Franklin Graham Harms Gospel Witness, Norway Evangelicals Say

The Reverend Franklin Graham giving a benediction prayer at the Inauguration of Donald J. Trump, held in Washington, DC on Friday, January 20,2017.
The Reverend Franklin Graham giving a benediction prayer at the Inauguration of Donald J. Trump, held in Washington, DC on Friday, January 20,2017. | (Photo: Screengrab/YouTube/NBC News)

American evangelicals should take note of the revolt against Franklin Graham being led by conservative evangelicals in Europe.

Politics may be local, but the Church is universal. And when major evangelical leaders from other parts of the world say they can't associate themselves with Franklin Graham because of the harm he is causing to the Christian witness, it is worth understanding why.

Last year, The Billy Graham Evangelical Association announced that a revival Festival was being planned for late 2017 in Oslo, Norway. As part of the announcement, it rolled out an organizing committee made up of a who's who of Norway's major evangelical leaders and a number of key evangelical politicians. But the fate of the event is now in serious question after a mass exodus from the organizing committee and by key evangelical sponsors, all disassociating themselves from the event because of its keynote speaker — Franklin Graham.

The pastors objecting to these statements are not pastors from different theological traditions or rehashing traditional left/right disagreements over social issues. The pastors, center-right politicians, and evangelical groups pulling their support were the original organizers of the event with deep historical ties and theological connections to Billy Graham and his ministry. But they believe Graham's statements over the last few months no longer reflect a message based on the Gospel.

Many objected to Franklin Graham's statements that God directly intervened on Donald Trump's behalf in the election as "the answer to people's prayers." And Franklin Graham's calls to stop all refugees, including Christians from Darfur and fleeing ISIS, from receiving sanctuary in America, has alarmed evangelicals who work with the persecuted church in those regions.

Others have objected to the extreme and partisan statements Franklin Graham has made around Islam. Franklin Graham said that the Obama White House has been "infiltrated by Muslims ... influencing the president, who as we all know was raised with a strong Muslim influence in his life." And Franklin Graham said Islam is "a very evil and wicked religion," calling on American leaders to treat Muslim immigrants the same way we did Germans and Japanese during WWII.

Øyvind Åsland, secretary general of the largest evangelical mission ministry in Northern Europe, exemplifies the leaders withdrawing their support. His organization, Norwegian Lutheran Mission, advocates doctors' right to refuse to refer for abortion, affirms a traditional view of marriage and the doctrine of hell, and has been an ally with Samaritan's Purse in global outreach. But Åsland has pulled his initial support of the festival, saying he simply cannot continue to ignore Graham's extreme rhetoric and its harmful impact on global Christian missions.

The head of Norway's evangelical Lutheran mission ministry and former head of the Lutheran Free Church Synod both withdrew their support in a joint statement, citing Graham's increasingly partisan positioning and unquestioning defense of Donald Trump as stumbling blocks that would overshadow the gospel message.

Three prolific conservative Christian Parliament members have pulled their support over Franklin Graham's statements about Muslims and immigrants. One of them is a government minister in the ruling centre-right coalition in Norway, and a member of the right-libertarian Progress Party. He and two other politicians (one Christian Democrat, one Conservative) signed a joint letter to the organising committee saying Graham's broad statements about Muslims reveal unacceptable and dangerous attitudes that go beyond legitimate religious disagreements.

Even the international director of Norway's largest Christian think tank, who maintained his role on the committee after the initial round of withdrawals, pulled out after attending the National Prayer Breakfast. As he watched Graham speak in person, he said it became clear how much Graham's unquestioning and uncritical support of Donald Trump "diminishes his credibility as an evangelist."

Finally, the Graham Festivals rely on local churches to promote the event, invite their non-Christian friends, and follow up with converts after the event. But in Oslo, pastors from the city's largest Evangelical and Pentecostal churches have said they will not be offering active support to Graham's campaign — saying Graham's politics make him a divisive figure for Christian churches who will hinder, rather than empower, witness to non-believers.

It is precisely because these conservative Evangelical leaders care about the Christian witness and the importance of conservative Christian values in society that they are saying they cannot be associated with Franklin Graham. While they all agree that the Christians should pray for political leaders and that God can use the worst leaders for his purpose, they have said Graham's increasingly unchristian rhetoric and claim that God intervened to ensure Trump won have undermined Graham's credibility and witness.

Even if the Oslo event does manage to hobble forward — something that seems increasingly unlikely after only five people participated in the first information session this past week for churches interested in attending — it will never be more than a small shell of what it could have been.

That is the tragedy and lesson. A great opportunity to come together in order to share the Gospel of Jesus and witness to non-believers has been lost because one of its ministers set his gaze and hope too firmly on a worldly powers.

Stefan Fisher-Høyrem is a historian in the Department of Religion, Philosophy, and History at the University of Agder, Norway and taught Christian apologetics at Norway's evangelical NLA University College.

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