Jimmy’s Table PodcastCuriously evangelical. Politically homeless. A dreamer of small things. On this podcast, I am having conversations about the intersection of faith, life, and culture.

Rethinking The “Billy Graham” Rule ~ Episode #98

BIlly Graham Preaching

Recently a minister of international fame, Ravi Zacharias, who died last year, has been scandalized by some issues that were unresolved before his death. This includes allegations of abuse, sexual sins, and even rape. These allegations have been vetted, and a team of lawyers that was hired by his ministry to investigate these allegations believe them to be highly credible and likely true.

Because of the nature of these sexual sins, this has revitalized a debate about the so-called “Billy Graham Rule.” This rule has also recently been known as the “Mike Pence Rule,” as Vice President Mike Pence, and many others in politics and business, are also said to observe this code of conduct.

What Is The Billy Graham Rule?

If you are unfamiliar with this rule, the “Billy Graham Rule” is an ethical code of conduct that the evangelist Billy Graham’s ministry came up with in 1948 in Modesto, California, during one of his evangelistic crusades. Believing that his ministry was doing something significant, Graham and others came up with this rule as a way to safeguard his ministry from the issues that had plagued some other well known ministries.

The “Modesto Manifesto,” as it would be called, sought to guard against allegations or the actual abuse of money, sex, and power. While no formal document was put together, Graham and his fellow ministers drew up principles relating to things such as how money from offerings would be distributed, avoiding the criticism of local churches, working only with churches that supported cooperative evangelism, and using local government official estimates of crowd sizes so as to avoid exaggeration.

But then there was also the issue of sex. The most famous and controversial ethical consideration that continues to be controversial today is how members of the ministry were to relate to members of the opposite sex. Under the Modesto Manifesto, it was proposed that Billy Graham and others must never be alone with a member of the opposite sex, other than their wife. From that day on, Graham pledged to not eat, travel with, or meet with a woman other than his wife, unless other people were also present.

This allowed Billy Graham, who was considered a very good looking man in his day (and was often covered as such by reporters), to avoid sexual temptation while traveling abroad without his wife, as well as accusations of sexual impropriety.

It is worth noting that while Billy Graham was very faithful to observing this particular practice, there are times where he said he broke the rule, and that he wasn’t an “absolutist” when it came to the rule. For example, it is recalled that he once ate with Hillary Clinton in a public venue.

But whatever the case, it seems that this “rule” was something Billy Graham largely observed. And in the many decades he ministered as an evangelist around the world, he maintained an impeccable reputation regarding his personal conduct in both public and private.

Criticisms Of The Billy Graham Rule

There is no shortage of criticisms of the Billy Graham rule.

Perhaps the most famous of these critiques is the perspective of many feminists. There would be those who argue that the rule treats women as objects of sexual lust that must be safeguarded against for fear of infidelity or false accusations. As a result, women are looked upon as people to be feared instead of respected.

And because men who observe this rule make it impossible to meet with women in private, whether in the church or in politics or business, women can be inadvertently discriminated against and disenfranchised because of their sex. As a result, this results in women not having the same “access” to opportunities that men would can otherwise capitalize on simply because of their sex.

There is of course also the Biblical argument. Well intentioned as it might be, the Billy Graham Rule is nowhere to be found in the Bible. Jesus is seen as deliberately violating the social norms of His day, such as In John 4, when he met alone with the Samaritan woman at the well. This would have been scandalous, not only because of her race, but because of her sex. Jesus seems to have completely flung caution out the window by meeting with this woman, and didn’t seem to care about the possible reputation issues this could have caused Him.

My Personal Experience With The Billy Graham Rule

I’ve been to Bible college and seminary. I’ve been involved in the church in a variety of ministry capacities over the years. I’ve been taught the Billy Graham rule, and have been involved with ministries that more or less practice it.

I will say, I have mixed feelings about the rule, and generally speaking, and am not a fan of the rule. However, I don’t think it deserves the scathing rebuke or criticism that some folks give it. Such people tend to be impressed by their own levels of self-righteous “wokeness,” and, in my estimation, have never seriously had to consider their own reputations, and it’s connection to something larger than themselves.

