Theology Thursday - Billy Graham on Ecumenical Evangelism

In the Summer of 1957, Billy Graham came to Madison Square Garden in New York City. In this excerpt from his autobiography,1 Graham discussed the opposition he received from fundamentalists prior to this Crusade, and his own reasoning for doing ecumenical evangelism:

Opposition also came from a few in the Roman Catholic and Jewish communities, although I had made it clear I was not going to New York to speak against other traditions or to proselytize people away from them. My goal instead was to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ as it was presented in the Bible and to call men and women to commit their lives to Him …

To my knowledge, the only vocal opposition from the Roman Catholic community came from a single article in a limited-circulation Catholic magazine. The author, an official with the National Catholic Welfare Conference (NCWC) in Washingtin D.C. wrote, “Catholics are not permitted to participate in Protestant religious services.” He went on to state that for faithful Catholics, “Billy is a danger to the faith.”

Such a statement seems harsh in light of present-day Protestant-Catholic relations, but four decades ago the situation was much different. The breakthroughs in ecumenical relations heralded by the Second Vatican Council were still several years away, and in all fairness, many Protestants likewise had strong anti-Catholic views. For me the central issue has always been Christ and our commitment to Him, not our loyalty to an ecclesiastical system, important as the church is to our spiritual growth and service …

Much more painful to me, however, was the opposition from some of the leading fundamentalists. Most of them I knew personally, and even if I did not agree with them on every detail, I greatly admired them and respected their commitment to Christ. Many also had been among our strongest supporters in the early years of our public ministry. Their criticisms hurt immensely, nor could I shrug them off as the objections of people who rejected the basic tenants of the Christian faith or who opposed evangelism of any type. Their harshness and their lack of love saddened me and struck me as being far from the spirit of Christ.

The heart of the problem for men like Bob Jones, Carl McIntire, and John R. Rice was the sponsorship of the Crusade by the Protestant Council of New York. The council, they contended, included many churches and clergy who were theologically liberal and who denied some of the most important elements of the biblical message. It was not the first time some of them had raised their objections to my growing ecumenism, of course, but the New York Crusade marked their final break with our work. I studied and prayed over their criticisms, wanting to accept their indictments if they were right. But I came to the firm conclusion that they were not, and that God was leading us in a different direction. Ruth likewise studied the whole matter; we discussed the issue and prayed over it frequently. Her conclusion was the same as mine.

In addition, my study of the major evangelists in history also showed me that the issue was not new; every one of them – from Whitefield and Wesley to Moody and Sunday – had to contend with similar criticisms, both from the right and from the left.

Early in our work, I had tried to answer any such attacks, but I eventually decided the only course was to ignore them. The critics showed no inclination to change, and at any rate I did not have time to devote to such arguments. In a 1955 letter to Carl McIntire about an article he had written opposing our work, I admitted that, “I felt a little resentment and I got on my knees and asked God to give me love in my heart … Beloved friend, if you feel led of the Spirit of God to continue your attacks upon me, rest assured I shall not answer you back nor shall I attempt to harm one hair of your head … My objective is to glorify our Lord Jesus Christ by the preaching of His word to sinners.”

A year before the New York meetings, one of our Team members, Dr Ralph Mitchell, had an extended conversation with Bob Jones. He came away convinced Bob Jones would never change his position, which was that our work was not of God. Ralph concluded by writing me, “You must not concern yourself unduly about such critics … Nevertheless, it is a fresh challenge to all of us in the whole Association to be much more in prayer.” I agreed wholeheartedly and asked God to help keep us from being diverted from His work by such critics. Occasionally my father-in-law, Dr. Bell, attempted to answer such attacks, but with little success. I often felt like Nehemiah when his enemies tried to get him to stop rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem and come don to discuss the project; he replied that he was too busy building the wall (see Nehemiah 6:1-4).

My own position was that we should be willing to work with all who were willing to work with us. Our message was clear, and if someone with a radically different theological view somehow decided to join us in a Crusade that proclaimed Christ as the way of salvation, he or she was the one who was compromising personal convictions, not we.

