Billy Graham Rule Follow-up

I recently wrote a blog to correct the misinterpretation of 1 Thessalonians 5:22. You can find it here. I am certainly aware that in terms of the age of internet news, Mike Pence and the Billy Graham rule are the equivalent of 200 years ago, but I can’t seem to let bad theology go, especially when it harms the sheep.

I also know that most readers skim, so please – before you skim, read this paragraph: I have nothing against Mike Pence and his love for his wife and his desire to protect himself as a famous politician with a great deal of power. It seems like a wise thing to do, given his position in our country. So PLEASE don’t think that this post is about that. Also, I don’t know anything about Billy Graham or his rule, having never read his biography. How Billy Graham does things rarely enters my mind.

What this post is about is the bad theology that has surfaced in the aftermath of the discussion. I find it concerning and harmful.

The whole discussion seems to center around whether or not a pastor should be alone with a woman who is a member of his congregation. Apparently, the only danger is if the woman is attractive, because that seems to be the word attached to “young woman” every time she is spoken of.

As a disclaimer, I would never meet with a woman alone in my office with the door shut. I wrote in my previous blog that I could think of valid reasons to not meet with a woman alone. Here are a few.

  1. My wife is a very skilled counselor herself and has remarkable empathy and understanding, especially when it comes to counseling women. She is almost always with me.
  2. There are times when a woman wishes to meet with her pastor to discuss childhood sexual abuse, assault, domestic violence and other attacks on her person. The worst thing a pastor can do is to make her feel vulnerable and threatened. Meeting alone in a closed space does not tend to make a parishioner feel very safe.
  3. There are other times when a meeting alone in a closed space would not be good for the comfort and peace of the woman for other reasons, and as a pastor it is my calling to be sensitive to that.
  4. If it is necessary to meet alone, an open door or an open place takes away the feeling of being trapped, this is very important when counseling. You are seeking to reestablish the counselee as a person who matters, who can make choices, who can take power back in her life. Trapping her with a closed door seems to me to defeat that purpose .

So I would like everyone to understand me. I am not at all against acting in wisdom, walking circumspectly and being above reproach.

That being said, there are others who practice the so-called “Billy Graham Rule” but for reasons I reject completely. Here are some of those reasons.

First: “All it takes is one accusation to ruin a ministry.” This might be true, but are not our calling and reputation in the hands of God? It seems to me that our calling is to be faithful stewards and submit ourselves to the sovereign hand of God, doing what we are commanded to do and leaving the rest in His hands. We are simply farmhands in God’s field, workers in God’s vineyard. It isn’t our ministry to begin with.

I also can’t think of one example where someone’s ministry was ruined by one false accusation. Every one of the “destroyed ministries” that I can think of were destroyed because of accusations that were backed up with stacks of evidence, multiple witnesses, over many, many years. When it comes to famous celebrity pastors, one accusation is almost never believed. It usually takes mountains and evidence and years and years of time. Even then, the celebrity pastor generally just goes away for a few months and then starts again. So it is a false objection to begin with.

But suppose it is true, and a reputation is destroyed because a pastor met alone with a woman who was a sinner. Isn’t that exactly what Jesus did?

Jesus “made himself of no reputation” when he saved us from our sins. The Bible tells us that this way of thinking is to be also in us (Phil. 2:5-12). Meditate on these verses for a while. Jesus, in order to save us from our sins, allowed himself to be viewed and treated as a sinner. He despised the shame of the cross, so great was his love for us. He came down from the glory of heaven and sunk right into our filth and mire and corruption in order to save our stinking rotten corpses. He healed our sicknesses and did it on the Sabbath day, knowing that it would “ruin his reputation”. In fact, this is specifically why they hated him.

I honestly cannot fathom why a Christian would not help one in need for fear that someone might ruin the reputation of his ministry. If this is your thinking, then the ministry that you have is truly yours, for it bears no resemblance to the ministry of Christ. Would it not be more pleasing to God to bear joyfully the reproach of Christ while helping those who need you?

