What to make of the Billy Graham rule?

Years ago, Billy Graham was respected for a personal rule he held that has become known as the Billy Graham rule. The popular Evangelical preacher would not allow himself to be alone with a woman who was not his wife. It used to be seen as honorable. Now, when people like the vice president or a Mississippi gubernatorial candidate try to follow the same rule for themselves, it’s sharply criticized as insulting, demeaning toward women, and downright silly.

What are we to make of the Billy Graham rule? Is it still a good idea, or has it run its course and seen better days?

Like most things, I think this issue deserves to be treated as a complex one. There are multiple sides to consider, and the Bible gives good guidance in determining what to make of things like the Billy Graham rule.

  • The Bible doesn’t allow for sexism. God made both men and women. God loves both men and women. Jesus died to save both men and women. Both men and women will live with God in heaven forever. So God wants men and women to work together on this earth before we get there. We ought to see each other as equals who are different but are both loved alike by God. After all, the Bible says, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). Many commentators have been slamming those who subscribe to the Billy Graham rule as sexist and hiding behind an old principle just to keep women out of the room. I don’t know what’s in other people’s hearts, so I’m not going to try and comment on that. What I do know is that, when setting personal boundaries, we always have to ask ourselves the real reason for doing it. The Bible guides us in making those decisions in love, not to exclude others.
  • The sinful self inside is dangerous and shouldn’t be trusted. While we may want to trust others and assume the best, the Bible tells us we shouldn’t always trust ourselves. Temptation is real, and out of our hearts comes what Jesus calls evil (Matthew 15:19). Paul, a close follower of Jesus, once said, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. . . . Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am!” (Romans 7:15,21-24). Those who’ve been writing about the Billy Graham rule lately have often characterized it as overly extreme, as if men or women will be unable to control themselves if put in the right circumstance. Well, worse things have happened. The Bible says it can and does happen because the sinful self inside all humans is extremely evil. We need God’s power to fight against it. That’s one reason Jesus taught us to pray, “Lead us not into temptation” (Luke 11:4).
  • God’s serious about purity. Believers in Jesus are being remade into his perfect and pure image. Purity is something to protect and preserve. And it’s not just fleeing temptation; it’s also the impression that’s given. God wants those in ministry to be “above reproach” (1 Timothy 3:2) and he encourages all believers that “among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, . . . because these are improper for God’s holy people” (Ephesians 5:3). Some have criticized the Billy Graham rule as silly because, if you’re not doing anything you shouldn’t be, why worry about it? God says the impression given matters too, because when people see us, they’re supposed to see God’s holy people. God wants others to see purity when they see us.

So what are we to make of the Billy Graham rule? I haven’t covered all of them, but there are multiple sides to this issue. On the one hand, we don’t ever want policies to reflect a sinful, exclusive mind-set. God knows if that’s in a person’s heart. On the other hand, if a male public figure sets personal boundaries for himself, guided by the Word of God, in order to uphold purity and avoid any wrong impressions, that sounds pretty honorable.

Don’t you think?

Kurt Wetzel is one of the pastors at Cross of Christ Church, serving the Treasure Valley in Idaho. He and his wife, Stephanie, love the precious time they get alone. They also love the precious time they have with their four children and the community they keep reaching with Jesus’ love.


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