The more vocal the opposition, however, the more the supporting churches in the New York area rallied to our side. God had a way of taking our problems and turning them to His own advantage.

Notes

1 Billy Graham, Just as I Am (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1957), 301-304.  

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John E.'s picture

"I studied and prayed over their criticisms, wanting to accept their indictments if they were right. But I came to the firm conclusion that they were not, and that God was leading us in a different direction. Ruth likewise studied the whole matter; we discussed the issue and prayed over it frequently. Her conclusion was the same as mine."

Maybe he wrote about this at other points, but I'm curious what he specifically studied, what he learned from that study, and what argument(s) he formulated to support his assertion that he, "should be willing to work with all who were willing to work with us."

On a personal note, it's very frustrating to be counseling/discipling a brother or sister in Christ over a specific point of theology or even a sin issue and their rejoinder to be (and pretty much only be), "John, I've studied and prayed about this." 

In my experience, the phrase "studied and prayed about this" is code for "I don't need actual arguments because my feelings are enough." I'm not saying that's what Billy Graham did, but, as I stated, I am curious whether or not he ever expounded on his arguments in other writings or speeches. 

TylerR's picture

I had the same thoughts. I know an autobiography isn't the place for detailed explanations about things like this, but I wish I had more details. I took it as code for "I just don't agree." I'd like to think Graham really studied and came to an informed conclusion, but I wouldn't be surprised if he didn't. He wouldn't be the first to do this (myself included).

Tyler Robbins is a pastor at Sleater-Kinney Road Baptist, in Olympia, WA, and an Investigations Manager with the State of Washington. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist

TylerR's picture

Yep; I'm using an excerpt from this for next week, to complement Graham's remarks here.

Tyler Robbins is a pastor at Sleater-Kinney Road Baptist, in Olympia, WA, and an Investigations Manager with the State of Washington. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist

David R. Brumbelow's picture

Key quote:

“My own position was that we should be willing to work with all who were willing to work with us. Our message was clear, and if someone with a radically different theological view somehow decided to join us in a Crusade that proclaimed Christ as the way of salvation, he or she was the one who was compromising personal convictions, not we.”  -Billy Graham

David R. Brumbelow

G. N. Barkman's picture

So we should be willing to work with known apostates if they are willing to work with us?  Is that what Scripture teaches?  Compromise on the part of apostates is expected.  That is at the core of who they are.  Compromise by the true servant is forbidden by God.

G. N. Barkman

Bert Perry's picture

....is that he was saying he wasn't trying to convert Jews and such.  Yes, makes for good PR, but hasn't he just told them they don't need to do anything to avoid Hell?

John E.'s picture

I read that quote. In fact, I included part of it in my first comment. But it doesn't answer my question. It simply states what he believed. I'm curious about what he studied and what arguments, shaped by that study, he used to arrive at that belief.  

WallyMorris's picture

The questions and discussion here and in other threads show that we need a thorough, theological biography of Graham. Unless his papers and archives have something to add (and only competent research will discover that), we will never know the reasoning behind his decisions concerning his evangelistic methodology. All we have are general statements about study and prayer. What we do have, however, are the results of that "study and prayer", results and consequences which will impact much longer than the memories of those who knew him. I suspect that eventually we will get more honest and Biblical evaluations of Graham from Evangelicals. But, for now, all we get are vague comments about "disagreements".

Wally Morris

Charity Baptist Church

Huntington, IN

amomentofcharity.blogspot.com

Mike Harding's picture

I suspect that Billy Graham's cooperation with Roman Catholic and Liberal Protestant churches may have contributed to his surprising statements on a qualified universalism in his infamous public interview with Robert Schuller. This position of Graham's goes all the way back to a written article in "DECISION" magazine (1960).  His statements in the Schuller interview are particularly alarming to those of us who believe in the exclusivity and necessity of the Gospel being understood and consciously believed in order to receive salvation. Schuller asked for a clarification of his broadly inclusive position, re-stated the inclusive position, and then Billy Graham deliberately reaffirmed it.  This is where ecumenism takes a person.  