For example, when I was in my 20’s, I was engaged to a worship leader/youth pastor in a church. I also served in this church and regularly ministered in it. My fiance at the time lived right next door to the church, in a small multi-family apartment. I usually only had the opportunity to see her on the weekends or on Wednesday nights, and would sometimes park my car at her apartment instead of in the church parking lot. This was very visible.

Recently, I was talking to one of the kids that used to attend that church. He’s a grown man now. He said he was always under the assumption that me and this minister were “shacked up” together and “living in sin,” because many of the times he’d go to church, he’d see my Jeep in her driveway. Even though we were not doing such, this young man was under the impression that we were living together. And apparently he wasn’t the only one that had this impression (though most did not).

I didn’t know this until recently. But to know such was the impression one of the kids at the church had of us shows how even two completely innocent parties can easily develop a bad reputation, and how easy it is for clouds of suspicion to form. Clouds that linger more than 15 years later.

My “Positive Take” On The Billy Graham Rule

So, while I am not a huge fan of the Billy Graham rule, I gotta say, I personally understand why Billy Graham and others have adhered to this rule. And because of my own experiences, I personally respect the spirit of the intention behind the rule, even if I don’t necessarily like the rule itself.

There is a very practical “street smarts” sorta mentality about to the Billy Graham rule that I appreciate. It reminds me of the common advice we give to folks about “walking in pairs” or “not walking alone” at night in a big city. We encourage such, not because we think the city we live in is full of criminals up to no good, or to shame victims, but because we understand that the world can be a difficult place to navigate. And knowing such, it makes sense that we’d attempt to make some simple to follow rules up so we can move through this life without unwanted troubles.

We fundamentally understand the need to “mitigate risk,” and as such, come up with practical solutions to real world problems. These actions won’t be without unintended consequences, but these consequences are seen as less problematic than the trouble you could otherwise get in.

Like it or not, we live in a fallen and broken world in which men and women’s innocent actions can open the door to not so innocent interactions. And even when those actions are all “above board,” even well meaning loved one’s can come away with the wrong impressions, and make false accusations. Reputations are important, especially when your personal reputation is connected to something bigger than yourself.

At the heart of the Billy Graham rule are passages like Romans 14:13-23 that says things like, “Do not allow what you consider good, then, to be spoken of as evil.” Or “…don’t put an obstacle or a stumbling block in your brother or sisters way…” and “It is good not to do anything which would causes your brothers or sisters to stumble.” Or 1 Timothy 3 which talks about how a minister must be “above reproach” in all his conduct, and that they must have a “good reputation” with those inside and outside the church.

My “Negative Take” On The Billy Graham Rule

I would echo the concerns that feminists sometimes make with in regard to the Billy Graham rule. Mostly in regard to the disenfranchisement of women.

When Billy Graham established his rule, culturally speaking, our world was a very different place than it now. Women were largely not leaders in the church, in politics, or in the business world. Today that is simply not the case.

As a result, there is a very real chance of creating an “all boys club” environment that possibly shuts women out of opportunities that would then naturally fall to men simply because of their sex. Like it or not, such is simply the unintended consequences of this rule.

Such was perhaps a far less of an issue in 1948, when women simply were not involved in things to the degree they are today. The society we live in is far different. I see the Billy Graham rule as possibly being a good thing at the time it was implemented, but culturally speaking, is simply not as wise to follow today.

Theologically, I also have problems with it. Women are created in the image and likeness of God, just as men are. And as such, they should not be treated as risk and liabilities to be managed. They needed to be treated as fellow image bearers, and not as a subset of humanity that must somehow be handled with with special safety gloves.

Also, I believe the Billy Graham rule creates a sort of “legalism” when strictly observed. What is legalism? “Legalism” are the rules we setup to create an extra barrier around the rules we actually want to avoid breaking.

Think of legalism as the guard rails we put up along the road to avoid driving off the road. We have zero intentions of driving off the road, because we know that driving off the road would be bad. But, the government has built guard rails on the road to keep us from doing such, whether we intend to or not.

And this appears to be wise. But it can create some ethically sticky issues when it comes to policing our morality. Jesus harshly criticized the religious leaders of His day for all the legalistic “traditions” they had established, where they established rules on top of rules to keep you from breaking God’s law.

