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Nearly a year ago, my husband took a job as a pastor in North Carolina. His career-shift brought with it new challenges and questions, one of which was this:
What boundaries should we have for our marriage?
It’s not that we didn’t have boundaries before, but Ike had been a grad student until then. As a pastor he would lead women, counsel women, and serve alongside women more frequently than he ever had. How would we handle this new reality?
Sooner or later, most pastors have to think through this question, and many have settled upon the (in)famous “Billy Graham Rule.” In case you’re not familiar with it, Billy Graham had a “rule” for his interactions with women. He would never be alone with a woman who was not his wife–not in a car, an elevator, or a meal. He believed this was the best way to guard his marriage, and his ministry.
Many pastors abide by some version of this rule, and I understand why. Pastors are vulnerable to accusations, as well as temptations, and an affair is especially devastating. It doesn’t just impact a marriage, or a family, but an entire church. People lose their faith over it.
But I’ve also got to be honest about the Billy Graham Rule. I have mixed feelings about it.
It’s not that I’m opposed to boundaries. Ike and I have boundaries, and they’re important to us. We talk through them often, and it’s an on-going conversation. We aren’t loose-goosey when it comes to male-female friendships.
What I struggle with is how these rules can make certain people feel–especially single women, who are already a more vulnerable population in our churches. When applied too bluntly, the rules make single women feel like temptations or seductresses, rather than dignified sisters in Christ.
It especially bothers me when I hear a man say something to this effect: “I don’t care if I offend someone if that’s what it takes to protect my marriage!”
I have two problems with that logic:
1. It doesn’t sound much like the Jesus.
2. Jesus never asks us to choose between the lesser of two evils. We shouldn’t have to choose between protecting our marriages and alienating women. If those two choices are in opposition, then we’re doing it wrong.
I confess I don’t have an answer to this tension. Every marriage is different, and everyone’s personal temptations are different. In a complex world like ours, I tend to think boundaries should depend on the situation.
But here’s what I am more concerned with: creating a false sense of security. Boundaries are important, but there is something more powerful than boundaries, something that will render the Billy Graham Rule useless:
A prodigal heart.
The thing is, the Billy Graham Rule is great at protecting us from accusations. It’s also great at guarding against the appearance of evil.
What the Billy Graham Rule cannot do is protect our hearts from the slow straying of our affections. Maybe it’s your co-worker, or your best friend’s husband, an online acquaintance, or your child’s soccer coach. You don’t ever have to be alone with them to notice them. You don’t have to be alone with them to dress for their attention, or to flirt with them. In fact, some affairs begin in full view of the spouse. Maybe two couples are vacationing together, and there’s a connection, a spark, chemistry. You’re with your husband, so you think you’re safe. But your heart has begun to wander.
Over time, your heart might wander right up to that line, the line between fidelity and adultery. It’s then, in that moment, that the Billy Graham Rule can help. That’s the point where you really need it.
The only problem is, it’s too late. The wayward heart doesn’t care. It’s so swallowed up in temptation, that it bulldozes right over the Billy Graham Rule.
Anyone who has struggled with sin has probably experienced this dilemma. You put up boundaries, but you can’t stick to them. Instead you find yourself caught in a constant negotiation with an ever-changing boundary.
That’s why the Billy Graham Rule can be helpful, but it can also create a false sense of security. You can sow the seeds for marital destruction without ever breaking the rule.
In Proverbs 4:23 we are advised to “guard our hearts.” You typically hear this verse in the context of dating, but married couples must guard their hearts too. Otherwise, our affections can lead us down a path of pain and regret.
The trouble is, guarding your heart takes work. It requires radical honesty. You have to be honest with yourself, and with God, when your affections are kindled. You also have to be honest with another flesh-and-blood person who can hold you accountable. This sort of honesty is not for the faint of heart. It’s humbling. But it’s the only way to keep our hearts from wandering too far.
Like I said, I’m not opposed to boundaries. Henry Cloud talks about the importance of “external structure” when internal structures like maturity and self-discipline are weak. It’s why men who struggle with pornography use internet filters, and why dieters don’t keep junk food in their home. Physical boundaries are helpful, and wise.
But they’re also limited. They cannot replace the important work of searching your own heart. The Billy Graham Rule cannot teach men to honor women as sisters in Christ. It cannot keep the heart from wandering.
Wherever you land on this issue–for or against the Billy Graham Rule–I hope you’ll remember that important heart work. Boundaries never guarantee transformation; they merely make space for it to occur. The rest is up to us.