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Think the “Billy Graham Rule” Would Have Saved Tullian? Think Again…

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On June 21, Tullian Tchividjian, megachurch pastor and grandson of Billy Graham, resigned from Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church admitting he had had an inappropriate relationship with another woman. The sad news of a pastor’s infidelity raises collective anxiety and fear among evangelical congregations and pastors as they consider the potential for moral failure in their own context. It also adds to the fear and mistrust between the genders in the Church.

Men are portrayed as being especially vulnerable to sexual temptation, while women are portrayed as the dangerous source of that temptation.

Women tempt. Men fall.

Since I first wrote about the "Billy Graham Rule" a year ago, I have been most surprised at how strongly people feel about the rule on both sides.  One side argues that we should do whatever it takes to protect men (especially pastors) from adultery. The other side cries out that women are being excluded in the church. Where pastors are still mostly men, opportunities for mentorship and pastoral care are limited when male pastors will not meet with women alone.  

Even more than excluding, women are saying that this rule is shaming. It teaches women that their bodies are sources of temptation and a potential stumbling block for men. I do not think men – especially white men – understand the damage done when someone’s body is treated as threatening.

So it would seem that we have two values in competition with one another. Do we value the sanctity of marriage and preserving fidelity or do we value the full inclusion and dignity of women in the church? It’s a sucker’s choice. We do not have to sacrifice one for the sake of the other.

Leaving behind the Billy Graham Rule is often interpreted as having no boundaries. This rule is so ingrained in our psyche, we cannot imagine another possibility for discerning boundaries apart from the boundary to never be alone with the other gender. Boundaries exist in every healthy relationship. Rather than a pre-set universal rule mostly enforced by men for women, boundaries can be mutually discerned case-by-case based on a myriad of relational factors such as history, trust, context, and yes, gender.

Let’s suppose I am meeting with a woman at the church building and nobody else is there (which is typical for a smaller church that has no need for a full-time church administrator or large staff). We have been in the same church for years and know each other well. She is seeking pastoral counsel and spiritual direction from her pastor. I would consider the atmosphere of our meeting to be professional/ pastoral and the space where our community worships has a sacred quality. All of these factors tells me that this meeting is not a threat but the opposite: a gift!  

I wonder: have we lost so much trust in our own virtue that we cannot consider this kind of encounter as safe? Keeping men and women from being alone together will only treat the symptom but not address the heart. Would it not be a better strategy if men developed the kind of virtue that transformed how they see and relate to women? I know many will continue to say that I am being naive, but doesn’t Jesus prohibit even the lustful look? The Billy Graham Rule is the Church white-knuckling the brokenness between the genders. It would not have saved Tullian from an "inappropriate relationship'.  What Tullian needed – what we all need – is a deeper healing, a new way of seeing women and men – a new way that is made possible in Christ.

In Christ, we trust that women care just as much about a men’s integrity and fidelity as men do. In Christ, men believe that women want to keep their own integrity and fidelity as well. In Christ, each man takes responsibility for his own sexuality. Women are not responsible for a man’s lust! In Christ, there is mutual honor and respect for each person’s commitments and vocations.

This kind of mutual respect between men and women seems to be a minimum trust baseline in order for true Christian fellowship to flourish.  

Special thanks to Tara Beth Leach for her input and collaboration on this article.

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