something he did, then I want to be against it.

  4. Thanks, Mark, for the share. This is helpful and reinforces the impressions I’ve already received.

  5. Mark, Roberts article was good, thanks. I wonder if the author of the CT article understands men very well at all.v

    With regard to your “truths together” passage from Colossians, I am not certani how relevant it is. Paul seems to be reacting against rules for the sake of them, quite possibly Mosaic cleanliness laws. I say this because elsewhere he states to flee sexual immorality.

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