by John Ellis
Over the last couple of years, thanks in large part to rediscovered quotes made by Vice-President Mike Pence, the Billy Graham Rule has been put under our cultural microscope. The rise of the #MeToo movement has also contributed to a renewed look at the ways in which some men seek to protect themselves from temptation as they pursue holiness. The public discussion doesn’t appear to broach much middle-ground, if any, though. For some, the Billy Graham Rule is an incredibly important tool, to the point of necessary, with which to combat sin. Or, on the other hand, there are those who claim that the continued implementation of the rule is evidence that systemic misogyny still grips our society. I operate in the no-man’s land of finding myself in agreement with both sides on certain points. Maybe, at a later date, I’ll write about why and how I believe the Billy Graham Rule can be helpfully and thoughtfully used. For now, though, I’m going to focus on a problem that exists in my theological circle – the Pharisaical idolatry of the Billy Graham Rule.
While it’s probably unnecessary, a quick explanation of the Billy Graham Rule may be in order.
In short, the rule arose out of the late evangelist’s desire to protect himself from temptation and to protect himself from any appearance of evil as well as warding off the potential for being accused of harassment. To accomplish all that, Graham went out of his way to ensure that he was never alone with any woman whom he was not related or married to. Men who utilize the rule do so in a variety of ways. For example, Mike Pence has (in)famously drawn a line in the sand when it comes to dining alone with women who are not his wife – he doesn’t do it. Most men who follow Billy Graham’s lead make sure that if they must meet with a woman in their office, the door is open so that anybody passing can hear and/or see what’s taking place. Likewise, those men refuse to ride alone in a vehicle with a woman who is not related to them or married to them. The practical ways that the Billy Graham Rule can be implemented is long.
Sadly, while often well-intentioned, the Billy Graham Rule has become so sacrosanct for many conservative evangelical men to the point that it’s an idol.
That it’s become an idol for some is evident in how this man-made rule is frequently elevated above the law of love. It’s also evident in how it’s treated as a magic sanctification pill. Of lesser concern, but a concern, nonetheless, the ways in which it is nonsensically applied and enforced is further evidence that the Billy Graham Rule occupies an underserved position of importance among many conservative evangelical men. I’ve witnessed this last “piece of evidence” multiple times over the years. Recently, though, and highlighting the problem, I was treated to an absurd example of how nonsensically the Billy Graham Rule can be insisted upon.
When searching for candidates for elder, my previous church, like many churches, has a process that includes having potential elders sit down with the existing elders and go over a questionnaire. During one potential elder interview, my fellow pastors and I were going over the portion of the questionnaire that deals with sexual sin. During the discussion, one of the elders asked the candidate if he took steps to ensure that he was never alone with a woman who was not his wife. The man furrowed his brow as he thought, and then replied, “Yes, as a general rule, I’m not alone with other women.”
“As a general rule?” my fellow elder asked with concern.
“Well, yeah,” the man continued. “At work there are times when I have to be alone in my office with a woman. But other than work related instances, I don’t spend time alone with women who are not my wife.”
This brother, who is a wonderful husband, father, and discipler of men, is in a position of authority at his work. Among other responsibilities, one of his job duties is to provide performance reviews throughout the year. This requires meeting one-on-one with those under him, many of whom are women.
The elder with the concern was almost incensed at the nonchalant way in which this man explained this aspect of his job.
“Isn’t there someone else you can have in the room with you?” the elder demanded. “Or, how about conducting the performance reviews in a public space?”
The man patiently explained that performance reviews often contain sensitive material that are considered private. My fellow elder was not pleased by that answer.
Sensing that this was heading south, I quickly spoke up. “Your wife knows about this and trusts you, right?” I asked.
“Of course,” was the quick reply.
“Why don’t we move on, then,” I suggested.
Later, after the interview had concluded and the man had left, that same elder insisted on circling back to the fact that the candidate spent time alone with women who were not his wife. This elder kept insisting that it was highly problematic that the potential elder didn’t adhere to the Billy Graham Rule at work. As one of our goals moving forward, my fellow elder said that a solution needed to be found that would keep this man from meeting alone with women. To their credit, the other elders seemed as flummoxed as I was by our fellow elder’s position.
