How I Learned to Stop Worrying About the Billy Graham Rule and Love Like Jesus

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.”  Though women did not create this rule, they have borne the burden of it.  In churches where women’s voices are too often marginalized, this rule separates women from receiving or giving ministry to anyone other than other women.  It short-circuits dialogue, mutual relationship, access and mentoring across genders.  The image of God, expressed in male and female genders, has been split.

The Billy Graham rule has not been effective at curbing infidelity.  In a survey of 1,050 evangelical pastors in 2005-2006, 30% said they had been in an ongoing affair or a one-time sexual encounter with a parishioner.  The rule (often accompanied with a “danger” story about an affair) has framed relating with the opposite sex with fear.  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.

What about avoiding the appearance of evil?  We get this phrase from from an unfortunate KJV translation of 1 Thessalonians 5:22: “Abstain from all appearance of evil.”  The Greek word translated as “appearance” can also mean a variety or kind of something which all modern modern translations have opted for: “Abstain from every form of evil” or “abstain from every kind of evil.”  There is no biblical basis for not doing something solely based on how it might appear to others.

The best reason why we might challenge the Billy Graham rule is that Jesus did not follow it.  He talked to the Samaritan woman at the well.  He was left alone with the woman caught in adultery.  He appeared to Mary Magdalene alone in the garden post-resurrection.  There are multiple accounts of women anointing Jesus’ feet and head with expensive oils.  One woman wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair.  Jesus loved extending presence and relationship to women.

Boundaries in any relationship are essential.  But when the boundaries become the focus, the relationship turns into an abstraction.  We dehumanize the other gender to protect the boundary.  Fear based boundaries, like the Billy Graham rule, block out mutual trust.  Building trust requires hundreds of small positive interactions.  When you take away those interactions, trust has no way to progress healthily.  Where there is little trust, fear and suspicion grows.  Where trust is lacking, there can be no real relationship or ministry.

As a male pastor, I communicate fear when I tell a woman to leave the door open when she comes in to my office.  I communicate fear when I tell a woman that we cannot meet because there are not enough other people around.  I communicate fear when I say we have to take separate cars.  Pastors sacrifice their call to pastor the other gender on the altar of rule-keeping and appearance-managing and holy code-checklisting.  This sounds more like the Pharisees than Jesus.

What Jesus demonstrates in his relationships with women is hospitality – that ancient art of receiving and making space for another person.  Hebrews 13:2 says, “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”  How much more for men to show hospitality to women and women to show hospitality to men, for in doing so they will entertain image-bearers of God.

Hospitality is concerned with the physical and emotional elements that make a space safe.  The focus is not on the host’s needs but on what makes the guest feel safe and at ease.  At the same time, nobody likes a pestering host.  Hospitality is best when it is invisible – inviting but not intrusive.  A little forethought and planning can go a long way in avoiding awkward situations.  For example, when we invite someone over to our house, we do not begin our time telling him what we will not be eating for dinner.  Instead, we generously offer what we have prepared.  In the same way, I would not start a friendship by focusing on the boundaries but rather on the mutual gifts and spaces that we can share with one another.

Boundaries between genders should be informed by hospitality rather than legalism. [Tweet This] For example, I would not meet another woman in my bedroom, because that space is dripping with the intimacy of life with my wife and the privacy of where I sleep at night.  Nobody would feel comfortable meeting in there.  I would not have a candlelit dinner alone with a woman at a nice restaurant, not because it’s breaking a rule, but because it feels inhospitable.  The space would be working against us, not for us.

My spiritual director is a woman.  When I talk with her, I am connected to the memories of having long talks with my sister.  The voice of a sister holds a significant place in my life.  There have been other women who have been the voice of a mother to me.  We are nurtured in our faith by a multitude of mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, daughters and sons speaking into our lives.  We are nurtured in the full spectrum of God’s image-bearing humanity.

I heard on the radio that other animals see a different rainbow than humans.  We see a range of seven colors from red to violet.  Dogs only see green, blue, and a little yellow.  But if a mantis shrimp looked at a rainbow, they would see a spectrum ranging from deep ultraviolet to red and many colors in between that we cannot see.  When we do not make space to truly connect and be known by the other gender, it’s like we are settling for dog rainbows.  God wants to put the brilliantly beautiful spectrum of his undivided image on display to the world through the church.  The Spirit is at work, reconciling men and women that were once divided by the Billy Graham rule.  

Jesus is our example as we extend trust, hospitality, and friendship across the gender divide.

— [Image by Guyan Bolisay, CC via Flickr]

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