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What Critics of the “Billy Graham Rule” Are Missing

I remember as a young minister hearing about Billy Graham’s “rule” to avoid the appearance of impropriety by not being alone with a woman. I had heard that he would even excuse himself from an elevator, if it was only him and a member of the opposite sex. The explanation I heard was that he did not want to risk his, or the woman’s, reputation, by a misunderstood observation from across a room or a photographer’s hasty photograph. In his position as a minister of the Gospel and eventually counselor to presidents, he needed to be, as much as possible, above reproach and protect his reputation which can be sullied by even an accusation or question of immoral behavior. I’ve always respected Graham for his desire to keep his reputation pure and tried to model my ministry encounters after his “rule.”

Our current president, however, has received plenty of bad press following the release of a sound clip of him flippantly talking about having his way with women in a very demeaning way. Whether it was “locker room” talk or a play-by-play account of how he actually treats women is yet to be seen. Several women had come forward with accusations which if true, seems like would have buried him by now, but even if there are no culpable accounts of sexual harassment or abuse, the appearance of such has been cause for concern by women and anyone concerned for their proper treatment. When someone in leadership appears to do wrong, their integrity should be called into question.

In contrast, our current vice-president seems to be above reproach, which is unusual for politicians these days. I have yet to see an accusation of immoral conduct even spanning back to before he become a public figure. His devout faith in God and commitment to his wife and family seem to have kept him on the “straight and narrow” path, avoiding actual or perceived impropriety.

However, it seems that this lack of “dirty laundry” on President Trump’s No. 2 man is disheartening for a press that thrives on what can be dug up in the seedy underbelly of society. The most recent gossip making its way around the news feeds has roots in a March 28th Washington Post article by Ashley Parker where she states:

In 2002, Mike Pence told the Hill that he never eats alone with a woman other than his wife and that he won’t attend events featuring alcohol without her by his side, either.1

Had I read this statement before the press got hold of it my first impression would have been that of respect, like I had for Billy Graham, in Pence’s desire to keep his reputation spotless and relationship with his wife unblemished. But many in the press, and surprisingly even in the Church, have taken offense at the Pence family’s desire to avoid situations that could taint their image and damage their marriage.

One of the first negative posts I saw about the Pence’s dedication to each other came from Theresa Avila in The New York Magazine, the headline stating, “The Only Woman Mike Pence Is Allowed to Eat Alone With Is His Wife.”The title alone seems to be a slam against the independence and authority of the Vice President, suggesting he is under the thumb of his domineering wife. The article concludes with a reference to a Rolling Stone article which recalled a dinner meeting with then Governor Pence and the Democratic leadership where Mike Pence called his wife “mother,” which fed the disdain liberals felt for him already. By all account of those who know the Pence family personally, however, these concerns of Karen Pence filling a domineering mother role to the Vice President couldn’t be further from the truth.

Having watched with amusement over the last several years (but especially during this past campaign season) the way mainstream media has attacked anything that smacks of Conservatism, I’m not surprised that they would latch on to anything that would portray the Vice President as “weird” or “unstable” but as Laura Turner confessed in a subsequent Washington Post article, “It is strange, as are many religious practices, and strange isn’t necessarily bad.”3  What I find most interesting with the criticism of the Pence’s concern over appearances is how so many find that laughable, that they would be so concerned about appearances, yet in the case of President Trump, the attacks were all about appearances.

Avila’s article was just the beginning of many more posts and columns, with Christians now pulling in the “Billy Graham rule” as a cause for a myriad of problems with Pence’s and now, ministers’, application of anything resembling Billy Graham’s rule. The arguments range from how this rule is discriminatory against woman and even portrays women as the seductress, and men as their helpless prey to how it denies Christians the opportunity to model proper male-female relationships to a world who needs to see it done right (highlighted in a Christianity Today online article that has started circulating again). I struggle, though, with many of the arguments being put forth by Christians against this rule, so I want to offer what I think critics of it are missing. If you saw the title of this post and decided to read it, you’ve probably already read many of the other articles and posts -both pro and con- about Mike Pence’s and Billy Graham’s rule, so I’ll limit the remainder of this post to a simple list, without many background references or explanations.

