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The Billy Graham Rule, but with Good Motives

Why purity requires dying to self.

Published on:
November 19, 2018
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9 min.
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I was waiting on the curb when a man pulled up in a white Honda Civic. Earlier that day, I’d made plans to be picked up from the airport and after several years of travelling for work, it no longer feels strange to exchange texts with relative strangers in unfamiliar cities. But most of the time, I work with women. When I schedule an event, my contact is usually a woman. When I fly to that event, a woman meets me at the airport. A woman shuttles me between venues. A woman drops me off again and I catch a plane back home. But this time, I was working with a male contact—a pastor I’d originally met online and only once in real life. And what had become so normal suddenly felt complicated. After all, what’s a woman to do when an unfamiliar man in an unfamiliar city meets her at the airport and invites her into his car?

Me (and Billy Graham) Too

Discernment must be rooted in a firm belief that God is stronger than the danger we see.

Those familiar with evangelical ministry culture will recognize this question as the same one that undergird the famous “Billy Graham Rule.” Popularized by the late evangelist, the Billy Graham Rule is a private code of conduct in which a man commits to never dine, travel, or meet alone with a woman who is not his wife. Picking up a woman from the airport alone would fall under its purview. So when my contact and I finally rendezvoused, I really wasn’t surprised to see that he wasn’t alone. His young assistant was scrunched in the back, the passenger seat open and waiting for me.

For years, the Billy Graham Rule has been the gold standard for ministry, passed along both implicitly and explicitly. A professor at the Christian university I attended was known to quiz future pastors on what they would do if they pulled into an empty church parking lot and found a woman standing outside in the rain because the custodian had overslept and the church was locked. What should he do for the next fifteen minutes while they wait for the custodian to arrive? Should he invite her out of the rain into the car with him? Should he ignore her in order to protect his own testimony?

During the 2016 presidential campaign, the Billy Graham Rule gained unexpected visibility when reporters discovered that evangelical politician (and eventual Vice President) Mike Pence employed a similar rule in his professional career. Not surprisingly, many in the press saw it as archaic and even misogynistic. Because so much professional development happens in personal settings—over lunch, drinks, or late-night sessions at the office—such a rule sets up barriers to women’s advancement. If a man refuses to be alone with a woman but will meet alone with her male peer, she’s at a profound disadvantage.

Men in leadership, including pastors and college professors, weighed in to defend the Rule from a variety of perspectives: to protect against false accusation or misunderstanding, to avoid the appearance of evil, to keep from sending the wrong message, to shun temptation, and so on. Regardless of the individual reasons, advocates of the rule sum up their support by the word discernment. All things considered, the Billy Graham Rule is just smart practice in the world we live in.

But women, including Christian women, question the rule. Besides erecting barriers to their success, the Rule can feel like a form of self-protection that ultimately positions women and their bodies as a threat. Then came the #MeToo Movement.

Although activist and sexual assault survivor Tarana Burke coined the phrase #metoo in 2006, the movement picked up unexpected momentum in the fall of 2017 when actress Ashley Judd leveled accusations against Harvey Weinstein, one of Hollywood’s most powerful producers. Within days, other women came forward with similar accounts of abuse and harassment, including Alyssa Milano who tweeted:

“If all the women and men who have been sexually harassed, assaulted or abused wrote ‘me too’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem. #metoo”

Milano’s tweet went viral, unleashing a flood of stories that crossed racial, socioeconomic, geographic, religious, and political lines. In its wake, Hollywood moguls, politicians, academics, entertainers, and even church leaders were exposed as predators.

Before #MeToo, I knew of individual stories of assault, but somehow, I’d naively viewed them as isolated data points. I even knew of a Christian speaker who had been assaulted in an airport on her way home from a speaking engagement. A tragic situation, to be sure, but not a scenario that I needed to worry about. But as more stories came out—stories of being groped on a plane or touched by strangers in a crowd—the data points began to connect into a larger picture, and my sense of safety took a hit. 

Too often, the problem with the Billy Graham Rule is not the Rule itself but our own impure hearts and mixed motives. Our hearts are driven by fear and self-preservation.

I felt increasingly anxious about traveling alone and began to walk through the world on guard. I watched my fellow passengers more closely, hoping I wouldn’t have a male seatmate. Flying in and out of our small airport often meant multiple legs, leaving early in the morning and returning late. It was often dark when I’d exit the terminal and walk to my vehicle. I began carrying my keys between my fingers.

Then the whispers started of harassment in my field of Christian publishing—whispers that grew into full-fledged accusations and eventually proven incidents. And suddenly any concerns I had with the Billy Graham Rule evaporated. But instead of men saying, “I won’t be alone in a room with a woman,” as a woman, I wanted to say, “I won’t be alone in a room with a man.”  

It just felt like the discerning thing to do.

Discernment Seeks Goodness

But as I entertained my fear, I found I couldn’t control it. I found myself increasingly suspicious of men. I found myself doubting them. Sure, I believed #notallmen were predators, but which ones could you trust and which ones couldn’t you? Slowly but surely, I began to be tempted by a defensive posture and risked letting fear make my decisions for me.

The trouble with fear-based decision making is that it runs counter to how the Scripture tells us we become wise. Rather than focusing on the brokenness of the world, we’re supposed to focus our attention on the power and might of God. “The fear of the Lord” Proverbs 1:7 says, “is the beginning of wisdom.” Not the fear of evil. Not the fear of what might happen. Not the fear of being harmed or misunderstood. In this sense, decisions made from a defensive posture are not truly discerning because this approach centers brokenness as ultimate reality.

