Men Forcing Women to Do What they Say – the modern evil of the Billy Graham Rule

The Limitations of the Origin of the Billy Graham Rule

When Billy Graham was on the evangelism circuit he was one of the most popular preachers in the United States, and known throughout the world for his multi-day events with gospel-soaked music, celebrity testimonies of faith and his nightly sermons calling people to Jesus.

He learned early on that such a life was fraught with dangerous temptations. As Mr Graham wrote in his autobiography:

The second item on the list was the danger of sexual immorality. We all knew of evangelists who had fallen into immorality while separated from their families by travel. We pledged among ourselves to avoid any situation that would have even the appearance of compromise or suspicion. From that day on, I did not travel, meet or eat alone with a woman other than my wife. We determined that the Apostle Paul’s mandate to the young pastor Timothy would be ours as well: “Flee … youthful lusts” (2 Timothy 1:22, KJV). (Excerpted from The Modesto Manifesto: A Declaration of Biblical Integrity.)

While this was merely one part of an agreement covering other topics such as financial integrity, the point concerning avoiding women in private settings has become known as the Billy Graham Rule. When Mr. Graham drafted the Modesto pact with his ministry partners, they were all men. It was easy to carry out their ministry without meeting a woman alone since the leadership of the ministry was made up entirely of men. That was not unusual in the late 1940s.

Seventy Years Later

Many men today continue to follow some version of the Billy Graham Rule: never be seen alone with a woman and never meet with a woman privately. But the Billy Graham Rule is not a solution to the problems these men think they face (real or imagined). It’s not even a band-aid. It’s a hindrance to pursuing the work of the kingdom of God.

Imagine how this plays out in modern ministry organizations.

Bill – “Tom and I were talking over lunch before the meeting today and thought you all might be ready to discuss a change in personnel for the Florida office.”

[Discussion ensues, and then as the meeting is wrapping up and everyone heads back to their offices …]

Karen – “I didn’t want to call you out in front of the others, Bill, but Florida is in my territory. Tom oversees the Pacific Northwest. You should have run this by me over lunch before bringing it up with anyone else.”

Bill – “Karen, you know you and I can’t do lunch. Tom probably would have had to be there anyway.”

Karen – “Hmm. Can we talk about this further in your office?”

Bill – “Sure. Bring Sandra.”

Karen – “Sandra? You mean the intern who orders our office supplies?”

Bill – “Yes. Don’t forget to leave my door open when you two get there.”

Some organizations would avoid this problem altogether by never allowing a woman in a position of authority. They’d all be Sandra, making sure the men who run the ministry have enough office supplies.

The Rule has gained traction beyond  churches and other ministry organizations, though. Men in leadership of private and public institutions say they feel the need to restrict themselves from contact with women.

Most of the time this comes up it’s not for the reason Mr. Graham and his colleagues made their pledge to one another – evangelists on the road are tempted to have sex. Rather, these men today feel that if they let themselves be seen alone with a woman at a restaurant they’d be opening themselves up to gossip, and if they let themselves meet with a woman behind closed doors they’d be opening themselves up to false charges of sexual harassment.

So every meeting with a woman needs a chaperone.

What does this mean? It means women are shut out from opportunities to serve to their fullest potential; if lunch meetings were not important for the work of the organization, the men wouldn’t be having them. It also means men lose out on the wisdom, guidance, help, and experience of people who may be better equipped and positioned to serve the organization’s goals, just because those people happen to be women.

And, above all, this modern insistence on the Billy Graham Rule gives men one more excuse to tell women who they can associate with, where they can go, and how they can spend their time.

Here’s some advice for those men:

  • Treat women and men the same. Meet with them or don’t, that’s up to you. But don’t base your decision on the basis of who has the same genitalia as you and who doesn’t.
  • If you think you are likely to have sex with a co-worker if left alone with her, don’t be alone with her. But this is a bigger problem than the Billy Graham Rule can solve, and you need to seek professional help to address it.
  • Don’t look on women as potential sources of false accusations. If someone – whether a man or woman – is going to lie about you, they won’t need the convenience of a closed door to make something up and accuse you of wrongdoing.
  • Give your friends and colleagues some credit for having brains in their heads. If you meet with a woman for lunch or dinner, or are seen conversing with her alone at a conference or sitting together at the bar for a drink, there certainly may be idiots who will jump to the wrong conclusion. Don’t let their concerns keep you from that lunch meeting or taking time to touch base at a conference.

