4 Reasons We Should Reconsider The Billy Graham Rule

Depending on who you are, you may have strong feelings about the Billy Graham Rule–whether for or against. It’s a rule that the late evangelist held himself to for the better part of 60 years, and it states that he would never be alone in a room with any woman who wasn’t his wife or daughter.

The purpose of this self-imposed rule was to shield himself from sexual temptation, and even the appearance of impropriety. As a high profile Christian leader, he was committed to doing everything he could to project integrity and fidelity. And many admired him for doing so. 

So much so that the Billy Graham Rule has become something of a gold standard for Christian leaders, including pastors, parachurch ministry leaders, and even politicians. 

While the desire to be above reproach is certainly laudable, the Billy Graham Rule has nevertheless increasingly come under question in recent years. Not because of its intent, but because of its unintended side effects, particularly in a twenty-first century world. 

Though I would never advocate throwing caution to the wind, I do believe that it’s important to voice these concerns and evaluate how Billy Graham’s famous rule might be critiqued, amended, or retired in favor of something else.

Here are 4 reasons to reconsider the Billy Graham Rule.

1. It doesn’t seem to be working. 

When you have an important purpose and goal–in this case, decreasing sexual impropriety among evangelical leaders–it’s important to evaluate the effectiveness of a particular method before you commit to it. As Jesus puts it, “You’ll know a tree by its fruits.”

And what is the fruit of seven decades of the Billy Graham Rule being the prevailing wisdom in the evangelical world? Sex scandals at seemingly the same rate as outside the evangelical world. 

In short, it doesn’t seem to be working. 

As the #MeToo movement has grown in prevalence in the last few years, an alarmingly large number prominent Church leaders have been implicated as sexual predators, including high profile cases like Ravi Zacharias and Bill Hybels (the latter who had actually authored a book on integrity). 

Countless other cases fail to reach the headlines because we wouldn’t recognize their names, but are nevertheless wreaking havoc on the Church. 

The Billy Graham Rule, as well intentioned as it is, simply has not served to protect the dignity of women from men in power, and it hasn’t kept men in power from easily taking advantage of women. In fact, abusers are often able to use their ministry funds and power structures to serve their sexual misconduct for years with impunity. 

We need to take a closer look at the structures in place that are cultivating this kind of toxic culture. And after decades of evidence, my hunch is that mixed-gender lunch meetings aren’t the main culprit. 

What is the fruit of seven decades of the Billy Graham Rule being the prevailing wisdom in the evangelical world? Sex scandals at seemingly the same rate as outside the evangelical world. Click To Tweet

2. It oversexualizes women. 

On the face of it, the Billy Graham Rule seems to protect the sexual dignity of women. However, if we think a little bit more deeply about it, we may actually be guilty of oversexualizing women with our stringent adherence to the Billy Graham Rule. 

That’s because the rule is based on an assumption: if a male leader meets alone with a woman, they will most definitely fall into sexual sin. Or, at the very least, everyone will think they did. The implicit supposition is that women are dangerous sexual temptresses who will lure men into their trap. And so they should be avoided like the plague. 

Conversely, some male leaders may claim that they’re keeping themselves from being tempted or from the danger of a false accusation. But this betrays another assumption that every woman is dying to have sex with you. And if you really are so sex crazed that you can’t hold a simple business meeting with literally any woman without fear of being overcome with temptation, that might be something you need to bring up in your next conversation with God, your wife, and/or a good therapist. 

What’s more is that false accusations are far less common than we might imagine. When a woman makes an accusation, it’s something that requires thorough investigation. The inability of evangelical churches and parachurch organizations to do so has led to ongoing impropriety and the abuse of women. 

Case in point is the PR manager who was greatly maligned by leadership at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries for questioning Zacharias’ integrity during his life. The recent investigation has confirmed her suspicions, illustrating the point that we must listen to women who bring forward accusations and suspicions about the sexual misconduct of men in power. 

