Billy Graham’s Rule – misusing it to hold back women and men of God

[Kelly Ladd Bishop writes today’s guest post on a well known rule, and how it (like rules generally) gets in the way of people following God and doing the work he’s called them to do.]

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Recently a reporter noted that vice president Mike Pence never dines with women alone, nor does he attend functions without his wife if alcohol is being served. This is a version of, what some call, the “Billy Graham rule.” The name for this rule refers to one of the rules Graham set for himself in the 1940s, when he was a traveling evangelist drawing crowds of thousands to stadiums to hear his preaching. The rule was part of a set of rules designed to protect the integrity of Graham’s ministry, as so many celebrity preachers had fallen to the temptations that surround them.

This particular rule, about never spending time alone with someone of the opposite sex, has been adopted and adapted by Christians over the decades. I have heard it many times from Christian men, particularly male pastors. To avoid any appearance of sin or temptation, many Christian men choose to never be alone with a woman. Since the report that Mike Pence follows a similar set of rules, the conversation has been back at the forefront of Christian discussion.

While there are times when it is appropriate for a person to set up boundaries that protect his or her marriage, it is not appropriate to make blanket statements or rules regarding the opposite sex – especially when it puts one sex at a real disadvantage in business, ministry, or life in general. It also doesn’t respect either men or women. It assumes that men can’t control themselves in the presence of a women who is not their wife, and that women are temptations that must be avoided. As brothers and sisters in Christ, we can do better.

While many people have been speaking out about the problems with this rule, some Christians have been fiercely defending it. Kevin DeYoung is a pastor and a blogger for The Gospel Coalition. He tweeted the following in defense of the rule:

The problem with this tweet is that it’s not a defense of anything. A straw man argument is an argument that sounds like it is refuting an opposing view, but is actually refuting an argument that was never made. No one ever argued that the “rule” is troublesome because all wives really want their husbands to spend more time with other women. No one ever said a marriage is better when one partner spends a lot of time alone with other people of the opposite sex. These types of arguments are nothing more than a distraction. They cause people to think they are agreeing with a great response to an argument, which is actually not a response to anything at all.

Generally speaking, Kevin DeYoung is probably correct. There aren’t many women who would say, “I’d feel better if my husband spent more time alone with other women.” And it’s also likely true that there aren’t many men who would say, “I’d feel better if my wife spent more time alone with other men.” But there are many men and women who would have a difficult time in their careers, or wouldn’t have a career, if they refused to have a business lunch with a client, customer, or associate of the opposite sex. Doctors, nurses, counselors, and therapists regularly have patients of the opposite sex. And, generally speaking, pastors should be able to meet with staff and church members of the opposite sex. Even friendships with someone of the opposite sex aren’t inherently dangerous. Every person is not a walking sexual temptation, or an out of control libido. Every person IS a child of God. Maybe we should start there.

DeYoung’s tweet implies that wives finding the so-called “Billy Graham” rule problematic is equivalent to those wives desiring that their husbands spend more time with other women. This argument is ridiculous. It is possible that a wife can accept that her husband has a legitimate reason to meet with another woman, and that it is not a threat to their marriage. This is called trust. It is also possible that a husband can accept that his wife has a legitimate reason to meet with another man, because he understands the situation, and trusts her. Not only does DeYoung’s argument have nothing at all to do with the concerns people have regarding Pence and Graham’s rule, but it is a bit of an insult to people who are negatively affected by these rules – to all the women who have been refused mentoring by their bosses, who have been denied meetings, who can’t advance in their careers, and who have been treated like nothing more than temptations. Don’t be side tracked by a straw man argument.

Sorry Kevin DeYoung, you are way off base on this one.

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Kelly holds an M.Div, and a B.A. in Biology. She spent seven years working in youth ministry, and has most recently worked as an associate pastor. She preaches, teaches, writes, speaks, and mentors teens. Kelly is passionate about exploring God’s word and issues of faith and culture. She is a Huffington Post contributor and blogs at www.kellyladdbishop.com. You can follow Kelly on Facebook and on Twitter.

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14 Responses to Billy Graham’s Rule – misusing it to hold back women and men of God

  1. esbee says:

    Maybe Billy Graham made that rule not because of temptation to sin but to protect himself and his ministry against anyone who could use being alone with him as a trap to discredit him saying “he made a pass at me” and with only 2 in the room, it is his word against hers. And when you are a public figure and meet many strangers on a daily basis, you have not idea who is out there. And with the fake news and yellow journalism and just plain hate against this administration, i agree with Pence, you gotta be real careful.

    • Tim says:

      I agree with the need to not let oneself be put in a situation where people can make false accusations, if possible. But false accusations come in one form or another, regardless of closed doors.

      Besides, the point of this post is not whether leaving the door open deflects false accusations. It’s how the rule is being used so as to hold back women and men of God from working together.

    • I think Billy Graham was in a very public ministry in a time when celebrity evangelists around him were falling into scandal and disgrace, so he tried to be proactive in protecting the integrity of his ministry. He took the same approach with his financials. He was also ministering in a time when women didn’t hold as many professional positions as they do today – especially in the church. So I’m not trying to say that it was completely bad for Billy Graham to set boundaries at that time. There are definitely times when boundaries and protections around one’s marriage are critical. But I do think it’s problematic as a general rule of thumb. If men are never willing to meet with women, then where does that leave women? I’d lean more towards using good judgment and common sense on a case by case basis.

