When Billy Graham was on the evangelism circuit he was one of the most popular preachers in the United States, and known throughout the world for his multi-day events with gospel-soaked music, celebrity testimonies of faith and his nightly sermons calling people to Jesus.
He learned early on that such a life was fraught with dangerous temptations. As Mr Graham wrote in his autobiography:
The second item on the list was the danger of sexual immorality. We all knew of evangelists who had fallen into immorality while separated from their families by travel. We pledged among ourselves to avoid any situation that would have even the appearance of compromise or suspicion. From that day on, I did not travel, meet or eat alone with a woman other than my wife. We determined that the Apostle Paul’s mandate to the young pastor Timothy would be ours as well: “Flee … youthful lusts” (2 Timothy 1:22, KJV). (Excerpted from The Modesto Manifesto: A Declaration of Biblical Integrity.)
While this was merely one part of an agreement covering other topics such as financial integrity, the point concerning avoiding women in private settings has become known as the Billy Graham Rule. When Mr. Graham drafted the Modesto pact with his ministry partners, they were all men. It was easy to carry out their ministry without meeting a woman alone since the leadership of the ministry was made up entirely of men. That was not unusual in the late 1940s.
Seventy Years Later
Many men today continue to follow some version of the Billy Graham Rule: never be seen alone with a woman and never meet with a woman privately. But the Billy Graham Rule is not a solution to the problems these men think they face (real or imagined). It’s not even a band-aid. It’s a hindrance to pursuing the work of the kingdom of God.
Imagine how this plays out in modern ministry organizations.
Bill – “Tom and I were talking over lunch before the meeting today and thought you all might be ready to discuss a change in personnel for the Florida office.”
[Discussion ensues, and then as the meeting is wrapping up and everyone heads back to their offices …]
Karen – “I didn’t want to call you out in front of the others, Bill, but Florida is in my territory. Tom oversees the Pacific Northwest. You should have run this by me over lunch before bringing it up with anyone else.”
Bill – “Karen, you know you and I can’t do lunch. Tom probably would have had to be there anyway.”
Karen – “Hmm. Can we talk about this further in your office?”
Bill – “Sure. Bring Sandra.”
Karen – “Sandra? You mean the intern who orders our office supplies?”
Bill – “Yes. Don’t forget to leave my door open when you two get there.”
Some organizations would avoid this problem altogether by never allowing a woman in a position of authority. They’d all be Sandra, making sure the men who run the ministry have enough office supplies.
The Rule has gained traction beyond churches and other ministry organizations, though. Men in leadership of private and public institutions say they feel the need to restrict themselves from contact with women.
Most of the time this comes up it’s not for the reason Mr. Graham and his colleagues made their pledge to one another – evangelists on the road are tempted to have sex. Rather, these men today feel that if they let themselves be seen alone with a woman at a restaurant they’d be opening themselves up to gossip, and if they let themselves meet with a woman behind closed doors they’d be opening themselves up to false charges of sexual harassment.
So every meeting with a woman needs a chaperone.
What does this mean? It means women are shut out from opportunities to serve to their fullest potential; if lunch meetings were not important for the work of the organization, the men wouldn’t be having them. It also means men lose out on the wisdom, guidance, help, and experience of people who may be better equipped and positioned to serve the organization’s goals, just because those people happen to be women.
And, above all, this modern insistence on the Billy Graham Rule gives men one more excuse to tell women who they can associate with, where they can go, and how they can spend their time.
Here’s some advice for those men:
- Treat women and men the same. Meet with them or don’t, that’s up to you. But don’t base your decision on the basis of who has the same genitalia as you and who doesn’t.
- If you think you are likely to have sex with a co-worker if left alone with her, don’t be alone with her. But this is a bigger problem than the Billy Graham Rule can solve, and you need to seek professional help to address it.
- Don’t look on women as potential sources of false accusations. If someone – whether a man or woman – is going to lie about you, they won’t need the convenience of a closed door to make something up and accuse you of wrongdoing.
- Give your friends and colleagues some credit for having brains in their heads. If you meet with a woman for lunch or dinner, or are seen conversing with her alone at a conference or sitting together at the bar for a drink, there certainly may be idiots who will jump to the wrong conclusion. Don’t let their concerns keep you from that lunch meeting or taking time to touch base at a conference.
Jesus confronted gossips head on:
“To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others:
“‘We played the pipe for you,
and you did not dance;
we sang a dirge,
and you did not mourn.’
For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her deeds.” (Matthew 11:16-19.)
Jesus knew there was no pleasing gossips. Jesus acted one way while his cousin John acted the other, and the gossips criticized both. His solution is that “wisdom is proved right by her deeds.” In other words, do the right and wise thing and let gossips gossip as they may. That’s what Jesus did, that’s what John did, and both of them weren’t going to let small minded people keep them from doing what is right.
In fact, Jesus’ experiences with women would not stand up to the Billy Graham Rule, such as these two:
He met the Samaritan woman at the well. She arrived after his friends had left Jesus to go find food in the nearby village. Not only did Jesus not leave immediately, he engaged her in a lengthy conversation. She and his disciples alike were amazed he’d spend time alone her, but he didn’t bat an eye at the situation. (John 4.)
He went to a dinner party where a woman of bad reputation – perhaps a prostitute – arrived, started caressing his feet and kissing them, showing her devotion to him. Rather than send her away as his Pharisee host expected, Jesus honored the woman with his love and respect. (Luke 7.)
This is the way to follow Jesus, and it is not accomplished by keeping your distance from people with differing genitalia. Rather, it is accomplished by embracing all the people God has put in your life, men and women alike.