For example, in the Ten Commandments it is written that “you shall not take the name of the Lord in vain.” The religious leaders of Jesus’s day decided God’s name was so sacred, that it had to be protected from people even accidentally using it in a flippant manner. So they setup guard rails to prevent people from taking God’s name in vain.

As a result, whenever someone would read aloud from the Scriptures, anytime they came across the name of God written in the Scriptures, they’d simply substitute God’s actual name with the word “Lord”, or simply say the phrase, “The Name,” in lieu of actually saying God’s actual name.

Such seems like a rather genius move by the religious leaders in Jesus’s day. But this creates a problem. In creating these sort of guard rails to prevent God’s name from being said in a flippant manner, then it actually becomes impossible to say God’s name altogether. And instead of God’s name being held up as a beautiful thing to praise, God’s name becomes something we can no longer even safely utter.

The Billy Graham rule puts us in similar theological waters when it comes to navigating the complexities of interactions with the opposite sex. The well intentioned wisdom and safeguards it looks to create ends up simply destroying something beautiful altogether. And interactions like Jesus had with the Samaritan Woman at the well in John 4 simply will not be afforded to us.

Moving Forward From The Billy Graham Rule

So, if not the Billy Graham rule, then what?

Do we just say “screw it all” and act like there’s not room for wisdom in our interactions with members of the opposite sex?

I think we need to be careful with thinking about hard and fast “one-size fits all” type rules. I worry about those who feel the constant need to come up with prescriptive legalisms like we see in the Billy Graham rule.

But, I also worry about people who are totally dismissive about the navigating the complexities of human social interaction. Such complexities not only exist between individuals of the same sex, but also opposite sex. Anyone who says otherwise is too woke to live on the planet Earth, and doesn’t have a firm grasp of reality. In a word, they are fools.

So with all this said, here are my suggestions of things we should be conscious of in our interpersonal interactions with others, especially regarding the opposite sex:

  1. Treat everyone as being individuals created in the image of God, and that such persons are worthy of honor, dignity, and being treated with respect. Don’t treat people as liabilities to be managed, but fellow sons and daughters of God to celebrate.
  2. Recognize that creating boundaries with other human beings is a healthy thing. We do this in regard to friends, family, work, and ministry. Nobody has the right to unmitigated access to your life. So define the type of access you will allow all individuals to have in your life, both personal and professional.
  3. If you are married, talk with your spouse about what sort of boundaries you want to create in your relationships outside the home. Decide what is comfortable for the both of you, and honor your commitments. But at the same time, recognize that flexibility may be in order. Make room for transparency when it comes to such things. If a situation demands a general rule must be broken, keep the other person in the loop.
  4. When it comes to work or ministry, create opportunities for equal access that operate within your personal boundaries, that not only safeguards you, but the people you are working with.
  5. Seek to live a transparent life. Whenever possible, avoid being “alone” with anyone. And, if such is not always possible, make sure doors and windows are open, or that you meet in public places where others are present or otherwise aware. If such isn’t possible, look to reschedule.
  6. Be mindful of your sexual and emotional attraction to others. Recognize when lust exists within you, especially if it might be guiding you into inappropriate interactions with others, or causing you to act flirtatious. If such exists, take your temptations to the Lord. And as Christ taught, if your eye offends you, pluck it out. If your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off.

Leave a Reply

  • Really great article and some great points. I also personally think it’s very intimidating when the man/leader is the one to choose the chaperone so to speak – it actually makes it worse, it would be better if the female was given the choice to bring someone with her of her own choosing if she wished it rather than having the chaperone dictated to by someone you may not know that well. If I have to meet a male leader then I would rather bring someone along (like my brother) who I trust and know will stick up for me rather than go and have the male leader choose another male elder to sit in with us. That’s just very intimidating.

    I think a good way to deal with it is to treat people as your brothers and sisters- somehow the opposite sex have all become sexualised, we need to get back to the biblical principle that we are all members of one family. If we see the opposite sex as our fellow siblings in Christ I think we will have a better relationship with them. That’s just my take from my experiences you made some great points. Blessings and thank you for your articles they’re very thought provoking

    • Excellent point! I never thought about the choice of the chaperone in the power dynamics of it all.

      Someone I know on social media said that these discussions should not be centered around the dynamics of sex so much as it over issues relating to the balance of power.

      Thanks for your feedback! I’m glad you find this site challenging!

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