Pastor Mike Harding

Lee's picture

John E. wrote:

I read that quote. In fact, I included part of it in my first comment. But it doesn't answer my question. It simply states what he believed. I'm curious about what he studied and what arguments, shaped by that study, he used to arrive at that belief.  

A question I am finding myself asking a lot these days goes something like this: "So, this issue drove you to the scriptures? What did scripture drive  you to affirm or change?" Sadly, most don't have an answer to part 2 of that question, just a "felt at peace" (modern speak for "prayer and study") or something equally nebulous which provides for the guilt-free practice of that which they wanted to do to begin with.  

I am bold enough to state that scripture did not drive Graham's inclusiveness; most likely "youthful lusts"--especially the overwhelming desire for apparent success--did.  I truly hope I am wrong in assessing his motives, but the evidence is pretty substantial.  

Lee

Ken S's picture

Lee wrote:

I am bold enough to state that scripture did not drive Graham's inclusiveness; most likely "youthful lusts"--especially the overwhelming desire for apparent success--did.  I truly hope I am wrong in assessing his motives, but the evidence is pretty substantial.  

 

What is the evidence that his motivation was the overwhelming desire for apparent success?

Bert Perry's picture

It strikes me that judging Graham's motives is an inherently dangerous business.  We know he did not fence off his crusades from apostates, and he explicitly said that he was not trying to convert certain populations.  We also know that his crusades got huge.  However, without someone fessing up about the matter, we do not yet know that B was the reason for A.  It's possible, and it's certainly consistent with some evidence, but we don't have causality as far as I can tell. 

Fred Moritz's picture

The information archived at the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton is exhaustive.  I spent a little time there.  A researcher can spend valuable time there.  And the Charlotte facility has fascinating information also.

WallyMorris's picture

Perhaps part of the answer to how someone can so strongly say they love Jesus and the gospel yet also deny fundamental aspects of the gospel while claiming to have "studied and prayed" about it lies in the situation of his daughter, Anne Lotz, who calls herself a preacher and evangelist. What did Graham think of that, did he accept that or ever contradict her aspirations, did Graham ever try to justify his daughter's "ministry" in light of NT teaching, etc? Perhaps Graham's reasoning process concerning his daughter would be similar to his reasoning process concerning ecumenical evangelism. He says he believes the Bible, but reasons/rationalizes certain teachings in order to justify personal situations or desires.

Wally Morris

Charity Baptist Church

Huntington, IN

amomentofcharity.blogspot.com

Lee's picture

Ken S wrote:

What is the evidence that his motivation was the overwhelming desire for apparent success?

The overwhelming desire for apparent success is a primary "youthful lust", but not the only one, as described (not defined) in II Tim. 2.  A lust that is peculiarly characteristic of children.   A primary element of success to the western mind is influence, almost inevitably measured numerically--number of people; number of money; or, more likely, both.

By his own statements his goal was increased influence by making these connections with apostates for the purpose of the gospel.  His desire was to preach the gospel. His greater desire was a broader audience (i.e., perceived success) which he actively pursued through incorporating apostates into the effort, and is ample evidence to conclude that his motivation was, in fact, one of the most common of "youthful lusts.

Lee

Ken S's picture

Lee wrote:

 

The overwhelming desire for apparent success is a primary "youthful lust", but not the only one, as described (not defined) in II Tim. 2.  A lust that is peculiarly characteristic of children.   A primary element of success to the western mind is influence, almost inevitably measured numerically--number of people; number of money; or, more likely, both.

By his own statements his goal was increased influence by making these connections with apostates for the purpose of the gospel.  His desire was to preach the gospel. His greater desire was a broader audience (i.e., perceived success) which he actively pursued through incorporating apostates into the effort, and is ample evidence to conclude that his motivation was, in fact, one of the most common of "youthful lusts.