Jesus’ Experience with Women and Gossip

Jesus confronted gossips head on:

“To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others:

“‘We played the pipe for you,
    and you did not dance;
we sang a dirge,
    and you did not mourn.’

For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her deeds.” (Matthew 11:16-19.)

Jesus knew there was no pleasing gossips. Jesus acted one way while his cousin John acted the other, and the gossips criticized both. His solution is that “wisdom is proved right by her deeds.” In other words, do the right and wise thing and let gossips gossip as they may. That’s what Jesus did, that’s what John did, and both of them weren’t going to let small minded people keep them from doing what is right.

In fact, Jesus’ experiences with women would not stand up to the Billy Graham Rule, such as these two:

He met the Samaritan woman at the well. She arrived after his friends had left Jesus to go find food in the nearby village. Not only did Jesus not leave immediately, he engaged her in a lengthy conversation. She and his disciples alike were amazed he’d spend time alone her, but he didn’t bat an eye at the situation. (John 4.)

He went to a dinner party where a woman of bad reputation – perhaps a prostitute – arrived, started caressing his feet and kissing them, showing her devotion to him. Rather than send her away as his Pharisee host expected, Jesus honored the woman with his love and respect. (Luke 7.)

This is the way to follow Jesus, and it is not accomplished by keeping your distance from people with differing genitalia. Rather, it is accomplished by embracing all the people God has put in your life, men and women alike.


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52 Responses to Men Forcing Women to Do What they Say – the modern evil of the Billy Graham Rule

  1. JYJames says:

    Well stated, Tim Fall. Thanks for a good word. God bless.

  2. I am a church secretary and you can be sure that there are many times the pastor is in his office and I am in mine, the only two in the building. This is the situration all over the United States in small churches with a small staff, so how much talk there is about the Billy Graham rule, it cannot work in small church offices. I learned about creating boundaries as a secretary in the secular world. No touching, no flirting, maintaining a professional attitude in conversation, in dress and in work. If you have any domestic or family problems, keep it to yourself and do not let yourself be seen as someone in need, as that blurs the boundaries set. Each person – male and female – will benefit from maintaining these boundaries.

    • Tim says:

      Good point. The small workplace dynamics prohibit its application. You have adopted a very professional way of working with others over the years.

    • JYJames says:

      “No touching, no flirting, maintaining a professional attitude in conversation, in dress and in work. If you have any domestic or family problems, keep it to yourself and do not let yourself be seen as someone in need, as that blurs the boundaries set.”

      Excellent. Professional. Mature. Wise.

  3. Lee says:

    Seems to me you could not meet alone with anyone. Even same sex. Just saying.

    • Tim says:

      That’s my thinking too, Lee. If you’re going to let fear of false accusations rule your life then the sex of the accuser doesn’t matter.

  4. Anu Riley says:

    This is such a well rounded, well written statement. Covers all the bases and anyone who reads it will be given lots of food for thought, and will take it to heart!

    You rightly mentioned the ways that a person is hindered in their work and in their life in general when this rule is applied out of anxious fear and paranoia. There are so many areas, though, where we ALL lose out when we “hide” behind man made rules where they need not apply. To this day, I am looking warm, generous brothers in Christ around me. Men who have His mind and will treat me as a real sister in Christ. And I do mean “brothers.” Completely and utterly disinterested in romance.

    It has not been an easy road. I have found virtually no one. This is NOT an editorial about the male gender. Just a sad testimony. I don’t know what is going on a person’s mind, so there may be much more going on that I can imagine. And again, this isn’t a put down. I haven’t had much of a road paved with my own gender :-). And I know I’m not alone. I do think that something is going on that just isn’t healthy. We’re all so cut off from each other.

    My goal @ this point is to be as warm and generous as I can with my brothers and sisters in Christ, even if they are unable or unwilling to be the same way in return.

