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

  1. Great blog post. I spent my twenties in a church where women were treated as a source of temptation outside marriage – and as sex objects inside marriage. For more than a decade, I didn’t realize how this impacted almost everything in my life. A few years ago, our family moved overseas and by God’s grace we stumbled into a much healthier church. I remember hearing a sermon about gender where the Pastor taught from Luke 7 – and realizing that Jesus didn’t see this woman as a threat or a sex object. He saw her as an image bearer, a sister, a daughter. While so many churches today do not give women a way to lead or serve, Jesus did. This blew me away…and is changing how I see myself and other women.

    1. Thank you for sharing your story Sara! In many churches, we have become so used to this being the way it is that we are not even aware of the negative identity formation that is happening in this practice.

  2. It saddens me to think of men blaming women for their own lust. Yes, there are ways that women and men can provoke one another to lust, but we are solely responsible for what we do with the provocation — intended or unintended. James 1:14 “but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed.” The sad fact is that basically we provoke ourselves to sin. Thats the battle and its hard. I think what has helped me the most is falling in love with virtue. I want, more than anything, to be a good man. I don’t want to settle for less. And I don’t want to settle for keeping women co-workers at arms length. Again, the answer is to “hunger and thirst for righteousness.”

  3. While I am against the Rule, I don’t think this article does a very good job of convincing anyone that it would not have saved Tullian from engaging in an illicit relationship, because it very well may have done so. What I think you ought to argue instead is that the cure is worse than the disease in this case: yes, it might have prevented him from having an affair, but it would come at the cost of hundreds or even thousands of women feeling like their bodies present a threat.

  4. This is such a great post and I appreciate your ongoing determination to set this issue in its place, which is a survival technique that one man developed to keep himself on the path, but has been marketed as THE way for all leaders.

    I feel for Tullian very much. All I’ve read about him shows him to be a good guy who was trying to do right. The issue is that his fall wasn’t precipitated by him sharing an elevator or a car ride with a woman. It was precipitated by the breakdown of his own marriage and his subsequent loneliness and vulnerability to his own issues. It’s never about sharing a car, it’s about dealing with the issues of your heart, which we all need to do in order to stay safe.

    1. Amen Bev. We just never know what is going inside a marriage and how lonely a marriage parter can be that leads to this kind of vulnerability. There are plenty of Christian marriages where one partner is being neglected in all aspects of a marriage.

  5. I really appreciate this because I experienced so much of this mentality in both the college campus ministry I was a part of many years ago, as well as in churches I have been a part of. Even as a woman, I remember feeling a responsibility to judge or police the dress of other women so that our brothers wouldn’t be tempted or caused to stumble. It’s so denigrating and demoralizing. It’s particularly damaging when women internalize this kind of misogyny and pass it onto their children.

  6. Dear God! ANOTHER blog about shaming and “blaming women!” The Graham Rule was not strictly for resisting temptation…it was also for removing even the APPEARANCE of impropriety. I’m sick of EVERYBODY being the victim. Women are getting bad about that. Nobody is blaming you for being a temptation. But if you think that women don’t find powerful men particularly attractive you are lying to yourself. It takes two…it always will.

  7. This is a good post is as far as the temptation aspect of the “Billy Graham” rule goes, but I follow it (loosely ) not out of fear of temptation but false accusations. In our profession, an accusation is nearly as damaging as guilt.

    1. I appreciate you offering that Josh – I suspect many others would say something similar. I’ve got a lot of background in student and young adult ministry, so I TOTALLY get that rationale. It’s really something to consider. But here’s an honest question – one I wrestle with myself so I’m not asking it as a veiled way of making a point, so don’t take it that way… Should we allow healthy ministry and the embodiment of virtuous living to be sacrificed on the altar of avoiding a scandal that might come through false accusations? After all, Jesus was regularly accused of gross improprieties based on the company he kept and the legalistic religious/cultural boundaries he refused to abide by. You get the struggle here? I’m curious to hear how you might work that out?