 

I am trying to follow this reasoning and coming up short. Suppose I can choose between two opportunities, and in neither one compromising on methodology: In one setting I can minister to 1 person, and in the other setting I can minister to 500. I pray and consider, and end up choosing the setting of ministering to 500 people, believing that I will be able to have a greater impact because of the significant number of people. By this reasoning, I am guilty of youthful lust because I desired the greater impact.

 

I am not arguing that Billy Graham did not compromise. I am not even arguing whether he may have had sinful motivations. I am questioning the fact that you or I are able to discern the motives of his heart and assign sinful motivations to his actions. It's one thing to disagree with someone's decisions and believe it to be compromise, but it's a significant step further to assign the motivation for the action. It also seems to me rather uncharitable to assign the motives of someone's heart when there is not undeniable proof of what their motivations were. Yes, Billy Graham stated that he wanted a greater influence, but we do not truly know whether that was because of an inner desire for wealth/fame, or because he wanted more people to hear and believe the gospel.

John E.'s picture

Whether I agree with BG's methods or not, I think that it's safe to say, based on his overall impeccable morals in regards to finances (and women), that money and fame were probably not a driving force of his. It seems that steering into the desire for money and fame would've opened the floodgates to his heart for the types of sin we saw, and continue to see, among famous "preachers" over BG's lifetime. 

Ron Bean's picture

Why did BG undertake ecumenical evangelism? We all agree that there could be no Scriptural basis for it. (Remember all those sermons on Jehoshaphat and Ahab?) I had some relatives who were genuinely converted under BG's ministry and were avid supporters. As a new believer in the 70's who found himself in the center of militant fundamentalism, I had some heated arguments with them over BG. Their, and perhaps BG's, reasoning was that ecumenical evangelism brought more people under the sound of the Gospel and, when they were saved, they could back to their churches and tell others. 

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

WallyMorris's picture

John's last comment is why research into all the archives may be helpful. Unless we know someone personally, and pretty well at that, evaluating motives is dangerous. As a pastor, I have had many people make numerous assumptions about my motives, people who barely know me. Graham made the decision to include unbelievers in his crusades as platform speakers and counselors/workers. Why? Conservative Evangelicals will say they "disagree" with that practice, but offer no explanation about why Graham did it. This issue is very relevant to today since Graham's methodology is still practiced by the BGEA and other evangelistic groups.

Ron's last comment includes the "infiltration" methodology, which has several Scriptural and practical problems. I don't think Ron is necessarily approving of that method, just stating that was their reason. Did Graham's method allow people to hear the gospel? Yes. But  is that reason to disobey Biblical principle? Did people in liberal and Catholic churches need to hear the gospel from their friends who got saved at a Graham crusade? Yes. But was that reason to disobey Biblical principle?

Much of the conversation about Graham uses the many who got saved as justification for his methods. But who knows what would have happened had Graham not abandoned Biblical principle? If many got saved by wrong methods, then perhaps many more would have gotten saved AND discipled properly through right methods. We'll never know.

Wally Morris

Charity Baptist Church

Huntington, IN

amomentofcharity.blogspot.com

John E.'s picture

Yes.

This is why I'm curious to read the arguments BG formulated and that he used to justify his methods. Frankly, I know very little about BG. Growing up, he was declared anathema, but at the time I didn't care either way. All but one year (the first year) of my life as a Christian has been spent in IX Marks churches that don't really talk about BG for good or ill.

If I ever find myself at Wheaton or in Charlotte, and have the time, I may peruse the BG collections per Fred Moritz's suggestion. Until then, I'm still curious if there are any books or lectures floating around that detail BG's actual arguments (not his assertions).

TylerR's picture

JohnE:

I doubt such a book exists, and I suspect Graham deliberately didn't write about it. The fundamentalists who criticized his methods seem to be like so many fruit flies to him  meaningless and insignificant. I doubt he was ever really in a position after the 1957 crusade that obligated him to defend his methodology. Thus, we have nothing.

