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Why the principle behind the Billy Graham Rule protects marriages

Kate Patterson explains why common sense is needed in applying the much-debated Billy Graham Rule. For an alternative view read Natalie Collins' blog.

Weird, sexist, de-humanizing, anti-gospel and outdated.

These are the adjectives flying around the Internet at the moment in response to the revelation that the American Vice-President will never eat with a woman apart from his wife.

Mike Pence is following the so-called Billy Graham Rule - a principle established by the famous evangelist back in 1948 and still followed by many evangelicals in order to protect their marriages. The result has been a Twitter storm with people like Michael B Dougherty tweeting in sympathy, "No one says, "you are a depraved glutton if you remove iced cream from your freezer to make a diet work."

Except that women are people, not frozen food and as many have pointed out, this could mean that women are at an unfair career advantage, cut out of the key conversations and even the friendships that happen over a lunchtime sandwich.

Having said all that, whatever you think of Pence's decision, it's not fair to dismiss Billy Graham as being crassly sexist. I am a huge fan of Billy Graham's (not just because my mum made her first commitment to Jesus at his Haringey crusade in 1954) but because he has lived up to what he expounds. If you look at the background to his decision not to spend time alone with a woman who was not his wife, what stands out is his blazing integrity.

The decision was made in 1948 when he was on a rising tide of popularity and fame. Newspapers regularly reported on his good looks and he was aware of the many evangelists before him who had fallen for the age-old powerful temptations of money, sex and power. He and his team of four made a covenant firstly to be accountable about money, secondly to avoid sexually compromising situations, be honest in their publicity and not criticize other churches. Don’t we want more Christian leaders with those principles?

As a world famous evangelist who has spoken to over 80 million people, Billy Graham did need to take extra care. He was potentially vulnerable to false allegations. A friend of ours was falsely accused and it was a devastating process. My husband, who is a vicar, is careful about who he meets with alone prescisely in order to avoid this. He deliberately has windows in his office that link to an adjoining office so he cannot be heard but can be seen.

Is the issue here that a good principle (avoiding sexually compromising situations) has become a bad rule? We might not want the Billy Graham Rule, but let’s not chuck out the principles behind it – we are all vulnerable to temptation and marriages are worth protecting.

So what do we do? How can we set boundaries that help protect marriages without ostracising women from the workplace?

Maybe we might want to start with common sense. Common sense says that a married man can pop out for a Starbucks in a work-break with someone who shares the office without it leading to an affair. A married woman can grab a sandwich from Pret to meet up to discuss a work situation with a man from another company without a thought of infidelity.

But if a married woman is on a work trip to Paris and goes out for a candlelit dinner for two with her colleague, she is probably heading down the route to temptation. If a married man is opening up his heart at the office but not at home, trouble is on the way.

I hope that this furore in the press will ultimately prompt Christians to consider what it means for us to live life with Christian integrity in the 21st Century. We might not choose the rule but let’s not miss the principles behind it.

Kate Patterson is a writer and speaker based in West London. She studied English at Oxford and Theology at Bristol and is passionate about making God’s word accessible and relevant to all ages. She is on the leadership team at Holy Trinity Richmond and is the author of The Promise of Blessing (Muddy Pearl)

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