I have often wondered how Billy Graham feels about having a rule named after him. And it’s not just any rule either, but one that has generated all kinds of controversy both within the church and outside of it. Having a name synonymous with marital faithfulness must be a joy; having a name synonymous with charges of puritanical prudishness must be a burden. I wonder if he’s been happy enough to hand it off to Mike Pence and let him carry the load for a while. (Definition: The Billy Graham/Mike Pence Rule establishes that a man will not put himself in situations in which he is alone with a woman who is not his wife.)
The Billy Graham/Mike Pence Rule bubbles up on a regular basis as a discussion that usually seems to generate considerably more heat than light. To be frank, I don’t much care how unbelievers feel about it, but do care quite a lot about how Christians feel about it. Even more so, I care how they feel about those who do or do not hold to it. What follows are some of my thoughts on the Rule.
First, we all acknowledge there are appropriate and inappropriate ways for men and women to relate when one or both are married to someone else. The question is not whether unmarried men and women will establish boundaries different from those they establish with people of the same sex, but where and how. Few would say it’s wrong for a man and woman to consider one another friends even if they are each married to other people; few would recommend they travel together as, say, two male or two female friends can. We all establish our own boundaries even if we never name or formalize them. Some hold to the Rule because they fear time alone with a member of the opposite sex may lead to sexual temptation and, ultimately, adultery; some have no fear of committing grave sin but still hold to it out of a desire to avoid the appearance of scandal.
Second, Romans 14:4 (and, indeed, the rest of that chapter) sheds important light on this matter. The Billy Graham Rule is not a universal law mandated by the Bible, but a personal rule mandated by conscience. It is not a biblical law but an attempt to flesh out a biblical principle (sexual purity and/or being seen as above reproach). Many will follow the Rule according to their best understanding of how to ensure they are honoring God. In so doing they will be heeding their conscience, and right here Romans 14:4 asks, “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.” If someone believes they ought to follow the Rule or one much like it, we must not only affirm their right to do so, but also the rightness of them doing so. We cannot and must not pass judgment on them or belittle them in any way. In fact, we need to be far more willing to lend support than cast judgment.
Third, no one owes anyone else an explanation for why they do or do not hold to the Rule (except, perhaps, one spouse to another and/or an elder to his fellow elders). Again, “It is before his own master that he stands or falls.” Both flaunting adherence to a law and flaunting freedom from it are sinful and unloving toward others.
Fourth, part of the reason we need to be so careful in passing judgment and holding others to our standard is that the church is made up of many people from many ethnicities, cultures, and backgrounds. It is myopic to speak universally across such diversity. A Christian man sitting in a café sipping coffee with a woman who is not his wife may be doing something unremarkable according to the customs of one culture but utterly scandalous according to another. A man who is recently saved out of a lifestyle of extreme promiscuity may be unwisely putting himself in the way of too much temptation. A husband needs to account for the fears, struggles, or temptations of his wife (and a wife of her husband) and for that reason may hold to the Rule out of love even if he or she experiences no struggle or temptation. There are many, many reasons people may hold to the Rule or one like it and those are exactly and precisely none of your business.
Fifth, the Rule may matter more today than ever before for reasons related to modern technologies and ideologies. On the technology front, everyone carries a camera and a broadcasting device with them at all times. At any time, any person can snap a photo and immediately make it available to the world. An Instagram snapshot can make a very innocent situation appear decidedly suspicious. On the ideological front, we have shifted from the presumption of innocence to the presumption of guilt, not in the legal system but in the court of popular judgment. Thus, it does not take proof of adultery to find someone guilty and imperil his or her reputation, but a mere photograph accompanied by a suggestive question or accusation. This comes into play especially for pastors and elders who are qualified to the office only if they are deemed above reproach.
Sixth, extremely rigid adherence to the Rule may be unhelpful or even sinful if it interferes with an opportunity to show love to a person in need. Legitimate and helpful rules can tip into sinful legalism if they are so rigid they convince us we cannot offer assistance to someone who may be among “the least of these.” Think, by way of example, of how the Pharisees used man-made Sabbath laws as a reason to condemn Jesus for carrying out acts of mercy. The Rule may also be unhelpful or sinful when it generates suspicion toward people of the opposite sex feel as if they are the problem. A man may begin to distrust the women around him like each one is a seductress who means to ruin his life, marriage, and ministry.
Seventh, rules have a sneaky way of becoming a person’s hope for purity. Establishing personal boundaries may be wise, but abiding by a rule cannot be confused with growing in sanctification. A Christian doesn’t prove the inner work of the Holy Spirit by so bounding himself with rules that he cannot act out sinfully, but when his desire to sin has been replaced by a desire to do what honors and glorifies God. Rules have their place, but they must never be separated from a prayerful determination to put sin to death.
Do I hold to the Rule? Kind of. I have genuine friendships with women, but don’t invite them to meet up for a coffee “just because” or travel with me to a conference like I do with their husbands. On the other hand, I’m perfectly comfortable having a business-related lunch or coffee with a woman who works for or with me. I’ve sometimes willingly “bent” the rule in situations in which rigidly adhering to it would have removed an opportunity to express love or care for a person.
The long and short of it is that there is great freedom within the Christian life to hold or not to hold to the Billy Graham slash Mike Pence Rule. In this, as in so many other areas, “each one should be fully convinced in his own mind” (Romans 14:5).