This is the point of the account of the Good Samaritan. The priest and the Levite were on their way to Jerusalem when they saw the broken and bloodied man. They had no idea if he were dead or not. If they helped, and he turned out to be dead, they would have been defiled for touching a dead body. If they were defiled, they would have been unable to fulfill their ministry in Jerusalem. So they protected their ministry, and “passed by on the other side.” Their ministry was more important to them than the life of a man.

The Good Samaritan was already ceremonially defiled, being a Samaritan, so he had nothing to lose.

And Jesus said, “Go and do likewise.” We are  to consider ourselves already defiled, so that we might love others as Christ loved the church. Take up your cross with him; despise the shame. Make yourself of no reputation. “Let this mind be in you, that was also in Christ Jesus.”

Perhaps it is time that we start thinking about love, rather than reputation.

Second: “You need to be aware of the temptations of the flesh and put no confidence in it. You never know what will happen if you allow yourself to get too close.”

Really? Think about this one for a while. This one is so common it’s frightening. It’s almost as if fornication is like the flu, and you accidently catch it if you happen to be close to a woman. “Here I was, minding my own business, when all of the sudden! BLAM! I caught adultery. I couldn’t help it. Her knees were exposed.”

Sorry, guys. This one is on you. Pastors who commit adultery commit adultery because they want to. They take one step after another because they want to.

They start by complaining about how their wives never understood them. Because they want to.

They let a church member linger in their thoughts, and dance through their fantasies. Because they want to.

They hold hands a little too long, hug just a little extra, and let their imaginations flit. Because they want to.

Then it progresses to trying to find time alone – and here they use the excuse of pastoral counseling. “I’m just ministering to her.”

Now, at this point please use discernment and follow me. Elders and wives, if the pastor is insisting on counseling a particular women alone in a closed study, there’s a reason for it and it usually isn’t a good one. It’s is perhaps wise at this point to ask some questions. BUT the problem is the HEART, NOT because he was left alone with a woman. We have to get that straight.

The reason that we have to get it straight is because the Bible insists on it. Sanctification does not come because we have hedged ourselves about with extra rules. Sanctification is the work of the Spirit in the heart which comes through the gospel, not the law. You can make a rule about pastors counseling alone in their studies after hours, and maybe you should to protect your sheep, but the rule will never change the man’s heart!

39 “You search the Scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is these that bear witness of Me; (John 5:39 NAS)

The Pharisees searched the scriptures looking for rules that would fix whatever problem they were having, and they missed Christ. When we search for rules to protect us from catching adultery, we also miss Christ.

Adultery begins in the heart: in the will, and the reasoning, and the emotions and the desires. It starts with the idolatry that we were born with and progresses from there. We say in our hearts, “I will be as God and everyone will serve me.” This is what must be put to death. And the only way to deal with it is on your knees in confession, putting to death the old man with the lusts thereof and making alive the new man. And this can only come through the gospel. It only comes through Christ. You must be born again by the Spirit of God.

Finally, and this to me is the biggest problem. If you make the rule about never being alone with a woman because you are afraid of “catching adultery”, then your view of women is devilish and wicked, and you must repent of it. It is the same reason that non-Christian religions try to avoid fornication by covering up a woman from head to toe. It’s wicked, oppressive and wrong.

Let me explain. According to Scripture, a woman is a child of God, a firstborn son (Gal. 3:28-4:7), the image of God (Gen. 1:27), fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14), with gifts and abilities and personhood, filled with the Spirit, and thus the Temple of God (1 Corinthians 3:16-17).

The devil hates that and seeks to destroy it. One very effective weapon is through sexual assault, domestic abuse, rape and sexual harassment. The effects of sexual assault are that a woman is “reduced” in her mind and in the mind of the assailant, to a body to be despised and used and discarded.

And now she comes to the pastor for help and she is told that she can’t meet alone because the pastor might “catch adultery” from her.

I can see telling her that you would love to meet with her outside on the picnic table. Or with your wife who is very gentle and kind. Or in a place that isn’t nearly as threatening as alone in the pastors study. All of these I can see.