      1. It sounds like you have never been an innocent party on the receiving end of a sexual harassment accusation in the work place.
        If you had I suspect you may be thinking somewhat differently.

  8. I’m sure I’ll get blasted for this, but I’ve never known of any man that observed this rule because “women are dangerous” or because they blame women for their own lust. The men I know that observe some form of this rule have done so out of respect for their own wives and to avoid any possibility of impropriety. That’s NOT about blaming women or shaming their bodies. I’ve also enjoyed working on church staff with many female pastors who shared a similar version of the rule. They did so out of respect for their own husbands, and again, to avoid impropriety.
    As a man in a pastoral role, and as a husband, I take this kind of thing very seriously. I wouldn’t say I have it as a hard and fast rule, but it is something I take into consideration and am very careful of. The fact that people get offended over this kind of thing is indicative of the politically correct, everyone-is-offended society in which we find ourselves.

    1. Dave, I think most people who are against the Billy Graham rule are doing it for far deeper reasons than something as surface as “offense.” It’s about modeling Jesus. It’s about stopping the cycle of shaming based solely and entirely on gender. It’s about ending the man-made marginalization of half of the army of God. Imagine where our weakened church would be if women were viewed as Jesus sees them. And about wives, I feel like a respect shown for a wife is shallow that results in a mindset that disrespects all other women.

      1. Paige, obviously, you and I come from vastly different contexts. I won’t disagree with you about whether or not a “cycle of shaming” exists in some church cultures, but I can say that my wife and daughters have not experienced it in any of our recent contexts. As a worship leader and youth pastor, three of my past four pastoral leaders have been women. We have been able to work together effectively while recognizing and utilizing each other’s strengths in ministry. My wife and one of my daughters serve in ministry in churches currently, including one with a female senior pastor. I also find your last comment incredibly dismissive. You are speaking in general and I am talking about people I know personally. Please recognize that you naming their spousal respect “shallow” is disrespectful, at best. Clearly, there are certain church cultures that actively seek to marginalize women, and I appreciate the discussions you’re having in light of that. I gather from the blog you linked to and your Disqus comments that you are actively fighting mistreatment of women in those circles. My point is that a spouse carefully considering who to spend alone time with in ministry (or other) contexts often has nothing to do with this fight. It seems myopic to generally lump all of it together.

        1. I’m saying one of the great ways to show respect to wives is to show respect for all women. To see women as a danger or threat and thereby not engaging in relationship, especially ministry, is beyond disrespectful. I would go so far as to say that if a man is not able to respectfully engage in ministry with women or the strength of his marriage can’t withstand a respectful, engaged, caring, and involved stance with women, then he should not be in general ministry – maybe a men’s only type ministry.

  9. Solomon had much to say on this matter. Should we ignore what God’s word has to say and 3000 years of history and assume that man has somehow changed or that God’s Word has changed? What does it say about the heart? As for a pastor counseling a woman more than once, why not bring in a woman to assist? Women are not evil by any means. If none of us were sinners then there would be no need to be saved by grace. Christ did not need to be saved by us, but we need to be saved by Him. I have seen it from both sides, one man counseling a new believer and seducing her and from the other predatory women seeking to entrap and when it did not work they spread rumors that sexual advances were made toward them when none were. Because the other women to whom these spoke knew of the Billy Graham rule and followed it, the hearers understood that the predatory women were liars. Our identity: In Christ we are all new creations, the old has gone.

  10. I think one of the best things I read on this a while back referenced Colossians 2:20-23 and the danger of trusting in a system to protect us, rather than looking to God to change and transform us. Focusing on “keeping the rules” often stops us from dealing with the issues of the heart.

    Does that mean we don’t need have boundaries? No. But something like the “Graham rule” seems to arbitrarily place a set of restrictions and not allow for individual discernment. Does it mean I can’t visit the 80 year old widow in her home?

    I appreciate your point about the messages communicated by a universal application of the rule.

    Thanks for this!