  5. Laura Droege says:

    I wish those who follow this rule would look at the original context and consider the rule in light of that time period, which as you pointed out, was far different from our current one. Has anyone asked Billy Graham about this in recent years? I’d be curious to know what his thoughts are on it, the results, and its application in the 21st century Western culture, and whether he’d do things differently now if he were still traveling.

    • Tim says:

      It’s a seventy year old rule for a mid 20th Century ministry. Why people think it would apply across the board today is beyond me.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      And the BGR does make some sense for public figures with enemies trying to dig up dirt on them. But for all the rest of us?

  6. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    Uh…. Judge Tim?
    South Park IRL strikes again:

    The auto-ads just below your post cycled into one with “STAND WITH FRANKLIN GRAHAM FOR THE BIBLE — SIGN THE DECLARATION NOW!”

  7. J R Williams says:

    Hello Tim: – Of all times, after the Weinstein floodgates have open, to deny that we need more boundaries in how men relate to women is irresponsible. The Billy Graham Rule doesn’t force women to do anything. That’s the opposite of what it does – it’s a rule that governs men’s behavior, not women’s. The idea that it puts women at a meaningful disadvantage is either ludicrous, or an incredibly sad commentary that our society has lost any boundaries between personal life and professional life (a significant problem all its own).

    Ross Douthat’s essentially correct:

    ” Some modest limits on how men and women interact professionally are useful checks on predation. Many liberals were horrified by the revelation that for a time Mike Pence avoided one-on-one meetings with women not his wife. But one can find the Pence rules too sweeping and still recognize that life is easier for women if their male bosses don’t feel entitled to see them anywhere, anytime. It would not usher in the Republic of Gilead if it were understood that inviting your female subordinate to your hotel room, Weinstein-style, crosses a line in a way that a restaurant lunch does not.”

    The Billy Graham rule is not universally morally obligatory, but it or something like it can be a useful general rule of thumb. Men and women are equal, not identical, and only brainless men would think that they should be in as close relationships with and as informal with women as with men.

    • Lea says:

      Predators did not become so because they didn’t follow this kind of rule. They actively seek out situations where they can abuse.
      The BGR is the flip side of that, it treats women not as prey but as temptations and potential accusers. (leaving aside the different time/specific circumstance of it which doesn’t apply to most real life)
      Neither type is treating women like people, that you can get to know.
      Boundaries are important, but they come from within. Chose to see women as people, as sisters, not as prey or temptation. External rules will never change a heart problem.

  8. Terri says:

    “Flee… youthful lusts.” Pro tip: Women =/= youthful lusts. Women are people.

    Frankly, it’s difficult to believe (and yet the evidence is in front of our eyes) that there are people who look at the Rule and don’t see how it limits women. In the interest of all-around understanding I’ll try to clarify: If you as a man only meet one-on-one with other men, that doesn’t drastically affect your life or business opportunities, yours or the men’s around you.

    It does *greatly* affect women’s lives and opportunies. No man will ever meet with them individually–not for job interviews, not for performance reviews, not for promotions, not for mentoring, not to discuss business, not to make a useful new business contact. Not for anything.

    If you cannot see how badly that would affect women, you are a big part of the problem. There is nothing just in “men are behaving badly, so let’s exclude women.” Jesus didn’t do it and my brothers, you aren’t better than Jesus.

    Annoyed by the massive blind spot of privilege people cling to on this. “But I don’t see how it’s a problem.” And yet–it’s still a huge problem.

  9. Terri says:

    Noting also that sexual harassment happens in all times and places and is very much not limited to one-on-one meetings. This Rule does not prevent sexual harassment. It just punishes all women for the actions of harassers, which some folks insist are in the minority. If they are, it makes punishing ALL women for their actions that much more unreasonable and unjust.

  10. “Jesus knew there was no pleasing gossips. Jesus acted one way while his cousin John acted the other, and the gossips criticized both.”

    This is something I have found to be very true. If someone wants to judge, criticise or otherwise condemn another person, they’ll find something to object to – it doesn’t matter what that person does or doesn’t do.