This elder’s concern, though, is symptomatic of how the Billy Graham Rule has become an idol. Insisting on a slavish adherence to it without any regard for logistics and common sense creates situations that elevate a man-made rule above Jesus’ law of love.
Over the last couple of years, Christian women have told horror stories about how brothers in Christ’s devotion to the Billy Graham Rule has impacted them. In her book Why Can’t We Be Friends: Avoidance Is Not Purity, Aimee Byrd tells the story of how she was once forced to walk, “down a sketchy alley when I could have been offered a ride to my car three blocks away.”
I’ve heard men scoff at Byrd’s story, doubting its veracity. Except, those same men have also bragged to me that they refuse to give women a ride even if it’s raining. “My pursuit of holiness is more important,” they smugly insist.
And that, dear reader, is what I mean when I claim that many men elevate the Billy Graham Rule above Jesus’ law of love.
Think about it, it is not a sin for a married man to ride alone in a vehicle with a woman who is not his wife. It is not a sin for a man to meet for a business-lunch with a woman who is not his wife. Nor is it a sin to have closed-door meetings with women who are not your wife. Recognizing that those things are not always wise, and that, for some men, specific sin issues and struggles demand a certain level of “gouging out your eye” measures to be taken, those things are not, in and of themselves, sinful.
You know what it is sinful? Refusing to serve a woman by giving her a ride because it violates your precious Billy Graham Rule.
Setting aside the discussion (the needed discussion) about how the Billy Graham Rule does often point to a sinful misogyny coursing through much of conservative evangelicalism, this elevation of a man-made rule over Jesus’ law of love reveals a pharisaical approach to sanctification.
In the classic book The Mortification of Sin, the Puritan John Owen wrote, “Mortification from a self-strength, carried on by ways of self-invention, unto the end of a self-righteousness, is the soul and substance of all false religion in the world.”
Owen goes on to explain that the true killing of sin requires a constant reliance on the Holy Spirit through a daily submission to the ordinary means of grace. While he recognizes how specific prohibitions and actions intended to act as a type of “gouging out of the eye” are sometimes necessary, he warns about relying on those measures. Owen even warns about trading, “sensuality for Pharisaism, vanity in himself to the contempt of others, let him not think that he hath mortified the sin that he seems to have left. He hath changed his master, but is a servant still.”
Later, while exegeting Paul’s words in Romans 6:14, Owen argues that, “If thy contending against sin be all on legal accounts, from legal principles and motives, what assurance canst thou attain unto that sin shall not have dominion over thee, which will be they ruin?”
With that rhetorical question, Owen is making Paul’s point that the gospel of Jesus Christ is what sets us free from sin, not our strivings. When we look to our efforts to mortify sin, we are actually putting ourselves under the dominion of sin. To be sure, John Owen is not saying (nor am I) that we shouldn’t take an active role in combatting temptation. Throughout the book, though, he does warn about the danger of relying on prohibitions and rules to mortify sin. Sadly, the ways in which many men talk about and implement the Billy Graham Rule gives evidence that they believe it’s through their efforts that lust is mortified in their hearts.
Borrowing from the initial quote from The Mortification of Sin I shared above, the approach many conservative evangelical men take towards the Billy Graham Rule amounts to, “the soul and substance” of a false religion. And that’s a dangerous place to be.
We are all legalists at heart. This is why we all need Jesus. Sadly, though, many men have convinced themselves that their legalism is an honorable pursuit of holiness. However, they have elevated a man-made rule above Jesus’ law of love. In doing so, they remain committed to serving themselves, even at the expense of their sisters in Christ.
Adhere to the Billy Graham Rule if you believe that it is an
aid to your pursuit of holiness. But do so with the understanding that there
are circumstances and times that demand that the man-made rule be set aside in
the service of others. Serving our sisters in Christ is far more important than
our devotion to a man-made rule like the Billy Graham Rule.
 Aimee Byrd, Why Can’t We Be Friends: Avoidance Is Not Purity (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2018), 26.
 John Owen, The Mortification of Sin (USA: Feather Trail Press, 2009) ,11.
 Owen, The Mortification of Sin, 29.