A few weeks ago in an online exchange about the Billy Graham Rule (a man must never meet alone with a woman, whether in private or in public), two pastors gave a perspective that grieved me deeply.
They did not defend the rule as necessary for their own purity or the honor of their wives. These far-fetched excuses are heard often, but the two pastors did not rely on them. They also did not deny that restricting women from having the same access as men they work alongside hurts women and is insupportable.
Rather, the two pastors spoke of gossip.
It is all well and good, they said, for people who are not pastors to insist that pastors should ignore gossip about who they meet with, but the reality for them as small town/small church pastors was that gossip is a powerful force in bringing down pastors.
As one pastor put it, “All it takes to ruin my ministry is for one little old lady from my church to start gossiping about seeing me out to lunch with a woman other than my wife. It could even cost me my job.” He could not take the risk of a man’s or woman’s gossip ruining the ministry and so adhered to the Billy Graham Rule out of necessity.
I pray for those two pastors and others like them. They do not want to suppress women, but what are they to do in the face of ministry-destroying gossip? The solution is radical in its most basic sense: Gossip has to ripped out by the roots.
Silencing the Gossips
Gossip is a betrayal carried out by untrustworthy people who lack sense and understanding:
Whoever derides their neighbor has no sense,
but the one who has understanding holds their tongue.
A gossip betrays a confidence,
but a trustworthy person keeps a secret. (Proverbs 11:12-13.)
Gossips are perverse scoundrels whose words burn people and destroy relationships:
A scoundrel plots evil,
and on their lips it is like a scorching fire.
A perverse person stirs up conflict,
and a gossip separates close friends. (Proverbs 16:27-28.)
A gossip’s words may sound sweet but they sink deep within the listener and burn them up from the inside out:
As charcoal to embers and as wood to fire,
so is a quarrelsome person for kindling strife.
The words of a gossip are like choice morsels;
they go down to the inmost parts. (Proverbs 26:21-22.)
Gossip reveals a depraved state of mind:
Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. … They are gossips … . (Romans 1:28-29.)
Gossip grieves those who love God, as Paul told the Christians in Corinth:
I fear that there may be discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, slander, gossip, arrogance and disorder. I am afraid that when I come again my God will humble me before you, and I will be grieved over many who have sinned earlier and have not repented … . (2 Corinthians 12:20-21.)
The answer to gossip is not to give in to the gossips. It is to root out the evil entirely.
Teaching the truth about how women and men relate to each other
The way to root out sin is to rely on the Holy Spirit as the one who leads people into the truth. This is what Jesus promised his friends:
But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. (John 16:13.)
The truth is that God’s people are not to be slaves to gossip because they are no longer slaves to sin.
But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness. (Romans 6:17-18.)
The truth is that gossip is a sin, while men and women working together in God’s family is not a sin. The pastors who fear the gossip, who fear the ruin of their ministry because of what someone might say, face a formidable task but not an insurmountable one.
- The task is to teach people not to gossip and not to listen to gossip.
- The task is to teach that women and men are to work together in the freedom of Christ for the blessing of God’s people.
There are no spiritual chains that prevent any man or woman from working together, because, as Jesus himself said:
So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. (John 8:36.)
Still, some men continue to follow the Billy Graham Rule because, as one man asked in another online discussion, “Why would I want to be alone with any woman other than my wife?”
Why? For the same reason you’d want to be alone with a man. Get work done, catch up about life over lunch, plan a celebration, whatever.
“But people still might get the wrong idea,” they may say.
People can get the wrong idea no matter what you do. Giving in to those people means hurting women by excluding them from meetings and other interactions which you allow men to attend. This is not how a family is supposed to operate, and especially not the family of God.
The answer is not for pastors to give in. The answer is for pastors to teach rightly about the freedom the people of God have in Christ through the Spirit, and to teach about the sin that gossip is. This might take a lot of time and a lot of effort, but if the congregation is so prone to the devastating effects of gossip as stated by the pastors at the top of this post then the pastor has a duty to the people to teach them correctly just as Paul corrected the Corinthians.
After that, if someone gossips about the pastor being seen with someone of the opposite sex then the congregation knows what to do: ignore the gossip, pray for the gossiper, and tell the person to stop spreading gossip.
And maybe take the pastor out to lunch.