There has been a diverse reaction to the news that US evangelist Franklin Graham is to lead a mission to preach the gospel in Britain in 2020.
Several bishops have dissociated themselves from his visit. But another one has come out in favour, and the Evangelical Alliance has given him a supportive plug.
So it is worth asking: Why might a suggested visit by this preacher – son of the famous Billy – make some react with caution? And are they right?
The first reason many have reservations is recent history: Franklin Graham’s visit to Blackpool in 2018 generated a fair amount of controversy. Some of that came, as one might expect, from non-Christians. Some came from liberal Christians, opposed to his traditionalist stance on ethical issues. But some also came from committed evangelicals in the area, for reasons we shall see below, and this apparently led to damaged relationships with others who did believe it right to get involved. That’s a great shame.
The second reason is the issue of Franklin’s ‘baggage’ – Donald Trump. It’s hard for many American Christians to get their heads around how much most people in Britain loathe Trump, and how that revulsion is also felt by many godly British believers. There’s not space here to go into all the reasons for that – but, rightly or wrongly, it is there. So pictures like this one showing Franklin Graham holding children’s story books praising Trump aren’t going to do him any favours. And suggestions that opposition to Trump is demonic won’t help him either.
In his involvement with politics, Franklin Graham differs from his father Billy. As the Christian History Institute records: ‘When the movement known as the Religious Right surfaced in the late 1970s, [Billy] declined to participate in it, warning fellow Christian leaders to “be wary of exercising political influence” lest they lose their spiritual impact.’ It is not just in the UK that Franklin’s political statements have raised eyebrows. In 2017, some conservative evangelicals in Norway withdrew their backing due to his support for Trump.
Then, thirdly, there are also allegations of Franklin Graham being involved in ‘hate speech’ – though to be honest this mostly seems to be the standard allegation aimed at anyone espousing traditional Christian beliefs these days. Fourthly and finally, there are questions about whether the initiative for this visit came from UK church leaders or whether he originated the idea himself. (It’s generally reckoned his father Billy always waited for invites to come to him before going anywhere.)
But all that said, we must turn to Scripture. The apostle John in his second letter talks about how important it is Christians show discernment by not welcoming some preachers. However, these are people who deny central truths about Christ. Elsewhere in the New Testament, Jesus warns against those who nullify God’s Word by their tradition (Mark 7v13) and whose fruit is ‘bad’ (Matthew 7v17). And we are told to be vigilant against those who promote immorality (Jude), appeal to greed (2 Peter 2), preach another gospel (Galatians 1), or follow secular trends (2 Timothy 4).
It is hard to apply any of those things, so far as I know, to Franklin Graham. And perhaps the apostle Paul would give us further cause to think hard. He swallowed his real reservations about some of his fellow first century preachers (who were much more dubious than Franklin Graham) and said that ‘the important thing’ was ‘that in every way’, despite his reservations about them, Christ was still preached (Philippians 1v18). He added: ‘And because of this I rejoice.’
Moreover, if Christ is to be preached, then what would we expect to happen in terms of the spiritual battle? We would expect opposition, misinformation, confusion and potential division. Such was what happened when Billy Graham came to the UK in 1954. There was opposition from secular newspapers, MPs, at least one bishop and from the British Council of Churches. So opposition is not new; but those helping Franklin Graham with his planning should advise him really thoroughly, to help him avoid any needless own-goals.
At the end of the day, I believe Franklin Graham will preach Jesus authentically. And people need Jesus more than anything or anyone else. His mission to Australia in 2019 seems to have helped people come to faith.
So let’s either be supportive or, if we can’t in all conscience back him, instead keep a tactful silence; his job is tough enough without friendly fire. We could actually even pray for him!
David Baker is a former daily newspaper journalist now working as an Anglican minister in Sussex, England. Find him on Twitter @Baker_David_A
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