  1. The loudest complaint about the rule seems to be that it is discriminatory against women in a male-dominated world. This could be, and I don’t want to belittle the possibility. Women should have every opportunity as men to excel and advance in their careers and if a policy prohibits that, it should be reconsidered. But when it comes to Mike Pence’s application of the rule, we’ve yet to hear from women who have worked with him who feel this way. They may be yet to speak up, but all that I have seen so far is by one woman who worked for then Congressman Pence who said that not only did she not feel limited by Pence’s policies, but she felt that she excelled under the climate he created.It very well could be that a hard-and-fast application of the rule has inadvertently limited the success of women in some organizations including the Church. But the rule is not at fault, but rather its application. The wise leader will work to be inclusive in his/her dealings with subordinates and colleagues to ensure that this doesn’t happen. It’s harder than blindly falling a rule, but will prevent anyone from being left behind.
  2. It has been suggested that living by the rule objectifies women, making them out to be on the prowl for a sexual conquest. To be honest, this had never crossed my mind in all of my years of trying to live by the rule. As my wife and I have discussed our “limits,” my being alone with a woman was seldom about the woman but more about me. I’m a man. The idea that not wanting to be alone with a person of the opposite sex is to protect you from the other person misses the point. It’s about protect each other from what it could become or appear to be.
  3. Some people from my tradition argue that as holiness people, filled with the Holy Spirit, we should have the integrity, self-control and professionalism to handle these situations. Certainly “holiness people” have the ability to choose not to sin, but to assume that being sanctified will prevent us from sinning assumes an eradication of the sinful nature which, if true, would remove our free-will on the other side of the equation. We have all seen ministers who at one time had lived a holy life with spiritual fruit to confirm their sanctification, but have fallen away. I’m not suggesting that one lunch with a person of the opposite sex will do that, but it could be the beginning. Being sanctified does not relieve us of the obligation to protect ourselves and others, keeping in mind Paul’s admonition to the Corinthians to be careful not to fall when we think we’re standing strong (I Corinthians 10:12).
  4. Some contend that not even Jesus lived by the Billy Graham rule, with the primary example being his meeting of the Samaritan woman at the well. This is comparing apples to oranges. Graham’s and Pence’s rule is about meeting alone with women. I don’t recall an instance in Holy Writ when Jesus was alone with a woman. His meetings with women were in public spaces (like the well) where passersby are likely; or with groups of people.
  5. The rules critics seem to focus on temptation and betrayal. They are correct that this is part of it, but appearance is also a big part of it. Billy Graham stepping out of an elevator alone with a woman at a hotel could look like he was coming down from a room with her. Eating dinner alone with a person of the opposite sex could appear to be a date, even if innocent in the minds of the two eating together. While many may say, “God knows!”, we are still responsible for what we do and how it could hinder or influence others as it hurts our witness. Paul urged the Thessalonians to avoid even the appearance of evil (I Thessalonians 5:22), though modern translations translate “appearance” as “forms” but if a couple meeting together in isolation, perhaps for a meal, appears to be a date or an intimate encounter with someone other than their spouses, it is a “form” of evil that we’re to avoid.
  6. All of this discussion about the Billy Graham Rule of late reminded me of a conversation I had with a teenage boy when I was a youth pastor. Even back in the early nineties, I would plan my route when dropping of the teens after an activity so that it was always a boy I took home last, avoiding being alone with a female teen. One night one of the teens, who was usually the last to be taken home, asked me about it and I thoughtfully explained the rule and how it was to protect both me and the female teens in the youth group. He then caught me off-guard with his response: “Well, what if I’m gay?” Most of the current conversation about the rule seems to neglect the fact that men-women interaction isn’t the only relationships that we need to be concerned about. It was good to read this morning that Turner does address the LGBT issue in her Perspective noted above, but she goes on to suggest that this new element further alienates gay people and increased the rule to potentially include everyone! But if one is going to properly and compassionately apply the rule, whether male, female, gay or lesbian, they should all consider who they meet with alone as well as the ramifications, benefits and potential detriment of doing so.
  7. Some have suggested that if this rule is applied across the board, it would prohibit women from effectively serving as ministers since one-on-one meetings are an essential element of pastoring. Why must this be so? Is it necessary to toss out the rule to make ministry easy? Is meeting in seclusion the only way to meet one-on-one with others? Most offices and churches have private areas to meet without having to be completely alone but still being able to maintain confidentiality. The rule, as I understand it, doesn’t mean you can’t be in a room alone, when observation by others is possible and interaction remains professional. As a military chaplain, we have strict rules to protect the chaplain and the counselees. This includes having windows in our doors and usually having a Chaplain Assistant in the office when meeting with people of the opposite sex. As a pastor of a small church, I would always leave my door open and tell my wife who I was meeting with so she could drop in during our meeting to say “hello.” One-on-one meetings do not mean secluded meetings. The rule can work if we’re willing to work at it and keep sensible precautions in place.
  8. Perhaps the most dangerous attitude I’ve seen in the discussions about the rule is how lightly many people in ministry take the risks that Graham and Pence have tried to avoid. They speak of their marriage being strong and transparent, how their ministry model is effective, and how modern times call for different methods than those of Graham and Pence. The danger with this attitude is that they refuse to recognize the common relationship dangers that come from a growing intimacy that meeting alone produces, especially in ministry contexts when the counselee is often discouraged with their marriage and spouse and sees in the pastor an ideal mate (which can also be felt by the minister, if their marriage is going through some difficulties). Colleagues can also begin to see each other as better than their spouses since they only see them at their best, so intimate times alone, like a meal, could just advance those feelings.
  9. Naysayers of the rule seem to believe there’s only one way to have a good working relationship with people of the opposite sex: spending time alone with them. Why does that have to be? Is there ever anything so private, so personal, that there couldn’t be at least one other person included? Wouldn’t that also foster the concept of a “team” which would be good for the organization? Grant it, counselling requires a degree of privacy, but as noted above, there are ways to keep the rule while maintaining confidentiality.

