Table For Three, Please
It came to light recently that Vice President Mike Pence does not eat alone with women who are not his wife, nor does he attend events that serve alcohol without her present. Well, actually this was known back in 2002 but it has since resurfaced—you know, just in time to blow the whole thing up. Pence’s rule of thumb has been met with quite a lot of ridicule in the press and on social media over the past week or so. This decision is widely known as the “Billy Graham Rule”, named after the famous evangelist, who also made a point to not meet or travel alone with women.
In Graham’s autobiography Just As I Am, he shares the origin of the self-imposed limitation. Early on during his crusades, Graham met with his core team to discuss what travelling evangelists like themselves were most likely to have their ministries tarnished by. As they surveyed the host of fallen contemporaries, they came up with four major areas of danger: money, sexual immorality, a negative attitude toward local churches, and exaggerated publicity. Then the team set out to make resolutions to protect themselves from such pitfalls. Graham says at one point:
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).
This is the origin of the Billy Graham Rule. The famous evangelist was wary of bringing reproach on himself and the name of Christ, and therefore built into his life safeguards that would help ensure a long and reputable ministry. No doubt this decision helped ensure Graham remained not only faithful to his wife, but also free from accusation. Even today many pastors and evangelists follow the Billy Graham Rule, or some form of it. In fact, even some members of congress do. So even though it may sound new or strange to some, it really isn’t all that uncommon.
There are a number of criticisms of the Rule (and of Pence by extension). Some say that it sexualizes women and treats them as objects of lust or as flirtatious whores who can’t be trusted. Others say that it reveals serious character flaws in a person that needs such severe self-regulations. Still others contend that it is simply impractical in the modern workplace where both genders play prominent roles. Is there truth to these charges?
While I can’t speak for others, as someone who follows a variation of the Billy Graham Rule myself, I would like to put forth a different point of view. The original intent of Graham was partly to protect his own heart from straying, but even more so to protect his ministry from accusation. Graham had a healthy distrust towards his own sinful nature, heeding the warnings of Scripture about the deceitfulness of sin. Jeremiah 17:9 says “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” Also 1 Corinthians 10:12 warns concerning temptation, “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.” The very person who says “I would never do that” is just the one who would do it. They don’t appreciate their own sinfulness and ability to self-deceive.
The issue is not that Mike Pence (or Billy Graham or others) are lust-filled sexual monsters who are afraid they are going to lunge across the table to rape a woman at any moment. Rather, they are applying biblical wisdom. They know that sin creeps up slowly. An adulterous affair doesn’t spring up out of nowhere. It happens through a hundred innocent encounters that over time lead to putting your guard down. The point of the Billy Graham Rule is to stop that from happening before it begins. It is a preventative measure, erring on the side of caution.
It is worth noting that Billy Graham’s grandson resigned in 2015 from his booming church over an inappropriate relationship. Apparently it doesn’t take long for relaxed boundaries to catch up with you. Pastors and others in Christian ministry flame out all the time over sexual misconduct. The world understandably sees that and shouts “hypocrite!”, yet sees men making clear efforts not to do the same and shouts “pervert!”, “misogynist!”, or whatever other label comes to mind.
Some have pointed out that good character is better than rigid rules. Certainly this is true. One would like to think that even in a compromising situation, we’d have the integrity to make the right choice. But even those who follow the Rule think this is true. They simply would rather not find themselves having to make the choice at all if they don’t have to.
The Rule can be impractical at times. For myself, as a youth pastor, I make a point to never drive one of my female students anywhere unless there are other people in the vehicle. This has sometimes meant driving the long way home while dropping students off after a meeting on Wednesday night. But for me, a little extra time and gas is worth the minor inconvenience. In my 8 years I have only broken this rule one time because of unusual circumstances, and only after notifying her parents and my own wife first.
While it might seem like going overboard for some, my concerns were validated when someone I knew was wrongfully accused of misconduct. Authorities were contacted and it became a big deal. Later the accusation was dismissed, and it turned out the girl has had a history of making false claims. My friend dodged a bullet, but it could have been worse. All I can think is, what if that happened to me? What if the paper reported that a local pastor had been accused of sexual misconduct with a teen girl? You know as well as I do that people draw conclusions before due process is carried out. It might as well say I was guilty as charged. The Christian community would come under fire, my ministry would be tarnished, my family would be ridiculed, my church would be devastated, and my Lord put to public disgrace. It would take years to recover even from a false allegation. When realizing that those are the consequences, is it really worth risking it? I know many others in ministry would agree the answer is NO.
Does the Billy Graham Rule ostracize women or hold them back? I suppose their are instances that it could. But one of Mike Pence’s former female employees argues that it didn’t. And I would suspect that most people would say the same. Those who follow the Rule, or versions of it, desire to do just the opposite. They want to honour women, especially their wives. That is, after all, what we vow to do when we wed them: to love, honour, and cherish them, forsaking all others. I would guess that most wives would feel happy that their husband is taking that promise so seriously. And when it comes down to it, if a man’s wife feels loved and safe because of the boundaries her husband sets, why would he care what you think?
In the end, the Billy Graham Rule is something a person is free to choose to follow or not. It is not in the Bible, and no one is imposing it on anyone else. But some see it as wise and choose to voluntarily submit to it. It’s funny that those who are so quick to say “don’t judge!” are jumping all over others who are simply minding their own business and living out their personal convictions. Let it be. If circumstances somehow dictate that Mike Pence winds up being the next President of the United States, at least you know that you won’t have another Bill Clinton situation on your hands.