wom an manMissio Alliance posted an article entitled “Why I Learned to Stop Worrying About the Billy Graham Rule and Love Like Jesus.” I passed it on to some and a bit of a discussion started up on social media. I came back from all-day meetings to find a big discussion with some pretty heated exchanges. Some shared of their own experience, often feeling discriminated against because of the so-called “Billy Graham Rule.” Others shared how critical that rule was to their own life. Others tried to find a third way through the debate.

A little background… As Ty Grigg, the author of the post at Missio Nexus points out, “Billy Graham had a rule that he would not meet, travel, or eat with another woman alone. It came to be known as the Billy Graham rule and has been widely embraced by Evangelicals over the past 60 years to prevent infidelity or even the ‘appearance of evil.'”

It may seem unfair to call this the “Billy Graham Rule” as Graham never set it out as a rule. But for sure he was one of the famous pioneers of this practice. And it’s hard to argue with the legacy of a guy like Graham. His legendary influence only added more strength to this private practice he and Ruth Graham lived out.

The author of the article calls Graham’s practice into question as a “rule” however, claiming that it misses the real point of temptation, and perhaps unintentionally excludes women from leadership development opportunities. He goes so far as to actually claim that this rule may be part of the problem of infidelity, when he says, “When the other gender is kept at a distance, there is less chance for mutual respect and trust to grow. Our fear and distancing diminish mutual respect and create the kind of environment where inappropriate relating is more likely to occur.” I think this is a possible consequence that bears examination psychologically for us as ministers and all Christian leaders.

The way many of us treat this practice it has become a bit of a shibboleth matter. It makes me wonder, for a male minister, is being alone with a woman really the eighth deadly sin?

A few responses my friends gave were very interesting to me, including this one from Pastor Paul from Minnesota:

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And also this one from Pastor Joel from Alabama with the opposite sentiment:

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Mindy Clark shared this along with other stories of missed investment opportunities because of the “Billy Graham rule”:

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And a Pastor’s spouse and counselor Dale Salway shared this insight along with other comments related to counseling contexts:

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And Pastor Priscilla from Georgia shared this from her experience:

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But what do I think about it? Here goes:

1) I think the article makes you think about these issues–but it’s not the be-all-end-all article on the subject. It is phrased in a way to make us question whether the “obviousness of the rule” is as obviously absolute as so many have made it.

2) Legalism is not being strict, it is believing that the keeping of the rules themselves are what saves you. (Make note of that in general when we criticize legalism, by the way.) So, we should remember that A) the “Billy Graham Rule” itself is not really what saved Graham from sin, but was only a part of the nexus of the man’s holiness that contributed to it, and B) Graham, as has been noted, didn’t force this rule on others, but instead lived such a life worth emulating that he was copied ad nauseam, perhaps without analysis or even with his intent. I don’t believe he thought this rule “saved him” from anything by itself, we shouldn’t be under such delusions either. Only by the grace of God.

3) I think it is important to remove this discussion from a gender-based one and put it more rightly into matters of wrong appearances, being “above reproach” in a more holistic way, and of not putting yourself into temptations way, or putting another person into that context. I think these discussions can happen without being obsessed with the opposite sex as the source of all such sin. This is the fundamental problem which has unintentionally proved to be a ceiling for women, and one that is quite painful for some. I’d advise all of us to be mindful of that and wise in our speech, and also to analyze our actions as to whether we have unwittingly excluded women from leadership development through this rule. Such a question shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand, I think, because of a rule that is pretty recent in it’s development in the church. It does concern me that male ministers may find themselves alone with a woman through circumstance someday, and that woman truly is attracted to the minister, and in that situation the minister would be so unable to cope with that context that they just plunge headlong into the affair, as a cascade of emotions hit them all at once. In fact, I have heard that story a few times before. I wonder if having appropriate relationships across gender lines is the real aim–and not sure the rule itself provides that context–it might even preclude it.

4) All in all, it seems that wisdom and caution are needed, and that boundaries are important, and context matters. I’m not here to defend the article… perhaps some of us will write articles that approach this in a less controversial and measured way, until that time I thought this deserved our attention, analysis, and appropriate reassessment of our practices. This struck a chord with many. I’m glad we’re thinking about it.

I’ll end with a story:

When I was in my council of ordination process the older white men on my committee asked me in our private sessions if I had a rule for my ministry of “never being alone with a woman.” It seemed to me that it was asked of all the candidates in rote. I told them that yes, I had that rule, and that my wife and I talked about it in Seminary and agreed to it early.

Feeling ambivalent already about it, I then shared that I had two male mentors in my ministry so far, and that both of them had this rule for their ministry, and proudly proclaimed it. However, both of those men had stumbled while I was in Seminary, they had inappropriate relationships, and then neither would  seek restitution or submit to a process of ministerial restoration afterwards. Because of this, I shared, I had begun to wonder if the rule was really a minor part of the puzzle of temptation and moral failure, not a key part of it.

I went on to say that my new church plant had begun to minister to those with same-sex attraction, and that from time to time I might drop off one the men who would confess to that attraction at their home after an event. I asked them if perhaps that situation was a concern, and rather than being alone with a woman, perhaps more of a concern. I told them I would want them to “have my back” if I was wrongly accused by a woman, but that perhaps it would be harder for them to do so if wrongly accused by a man, hypothetically. As a 22-year old right out of seminary I asked these questions of my committee seeking their advice.

They changed the subject instead, clearly uncomfortable with the direction I had taken the discussion.

I’m unwilling to change the subject forever on this one.

Let’s be wise in not putting ourselves in danger, friends and ministry leaders. But let’s also realize that the true danger to develop inappropriate relationships is in our hearts, as is shown by a several ministers I know of who developed  inappropriate internet and phone relationships with someone of the opposite sex they were never once alone with.

The other dangerous sin is the prejudice against those unlike us that often blinds us to unintended effects as well. Making a woman feel that her very gender is a stumbling block to me, making her feel that her femininity is some kind of sinful temptation that cannot be in my presence without it offending my holiness–well, that may not be my intent with a rule like this. But anymore I’m just unwilling to have that “appearance of evil” in my ministry either. I’ll leave those kinds of appearances to people with the worldview of Pastor Mark Driscoll.

This is a complex issue, and I’m not trying to tear anyone’s ministry or marriage down. It may be that some of us have figured out ways to live by this Billy Graham Rule but at the same time intentionally invest in developing women in ministry. Perhaps. I know of one, yes, just one that has been fairly successful at that. Perhaps there are more. Tell me about them if so.

I’m saying that we need to be very sensitive to the unintended consequences, and of acting like being alone with a woman is the eighth deadly sin. It is not. So perhaps we should stop treating it like it is even if we have our own private convictions about it.

What’s your take?

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