  11. Ruth says:

    My recent experience suggests that the BGR is deep in some people’s minds. We are very close friends with a married couple from church. Few relatives, but we share interaction with this family across 3 generations. This is a well known at our church, so, what is the problem? My husband works every Sunday afternoon. The other couple generally go home after church.
    Our female friend had an emergency call overseas and was away for some time.
    Her husband made a suggestion after church, that instead of going home to empty houses, he and I could go the cafe where many church attenders meet up for lunch, thinking that was appropriate.
    So we did, walked in and saw some members there, said hello, no invitation to join the group, so picked a table inside and ordered coffee.
    Stupid, gauche, male acquaintance come up behind me, drapes his uninvited arm around me, and asks our friend if he has a new woman!!!
    That snide comment shows where his mind was…ugh. One very reserved couple from church now pointedly ignore me. Not once have any of these others asked me to join them, our friend made a sensible kind suggestion.
    Wouldn’t you think that if we had more than coffee on our minds, we could have found somewhere else, or either empty family home?
    So insulted on behalf of all four of us, my husband was bothered about the reaction, not the situation. He meets female friends and clients in many places, not all public, and no one judges him. So we continue our family-like friendship and just ignore the few ignorant ones.
    How to spoil a time of open friendship and chatting, I now know heaps more about my annoying mobile phone……so romantic, not!
    It was like this individual had suggested I was up to no good with my brother, who lives interstate, not a pleasant thought.
    Guess I sound crosses, you bet, besmirched innocence is very cross-making. 😳☕️

    • Tim says:

      That male acquaintance is the reason for people thinking the Billy Graham Rule is necessary.

      • Ruth says:

        So true Tim. I can see why some prefer it. I don’t, but I do pick the time and place for meeting friends in a thoughtful way, and still, the ‘nudge, nudge, wink, wink’ brigade can make insinuating comments, right there, to your face, and the whole cafe!
        I really objected to being touched the most. Sort of, well is she is out like this, what I do can’t be objected to, way of thinking. Oh yes it can, I get to choose who has any contact, past a gentle hand-shake with me.
        Our friends and family have a variety of verbal and physical greetings, but none like that, each appropriate to the individual . Needless to say, my husband takes an even dimmer view of that acquaintance than before……..

    • Lea says:

      Ruth, when I was younger people used to ask if my brother and I were dating. Didn’t bother me except it’s a gross thought! But there would be nothing I could do if some idiot saw us together now, decided he was cheating, etc. People in general are too quick to make assumptions.

      • Ruth says:

        Very true Lea! This friend is like a brother to me, and those who saw us, were with us in church an hour before, but still, as you say, some idiot stirs and thinks he is clever and causes discomfort. How does having lunch together lead to the conclusion a person is having an affair anyway? My cousin in law shared a house with a friend for many years, in the end they went to separate living arrangements because church people were assuming two single women sharing a home must be lesbian, and the rumours hurt them too much. Some people are very cruel and judgemental. Hope you enjoy eating out with your brother still.

  12. Jeannie Prinsen says:

    Really great post, Tim. Treating everyone respectfully, as equals, is the better way by far.

  13. Lea says:

    “Don’t look on women as potential sources of false accusations.”

    I have been mulling this over for a long time, as men insist that they know tons of people who have been falsely accused and I know tons of people who were raped, abused, or harassed who never reported. Why is it that men seem to be *more* afraid of false accusations than women are of being actively raped/harassed/etc?

    We have a very strange thing here.

  14. Elle says:

    I read this last week, but failed to leave a comment. In my last church, I felt like I had the plague if I was ever left alone even at a table with someone’s husband. It was stupid. Why do I need to be ashamed because your wife left the table? Usually the guy felt so shamed himself, he’d get up and leave with a fake reason. “I need more coffee”. There was one guy at church I loved talking to. It had nothing to do with being attracted either because he wasn’t good looking and he was 20 years older than I was. But I’d talk to him every week. He told me stories about the Hmong people he worked with. He was a single guy too. I am married. I was actually surprised no one took me aside to give me the “what for”. We talked through email too. Guess what? Nothing bad ever happened.

    It’s even worse when you are in a church with all male leaders who insist you do counseling with them. I could never approach them with a problem about my husband because he had to always be in the room. And when we were in the room, guess who’s side they took? I go to counseling now (real counseling) and the place I go has male and female counselors. I do see a female only because I had plenty of males shame me in the past.

    anyway, now I know who to blame for my last church experience. Billy Graham. UGH

    • Tim says:

      Some of the people I’ve talked to on this would never be able to wrap their heads around that possibility, let alone understand it was a reality for you and your friend.

