Part 1- There's A Better Way (or Part 1- The Problem with the "Billy Graham rule")
Updated: Oct 1, 2020
(written and first shared in June of 2016 )
“Hey, do you have time to meet today to talk about some ministry stuff? I’d like to get your advice and opinion on a few things.”
“Sure, what time works for you? I’m free tonight or late tomorrow morning”
“Let’s do tonight- around 8?”
“Okay- see you then!”
When you read that conversation above, who did you picture it occurring between? Did you picture two women talking? Or perhaps two men? (I wish I could see a show of hands!) Did any of you picture a man and woman talking? If so, were the man and woman married? Dating?
Next question: does it matter?
Well, according to many Christians, it most certainly does. To me, also a Christian, and many others, it doesn’t.
I came into the church in a real way later in my life. I mean, I was still in my early twenties, but at the time I seemed “so far behind”. When the pastor told us to “turn to Ephesians” and then “to James”, I had to sheepishly glance to my side to see which direction the “mature Christian” next to me turned their pages. Eventually, I learned my way around the Bible, and the fact that there was even a Table of Contents! I happily and eagerly allowed myself to become immersed in “church culture.” What I didn’t realize at the time was “church culture” was not necessarily the same as God’s Kingdom culture. Sadly, it wouldn’t be long before that distinction became very clear to me.
One of the first things I noticed was the weird way in which the church handles/encourages/discourages various relationships. Specifically, this included relationships between men and women in the church. For a while now, I’ve wanted to talk about how we’ve gotten it so wrong and what we can do to get back on track. I want to talk about how the heart of so much stuff is right but the methods we’ve implemented, and even sometimes mandate, can be oh so wrong. And it’s tricky to know exactly where to start. So many things are deeply meshed and wound together in a big tangled wad, it’s hard to even find the end to pull to begin to dismantle it all. But believe me, it’s there. So, let’s just start today with the “Billy Graham rule” and the interaction between men and women.
To make sure everyone is on the same page for this discussion, let me start off by saying that if you don’t really know who Billy Graham is, you can check out his Wikipedia page here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Billy_Graham That should hit the highlights for you and bring you up to speed.
In short, he is considered by many, including me, to be one of the leading evangelists of all time. He started his ministry while he was still young, pastoring a church while still in college, and was traveling regularly by age 29 hosting the Billy Graham Crusades. It was during one of these crusade trips in Modesto, California that, what we know now as, the “Billy Graham rule” was birthed.
The “Billy Graham rule” is a rule that Billy Graham had for himself that has now been adopted, embraced and taught by many Christian men (and women) for over 50 years. In it’s purest form, as we’ll see in a minute, it states that “A man should not travel alone with, meet alone with, or eat alone with any woman other than his wife.”
Back then, according to his autobiography, Billy was just shy of his 30th birthday and was traveling with all other young men who were his close friends and associates. The year was 1948. Obviously, some things were much different back then in both gender and race relations. Anyway, Graham had called together this team of men to talk about all the problems evangelists (and evangelism) had encountered. After some time of personal reflection and thought, they came up with a list of 4 main problems: money, sexual immorality, exaggeration of truth for publicity, and the tendency of evangelists to be critical of the local church.
As a result they came up with the following solutions:
In regard to money, they “determined to do all we could to avoid financial abuses and to downplay the offering and depend as much as possible on money raised by the local committee in advance”
In regard to exaggeration of truth for publicity, Graham writes, “[We] committed ourselves to integrity in our publicity and our reporting.”
In regard to being critical of the local church, he says, “We determined to cooperate with all who would cooperate with us in the public proclamation of the Gospel, and to avoid an antichurch or anti-clergy attitude.”
In regard to sexual immorality, they decided “to avoid any situation that would have even the appearance of compromise or suspicion.”
And they should have stopped there, but they didn’t. Billy Graham then added “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.” (1 Tim 3:12)
Okay, let’s break this down. There’s just so much to say.
The answer to money problems was that they determined they should avoid financial abuses. The answer to exaggeration was to commit themselves to integrity. The answer to church criticism was to determine to cooperate.
All of this is good and reasonable and lines up with instructions given to us in scripture.
However, when it got to sexual immorality, they now needed some other standard? It wasn’t enough to avoid abuse and commit to integrity? It wasn’t enough to determine that they wouldn’t cheat on their spouse? It wasn’t enough to commit that they would keep their marriage vows in tact? (Apparently not.) A well-intentioned, man-made scaffolding was then created by Graham to protect against sexual immorality. This involved not meeting or eating or traveling alone with any other woman besides his wife. His example was then followed by others and after 50 years or more is now taught in many churches as the right way for all men in ministry to behave in regards to women. It has expanded and taken on new nuances that are found all throughout Christian evangelical church culture today.
In my opinion, this “rule” has been, and is still, wreaking havoc on many men and women within the church. Moreso, it is attacking the unity that God so wants us to have as co-heirs and brothers and sisters in Christ. Although it seems that one can be branded as almost crazy to even bring up any opposition to it, I assure you, I am not alone in my opinion. The general church culture response is, “Why would you oppose it? Don’t you want marriages to be protected? Don’t you want to err on the side of safety? Don’t you want to avoid even the appearance of compromise or suspicion?”
My answer is, “There’s a better way.”
Of course I want to see marriages protected, but this isn’t the way. Of course I think there are times and situations where erring on the side of caution is wise, but this blanket rule can never legislate a pure heart or moral integrity. In fact, it can perpetuate a state of immaturity and lack of responsibility by giving an outward appearance of purity while never addressing any true internal issues that may exist. More so, to have a standard practice of the “Billy Graham rule” is completely condescending, off-putting, and accusatory to women. The whole thing is rooted in fear. It may have been constructed in love but was and is still rooted in fear. It is also belittling and diminishing to men, treating them as fragile weaklings, by underestimating their ability to conduct themselves properly through the power of the Holy Spirit in the rare case that something unusual would happen.
It’s funny that though Billy and his associates found money to be a problem, and taking offerings to be a huge temptation, they didn’t decide to stop taking offerings. No, they just determined to avoid abuses. When exaggeration for promotion sake was brought up as a problem they didn’t decide to stop promoting themselves or counting attendees to avoid the temptation. No, they simply committed themselves to integrity. And when they realized their evangelical crusades could cause problems for the local churches they didn’t change their plan and shut down their meetings. They simply determined to have a right attitude and cooperate with others.
However, when it came to sexual immorality, they decided they needed to separate themselves from women. That somehow that would fix the problem. That as long as they weren’t left alone with a woman, they would be okay. What does that say about them? What does that say about their view of women? What does that say about their belief of the power of the living God inside of them and the fruit of self-control?
It is true that a person can be entirely amazing and wise in many ways and yet “miss the boat” in other ways. I don’t fault Billy Graham for following a lifestyle that he and his wife (I assume) decided was best for them. What I do fault is the idea that somehow we are to follow this man’s rule as if it were God’s rule. It is not.
Our best bet is to keep our eyes on God and one of the best ways to do that is to study and follow Jesus’ example.