That Billy Graham Rule

By July 5, 201520 Comments

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.

Screen Shot 2013-10-01 at 9.59.09 PMSharon




  • Nancy says:

    Thank you for your insight. Years ago my husband passed away leaving me with two boys to raise. The “Billy Graham Rule” left me unable to effectively seek male counsel about my boys…the pastors would barely talk to me at all.

    • Sharon says:

      Oh Nancy, I am so sorry! That hurts my heart to hear–and it’s important for pastors to remember these situations. Thank you for sharing your experience.

  • Rochelle says:

    Good word Sharon. I was a pastor at a church that abided by this rule. I felt like a pariah because any time other pastors went out on calls and errands and we were down to two people, the guy left in the building would immediately pack up his stuff and go sit in the parking lot to work until someone returned. It made me feel guilty and like I was just a problem rather than part of the team.

    • Virginia says:

      Wow, pack up their stuff and leave the building!? Yeah, I think that’s gone beyond the “spirit of the law” when men won’t be in the same *building* as a female.
      What if one of these guys filled up with gas and then realized the only person in the gas station was a female attendant? Just drive off without paying? Where does it end!?
      I can empathize with your feelings as well – in seminary there were definitely times I got the “single girls are only here to lead married men astray” vibes from some of the male students. Being assumed guilty until proven innocent was not pleasant.
      It also always struck me as a bit arrogant as well – yes balding, middle-aged father of four, you are so completely irresistible that any woman (especially ones in their mid-20’s getting seminary degrees) would fall all over you, so you had better studiously avoid any conversation, eye contact, or even acknowledgment of the females in your classes.
      Geeze Louise.

  • twitter_annemwilson says:

    I love this perspective, Sharon. My opinion has evolved and shifted about this over time, and I love what you’ve said about creating a false sense of security. So accurate. Thanks, as always!

  • Laura Jean says:

    I like this post, and it’s something I think about often. My husband and I wrestle with this same topic – not wanting to give an appearance nor a suggestion (individually or communally) to anyone that he or I are lax in our marriage commitment. Yet, we definitely value individuals regardless of their gender. I’d go to lunch with one of my male coworkers from time to time when we were looking for people to go, and my husband would do the same with a female seminary classmate.
    Of course, the boundaries were there and easier than usual because we were with equals and not with someone in an authoritative role, such as that of a pastor. That’s a bit tricky, especially because we’re called to not make our brothers (or sisters) stumble, and appearance can make people stumble. But when it comes to situations like that which Nancy mentioned below (or above, not sure where this comment will land on the webpage), where it means the sacrifice of real, God-lead ministry to another brother or sister in Christ, then kick the worry about appearances out the door.
    You’re right, Shanon – this is tricky. I know you may talk more about key spiritual topics rather than practical, individual application, but it’d be so great for those of us who are also in ministry to hear about what you and your husband decide to do in your personal ministry context!

  • Rick says:

    If the only thing keeping a guy from cheating on his spouse is an adherence to a rule like this, I feel sorry for him; his marriage must be in trouble and his psyche must lack basic boundaries. It would be like saying, the only thing preventing me from murdering my neighbor is those pesky homicide laws.

  • trisha says:

    I attended a large church in Evanston where the senior pastor’s complete focus was on mentoring young men leaders. As a firm believer in the above rule, all women were then automatically excluded from the mentoring and leadership functions that he did for his “boys”. Since there were no women pastors on staff except in children position, that left women leaders high and dry-often with the pastor’s wifes who were definitely good leaders-mostly therapists-but not pastors.
    Sigh. I do wrestle with the dignity of men who truly are trying to protect themselves, their marriages, their reputations, and the reputations of their churches. I have a lot of respect for the fact they acknowledge we are in a battle and Satan loves to bring down via false accusations. Somewhere there needs to be a place for respect, dignity, inclusion, mentoring, and support for all.

  • Dan Brennan says:

    Love the post, Sharon. I’m all for discerning more nuanced boundaries in light of trust, knowledge of people, awareness of community, etc. Becoming self-aware of our hearts and our heart boundaries–important stuff to process through as we consider what is wise.

