The egalitarian culture in which we live provides endless opportunities to conflict with a clear vision of God creating man and woman as distinct. Within conservative evangelical circles these distinctions have been addressed most robustly – outside of the teaching of individual churches – by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. The Billy Graham rule, which came into the national spotlight again a couple of years ago when Mike Pence spoke about the precautions he takes in his relationships with women, is a practice in which evangelical men seek to never be alone with a woman (this is a simplistic overstatement; no one has an issue with riding in an elevator with a woman, etc…). This precaution is taken in order to avoid sexual temptation as well as to avoid accusations of impropriety. Below are some thoughts regarding this rule that I have assembled in some semblance of order, but it’s the kind of order you might see as a group of kiddos are told by the teacher to line up at the door. So please, limit your expectations.
We Still Have A “Flesh” Problem
Men are still attracted to women, and women are still attracted to men. Men can be deeply sinful (think David lusting over Bathsheeba) and women can be deeply sinful (think of Potiphar’s wife lusting over Joseph). And while we most often hear about the failure of prominent Christian men, such as the recent Ravi Zecharias tragedy, there are also cases involving women intentionally seducing men. When it comes to the sexes, sin is a two way street. On this issue of sexual attraction, we should not underestimate how overwhelming and intoxicating this temptation can be. We should also not underestimate how the ubiquity of pornography use has desensitized many consciences to the exceeding sinfulness of sexual immorality.
We Have a Problem on Top of a Problem
The #MeToo movement is a classic case of how worldly solutions to sinful problems tend to compound the problem rather than solve it. I am very glad that women who experienced abuse felt confident in coming forward and exposing the likes of Harvey Weinstein. I hope every woman who experiences abuse seeks justice. But I also hope that as a society we can cling to important principles of justice like “innocent until proven guilty” and a right to a fair trial. When the media and the mob simply pile on someone without giving that person a chance to mount any sort of defence, we are no longer living in a just society. So as with sin, justice is a two way street. In this day and age, men not only need to guard their own hearts but to guard their reputations.
The Problem Starts in the Heart
One biblical qualification for an elder is that he be “a man of one woman”. Or a one woman kind of man. The best defense any pastor has against temptation as well as impropriety is to be in love with his wife. Of course, celebrities can fake it in front of the camera, and Christian celebrities are no exception. But local church pastors can’t fake something like this for very long. (On a side note – This is the advantage of the biblical model of having local church pastors as opposed to celebrity leaders). The temptation for a man to stray is intensified when he is not loving his wife the way he should. Sin starts in the heart.
But There are Such things as Best Practices
Most church elders are now familiar with risk management regarding everything from church finances to a potential deadly shooting during a worship service. Churches with a robust children’s ministry will have best practices in place to minimize the potential of an abuser. These best practices discourage potential abusers from even attempting to gain access to kids. In the same way, elders should have best practices for guarding their own hearts, their own reputations, and the reputations of women in the church. Recent books such as “Why Can’t We Be Friends? Avoidance is Not Purity” suggest that policies of avoidance – like the Billy Graham rule – are not the solution. Note the quote below from a recent TGC blog post:
Withdrawing from women isn’t the solution. In fact, it’s part of the problem. It wasn’t good for Adam to be alone in the garden, and it’s not good for men to be without women in the church. Men need mothers, sisters, and daughters in the faith, just as women need fathers, brothers, and sons. We are a family, a beautiful body made up of many parts. We’re vitally connected to one another, and every part is essential for us to function properly. Avoidance isn’t the remedy. Drawing near to God is.https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/women-not-problem/
I don’t know of any evangelicals who advocate for a complete avoidance of women. We worship together, we eat fellowship meals together, and our families form friendships together. The Billy Graham rule is specifically targeting one on one interactions between men and women, often in private places such as personal offices or vehicles. Flee youthful lusts….use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh…abstain from all appearance of evil…if your eye offends you, then pluck it out…Scripture has plenty to say about the nefarious nature of our flesh, even post salvation, and the lengths to which we should go to limit sin’s influence over us. Should I be the kind of person that is trustworthy in a situation where I am alone with a woman? Of course. Should I still have rules? You betcha.
While the author above does not single out the Billy Graham rule, she must be talking about something. She goes on to say “However, I’m concerned that certain well intentioned guardrails have the potential to harm women.” That is a pretty weak argument compared to the argument that a lack of guardrails have definitely harmed women. Ravi Zacharias could have used a few more guardrails. At some point, I assume that Ravi was faithful to his wife, and then at some point he was not. Would he have kept his marital vows if he had had more guardrails?
Wisdom and Rules
Legalism is the idea that righteousness can be achieved by rule-keeping. We understand that this is anathema to the salvation that comes by grace. But having rules does not turn one into a legalist. Discipline is not opposed to grace if discipline is born out of grace. Could we imagine a man who has a lot of rules about his interactions with women but is at the same time a lusting Lothario? Sure. But we can also imagine a good man who doesn’t have a lot of rules and in a weak moment ruins his ministry. In fact, we don’t have to imagine that because we see it around us all the time. Arbitrary rules woodenly applied will make for a clumsy and awkward ministry, but a lack of wise rules will lead to greater tragedies.
This Egalitarian Age
Because of the egalitarian nature of our age, I think it is much more common to see men and women together and much harder for men in the workforce to hold to the Billy Graham rule without compromising their employment. Should we advise men in our church to risk their jobs to hold to a certain standard? These are the types of issues Christians need to think through. For the moment, I see nothing in the news or the culture or the nature of mankind that makes me think that a pastor needs to spend more time alone with a woman who is not his wife.