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Objectifying Women And The “Billy Graham Rule”

Updated: Aug 28, 2021

Last year was riddled with sex scandal after sex scandal. Movements like #metoo are shedding light on sexual misconduct. As people are discussing how to prevent misconduct, the exposure has led the media to reopen a long time rule known by  many evangelical pastors and leaders called the Billy Graham Rule.

The Billy Graham Rule was made famous by none other than the late Rev. Billy Graham himself, the greatest evangelist of the 20th century. While there are differing degrees of implementation, the rule consists of avoiding any one-on-one encounters with the opposite sex; hence, Graham would not  share a meal or even ride on elevators alone with any woman other than his wife.

A modern day practitioner of the rule is Vice President Pence who recently came under fire for his endorsement of the rule. Like Graham, Pence chooses not to dine with a woman other than his wife, and he does not attend social events where alcohol is present without his spouse by his side. While most understand Pence’s intent to keep himself from impropriety, some consider his views as misogynistic, saying his views objectify woman.  

Critics of Pence (and the Billy Graham Rule) believe that eliminating contact with women creates roadblocks for women, preventing them from advancing in their areas of work. And this is so not just in their careers, but in general areas of need like counseling sessions with male therapist or ministers. After all, so much of business and professional life takes place over dinner tables where people can enjoy food and chat, or in the privacy of an office where someone can open up about personal matters. It is believed that Billy Graham boundaries—though well intended—are rooted in the wrong premise: Women are tempting sex objects that ought to be avoided.

As a pastor who wants to effectively minister to both men and women, I find myself sympathizing with the critics of the Graham Rule. I never want to prevent a woman from receiving the counsel that she needs. But as a married man, and, more importantly, a person well aware of my fallen nature, I also fully understand and endorse anyone who creates boundaries to protect their sacred, marital vows. So does the Graham Rule objectify women or is it an ethical approach to life? I think the case can be made from both sides.

Against the Billy Graham Rule

If a person is implementing the Graham Rule because they only see women as weak, immoral sexual deviants, then it is obvious that their premise is wrong. Any person cutting out contact from women—or any person—because of the risk of sexual deviance is prioritizing an unhealthy,untrue fear. The truth is that people can go astray in all sorts of ways, which is why we should be careful to not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

For example, the internet can be used to educate, put forth ideas, communicate, or even entertain, but it can also be used to engage in all kinds of criminal or deviant behaviors. Is the risk of deviance enough to eliminate the use of the internet? Most would say no. People understand the need to demonstrate self control. Here is where I give those against the Graham Rule credence. It is important for anyone whether an educator, clergy, politician, or friend to have the self control to conduct herself in an appropriate manner. Policies that prevent any gender from being invited to the table restricts progress. However, as much as I believe this to be true, things aren’t always so cut and dry.

Katelyn Beaty in an article published by the New York Times writes, “But reasonable people know the difference between a business meeting over breakfast and drinks at a hotel bar at night.” Is this really the case? Are the lines so clear? I don’t think so. While there are more appropriate atmospheres to conduct business, the waters can be muddied anywhere. And here lies the problem: Moral failure happens to the best of people with the best of intentions in all sorts of situations, even innocent ones. Sin, as Christians call it, is a problem that every individual faces.

There is a propensity in our DNA to lean towards deviance. It is a problem that each of us must be aware of, and it is for this reason that each of us should be humble enough to recognize the slippery slope of life. As a pastor, for instance, I am often weary of the trust that some people bestow on me. This is not because I am untrustworthy; rather, I know that better men have fallen. There is a healthy fear that I have embraced and, so, I have applied this fear to the way I conduct myself around the opposite sex by creating boundaries. And I think others should do the same.

Didn’t Jesus meet privately with woman?

What about Jesus? He met privately with the woman at the well, after all. There is some who think that this meeting is a proof text against the Billy Graham Rule, and in some ways it is. Jesus is engaging one-on-one with a woman. But before we take out our rubber stamp of approval with one-on-one, opposite gender meetings, we must realize that Jesus is interacting with a stranger in a public place the same way that someone would casually strike up a conversation with someone sitting on a park bench. He isn’t going out for cocktail hour, nor inviting her to dine alone. He is simply ministering to her about her needs at the watering hole where he will soon be met by his disciples to continue on their day.

The Samaritan woman, nonetheless, is a good example of how men should not limit their interaction with woman just because they are of the opposite gender. Women, after all, were a part of Jesus’ ministry and even funded his efforts. For this reason, there is a limited gray area that we must live in as people in a fallen world.

The Case for Boundaries

There are far too many stories of office romances that have led to adulterous relationships and split families. While the people who commit unfaithful acts should be held accountable, we ought to think of better ways to protect people from temptation. No one argues that sending an alcoholic to a bar is wrong. In a similar fashion, perhaps conducting meetings in intimate, casual settings is also wrong if it creates the environment for impropriety. This is where boundaries can be very helpful. Boundaries should always be meant to protect people, not divide.

Men and women should create boundaries in how they interact with each other and not out of an unhealthy, irrational fear, but out of care for mutual purity.

The issue is: What is feasible? How do we promote boundaries without restricting gender equality. Unfortunately, I do not think there is a one-size fits all solution. Billy Graham implemented his own rule that made sense for him and the time period he lived in.

Nevertheless, organizations ought to play a part in the policies they set forth for their employees. Implementing training for appropriate office conduct and rules for outside office meetings can be one small way of promoting ethical behavior. For example, prohibiting alcoholic beverages during business meetings can help prevent misconduct. Not every rule will work for every organization, but there needs to be some sort of dialogue to promote healthy boundaries.

Perhaps if Hollywood executives and other leaders lived by higher standards with boundaries that promote fidelity, then the amount of tragic stories of sexual misconduct could have been diminished. And for this reason, dismissing the Graham Rule is a misstep. There is a genuine need to create barriers to protect us from our own fallenness. Not every person will make the best decisions, which is why we ought to think of ways to create safeguards. But whatever safeguard is implemented, it must attempt to provide equality in the workplace. And if no boundaries can be offered by an employer, think of ways to implement your own boundaries.

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