How Can I Think About the Billy Graham Rule? – Courtney Powell

My job involves occasional one-on-one meetings with people of the opposite sex. Should I use the “Billy Graham Rule”? Are there other ways to protect others and myself, particularly in ways that are cognizant of my sin nature and don’t treat others as the problem?


I’m so glad you’re asking this question, especially in light of recent disclosures of sexual abuse perpetuated by the late Ravi Zacharias. The well-known evangelist claimed he used the Billy Graham Rule—not traveling, meeting, or eating alone with a woman other than his wife—to keep himself from sexual temptation.

If that had been the truth, Zacharias—and countless women—would’ve been much better off.

But the answer isn’t as simple as adopting Graham’s rule, especially given the technological advancements since Graham pledged to avoid the appearance of evil in 1948. Let’s consider some foundations, and then some applications that flow out of those foundations.

Image-Bearers and Human Flourishing

All of the men and women you work with should be seen first and foremost as image-bearers, and their value in the workplace as equal. The call of God in Genesis 1 is for both men and women to exercise dominion over the earth—setting a precedent for the necessity of working with one another.

The modern workplace—where men and women strive together toward a common goal that promotes human flourishing—is an echo of that work from the garden. It is not an inconvenience or an accident that men and women work alongside one another, but a God-ordained good.

It is not an inconvenience or an accident that men and women work alongside one another, but a God-ordained good.

Scripture also lays out a model of how to interact with people of the opposite sex. Jesus graciously and intentionally extended the hand of friendship to both men and women. There is no indication in the Bible that Jesus saw women as an inconvenience. He was alone with the woman at the well (John 4), and after healing Mary Magdalene (Luke 8), she became his follower. In fact, Jesus revealed himself to her first after the resurrection (John 20:11–18).

Jesus’s example models for us that interactions between people of opposite sexes who aren’t married is at least permissible, and at its best can be profitable.

Fences

Graham’s team set his rule—along with guidelines about money, publicity, and working with local churches—in recognition of the specific temptations that evangelists faced at that time. It’s important to note that Graham was not a pastor, a counselor, or an office manager, so he wasn’t responsible for the shepherding care of a church or typical work interactions with women. He was on the road almost constantly, which can strain a marriage. And he was exceptionally well-known, which could make people feel they knew him better than they did. Celebrity also made him a target.

His rule about not meeting with women was not meant to be a blanket rule for all men in all situations, but for him in his unique role as a traveling evangelist.

[Graham’s] rule about not meeting with women was not meant to be a blanket rule for all men in all situations.

For Graham, this was a wise policy—one that protected him for decades. Many Christians saw so much sense in it that they too adopted it for their workplaces and ministries. But this sometimes leads to unintended consequences—women who aren’t mentored at work, counseled at church, or known by their pastor. Women can end up pushed to the side, feeling inferior and somehow dangerous.

Instead, let’s look more to the spirit than the letter of Graham’s rule. Before they wrote their manifesto, Graham’s team spent time thinking about the particular temptations they’d face. It may be useful for you to do the same—think first about where you’re most tempted, and set up restrictions there. But do so carefully, so as not to harm the opportunities or well-being of your colleagues.

Examples could include:

  • Filters on a computer and phone to block sexually explicit content
  • Screen-time limits to prevent idleness or wasting your day
  • Sharing your location with friends and family to ensure integrity that you are where you say you are

All of these fences help us to live “above reproach,” which is an honorable and biblical desire (1 Tim. 3:2). However, it is important to remember these fences are not by themselves a pathway to godliness. Like Zacharias, some men and women champion the Graham Rule publicly, only to hide harmful interactions with the opposite sex. The appearance of sin is something to consider, but our far greater desire should be to avoid sinning.

In Matthew 23, Jesus rebukes the Pharisees for adding to Scripture for the appearance of godliness—while having hearts far from God.

Put simply: adding to Scripture is just as dangerous as taking away from it. When we place the full weight of biblical authority behind a man-made protection, we are in danger of idolatry. We are not more wise or more merciful than God. The Graham Rule is not explicitly commanded in Scripture—while that fence (and others) may be helpful, it isn’t authoritative. Let’s be sure we aren’t elevating our ideas or rules to the place of a biblical command, and let’s rest in the assurance that Scripture has given us all we need for life and godliness (1 Pet. 1:3).

Points to Consider

Thinking through protections and practices that can safeguard you (and your colleagues) is helpful and practical. The desire to live above reproach requires you to be creative, mindful, and winsome in your dealings with others.

Here are a few considerations to pray through:

  • Are you daily in the Word and walking with the Lord? Do you have a community of faith to whom you are regularly confessing sin and who will hold you accountable?
  • Are you seeing others as image-bearers, or brothers and sisters in Christ, first and foremost—or do you see them primarily as potential tools of destruction or pleasure for yourself? Are your interactions with people of the opposite sex appropriate and mature?
  • Do your colleagues know you honor their time and talent? Do they feel comfortable expressing concerns to you? Do they know you value their work? Do they have equal access to you?
  • Is there a way to have one-on-one meetings with colleagues that aren’t isolated or secluded? This could be meeting in a room with a window, glass door, or even in a more public place. Are you creating safe spaces for people to flourish in their gifts?
  • You likely also need to call and text your colleagues, especially after this last year when so many were working from home. How can you offer encouragement, support, and community that reflects the love of Christ?

Thoughtfully putting fences in place to help guard yourself and your coworkers is wise, but of utmost importance is whether you are seeking to honor and uphold the dignity of others around you. May 1 John 4:7–22 be our guidepost in how to love God and seek to love one another.

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