But to say that you won’t meet with her because you need to guard the heart is to confirm her worst fears: There is something wrong with her. She’s just a body to be gawked at and used. She has no worth other than sexually. She has to cover herself up and take responsibility for the pastor’s corruption. And this is the message that she is receiving from her pastor. It breaks my heart.

We should be restoring her to the image of God in Christ, giving her back her voice, her dignity, her worth. We should be talking to her as a whole person, in whom dwells the Holy Spirit of God. But instead, we are worrying about “catching adultery.”

25 percent of your congregation has been sexually assaulted. And this is how we respond. We may have a problem in our churches.

Perhaps I overreact. But I don’t know what else to think when I read comments that say, “So you would meet alone with an attractive woman in your study? Isn’t this an appearance of evil?”

I don’t know how else to take it. Let’s break it down. “Attractiveness” is apparently determined by the pastor. The fear is apparently that this woman would arouse so much lust in the pastor against his will that he will be unable to control himself. So really, it would be her fault – and his, by implication, for not hedging himself about with anti-adultery rules. If they get too close for too long, BAM – he catches adultery.

This rule also applies if she is in the car with him, walking down the sidewalk, or wearing a skirt a little to short. The solution, then, is burkas and isolation…wait a minute…

Do you see where this leads?

I believe that the Bible teaches another way. When we cast off the old man and put on the new, we start to learn to love our neighbor – men and women alike. This means that we MUST repent and flee from our fleshly tendency to view others as objects designed to give us what we want. Through the gospel, we are to reach out to humans AS HUMANS, made in God’s image. We must learn to see our sisters in Christ as sisters (1 Tim. 5:2), with thoughts, longings, dreams, hopes, fears. They also long for the marriage supper of the lamb. They also long to be closer to God. They long to be healed, just as we all do.

They long for a name, for significance and worth, for dignity – because they are in God’s image. We as Christians should begin to see one another as fellow-pilgrims, not as objects to be used and discarded. Cross the road and help the one in the ditch. Bear the reproach of Christ with joy.

Adultery starts when we reduce women to objects of possession, a collection of body parts, rather than sisters in Christ. This is where repentance must take place.

Please don’t use Joseph and Potiphar’s wife as an example. Joseph fled from her, not because he was afraid of “catching adultery”, but because he was a slave with no rights and was being sexually assaulted by someone in power.

We will never be effective pastors as long as we are afraid of the women in the congregation. When Paul said to have no confidence in the flesh, he meant that adding rules to protect yourself from sin would do absolutely nothing in the war against sin. Hedging the law with stacks of rules is exactly the “flesh” that Paul had no confidence in. Read all of Philippians 3 in the context to see what I mean. Paul was the expert in all the rules. A Pharisee of the Pharisees. THIS was exactly what he learned to have no confidence in. He counted it all dung, that he might know Christ.


Filed under Men and women, Pastoral ministry, practical theology

31 responses to “Billy Graham Rule Follow-up

  1. Pingback: Every Appearance of Evil, and the Billy Graham Rule | My Only Comfort

  2. Well said. I don’t think you over react at all. The truth is actually even more hurtful.

    Those who believe, “All it takes is one accusation to ruin a ministry,” not only subscribe to this idea that they can catch adultery from women, they believe we have a propensity to lie about abuse and a desire to falsely accuse any man we can. Women, the new enemy of the church. It’s a very disturbing mindset to encounter.

    • I agree. It’s really disturbing. When the church starts acting according to the flesh, which is exactly what this is, Paul said the works of the flesh follow (Gal. 5:19-20). What we are seeing now is not an anomaly, but the results of the theology. More scandals will follow, unless the church repents. It’s sad and infuriating all at once.

  3. Wanda Wilkening

    great blog from Sam Powell!
    “This is the day, which the Lord has made; Let us rejoice and be glad in it.”

  4. Excellent. Thank you!
    “We as Christians should begin to see one another as fellow-pilgrims, not as objects to be used and discarded. Cross the road and help the one in the ditch. Bear the reproach of Christ with joy.”