  2. Your argument against DeYoung’s statement is logically sound. I appreciate that. It seems the whole “Billy Graham rule” situation is more nuanced. We can’t deny the fact that every believer may have to draw boundaries that look different, so if we hold to that, we’d better stand by it and leave off any double standard. However, I do see the trouble with Pence’s stance as well. Why should his wife babysit him in every meeting where he might be alone with a woman? Secondly, others will adopt it just because a leader models it, without contemplating the ramifications. It could be a blind following rather than faith-led, love-based decision. I guess my main point is this: let Christians follow Jesus over rules. Be led by faith, not fear. (Which you no doubt agree with.) I’ll probably think of another point later, but right now it eludes me. Anyway, thanks for the post.

  3. Alana Childers says:

    This is a great article, especially how it discusses the historical roots of the “rule” and how it is not typically necessary to apply it today. As a nerd who sees things statistically, I dug up some numbers. Statisticsbrain.com cites that only 22% of married men commit infidelity at some point during the marriage, followed closely by 14% of married women. To me, this says that the majority of Christians shouldn’t feel pressured to live by the “Billy Graham rule”, however, at least one out of five men probably would do well to set extra protections in place, if they have strayed before or felt more strongly tempted, and feel the Lord asks them to be more careful. This is an area in which we all ought to lean heavily on the Holy Spirit, and try not to be too judgmental toward those who need more safeguards than we do. For example, I can have a glass of wine, and I never feel interested in a second. It’s just not my temptation. I go to art walks and enjoy the free wine with no temptation at all to drink and drive. Now, another believer who is weak in this area may feel the need to abstain from drink entirely, or even abstain from going to the art walk with us. I can simultaneously affirm that believer’s obedience to the Holy Spirit by not criticizing their abstinence from alcohol or certain events, while at the same time encourage the greater majority of believers not to limit the Holy Spirit by taking “rules” on them that just don’t apply – I’ve had a number of opportunities to share Jesus while going to art events. If I held myself to a strict rule to avoid events w alcohol, I would limit my ability to follow the Spirit! Similarly, many believers should be very careful about using someone else’s “Billy Graham” rule to limit themselves if the Holy Spirit has not called them to do so…. while at the SAME time, affirming and encouraging those among us who do feel called to follow more strict precautions. There really is no “one size fits all” in this matter. I do disagree with the way the header is phrased, “a well known rule, and how it (like rules generally) gets in the way of people following God”… claiming that “rules generally” get in the way is not biblical, and a dangerous claim. Matt 5:17 Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” Rules, in general, are allowed and often directly given by God to help us live orderly lives and free us to share the Gospel. The Bible is full of rules for living, and society is full of unwritten “rules” for how to treat people respectfully and appropriately, and government law (Rom 13:1) is a set of rules to manage the complexity of human interactions, to help society function well. I would claim that the vast majority of “rules” are endorsed by the Lord, and only a few are rules that go into excessive legalism and draw us away from God. Now, I’ll go on about legalism all day, and how dangerous it is! A rule like the Billy Graham is not legalism if that individual feels led by the Holy Spirit to keep to it… it ONLY becomes legalism when that person tries to pressure every other believer to obey it. Any rule that isn’t specifically laid out in the Bible cannot be universally applied, otherwise it becomes legalism. However, that doesn’t mean we should reject “rules generally” as coming between us and the Lord. I’m sure there are Holy Spirit filled women and men who feel led to abide by the “Billy Graham” rule, and other Holy Spirit filled men and women who don’t. One size just doesn’t fit all. God bless!

  4. I appreciate your post, Kelly. I too was irritated by DeYoung’s flippant tweet — as if he’d stated the final word on this when in fact it was no argument at all.

  5. keriwyattkent says:

    Unfortunately, many of the folks at TGC seem to love straw man arguments. It’s a subtle form of victim blaming and shaming that they tend to rely on to make their points. Dr. Carrie Miles has a great article on the same topic here: http://empowerinternational.org/mike-pence-billy-graham-and-why-its-not-always-nice-to-be-nice/

  6. Tim says:

    Kelly, thanks for allowing me to run your post here today.

    I’m in a profession where men and women meet together all the time to get the work done. That hasn’t tired the place into some sort of Playboy Mansion. We just work together.

    • I’m astounded!
      I sometimes feel that people who work in the church are much less comfortable dealing with “regular world” situations. This isn’t great for missions or evangelism! (And I work in the church, so I don’t mean that as an insult to everyone in church ministry, just a general observation.)

  7. roscuro says:

    One thing that always occurs to me when it comes to how Christians interact with one another, is that Paul told Timothy to treat older women as mothers and younger women as sisters. The mindset the younger pastor was to develop was to regard the women of the church in the light of close blood relatives, rendering it unthinkable to indulge in any wrong relationships with them. Perhaps cultivating such a mindset among church members would be a more effective strategy than making rules about never being alone with members of the opposite sex.

  8. Pastor_Bob says:

    “This is called trust.”
    vs
    “Avoid the appearance of evil.”

    Where oh where is the balance? One position may cause another to stumble, so where is teh balance?
    Case by case and TRUST — these
    MUST go hand in hand.

    Pastor meets with a woman, why do we assume the worst?

    There are those who have a jealous spouse, then what?

    Case by case and —– TRUST.

  9. Elizabeth says:

    My husband is in women’s homes all day long, 5 days a week cleaning carpet and furniture. We’d be broke and hungry if we followed such an archaic rule, even though as a man in a great ministry, I understand Dr. Graham’s point. As always, case by case… wisdom and discernment…

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