During my long years of ministry, I have, for the most part, observed the so-called Billy Graham Rule. I wasn’t legalistic about it, but I used it as a general guideline. It was considered a ministry mandate in my early days of ministry, as if it were written on a third stone tablet from Sinai. I remember a seminary professor, way back in the 70s, telling our all-male class,
Men, there are many problems that will hinder your ministry. There are two that will destroy it – money and women. Don’t mess around with either.
As I shush the downhill slope of my ministry, I see the wisdom of that statement. Most of those I’ve known who disqualified themselves from ministry have done so by financial or sexual misconduct. Prof was right. There’s a dark side to his pearl of wisdom though, playing into the common “blame the woman” trope. How many predatory abusers have donned Flip Wilson garb (only you other old codgers will get this one) to say, “The devil (in a dress) made me do it.” poor innocent pastors, desiring to serve God, are led astray by belligerent Jezebels who aggressively seduce them.
That’s where the Billy Graham rule comes in. If anyone is unaware, the Billy Graham rule states, in its most aggressive form, that a “man of God” will not be alone with a woman other than his wife or relative (mom, daughter, etc). He will not share meals with a woman alone, will not counsel a woman alone, will not go places with a woman alone.
The Dave Miller Rule was a little less aggressive. As the pastor of churches from 45 people to nearly 300, I found it difficult to enforce a “never be alone with a woman” rule. I pastored women and had to minister to their needs. There were women involved in the ministries of the church. Should I not talk to them about their work? If I was in the office alone and a woman came in to talk, what was I going to do? Should I tell her that her needs were less important than my rule?
I tried to set limits for myself, but not to be rude or uncaring to the women I was supposed to serve as pastor. It is a minefield. Many today still hold strictly to the Billy Graham rule. Others have completely chucked it as unbiblical and sexist. I believe there’s a baby worth holding on to even as we toss the bathwater. Passions tend to run high in this discussion.
Here are some of my thoughts.
1. Recognize the enemy.
The problem comes when we fail to realize who the enemy is. Too often, the Billy Graham rule paints women as the enemy – those temptresses who are out to get us! The reason I need to exert some self-control and discipline is because of my own sinful and deceptive heart. I am the problem, not women.
2. Honor my wife.
Ministry is hard on us, pastors, but it can be really tough for our wives. As much as we say we will put them first, they often have to take a backseat to ministry responsibilities. I set limits on my relationships with other women as a way to honor my wife. I’m a loner by nature, and its hard enough to “share my heart” with Jenni. I would minister to women, discuss ministry with them, talk about the church, help them with their struggles. I tried to avoid the kind of emotional and spiritual intimacy that should only belong to my wife.
3. Honor women.
Pastors, consider what the Billy Graham rule communicates to women in your church. Yes, they might respect you for protecting your integrity and marriage, but it also subtly says to them that they are dangerous, a threat to you. Reality is that in the vast majority of cases, it is men who are predatory, but this rule tends to paint men as the victims of aggressive women. It shifts the blame. In doing that, it dishonors the women we serve.
We are called to love, serve, shepherd, and honor women, not just men. These are tricky issues, but the strictest versions of the Billy Graham rule treat women as threats to ministry, not objects of it.
4. Don’t make rules where the Bible doesn’t.
The Billy Graham Rule is not a biblical mandate. It is not wrong to set guidelines based on principles of wisdom but we should not treat them as biblical absolutes. Being faithful to my marriage vows is an absolute. Integrity is an absolute. Treating women with respect and honor is an absolute. The Billy Graham rule is not.
5. This is a minefield!
Can we admit that we are walking through a minefield? When my seminary professor talked about the dangers of women, not one of us thought a thing about how that might be disrespectful to women. It was a different world.
- Our professor was sharing wisdom with us – truths we needed to hear.
- He was doing so in a way that bordered on blaming women for our own fleshly temptations.
If I tweeted that today, I’d get ratioed off Twitter!
6. I have more questions than answers.
I am not ready to throw away the Billy Graham rule completely, but I’m not ready to codify it as a biblical mandate. We need to set guidelines for our ministries, guard our hearts, and live carefully. We also need to abandon the tendency to pass the buck to women, as if our failings are their fault. The problem is not them, but us. We need to have self-control, not set more limits and restrictions on them.
Women are asking to be treated as full partners in the cause of Christ – as God intended. It is their rightful place. We must walk in holiness and purity in our relationships as we lead the church of Jesus Christ, but we must not put the burden for that on women, but on ourselves.
Navigating the waters of relationships in changing times isn’t going to be easy. Relying on rigid rules isn’t the way, but there may be some wisdom from the ages that can still help us.
I honestly am still trying to figure this out. What say you?