  5. Bunkababy

    This is a very good read . Interestingly enough I spent years in therapy with a man and the door was closed.***gasp***. He was a Christian therapist. In a regulary office with other colleagues. I wonder what makes the difference in that situation? No Billy Graham rule in a secular office even though he was a Christian? Or was the expectation different because he wasn’t a pastor? Has the church become so corrupt that the first thought is that the pastor is not to be trusted? Or have pastors continually broken trust of people because they catch adultery? What is the difference?

  6. Pingback: Thank you, Sam Powell | See, there's this thing called biology...

  7. Bunkababy

    Sam Powell I am very grateful for all the work you put in for leading the sheep online.

  8. Jo

    I have a friend in the PCA whose husband did lose his job over false accusations of a sexual nature. He was cleared by his Presbytery, but he still lost his job and spent many difficult months without the means to support his family. I have no idea whether he practiced “anti-adultery rules,” and I don’t know if being fired is equivalent to a “destroyed ministry.” But certainly reputations matter in *some* way.

    Did those ministers who employed such rules say that they offered the women they declined to counsel no alternatives? No open-door, kind-wife, public-place solutions such as you suggested? I don’t know what you were reading, but it would be easy to see why the regular press would leave out such a redeeming detail.

    I like your third point. It always seemed to me there was something condescending about the “catching adultery” argument. I appreciate how you showed the logical progression to burkas and isolation; it’s an apt explanation.

    • I’m so sorry, Jenny Jo, about your friend’s husband. I know of those who just refuse to counsel at all, those who have said they wouldn’t help a woman on the side of the road with car trouble, and many, many more. Thank you so much for reading and commenting!
      I guess I am making a distinction between looking out for reputation and walking prudently. The latter is wise and commanded; the first isn’t. Jesus always walked prudently, but at the same time he “made himself of no reputation.”

    • Lea

      Personally, I would not get counseling from anyone who was afraid to be alone with me, or afraid of himself if alone with me. Secular counselors get extensive training about how wrong it is to get into any kind of inappropriate relationship with those they are counseling, and this includes financial dealings, roommate situations, etc, and can lose their license over it.

  9. Brilliant post. i went back to my marriage counselor by myself because my husband would not cooperate. I informed my husband I have an appointment to speak with the counselor by myself and he went off on this rant “…He “likes” you, don’t you trust him…” . I so appreciate my then counselor for not having odd rules, he was a sanity saver. I have to say I’m glad he shut the door, because there was no reason for a rule, he is this wonderful old guy, like twenty six years older than me, retired police officer, retired pastor. Best person ever he had a lot of faith in me and I needed that. I see a woman counselor now and she is brilliant too and fits my budget, because she is covered under my lack of insurance, I hated changing, so thankful that she measures up.

  10. I have a thought:
    Step 1: hire women pastors who have the same education and qualifications as their male counterparts
    Step 2: erase the Billy Graham Rule – now that opposite sexes aren’t involved, then it should be okay for a pastor to be alone with a counselee

  11. Pingback: Billy Graham Rule Follow-up - The Aquila Report

  12. Tim

    Sam, your insights make clear that when a man tells a woman he can’t meet with her alone for fear of what it might do you him or his ministry what he’s really saying is that he’s more important than she is an his ministry is more important than the problems she’s dealing with.

  13. This. This. And so much THIS!!! Thank you for saying it!

  14. Reblogged this on Funhouse and commented:
    Sam does it again!!! Maybe I can just quit blogging, at least on this topic…

  15. Thanks for writing this, you make good points.
    A minor comment: G2597
    Thayer Definition:
    1) to go down, come down, descend
    1a) the place from which one has come down from
    1b) to come down
    1b1) as from the temple at Jerusalem, from the city of Jerusalem
    1b2) of celestial beings coming down to earth
    1c) to be cast down
    2) of things
    2a) to come (i.e. be sent) down
    2b) to come (i.e. fall) down
    2b1) from the upper regions of the air
    3) metaphorically to (go, i.e.) be cast down to the lowest state of wretchedness and shame
    Part of Speech: verb
    This is the word “down” in Luke 10:31 so it implies coming down from Mt. Zion/Jerusalem and therefore leaving Jerusalem and not heading to it. In other words, I think one of the points of the parable is that the priest and levite had no good reason to avoid becoming unclean, except the hassle of then needing to go thru the procedure of becoming clean again and yet they avoided showing chesed/lovingkindness to someone in need. According to Jesus’s correct interpretation of Torah, meeting human need trumps the temple service (where one would need to be clean to participate) according to his Sabbath argument found elsewhere.

