If you’re going to follow the Billy Graham Rule …

In his autobiography, Billy Graham writes about a group of evangelists who recognized the serious threat of sexual immorality. This could be a special threat for men (these were all men) who were traveling and separated from their families. So they all pledged “to avoid any situation that would have even the appearance of compromise or suspicion.”

From that day on,” Graham writes, “I did not travel, meet, or eat alone with a woman other than my wife.”[1] This has become known as the “Billy Graham Rule.” It came into popular discussion recently when the Vice President said that he keeps the same boundaries. Now it’s back in popular discussion because people have contrasted Pence with Harvey Weinstein.

Let’s first acknowledge the noble intent in the Billy Graham Rule. I’m tired of the headlines about sexual immorality involving Christian leaders. You are, too, I’m sure. One study had 38.6 percent of clergy admitting to some “sexual contact” with a parishioner, 12.7 percent admitting to sexual intercourse.[2] Those numbers terrify me. I don’t want to believe them. Let’s be thankful for a group of leaders who resolved to not become one of those headlines or statistics.

We can also acknowledge that a meeting or meal alone isn’t the root problem here. Some people have built straw men on this point, then kicked them over with self-righteous vigor. “I can go to lunch and keep my pants on.” Yes—and we congratulate you for that. The meal isn’t the problem. There are surely some deeper issues of accountability, the state of the heart, etc. But it’s probably true that being alone in one setting makes it easier to be alone in another—a slippery-slope, if you will.

Also, being alone develops intimacy. And intimacy can lead to sexual attraction. And sexual attraction is one of the leading causes of sex. But again, we shouldn’t confuse intimacy for the root problem here. We shouldn’t confuse intimacy for a problem here. We’re created for intimacy. Even, dare I say, with people we may find attractive.

The Billy Graham Rule doesn’t deal with the root problems of accountability and lust and the state of the heart. But I bet it has prevented some people from falling into inappropriate sexual relationships over time. Let’s not condemn it through and through.

The problem with the Billy Graham Rule is the way it puts women at a severe disadvantage in any majority-male industry (or vice versa). A lot happens during a meal or a one-on-one meeting or a car ride—planning, mentoring, trust- and camaraderie-building. As many decisions are made at lunch tables as in conference rooms. They may become official in the conference room, but they really happened at lunch. The man who can go to lunch with his boss gets an edge over the woman who can’t (or vice versa, again).

So what do we do? I’m not ready to write off the Billy Graham Rule for everyone. Though I think there are deeper issues at root, ones that I’d like us to get to, I expect this Rule has been helpful, even necessary, for some men and women. I don’t follow the Billy Graham Rule myself, nor do I advocate it for others. But if a person thinks it a good buffer, I don’t want to discourage them from it.

Here’s a different option for anyone who thinks they should stick to the Rule: make the Rule universal, not gender-specific. Don’t do one-on-one meals or meetings or travel with any colleague, male or female. Find ways to keep all of these interactions in a group setting. You probably don’t love that idea. But right now, you’re denying important opportunities to people because of their gender. You can’t do that. Follow the Rule with everyone or get rid of it altogether.

Regardless of whether you follow this Rule or not, more important to get serious about those root issues. How are your systems of accountability? How’s your heart? Who are you talking to about any of the vices that may be taking root in your life?

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[1] Just As I Am, p. 128.

[2] This was a survey of 300 pastors in Richard Allen Blackmon’s The Hazards of Ministry (1984), a Ph.D. dissertation for Fuller Theological Seminary. It was a long time ago. Several other follow-up studies had similar results. I’d like to believe the numbers would be lower today, but haven’t found a good recent study to cite.

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