      • Elle says:

        I have heard it quoted by so many male pastors though! One I heard in the last 10 years was James MacDonald. He clearly states he’d never be alone in a room with a female because it’s dishonoring to his wife. So if a person comes to him for counsel, he rejects them based on being female. Wow, how loved does that person feel?

        • Lea says:

          “So if a person comes to him for counsel, he rejects them based on being female.”

          At that point, you should just admit, as a church, that you have no interest in counseling women and they should seek help elsewhere. I would never trust a counselor who didn’t trust me.

        • Daisy says:

          Counseling isn’t based upon love between the parties or upon feelings. Appropriate safeguards matter.

  15. Bev Murrill says:

    Back in the day, before my husband was a Christian, I used to go to church with my sister in law, her husband and their kids and mine. One day the greeter said ‘oh here’s John and his harem’. I never went to church with them again… went in my own car. It’s about people’s perspectives, isn’t it. I’ve been in ministry now for more than 35 years, and I’m still astonished at the number of male peers outside my organisation who hold me at arms’ length because of the BGR, and maybe more so now since my husband died this year. From the platform my ministry is highly spoken of, but in terms of chatting over a cuppa, nah!

    There are some odd issues at play here, not least being that the other person is not that attractive – in other words, they’re kidding themselves… and also, in this day of vaunted same sex attraction even among ministry people, there’s a double standard.

    • Tim says:

      I go out to eat with my close friend Dave. Sometimes my wife and his husband join us. What would the BGR folks say about the times they don’t, though?

  16. kertsen says:

    Life is fraught with dangerous temptations whether you are Christian or carry any other label. Professionals won’t do much their lives are fraught with the self same temptations. Even new birth is powerless the only armour is moral fibre , but that fails from time to time , we are all stumblers.

  17. I love your interpretation of the passage in Matthew. Very nice article, and very true.

  18. Ruth says:

    So much for strange looks and stares, as I mentioned here before. My husband and I, with my elderly father, have been invited to Christmas lunch by the wife of our friend that I had lunch with. We four friends have just come back from the cinema and dinner, we watched ‘The man who invented Christmas’, lovely period film!Now we are having our male friend over to discuss cooling systems for their home.
    I texted him extensively about personal things…another friends phone was not working, so we used my phone to text him for help, then about a church committee, then about when they would pick us up to go to the film
    Such scandal and inappropriate behaviour! I posted this just to show how wrong some quick judgements be.
    Oh Bev, how demeaning – part of his harem -yuk. Like, -got a new woman?- double yuk. Thankfully there are many people out there who have grown past taking liberties with such silly comments!

  19. I disagree. It works both ways though. Women could be attracted to men and may not want to meet privately with a man. It really isn’t that tough to accomplish, after all. So what if you leave the office door open a crack? Is that really that big of an inconvenience? It might do society some good to follow the BGR when feasible. I appreciate when my husband is careful when meeting with women to be in a public place or open door. Why in the world would he need to meet one to one with a women in a basement office with no one around and the door closed? As a chaplain, I do the same. As a general rule, out of courtesy to my husband, I like being able to say everything I am doing is beyond reproach. Why leave room for doubt?

  20. Pingback: Rooting Out the Gossip Supporting the Billy Graham Rule | Tim's Blog – Just One Train Wreck After Another

  21. Sarah says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this. I have never read a questioning/dissent of the Billy Graham rule written by a man. It is encouraging to me to think that a man might actually question this rule. In my church/ministry experience, this rule is a “given” among men – questioning or critiquing the rule is never a thought. I wonder, how do you respond to the requirement in Scripture that a pastor be “above reproach” (Titus 1:7)? When I hear the Billy’s Graham rule applied to pastors, I almost always hear this verse quoted in the next breath as “proof” or “biblical evidence” justifying the rule.

    • Tim says:

      Above reproach means making sure you don’t do something wrong. It doesn’t mean giving in to those who are put to get you and will resort to gossip to do it.

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