Unintended Consequences of the “Billy Graham Rule”

Today we are going to talk about the “Billy Graham Rule”.

grahamFor those of you who don’t know, Billy Graham was one of the most influential and respected ministers of our day.  He is (amazingly) still alive, though he is now retired from active ministry and has been for years.

It has been said that Billy Graham would never meet with a woman alone for any reason, under any circumstances.  Why?  Because as a hugely influential public figure, he recognized that he was under immense public scrutiny and even a whiff of scandal would have brought all the celebrated work of his crusades down in flames.  He did not want that.

The “Billy Graham Rule” worked very well for him:  nowadays when people think of Billy Graham they think of a man of sterling integrity whose public ministry made an immense impact for the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Yet this rule has now become standard operating procedure in virtually every conservative Christian organization.  And there have been unintended consequences.

For starters, the “Billy Graham Rule” reflects negatively on the men who invoke it.  Imagine yourself in this scenario:  You are a woman starting out at a major Christian ministry.  You wish to develop a solid professional relationship with a male coworker with whom you will be working closely, one in which you can share ideas and collaborate freely.  What better way to start than by going out to grab lunch?  But he turns you down, invoking the “Billy Graham Rule”.  What is your first reaction?  Is it to praise him for his sterling integrity, upstanding character, and fortitude of will in the face of temptation?  Or is it to wonder what is going on under the surface–why would he even need a rule like this unless he was already struggling with temptation?  (Perhaps he is secretly attracted to other female staff members?  Perhaps his relationship with his wife really isn’t all that and he feels the temptation to let his gaze wander?  And what about the other male staff–are they struggling with this too?)

Tracey Bianchi writes at Christianity Today about her experience of just such a scenario.  Her piece provides a window into how we look to those on the outside of evangelicalism or to those who are coming into evangelicalism.  Links from Christianity Today typically require subscription after a certain period of time (I’m not sure how long), so for the benefit of those of you who are unable to get there while the link is still free I will quote copiously:

…Somewhere along the line, though, Billy Graham’s personal decision for his ministry became a “rule.” Under the power of fear and misunderstanding, Graham’s rule became indicative of how men and women should lead together in all Christian organizations and ministries. At times, this rule has actually taken priority over the way Jesus related with women. Think about it: Jesus met alone with women like the woman at the well. He allowed a “sinful woman” to wash his feet with her hair. He consistently met with women, encouraged them in their faith, and partnered with them for kingdom work. Why are our churches, ministries, and Christian organizations less inclined to follow Jesus’ lead than Billy Graham’s?

The fact is that most Christian organizations have more male than female staff—especially at the top. When the Billy Graham Rule is enforced, then, female staff aren’t able to work effectively with those in the top tiers of leadership. Women are marginalized and cut out of opportunities to network, share their ideas, and advance in the organization. Even if women are invited to speak up or are represented at important meetings, the real decisions are often made over coffee, a long lunch, the hour-long car ride after a seminar, or 18 holes on the golf course. When women are erased out of these moments, organizations suffer.

Adhering to the Rule also infuses tension and fear into the DNA of an organization. Consciously or unconsciously, staff are told to view one another as temptations and threats rather than colleagues with brilliant minds and gifts for the kingdom. This actually makes working together to accomplish common goals more difficult.

The Rule also reflects negatively on the men who enforce it—a fact that many don’t consider. I honor what my colleague was trying to do when he made this statement to me. He was trying to do what he felt was right and protect both of us. My immediate reaction, though, was one of embarrassment for him. Instead of finding myself impressed by his fortitude and upstanding nature, I wondered if he had a secret attraction to our female staff members. I suddenly mistrusted him and worried about his relationship with his wife and family. I started to question, Why would a man need a rule like this unless he already felt tempted? I got very nervous and suspicious. No longer did I view him as a collegial equal but instead, I now feared he was a potential predator. This made me question our other male staff. Were they struggling with this, too? The heart of the rule was to protect us from worrying about sexual temptation in the workplace. But enlisting the rule did the opposite: Now I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

Many women who experience the Billy Graham Rule for the first time have similar reactions. Rather than praising the man who issued the edict, women wonder whether they should be worried about their coworker. Worse, the Rule actually makes many women nervous to be in any room with men, and they may begin to obsess over how to be appropriate and not appear to be a temptation—what they should wear, where they should sit, and more.Is this how men want to affect their female colleagues?

…True, women and men do not always work together with integrity, but having the rule will not prevent this. If Christian women and men cannot model how to honor one another and serve together with integrity, who will? If we continue to hide behind the Billy Graham Rule rather than engage with our colleagues of different genders, we will miss out on the contributions that men and women bring together to the places we serve. Rather than let fear and mistrust inform our partnerships, let’s choose mutual respect like Jesus modeled when he chose to work alongside and honor women—even if that means going out for lunch.

Like many other aspects of evangelical purity culture, the “Billy Graham Rule” entails a burden which falls much heavier upon women than upon men.  Faced with such a rule, women are forced to obsess over how to carry themselves in professional settings–what to wear, where to sit in meetings, etc.–without being or appearing to be inappropriate.  Women are made to feel nervous about being in any room or any situation with their male coworkers, lest they should force them to struggle with temptation.  Men:  Do you really want to impact your female coworkers this way?  Is it right for you to place a burden like this upon them?

Consider this issue through the guiding principle that every person you will ever come eyeball to eyeball with is a person for whom Christ died.  In light of that, is it right that a rule which made perfect sense for one Christian public figure who faced intense public scrutiny should become standard operating procedure throughout evangelicalism–when said rule places an inordinate burden upon women by hampering their professional development and forcing them to obsess over whether their actions and behaviors are leading male coworkers into sin?

Men:  I have said this before and will say it again.  YOU DO NOT GET A PASS!!!!!  You do not get to shift the responsibility to women for your inability to control your own sexual passions.  At some point you have to step up and learn a little self-control.  When Jesus says that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart (Matthew 5:28), he goes on to say in the very next verse, “If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away.  It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.”  Jesus does not give you the option of shifting the responsibility to women, and I do not either.

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