  • Kelly says:

    When applied too bluntly, the rules make single women feel like temptations or seductresses, rather than dignified sisters in Christ.
    Yes and amen and thank you for saying this.
    Single women don’t have husbands to “go home and learn from quietly”. We need the same amount of shepherding, counsel, and leadership – as well as having our own gifts, affinities, etc that can help build up the body. I am complementarian but often that just means fear of the other sex while we use adherence to scripture as a guise for pushing brothers and sisters away in fear. It’s not holy. It’s hurtful at times, and it is cheap in the face of real community, honest conversations, quick confession, and pointing one another toward Christ.

    Anyway. Thank you times 3000.

  • Whitney says:

    I also think this is a great post. I’ve also felt “guilty” or discriminated against being a single woman around other believing men. I noticed it about 4-5 years ago when men (grown men with families and children) would not carry on any type of conversation with me at church. I was friends with their wives, knew all their children by name, but they would constantly be looking over their shoulders for their wives. I got extremely mad (which is my sin issue) about their version of the “Billy Graham Rule” because that meant I couldn’t even have a regular conversation with them. We are supposed to be brothers and sisters, but my biological brother wouldn’t treat me that way. Thanks for addressing it and bringing clarity and questioning to the rule and the true reasons for it.

  • Alyce says:

    It’s one thing to have knowledge of the rule and that it is enacted within your church but consider how one feels when she doesn’t even know the rule exists! You feel like a leper. Something is going on, you don’t quite know what it is, and then if you’re lucky you start hearing about “The Rule”.

    “The Billy Graham Rule” within churches creates a huge problem of unmet needs of discipleship, training, counseling, encouragement, and so much more for a lot of Christian women.

    Plus, I’ve seen this rule used so poorly and even as punishment by some pastors who harbor hidden hostility towards women.

  • Celia says:

    Great post! As a single woman, I accepted this attitude on the part of men in church, first as
    ‘the cost of doing business”,and only later on realised how much this hurt me and how ridiculous this was. The thing is, the “illy Graham rule” is a great rule. As originally intended. Its aim was to protect Billy, not from committing adultury, but from ever being accused, wrongly, of having done so. It was a protection not against adultery, but against blackmail. The only foolproof way was to always has witnesses of any interaction with a woman; Especially since he was in a position where many might have an agenda, a reason to discredit him. Now your husband is a pastor, the probability of being the target of that kind of blackmail has gone up for him, and maybe you should discuss effective measures against that. But other men have turned this rule into something else. never talking to a woman other than their wife or close female relatives for any length of time, because they might be tempted to commit adultery. And yes, I agree with you that that’s not actually an effective strategy. The men who apply it seem to think that they would be unlikely to resist the advances of a woman were she to try to attract him. And/ or that they themselves are likely to make such advances to women, if they were to spend any time with them, including in plain site of hundreds of people. Surely there must be something wrong ith this line of reasoning. I can’t put mmmy finger on it, maybe it’s because I’m a woman, but it does seem men who advocate that extended version of the rule are basically presenting themselves as passive, helpless in the face of feminity, and basically morally irresponsible.
    I’m a 38 year old single woman. I’ve never committed adultery. I’ve recently been propositioned by a couple of married men (takes a few questions to get to the bottom of the oddities in their behaviour. They’re married). I tell them I want to get married and have children. “Can you give me that?” “Err… I can give you passion”. “Well, you’re already married with children, so you’re unlikely to leave your wife. And if you did, I wouldn’t want you for a husband, because you’ve just demonstrated that you’re a lousy one.” I encourage them to go to therapy, sort their problems out with their wife “Maybe I don’t want to solve my problems…” I’ve told married pator that no right thinking single woman would want to have an affair with them. Their faces fall. In the back of their minds, these guys like to think that there are a lot of women who would be so grateful to have them….For a lot of adulterers, it’s an ego boost.
    One last thougt/ Boenhoffer, in The Cost of Discipleship, said, in his commentary on “looking at a woman ith lust”, said that lust was anytime a man looked at a woman without love. If Your husband really loves the women he pastors, he will not want to inflict himself upon them in an affair. The only woman he can do good to, sexually, is you. the rest is selfishness

