Earlier this year, a guideline often known as the “Billy Graham” rule came into the spotlight when it turned out Vice President Mike Pence claimed to follow the rule—never meeting or eating alone with any woman other than his wife. The guideline isn't uncommon in evangelical circles, often presented as an easy way to avoid sexual temptation, inappropriate relationships, or even the appearance of it.
But for a vice president to follow this guideline brought some of the problems with the “rule” to the surface. If a man with significant political power can freely meet with other men alone, but not women, that raises questions about gender discrimination.
As Pence’s revelation brought the conversation to the surface, many women described how much hurt the evangelical rule had caused them personally. The intentions might be good—perhaps knowing their own struggle, a hard and fast rule is “easier” in a way than more fluid judgment calls—but can easily feed into sexism and discrimination against women. The “rule” is directed only at men—limiting their access to women—not the reverse, which makes sense, because there is almost no field in which women could realistically follow the rule strictly and still have a job. Women need just as equal access to trained mentors as their male colleagues, just as equal access to their bosses as male coworkers. Strictly following the rule would seem to cause gender segregation in work settings instead of equal collaboration.
Beyond the serious issues of potential discrimination, the rule raises other questions about sexism and the status of women. If a man literally can never be alone with a woman without an undertone of sexual inappropriateness, women find themselves in situations where they are made to feel shame and stigma simply for being a woman, as sexual connotations are added to situations that should’ve been neutral.
I’m very sympathetic to the criticism of the rule. Although I know the intentions of those who follow some version of the guideline are honorable, I also know firsthand how embarrassing, even painful, it can be to be the recipient of the “rule”—as if my simply being a woman is a liability to others. As Laura Turner of the Washington Post puts it, “For men to categorically refuse to meet one-on-one with women is often dehumanizing and denies the image of Christ that each person bears. As the philosopher Dallas Willard wrote in “The Spirit of the Disciplines,” 'Alienation from them [women] makes room for harmful lusts.' "
The rule raises the question, does it help men respond to their sexuality and attraction to others in a way that respects and upholds women? Or could it infuse fear and shame into friendships between men and women, and subtly imply women themselves are the cause of inappropriate thoughts or behavior? As Turner concludes, “The Billy Graham Rule locates the fault of male infidelity in the bodies of women, but 'flee from temptation' does not mean 'flee from women.' "
But the flip side of the legalism and potential discrimination inherent in the rule is the widespread problems of leaders openly ignoring any sense of appropriate boundaries in relationships with the opposite sex. In ministry, for example, church leaders who abuse may pretend to be “progressive” by freely meeting alone with a member of the opposite sex in the church—as a cover for initiating the grooming process and using their power to cross more and more boundaries. It’s also true that in ministry a vulnerable or codependent person might want a relationship with a leader that crosses emotional boundaries, if not physical.
Thankfully, there are many other ways to be discerning and wise and prevent potentially unsafe or unhealthy situations, without strictly adhering to a one-size-fits-all rule. For example, meeting in a public place or having a policy of meeting in places with open doors and windows is often an easy way for meaningful relationships and mentoring to take place while maintaining clear transparency.
Safe Church provides an invaluable set of guidelines to think more deeply about how to discern healthy boundaries for each relationship, which is “less about rigid rules and more about a way of thinking about relationship (power, rule, expectation, perception, etc.).” For example, reflecting on whether the person you’re ministering to shows signs of emotional dependency can help discern whether one-on-one meetings would be most helpful, or perhaps referring the person to a more professional support system. Similarly, a leader needs to think through their own motives and feelings within a relationship—if the leader feels “indispensable” in the relationship—as if only they can “help” the person they’re ministering to—this can reveal a form of dependency or mixed motives on the part of the leader, making the relationship about them and potentially crossing emotional boundaries. Thinking through whether you would say or behave in a certain way if your colleagues or friends were there at the meeting can help clarify appropriate boundaries.
Each of us has the responsibility to be both loving and wise in navigating relationships in a way that nourishes and upholds the freedom, dignity, and image of God in every person we interact with.