My first lesson on the dangerous pitfalls of sexual sin and subsequent public scandal came one ordinary day in 1988. I arrived home from church to witness my dad sitting in his comfy chair, mesmerized by something on the television. Popular televangelist Jimmy Swaggart was confessing that he had sinned against God with a prostitute as millions of people watched. He knelt at the podium with tears streaming down his face and beseeched God to forgive him.
Years later in my US government class in high school, I watched Bill Clinton stand trial for lying about his numerous sexual interactions with Monica Lewinsky.
Both of these men marked my youth, shaping the way I perceived men in positions of power. I first learned of the “Billy Graham Rule” in college. The rule was simple: Billy Graham would not be alone with any woman who was not his wife. Graham created this rule after a woman tried to seduce him on one of his crusades.
Recently, the “Billy Graham Rule” has made its way back into popular debate when the public learned that a prominent politician observes it. Many argued that women are unfairly stigmatized and penalized by the rule, while others claimed that the rule simply serves to keep men in check and protect both women and marriages.
To a young woman in ministry, the rule seemed wise—at first. Yet, I could also see it was exclusive.
I understand the temptation to draw a line in the sand—anything to protect from doing something wrong in a vulnerable moment. Many also argue that the rule protects from even the appearance of evil, especially for people in high-profile ministry positions.
I believe that Graham’s rule is well-intended, but it does not address the heart-level issue of sexual sin or sexual abuse. It merely shifts the blame, reducing women to temptresses or objects. Women become the problem and men are safer without them. Consequently, men are excused from wrestling with and overcoming their own sin.
Passages in Scripture do exhort us to flee from temptation, and there are certainly women who have had inappropriate relationships with married men. So, I understand the desire to fiercely protect something as precious as a marriage.
But the Bible exhorts us to live in the freedom of Christ. I don’t believe that treating women as if they are affairs-waiting-to-happen is living in freedom, nor is it faithful to our shared identity as co-heirs before God. God gives us self-control so that we may exercise it for his glory, not as an excuse to cut ourselves off from half the body.
Additionally, most women are not looking to seduce every man they encounter, and most men are not interested in having sex with every woman they encounter.
More importantly, true righteousness always goes beyond rules aimed at behavior management to address human hearts. I realize this rule was important to Billy Graham, and it set him apart when he was surrounded by public moral failure on all sides. But in general, rule-based theology does not produce true goodness of the heart.
From an egalitarian perspective, the “Billy Graham Rule” has two primary problems.
First, God created men and women to work together—to be friends, partners, and comrades. Rules like the “Billy Graham Rule” are rooted in gender stereotypes and they make us suspicious of each other. Not all relationships are sexual in nature, and we should not behave as if they are. The rule also unfairly reduces men to sexual predators incapable of controlling their sexual appetites and women to objects.
Billy Graham’s rule protects men from scandals, but it does only that. It does not promote the heart accountability that actually overcomes sexual sin. It protects men’s reputations, but it restricts women in the process. Women already face prejudice, stereotypes, and adversity in the workplace and in the church. Billy Graham’s rule does not empower them or promote healthy partnerships between men and women.
The opportunity to meet and collaborate with both male and female peers in work, ministry, and life is often necessary as well as beneficial. We must learn to differentiate between a meeting at Starbucks to discuss work over coffee or a friendly conversation in an office and a romantic dinner over a glass of wine. Not to mention, extra-marital affairs can begin anywhere—even in a crowd.
The rule also stems from a patriarchal model of power and responsibility, and a good ol’ boys mentality that the church can no longer afford to subscribe to.
Second, there is no evidence that the rule is biblical. Jesus clearly didn’t subscribe to the “Billy Graham Rule.” He sat down in the middle of the day with a Samaritan woman all by himself, to the chagrin of his disciples. Women felt at home and relaxed with Jesus, and he granted them social status in subversive and shocking ways.
We should apply discretionary wisdom on a case-by-case basis rather than embracing a rule that makes many women feel dangerous and excluded.
There are times when we feel more vulnerable in our marriages, when it’s good and right to avoid a certain person because we have a crush on them. There are seasons when we are weighed down by loneliness and are more susceptible to temptation. In those seasons, it may be better to avoid one-on-one situations that will compromise us or someone else. There may be times when the attraction we feel toward someone other than our spouse is overwhelming. And in those cases, it is helpful to avoid being alone with that person.
It’s also vital to have open and clear relationships with spiritual directors and mentors, and to be transparent with the people we are accountable to, including spouses.
But a better model for sexual integrity is possible. Men should not be treated as sexual beasts incapable of restraint nor should women be reduced to objects of men’s lust or sources of temptation. We are to hold each other in high esteem, not suspicion.
As Christians, we are no longer bound to legalism. Our model for sexual integrity should not be rooted in fear. It should not add additional burdens to the shoulders of women nor should it be grounded in gender stereotypes. Rather, it should promote the individual, relational, and communal wholeness that belongs to all believers.
Final note: In situations where a person, particularly a young or vulnerable person, feels unsafe or where an authority figure may use power to manipulate that young or vulnerable person, different parameters for healthy and safe interactions should be applied.