  • Chrree says:

    While I completely understand the spirit of this rule, there is a consequence of it that is often not considered. When a pastor commits to this rule it extends beyond those to whom they minister. It also means they have essentially committed to a same gender staff. As a female minister of over 20 years, there have been occasions I was not considered for positions because working ‘closely’ with my male counterparts would violate this personal boundary they had set in place.
    And on some level I get it. I really do. I am the biggest advocate of protecting the marriages of my fellow ministers (and my own) but should this be done at the cost of our vocational fulfillment? My fear is that this narrative perpetuates a misguided focus. When it comes to issues of sexuality and interpersonal relationships we are indeed accountable to one another for our own behavior; however we should not be made to feel responsible for the behavior of others.

    • Sharon says:

      Chrree that’s a really good point. Thinking about what this means for men and women on staff together is a whole other component.

  • Bonnie says:

    Thank you for tackling this subject, Sharon. I tend to support the Billy Graham rule, but with room for discernment. Socially, the two sexes today mix much more readily and informally than they did in Billy Graham’s day, so “sharing space” with a member of the opposite sex isn’t as charged as it used to be.

    Some probably get way over-careful, though, and take the rule too far, maybe not so much to protect themselves but because they think that it’s something they’re supposed to do (as in, avoiding conversation with a member of the opposite sex simply because they’re the opposite sex. Or the sideways hug!)

However, regarding a man saying, “I don’t care if I offend someone if that’s what it takes to protect my marriage,” I don’t think that the feelings of single women (or anyone else) are solely the responsibility of such a man, or male pastor; if a woman is a temptation to a man who wishes to avoid it, I would hope that she would allow him to do so without taking it personally.

    Jesus responded kindly in all situations with women, but He did not travel alone with them or spend intimate one-on-one time with them. The intimate interactions He had were in situations where the women were honoring and valuing him as the Christ, not merely as a human male.

    If a parishioner comes to a male pastor for counseling and he feels it would be inappropriate for him to counsel her, of course he should not simply turn her away; it would be kind and loving of him to suggest something like meeting with him and his wife together, or with a female counselor.

    I wholly agree that the prodigal heart cannot be contained merely by the Billy Graham rule, but it’s also not an either-or matter. While the BG rule may be too late in certain situations, in others, it might just be the thing that keeps affections from being kindled to begin with.

    • Kelly says:

      I appreciate you referring to Scripture and Jesus’ ministry toward women. I adore the way Jesus interacts with women throughout the gospels. MOST of the ones he engages or that engage him actually are women defined by their sexual sin – adultery and prostituon primarily. The woman kissing his feet and crying and braving the room to just be near Jesus? He just welcomes her, all woman – emotional, brave, showing love & repentance in the way she knows. He also defends her, and does not objectify her. A grace she’s likely never been met with from a man.
      Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Siloam, Mary & Martha, and Peter’s mother in law all follow him as disciples too – and he welcomes them, giving them a place under his yoke, unheard of for a rabbi in 30 AD.

      The woman at the well – he went and met her literally in the place of her shame. The noon heat explained quickly that she had to go when she thought no one would see her. She carried shame on shame from five plus broken relationships and a current one in which her body is her only value. Jesus sits with her, makes known that he knows, but is more concerned with ministering to her and giving her life abundant. He preached living water and because of it, she lives to drink the new wine in Heaven with Christ. He let her be her, without fear of being seen or potential (but not actually a clear and present reality of) exploitation.

      Women had never been so counterculturally engaged and valued. Jesus, the perfect God man whose aim is glory and who lived single and tempted in every way as we are, still saw them all as the least of these, and loved them. Objects of his ministry, not interruptions or obstacles to it.

      I just really love him.

      • Gloria says:

        “Objects of his ministry, not interruptions or obstacles to it.”

        Kelly, that is just the perfect summary of all these comments! Beautiful! Thank you.

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