  16. Ruth

    I love this outlook on relationships, but I also know of a situation where things got complicated in a counselling situation. Outcome? An affair, children born, not even sure who belonged to who, as both parties were married and had children. Broken marriages, dispossessed children, outcast individuals, the hurt is still carried on to this day.
    I believe Billy Graham instituted this rule after there was a situation he wasn’t happy with and worried about unfounded accusations. In that light, I get it. In a modern context, all the lovely ways suggested in this post, or, where I worship, the glass door or windowed rooms are used. Privacy and trust and no scandal-monger can hurt the vital work of Jesus in healing and restoring the broken. There is always someone looking on keen to gossip and hurt, so why let them?

  17. Pingback: Treating People as more than Just Bodies - Amy Mantravadi

  18. Reblogged this on My Only Comfort and commented:

    It keeps coming up. Here are some of my thoughts from a while back.

  19. Debbie J

    This is wonderful!

  20. Jamie

    While I also appreciated the overall post (and it’s predecessor), I am currently REELING from having NEVER heard anything stated quite this way before about women:

    “According to Scripture, a woman is a child of God, a firstborn son (Gal. 3:28-4:7), the image of God (Gen. 1:27), fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14), with gifts and abilities and personhood, filled with the Spirit, and thus the Temple of God (1 Corinthians 3:16-17).”

    Thank you.

  21. Pingback: Friendship and the Pence Rule: A Woman and Her Body - Amy Mantravadi

  22. Pingback: Review: Why Can’t We Be Friends, by Aimee Byrd

  23. Gary

    This is a sensitive topic and one that I believe ne that requires sound judgement. I have been involved in Church leadership most of my life and understand how quickly a ministry can be damaged by one false accusation. Sometimes it is easy to forget that there is a reason that we try to walk above reproach. If there is a better way to accomplish the same goal, why not go in that direction. I know of one pastor that closes the door when he ministers to people, but has a glass window on the door. This allows the staff to see that there is nothing happening, period!
    I knew one older pastor that was accused of sexual misconduct by a person who attended his church. The pastor ended up spending time in jail. All it takes is a liberal judge who has no respect for clergy and the outcome may not be good. The pastor had no way to dispute the accusation.

    So if there is a woman stranded with a flat tire, regardless of age or beauty I offer assistance because we are out in the open. If someone of the opposite sex is stranded and needs a ride (unless I am with my wife) I would ask if there is someone she would like for me to call. Then there are those moments that are of an emergency nature where I just do the right thing and help. I don’t see in scripture where Christ was closing any doors for extra privacy. I will close by saying that you would not last in ministry very long if everything you state was an acceptable approach.

    We live in evil times where some discretion is wise. The enemy of our soul has ben given the name “accuser of the brethren” for a reason.
    Best wishes

    • Another take on the older pastor in question – perhaps he is actually guilty. Justice should be no respecter of persons, and “no respect for clergy” should never enter into it.
      Remember that Ravi Zacharias vehemently denied every accusation and was defended by everyone – until it came out that he actually did it.
      The reality is that it generally takes dozens of women saying the same thing for many, many years, and physical evidence after physical evidence to get anyone to listen, and by the time it is done the reputations of the accusers are in tatters.
      think “Larry Nassar” and how many accusations it took to get him arrested.

      I find it interesting that as the smoke clears from the “me too” movement and the “church too” movement, there wasn’t one accusation that proved to be a false one. Not one.
      The evil does not come from false accusations, but from the wolves that have been preying on the sheep for generations.

  24. This is beautiful. This feels like the truth and love I know in Jesus. Thank you.

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