A story about Billy Graham goes something like this: In 1949 or 1950, after one of his famous evangelistic meetings, Graham returned to his hotel room to find a naked woman lying on his bed, ready to seduce him in an attempt to destroy his ministry. Graham, cautious and humble as usual, fled the hotel room and immediately implemented a rule that would come to bear his name: From that day forward, Graham would not travel (including by car), eat or meet alone with a woman other than his wife, Ruth.
The Billy Graham Rule was soon adopted by evangelical pastors and business executives. Men in positions of influence wanted to “flee from sexual immorality” and be “above reproach” (both biblical commands), as well as abstain from “every appearance of evil.” Aware of how many Christian leaders have been felled by sexual immorality, many of these men were taking sincere steps to guard their marriages from infidelity and their hearts from lust.
Recently, a Washington Post article about second lady Karen Pence has brought the Billy Graham Rule back into the public eye. The article cites a 2002 interview with Vice President Pence — who has called himself an “evangelical Catholic” — saying that he “never eats alone with a woman other than his wife,” and that he doesn’t attend events serving alcohol unless she is with him as well. This will, no doubt, sound strange to the uninitiated. The Onion parodied the story with the headline, “Mike Pence Asks Waiter To Remove Mrs. Butterworth From Table Until Wife Arrives.” It is strange, as are many religious practices, and strange isn’t necessarily bad.
The impulse that led to the Billy Graham Rule — which was actually a solidification of principles guarding against several kinds of temptation — is a good and honorable one: to remain faithful to one’s spouse and to avoid the kind of behavior (or rumors of behavior) that have destroyed the careers of church leaders. Evangelical pastors having affairs is so common as to almost be cliche, and damages the integrity of the church.
But good intentions do not always produce helpful consequences. In this case, the Billy Graham Rule risks reducing women to sexual temptations, objects, things to be avoided. It perpetuates an old boys’ club mentality, excluding women from important work and career conversations simply by virtue of their sex.
There are good reasons for pastors not to meet behind closed doors with someone of the opposite sex. For the sake of transparency, it can be a wise decision to choose to meet, say, at a coffee shop or somewhere with an open-door policy. But for men to categorically refuse to meet one-on-one with women is often dehumanizing and denies the image of Christ that each person bears. As the philosopher Dallas Willard wrote in “The Spirit of the Disciplines,” “Alienation from them makes room for harmful lusts.” It also fuels the myth that loads of women are waiting around to falsely accuse powerful men of rape, a situation that has occurred, but is rare and often used to discount real sexual trauma.
The Billy Graham Rule also denies the reality of LGBT people. As a friend pointed out to me: Should a bisexual person refuse to ever be alone with anyone, full stop? Should a male pastor refuse to meet one-on-one with a gay man? As with so many policies in the evangelical church, the Billy Graham Rule assumes heteronormativity, furthering the idea that people who are LGBT are people “out there,” not an essential part of the church.
The rule also promotes the preservation of men and exclusion of women in positions of leadership. If a woman at work cannot meet one-on-one with her boss or colleague, her options for advancement (or even being taken seriously as a colleague) are extremely limited.
Some have pointed out, and rightfully so, that strict open-door policies rule in the world of primary education. An enormous power differential in the student-teacher relationship can be exploited for abuse. But colleagues and employees engage in a relationship between grown-ups who ought to be able to have an appropriate work-related conversation or a meal together. Affairs start in secrecy, and to guard against them is good. It wasn’t so long ago that numerous pastors were found to have accounts on Ashley Madison, a website for people seeking affairs.
Graham could have the Billy Graham Rule, with his worldwide platform and high visibility, but most pastors don’t need this hard-and-fast rule. Several female pastors I spoke with told me that they wouldn’t have a job if they abided by this rule because meeting one-on-one with men is part of what they have to do within their congregation. Women, after all, have more to fear from men than men from women in terms of their physical safety. But can you imagine a professional woman refusing to meet one-on-one with her male colleagues? “Sorry, Jack, but we can’t talk alone in this conference room. You might rape me!” In 80 percent of sexual assaults, the victim knows the assailant, and 8 percent of rapes happen at work, yet I’ve never heard of a woman in the workplace — let alone the church — refusing to meet with a man.
In this conversation, we also have to keep in mind the fact that Pence is the vice president of the United States. He is not a pastor and does not act in that capacity. How on earth can he be expected to represent half the country if he won’t eat at the same table as us? Not to mention that his ideological purity is called into question by his support of our current president, who has bragged about committing sexual assault.
One of the most common citations for following the Billy Graham Rule is to avoid “rumors” that can fell a church leader. However, if we look not to Graham for an example of how to treat women but to Jesus, we will find a different path to follow.
Jesus consistently elevated the dignity of women and met with them regularly, including his meeting with a Samaritan woman in the middle of the day. Scholars suggest that the woman would have gone to the well in the noon heat to avoid interacting with her fellow townspeople, who would have gone at a cooler time of day. Samaritans and Jews were not particularly fond of each other. Yet this Jewish man met this Samaritan woman in broad daylight, asked her for water from the well, and in turn offered her eternal life. The woman, widely thought to be an adulteress, had been married five times and had no husband when she met Jesus. Yet he didn’t flinch from meeting with her. He didn’t suggest that his reputation was more important than her eternal soul. As a result, she lives on as one of the heroes of the faith, a woman who evangelized to her entire city.
It will be difficult for women to flourish in the White House if the vice president will not meet with them. Women cannot flourish in the church if their pastors consistently treat them as sexual objects to be avoided. The Billy Graham Rule locates the fault of male infidelity in the bodies of women, but “flee from temptation” does not mean “flee from women.”
Laura Turner is a writer and editor living in San Francisco.