Have you heard of the Billy Graham rule?
It states that men should never have a one-on-one meeting with a woman who isn’t his wife.
This rule recently came into the public eye when the Washington Post reported that Vice President Mike Pence “never eats alone with a woman other than his wife and that he won’t attend events featuring alcohol without her by his side, either.”
Graham, a famous evangelist in the late 20th century, created this policy because he saw other pastors falling into sexual immorality and ruining their witness. He wanted to avoid “even the appearance of compromise or suspicion.”
So is the Billy Graham rule good or bad?
The rule is useful. As Christians, we know we are sinful and can be tempted. If we prevent intimate interactions, whether it is dinner at a restaurant or one-on-one behind closed doors, we can minimize those acts.
But the rule can also be harmful. Taken too far, it reduces women to being sexual temptresses and insinuates that men are just horny animals with no restraint. Rather than building character bears the fruit of self-control, the practice can erect a wall between the sexes.
The rule limits spaces for women, especially in Protestant churches where many pastors and leaders are men.
Who can women get one-on-one counseling from? The pastor’s wife can be a substitute, but what if she doesn’t have any theological training or counseling experience? Then isn’t the female congregant getting less than a male would?
In addition, the practice can hinder dating relationships. How many times have a guy and a girl at your church or Christian fellowship tried to get to know each other, only to be derailed by people calling them out or pressuring them?
We are constantly questioning people’s motives. Is this guy hitting on me? Is it appropriate that it’s just the pastor and one female staff in this meeting?
We are always haunted by how we think others perceive our actions with the other sex. What if someone sees us – will they think we’re being shady?
At the same time, it is essential that we have guard rails because sin is real. Our pride and blind spots can lead to terrible consequences. In fact, Billy Graham’s grandson, Tullian Tchividjian, is a disgraced minister who had extramarital affairs (yes, plural) with women in his congregation.
There have been many other sexual improprieties in church, some of which have touched our own congregations. There is danger there, and we must never overlook the pervasiveness of our own depravity.
So what are we to do then?
We should neither completely embrace the rule nor wholly reject it. Instead, we remember the Gospel, the good news that says that we are called to be free. But even though all things are lawful, not everything is beneficial (1 Corinthians 12).
The intent of the Billy Graham rule was to prevent sexual immorality that hurt the Christian witness. But we now know the practice had the unintended consequence of hurting the church body. Women were short-changed or even vilified and relationships between men and women were met with immediate suspicion. While trying to avoid one slippery slope, we fell down another hill.
We can moderate our response to balance the two sides. Here are four things to remember when it comes to relationships with the opposite sex.
- We are never burdened to follow legalistic rules that are one-size-fits-all. That’s what the Pharisees did during Jesus’ time, adding rule after rule to the Mosaic law. Over time, the burdensome regulations made it impossible for anyone to love God and love others. In the same way, we must only add rules that add to the safety of the people in our congregation, and cast aside those that hinder growth and training of all members.
- We must acknowledge that the principle behind the Billy Graham rule is helpful and even necessary. For people who struggle mightily with sexual temptation, a clear line can be very helpful to help them stay in line with the Gospel.
- We must constantly examine our own hearts. Really ask yourself, “Why am I meeting this person?” If there is sin or impropriety involved, cancel the meeting. If the Holy Spirit gives you a clear conscience, then go ahead and carpool to the Sola Conference together.
- Be accountable to one another. If a guy starts hanging out with a girl he likes, he should tell his friends. If your girl friend starts hanging out with a guy one-on-one, ask her (privately and lovingly) if there is anything going on. If you’re struggling with lust or an inappropriate attraction to someone, tell a pastor or a mentor so they can keep you accountable. The church is a place where we can help one another walk in line with the Gospel.
As we live life together as brothers and sisters in Christ, let us remember that our actions will affect one another. Let us not rely on rules to help us to do it, as they create barriers and broken relationships. Rather, let us truly love one another, as Jesus calls us to do.
Hannah Chao is a wife and a mom of two beautiful little girls. She is also addicted to Twitter. Hannah attends All Nations Community Church.