False accusations are far less common than we might imagine. Click To Tweet

3. It limits the opportunities of women who aren’t the wife or daughter of someone influential. 

This shouldn’t be the case, but the glass ceiling in Christian circles is ten times lower than it is in secular environments. And while that’s often due to what I believe are misapplications of complementarian theology, it’s also due in part to cultural norms like the Billy Graham Rule. 

Because of strict adherence to the rule, women often get less access to high level leaders in Christian organizations, less mentoring and discipleship, and less opportunities as a result of that diminished access. This is regardless of how gifted they are, how hard they work, and how sincere their desire to serve and further the mission of a church or ministry. They simply aren’t allowed in the room. 

Therefore, if a woman of high capacity wants to make a difference in the world, she will often find less friction reaching her goals in secular organizations, organizations run by and for women, or by being granted access through her marriage to another influential leader. And even then, these avenues to leadership are typically less respected and recognized within the Church. 

None of these paths to making an impact are necessarily illegitimate. But women should be afforded the same straightforward opportunities that are afforded to men. The Billy Graham Rule doesn’t help us get there.

This shouldn't be the case, but the glass ceiling in Christian circles is ten times lower than it is in secular environments. Click To Tweet

4. If we’re going to follow the Billy Graham Rule, we should follow it in its entirety. 

The Billy Graham Rule is about more than just not meeting alone with a woman. The rule is actually part of a larger framework of commitments that Billy Graham and the other leaders of his evangelistic organization recorded in a document called the Modesto Manifesto, which was penned in 1948. 

The Modesto Manifesto includes not one, but four commitments:

  • Never exaggerate attendance figures at their meetings
  • Take a fixed, modest salary from their organization
  • Never be alone with a woman other than their wife, mother, daughters
  • Never criticize fellow members of the clergy

By this standard, very few evangelical leaders actually follow the Billy Graham Rule. And there’s actually a lot within it that would help increase the credibility of evangelical leaders at large. 

For instance, we would be more credible if evangelical leaders didn’t get in constant online wars with each other. I’m not talking about having public theological disagreements (which is totally fine), but rather vitriolic character assassinations as a tactic to win those arguments. 

It’s also clear that many influential leaders exaggerate their numbers, whether it’s the number of people who sit in their pews or who buy their books

And while a worker is worth his or her wages, many evangelical pastors and leaders are guilty of taking exorbitant salaries, particularly when you look at the extreme disparity between the pay of the senior leader in an organization as compared to those who work for him. 

These issues were plaguing the evangelical movement 70 years ago, and they continue to do so today. While hard-and-fast rules won’t make them go away, we should be at least as focused on those issues as we are with protecting leaders’ reputations from the appearance of sexual impropriety. 

While hard-and-fast rules won't make our issues go away, we should be at least as focused on those issues as we are with protecting leaders' reputations. Click To Tweet

A high standard of character is sacred to Christian leadership. The Billy Graham rule is not. 

None of this is meant to impugn the character of Billy Graham. He was an incredibly effective evangelist who influenced the lives of literally millions of people for Jesus. And, by all known accounts, he was a man of great integrity throughout the course of his life, a loving husband, and devoted father. 

Furthermore, the self-imposed rules by which he lived his life were just that: self-imposed. And it worked for him. But perhaps it’s time we began to take his famous rule more as descriptive rather than universally prescriptive. 

After all, Graham lived in a very different era from our own. He didn’t face the issue of limiting the access of female leaders by his rule, because high level female leadership was far less a cultural value than it is now. And so there simply weren’t nearly as many female leaders rising to prominence. 

I’m not saying that was right. I’m just saying it wasn’t a consideration he needed to make. But it is a consideration we do need to make now. 

So perhaps following Billy Graham’s famous rule to a tee isn’t necessarily the best way to honor his memory or to serve the Church today. It would be better to serve the spirit of what his rule aimed to accomplish. In order to do that effectively, we will need to reconsider how we set up structures in our churches and ministry organizations to not only project an image of integrity but to actually foster it in our hearts. 

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