Is there a healthy balance somewhere between the Billy Graham rule and nothing at all? Could we, instead of creating a rule that worked well for one man at a very specific time in history, come up with something holistic and inclusive? Could we come up with an ethic that acknowledges the needs and experiences of Christian men and women today?
I’ve written on the Billy Graham rule before—on how it makes the inclusion of women in church leadership impossible. As Christians who believe men and women are created and gifted equally by God, I believe we should practice something “other.”
The early church wrestled with many ethical questions. The Apostle Paul declared that the law was fulfilled in Jesus Christ; they were now under a new system—the law of love and of grace. Still, people ached for codes of conduct, and Paul gave them to many churches. At the end of several of his Epistles, we find these codes. They contain practical instructions for living Christian lives and are now referred to by most as the household codes.
A rule might make some of us feel safe, but I think a thoughtful code of conduct is far closer to the gospel of grace. Of course, there are times when a hard and fast rule is necessary. For those with a history of sexual harassment or other misconduct, a strict rule is wise and keeps others safe. Still, most of the people I know can live into something more holistic and less absolute, something focused on discretion and mutual honor.
We don’t need to rely on a rule-based system that excludes women from leadership and ministry opportunities and makes them feel like outsiders. Instead, we can set healthy, hopeful, consistent, and non-discriminatory boundaries based on common sense and biblical relationship ethics. Here are a few practical ideas for structuring your own code of conduct.
1. See All People
Work toward seeing all people as equally important and valuable simply because they are loved by God. Don’t reduce those around you to objects who exist to fulfill your needs, your goals, your vision, or your calling. Be careful not to treat others like they are affairs waiting to happen or like they’re automatic threats to your marriage. Treat them as siblings in Christ. Trust them as professionals and as coworkers for the gospel.
Men, ask God to help you see women as your full equals in all spaces, including the church. Let how you speak and act around women communicate your respect for their skills, dignity, authority, and humanity.
2. Set boundaries that make sense for your individual marriage.
If you’re married, have guidelines that make sense in your marriage. Recently, Tish Warren Harrison wrote an article for Christianity Today about the guidelines she uses. My husband and I have different guidelines from Tish and her husband in some areas, but we have them nonetheless.
Recently, someone started sending me overly familiar emails. After praying and asking God how to handle it, I gently asked the person to stop. I talked at length about it with my husband. My husband and I talk a lot; we keep in touch—that guideline works for us and it makes our marriage stronger.
I want to be careful here. If you’re in a lonely marriage or you and your spouse are going through a tough time, that doesn’t necessarily mean you must abide by a stricter code of conduct. Or that if your marriage is great, you’re off the hook. Life is far more complex than something so absolute.
At the height of Paul’s teachings, he says that love is the fulfillment of the law. Love is honest and real, authentic and pure. We can live by the law of love without succumbing to sexual misconduct no matter the state of our marriages.
3. Be honest.
Be honest with God, yourself, and one or two other people. Lying to yourself and to God is the beginning of a slippery slope. There’s no shame in weakness. But when we hide our unwanted feelings and thoughts and become isolated, they often only grow stronger. When we are honest about our feelings, they have less power over us.
Tell the truth to yourself on a regular basis. Exercise deliberate caution when you’re in a difficult place, but also work hard to not penalize others, especially women, over what you’re feeling. Keep a journal and write; walk and talk with God. It sometimes takes me miles of walking to get to the real truth I’m grappling with.
Spiritual leaders should keep in mind that they’re human—with the same needs and honest weaknesses as everyone else. Yes, we expect our leaders to meet a high standard of conduct, and that’s a good thing. But leaders have weaknesses too and need spaces where they can be honest about them.
4. Learn to recognize your felt needs.
Are you hungry, lonely, or tired? Are you craving physical intimacy? Be wise. In these times and situations, choose thoughtfully. It’s not wrong to be lonely or to want intimacy. It’s wrong to use a person inappropriately to assuage that loneliness.
Call a friend of the same gender. Most importantly, pray and talk to God about the real pain of feeling or being alone. If you’re hungry, make a sandwich. If you’re tired, work to get a good night of sleep. Good self-care and self-awareness go a long way in helping us overcome temptation.
5. Practice a life of confession.
If you find yourself sexually attracted to a coworker or if you find yourself acting inappropriately or flirtatiously toward a subordinate or someone you’re not married to, go to your spiritual director or a close friend. Confess the thought or behavior and ask for prayer and accountability.
Years ago, in my early years in ministry, at a particularly lonely time in my life, I found myself attracted to a pastor with whom I worked on staff. I did my best to bring it to God, and to overcome it with sheer will power, but in time, I realized I could not. This was a matter of community, and so I told a colleague. I asked her to pray with and for me, to stay close to me over the following weeks. Exposing my own attraction to a colleague did much to break the back of the attraction, and my mind found a greater sense of ease. In time, the attraction died and I moved on.
If you have abused your position or engaged in sexual misconduct, remove yourself from authority and from proximity to a victim (if there is one), and submit yourself to the proper authorities. The law of love does not protect us from facing justice when we abuse or violate others.
6. If someone is making you feel objectified or even uncomfortable in the workplace, address it.
Talk to a safe spiritual director or a wise friend about what to do if someone is making you feel uncomfortable or if someone in authority is behaving inappropriately toward you. If there is a person you trust, ask what systems are in place to protect you if someone with power tries to retaliate against you.
Ask God for the courage to call out abuse of power and other inappropriate behavior. When these situations occur, encourage your church or organization to not react by sexualizing all male-female relationships and restricting women from equal opportunities.
7. Recognize that there’s a huge difference between having wise boundaries and drawing lines that press women to the margins.
Consider your own approach to relational and workplace boundaries. Do you assume good things of those around you? Do you intentionally ask yourself whether any of your well-intended practices make women feel “other” or excluded?
It’s okay for men and women to have boundaries with each other, but those boundaries shouldn’t be based in fear and they definitely shouldn’t target and limit an entire people group. Instead, our boundaries should be born out of the law of love, and aimed at wisdom and wholeness.
At a time when sex abuse and misconduct is tragically commonplace, we need more than a legalistic rule. We need wisdom and integrity. We need strength of character. We need honesty and virtue. But we also need consistency and awareness. We need mutual respect. We need fairness. We need hope. And most of all, we need love. Not romantic love, but the high rule of agape love. We need love that honors God’s image bearers and assumes good of one another, while affirming common sense and safety. Let this love be our meter.