  11. I suspect only arrogance would make us think the “Billy Graham Rule” would not have helped in this case.

  12. In such agreement with this article, though I want to propose also looking at “The Billy Graham Rule” as men-shaming. The rule definitely teaches us that women are sexually threatening objects, but it also teaches men that they are 1) sexually threatening to women, 2) weak-willed and non-virtuous, 3) uncontrollable and subject to any little temptation thrown their way. Men are, in effect, untrustworthy. This message of untrustworthiness only breeds it in a man’s soul. I completely agree with the approach explained above, in part because I think it shames women, but also because it greatly emasculates men and doesn’t call them to a higher, more virtuous standard.

  13. Bottom line: This rule of Graham’s is out of harmony with how *Jesus* did things. He didn’t avoid women. He didn’t avoid looking at them too long or talking with them too long or even being alone with them. He ministered to them. You cannot properly minister to human beings when you’re always avoiding them. This is wrong and sinful. Jesus was able to treat women as human beings. If a man is not able to do the same, he should not be in ministry, and I mean that sincerely. A man not able to treat women as Jesus treated women should not be in ministry.

    Would Jesus’ ministry have changed if He’d gotten married? Would he have begun pushing away all women in order to “respect his wife” or “avoid temptation” or “avoid the appearance of evil”? Would Jesus have sacrificed women on the altar of His reputation or lack of self-control? No, He would not have done that. Neither should we.

    *So* many women can tell stories of receiving little to no ministry from pastors at their church due to this rule. This rule, if followed, has made it impossible for a male pastor to properly minister to the women in his congregation because the male pastor and the men of the church alike make it a principle not to talk to a woman too long, not to look at a woman too long, in short, not to treat her like a full human being. This is glorified as being men’s efforts to avoid false rumors and temptations and respect their wives. But it is a false glory when even a male on the street receiving help from the church street ministry project gets more ministry than the average female member.

    When we are unable to properly minister to women, always avoiding them and cutting off personal contact with them, we are failing as a church. Here’s something people hate to hear: The world is far ahead of us on this one. While there are many failures of sin, they have figured out how to have women around, interact with them, and not have it be all about the man’s marriage or the man’s reputation or the man’s desires. But just about the work at hand. Men even mentor women in business! But we are running scared. Jesus never did that with women.

    1. Thank you, thank you, thank you! I bought into this ‘rule’ when I went to Bible College 25 years ago and have lived under its disabling influence ever since. I did not realize until recently how it has largely been the cause for my frustrations with the church and for my feeling excluded from the very discussions and mentoring that I have longed to be included in. The very ‘rule’ I have been following has nearly killed me.

      Excluded from male-ministry circles, I have cried out to God asking where the women are who have the same heart after God that I do so I can have the same kind of fellowship and mentoring that my brothers enjoy, but they are not there. And so I continue to wait, silent and invisible on the sidelines with gifts laying dormant and spiritual energy and anointing atrophying inside of me. This is so wrong. I’ve known it in my heart for a long time, but have not been able to put it into words and certainly never questioned the ‘rule’…until now.

      What would church be like for me and other women called into ministry if we were simply seen as a fellow ‘believers’ and known by our gifts and anointing and not by our ‘outward appearance'(gender)? It would be emancipation for me and for 1/2 of the body of Christ. I am done with thinking that by me remaining gagged and bound and invisible, that God is somehow glorified and that my passivity is pleasing to Him. Lord, restore your bride! Currently *she* is a facade.

  14. Another great bash of Billy Graham. Is this how we love each other as brothers and sisters? That we would just shame the greatest evangelist of our time for a rule that he personally kept in order to maintain integrity? So poorly written, just like the first. You’re not building unity and showing Jesus, you’re bringing separation to the body by showing the world that we hate each others rules and can’t get along.

    And just to clarify, I don’t agree with the rule. I just hate the way this article tears down the body of Christ, and a very great man who loves Jesus more than any of us do. Please think before, during, and after you write, because you have influence.

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