This week the internet exploded over a Washington Post article about Karen Pence, an educator with a passion for art therapy who is also the wife of US Vice President Mike Pence. The article evidenced many positive things about her marriage; shared values and mutuality in decision making. But what shocked many was Mike Pence following the “Billy Graham Rule” in choosing to never be alone with a woman who is not his wife.
But anyone within conservative or evangelical Christian circles won't be shocked. For many, it is simply an accepted part of how Christians interact. Yet, as a gender justice specialist and in my role organising Project 3:28, I have long had concerns about the implications of this rule and its impact on the church (and the world). Here I present to you ten reasons why the Billy Graham Rule is harmful to the Church:
1. It prevents women and girls flourishing
Women and girls called into leadership are unable to fulfil God’s call on their life if male leaders see them primarily as sexual integrity risks. Women seeking to learn from or be discipled by those in senior leadership will never gain the same opportunities as their male counterparts. And as feminist writer Jill Fillpovic pointed out: "If I refused to be alone with men I would have a hard time keeping a job. That men can have decades long careers without women says a lot."
2. It reduces men
This rule assumes that all men are sex-mad fiends who if left alone with a woman will accidentally have sex with her. This does a huge disservice to men and reduces them to their sexuality. Men are full human beings and their sexuality does not define them.
3. It shames women and girls
This rule allows men to feel pure, but leaves women and girls feeling ashamed and dirty. God has called me His daughter, and if men see me primarily as a sexual object to be avoided, they are not treating me as a full human being. No one should reduce me to my sexuality. Many Christian women live with huge levels of shame and sexual dysfunction because they have been made to feel dirty and bad due to this rule alongside wider sexual purity messages.
4. It’s Pharisaic
One of the arguments for this rule is that it’s about avoiding the “appearance of evil” (1 Thessalonians 5:22). Some would argue, “It’s not that women are sexual integrity risks, but if someone sees an unmarried couple alone, that could suggest sexual impropriety.” The Pharisees used a similar justification to dehumanise anyone that wasn’t considered pure. They created layers of additional laws to ensure they were safeguarded from sin (or the appearance of sin). But Jesus consistently challenged this. He touched lepers, healed a bleeding woman, raised the dead. He cared more about human flourishing than about keeping up appearances.
5. It undermines men’s capacity for self-control
Male sexuality is not exempt from God’s gift of free will. Lust and sexual advances towards women are choices that men make and Jesus’ advice to those whose eye caused them to sin was to cut it out, not to place restrictions on those who are not sinning in that way. If a man cannot have platonic relationships with women without sexual advances he really should not be in a position of leadership and probably needs serious professional help. Men can choose to see women as co-partners in God’s kingdom, because that’s what God created us to be.
6. It doesn’t work
Some male Christian leaders have sex with women who are not their wives. In recent years, men such as God TV’s Rory Alec, Father House Trust’s Mark Stibbe, New Wine’s Mark Bailey, US preacher Todd Bentley have lost their ministries (though only for short periods of time) due to having affairs. The Billy Graham Rule is not going to prevent men from making bad choices. As Jesus explains in Matthew 23, cleaning the outside of the cup is no good, is it our hearts that must be cleansed.
7. Only wives and daughters have legitimacy
Ivanka Trump is currently one of the most powerful women in America. This is not because of her qualifications or skills, it is because she is the daughter of Donald Trump and he has afforded her great influence in his government. For men who hold to the Billy Graham Rule, the only women they know well are their wives and daughters. These men’s views about women are informed mainly by the few women they spend time with, who are likely to share their views and values, yet their decisions may affect thousands (or millions) of girls and women.
8. It promotes a culture of WAGs
Made famous by football culture, WAGs are Wives And Girlfriends. Within many Christian organisations, being married to a Christian leader is the quickest way for women to access leadership opportunities. Colloquially know as 'leadership via duvet', this cultural (and theological) phenomenon leaves all other women at a disadvantage. No matter how qualified WAGs are their shortcut to leadership opportunities undermine the skills of other women and leave women competing against one another, whilst male leaders are assumed to be there on their own merit.
9. It’s not Christ-like
Jesus spent time alone with the woman at the well. He didn’t wait to speak to her until others were present, but instead met her in her need. After resurrection he appeared to Mary Magdalene alone, even though it would have made sense to have more witnesses. Jesus didn’t see women as sexual integrity risks in a society where women’s lives had little value. Who are we to reject the model Jesus gave us?
10. It splits up the body of Christ
In John 13 Jesus tells us to love one another as He has loved us. He explains that it is by our love for one another that the world will know Him. Whilst men view women primarily as sexual integrity risks they cannot love us. Women are reduced to one dimension. Yet Jesus calls us to be His body. We are not split according to male and female, but instead we are one in Christ. Let us be a light to the world, showing that women and men can have positive platonic relationships, because we have left our old life behind and are risen to new life with Christ.
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