Quite frankly, I think he was too busy to be bothered with a systematic defense of his methods, especially from relatively insignificant critics. Even if he did produce such a defense, I suspect we have the distillation of it in the autobiographical excerpt in this very article. In short, I think we have our answer - read the article above! 

What we have about Graham is either hagiography or severe criticism (e.g. Pickering's book The Tragedy of Compromise). As Wally said, an objective biography should be done. 

Tyler Robbins is a pastor at Sleater-Kinney Road Baptist, in Olympia, WA, and an Investigations Manager with the State of Washington. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist

John E.'s picture

If that's true, that's disappointing. 

Ron Bean's picture

The assignment of suspected motives to both BG and his opponents seems to me to be of little profit. We've heard a lot of BG's suspected motives. We've also heard of the suspected motives of his opponents. Bob Jones Sr. has been accused of jealously because his fame as a primarily Southern evangelist had faded and BG had become a bigger "star" than any of his early 20th Century predecessors, primarily because of media. 

I think that until we have proof, we should let BG's compromise stand on its own.

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

WallyMorris's picture

I agree with much of what has been said here. However, I would not refer to Graham's critics as "relatively insignificant". Many of his critics were long-time friends and mentors who were deeply hurt and astounded at his rejection of what he previously said he believed. People usually only become angry or emotional about what is important to them. Graham was important to them, as was Biblical principle. To do what he did - reject Biblical principles and accept cooperation from unbelievers - hurt deeply. I don't think we can imagine how that was. The word "relatively" might apply in that they were never as famous as Graham, but certainly not insignificant.

The type of book I would like to see is a theological biography - analysis of his beliefs over his lifetime, how they changed, what didn't change, compared to Biblical teaching/principle and theology and using/investigating all the archives and resources available.

Wally Morris

Charity Baptist Church

Huntington, IN

amomentofcharity.blogspot.com

TylerR's picture

Yes, I meant "relatively insignificant" in the sense you suggested. Meaning, no fundamentalist had the stature (certainly after 1957) to obligate Graham to actually provide a Biblical defense of his evangelistic methodology. He was too popular, too big, and doing too many "big things" to need to care about fundamentalist support. In that sense, fundamentalists who criticized Graham's methods were "relatively insignificant." 

Tyler Robbins is a pastor at Sleater-Kinney Road Baptist, in Olympia, WA, and an Investigations Manager with the State of Washington. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist

John E.'s picture

I'd buy that book. I nominate you to write it.

Ron Bean's picture

"Hurt" was not a word I would use to describe the former associates of BG I heard when they talked about him in the pulpit, but then again I don't know what was in their heart----just what they said. And Tyler has a point about insignificant. Compared to BG's popularity, fundamentalism was hardly a blip on the radar.

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

Lee's picture

Ron Bean wrote:

"Hurt" was not a word I would use to describe the former associates of BG I heard when they talked about him in the pulpit, but then again I don't know what was in their heart----just what they said. And Tyler has a point about insignificant. Compared to BG's popularity, fundamentalism was hardly a blip on the radar.

"Grieved" is probably a better word.  Grieved is a love/relationship word.  The wrong-doing of someone with whom you have no relationship may offend, even hurt, you.  But the wrong-doing of someone who you dearly love grieves you.  Ask any parent who has had a son or daughter act in such a way that the relationship was irreparably broken whether they were hurt or grieved and you will see the difference in their eyes.  I happened to know several people who were actively working with Graham prior to 1957 that, when he was contemplating this compromise, begged him with open Bible and tear filled eyes not to surrender the purity of the Gospel for an opportunity for "greater good", knowing that that compromise would almost assuredly, irrevocably change their relationship in the Gospel.  They were grieved.

As to motive: motive is almost always determined by evidence.  I still contend that the evidence concludes, at the least "beyond reasonable doubt", that his '57 and subsequent decisions were motivated by his assessment that doing so would provide greater influence and wider audiences. To his credit, there does not appear to be the slightest evidence that money motivated his moves.  Money is indeed a great motivator, but certainly not the only one.

Lee

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