I think Progressives have taken the Vice President’s and Billy Graham’s efforts to remain pure and protect their reputations and marriages as another Conservative pillar to knock down without giving due regard to its value. Instead of commending them for seeking a holy life, they criticize them because of those they may inadvertently hinder. Instead of offering a way of compromise that could preserve the sought-after purity in relationships while also being inclusive of both genders in personal and professional encounters, they maintain the only response is to do away with the rule altogether.

If the “controversy” over the Billy Graham Rule as Vice President Pence has applied it has done any good, it is that it has encouraged a conversation. Since it has come up, I have reengaged conversation with a female chaplain who I supervised in a previous assignment to learn how my application of the rule may have hurt her and how I can better apply it in the future.

I clearly do not have all of the answers, but I do believe that with enough effort, a way forward is possible that allows for the maintaining of a rule that protects one’s reputation and relationships while also empowering subordinates and colleagues of both sexes in any organization, including the Church. Instead of seeking the easiest way forward while criticizing those who are pursuing righteousness, we need to find a godly way to work together while honoring our commitments to our spouses, families, subordinates and colleagues. I believe there is a way forward that is faithful to God’s call to purity, holiness and to not even provide the appearance of evil, while championing equal opportunity for men and women alike.

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If you’re interested in moving forward, watch for me to post in the near future, Ideas for Keeping the Rule While Empowering Others.

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Notes

Washington Post online article, “Karen Pence is the vice president’s ‘prayer warrior,’ gut check and shield” accessed 3 April 2017.

NYMag.com online article, “The Only Woman Mike Pence Is Allowed to Eat Alone With Is His Wife” accessed 3 April 2017.

Washington POst online Perspective,The religious reasons Mike Pence won’t eat alone with women don’t add up” accessed 4 April 2017.

Washington Post Perspective, “I worked for Mike Pence. Being a woman never held me back,” accessed 3 April 2017.

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