Ultimately, discernment is also about our own redemption. Even as God is restoring his creation, he is restoring us.

This does not mean that we are naïve to the evil that is in the world. After all, as Proverbs says, “a sensible person sees danger and takes cover.” What it does mean, however, is that discernment must be rooted in a firm belief that God is stronger than the danger we see. What it means is that true wisdom flows from the knowledge that he is redeeming the world and his goodness will ultimately prevail. What it means is that our decisions must align with redemption and move toward it.

Because ultimately, discernment is also about our own redemption. Even as God is restoring his creation, he is restoring us. We are being changed and transformed “by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God.” And significant part of that process includes refining our motives so that our hearts are pure.

In James 1, Scripture promises that God gives wisdom to those who seek it from him.

“But let him ask in faith without doubting,” James continues and then describes the doubter as “being double-minded and unstable in all his ways.” In context, the double-minded man is doubting that God is truly the source of goodness and wisdom. He’s hedging his bets. But the root of his double-mindedness is a deeper instability and impurity of heart. The double-minded man has mixed motives.

And now we come full circle. Too often when we discuss our relationships with the opposite sex, we concern ourselves with external and physical realities. But our bodies only do what our hearts tell them. Crossing physical boundaries does not make us impure so much as it reveals that our hearts are already impure. This means that the best way to regulate your body is to regulate your heart. The best way to ensure that you will make wise decisions is to become a wise person. The best way to ensure that you will make pure choices is to become a pure person.

This is exactly the message of Malachi to the priest of Judah. In chapter 3, he prophesies that the Lord was coming to “purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver.” Among other things, the priests had been unfaithful to their wives. They had said one thing with their mouths and done something different with their bodies. But the priests’ adultery was symptomatic of a larger duplicity. They had also been unfaithful to their callings. “The lips of a priest should guard knowledge . . . [as] the messenger of the Lord,” Malachi tells them. But, “You . . . have turned from the way. You have caused many to stumble by your instruction.”

The priests’ unfaithfulness to both their wives and their work revealed them to be unfaithful men to their core. In this sense, their adultery did not make them impure; they committed adultery because they were already impure. And it was this deeper impurity that God was coming to purify. He was coming to purify them so they could love him with their whole heart, soul, mind, and strength, and their closest neighbor as themselves.

Dying to Self

When my contact, Jeremy, pulled up to the curb, I wasn’t surprised to see his assistant with him. I understood the larger situation and really didn’t think much of it. But what happened two days later did surprise me.

I’d finished up my part of the event and was preparing to return home the next morning. Due to our family’s schedule, I had to book the first flight of the morning. This meant I needed to be at the airport at 5:30 a.m., which meant I needed to leave my hotel as 5:00, which meant I needed to be awake and moving no later than 4:30 a.m. I returned to my hotel room late, hoping for a few hours of sleep before calling for an Uber to take me to the airport. But as I was getting settled in, I received a text from Jeremy.

“5:00 a.m. tomorrow morning?”

As a woman, I’ve been trained to not make trouble for men. Like many evangelical women, I’ve been taught that I’m a helpmeet and that means my job is to make their lives easier, not harder. Years of training kicked in when I read Jeremy’s text and my instinct was to defer, to tell him that I’d happily take an Uber—although he and I both knew it wasn’t my preference. But before sending a reply, I stopped. I would not let my fear of being an inconvenience make this decision for me. I waited a moment and then texted him back.

“Thank you sooooo much. I hate for you to have to get up so early but it will make a world of difference to me.”

With arrangements made, I settled down to sleep. A few hours later, I got up, collected my belongings, and stumbled down to the hotel lobby to check out. And there sitting just outside the front door was a white Honda Civic. Jeremy was behind the steering wheel and his bleary-eyed young assistant was scrunched in the back seat, the passenger side open and waiting for me.

Some may protest that it was unnecessary for both these men to take me to the airport. Wouldn’t it have made more sense for at least one of us to enjoy a few extra hours of sleep? What’s going to happen at five o’clock in the morning anyway?

But in that moment, I didn’t feel annoyed or pushed to the side. All I felt was gratitude. All I felt was cared for, protected, and honored.

And the reason I felt these things instead of feeling like an inconvenience or a threat was because I knew that Jeremy and his assistant’s motives were pure toward me. They had left their warm beds and the comfort of sleep to make sure that their sister was safely on her way with the least amount of inconvenience possible. They had not done this out of obligation, annoyance, or self-protection. Like Jesus, our older brother, these men were dying to themselves to serve another.

We must pray that our motives would be refined and purified. Because only then, when we have died to ourselves will we become wise to what is truly good.

Too often, the problem with the Billy Graham Rule is not the Rule itself but our own impure hearts and mixed motives. Our hearts are driven by fear and self-preservation. We view each other with suspicion, asking others to adapt and lay down their lives so we won’t have to. But this is not discernment because discernment seeks goodness. And that morning, as I walked out of my hotel, got into a car with two men, and headed to the airport, I knew that I was experiencing goodness.

For the Billy Graham Rule to be truly wise, then, it must include dying to self. It must reflect a larger commitment to proactively support women in every other dimension of the relationship—not just when she is alone with a man. It must echo a disposition that promotes and pursues her flourishing. It must call men to the goodness of sacrifice.

When that professor quizzed future pastors on what they should do if they encountered a woman waiting in the rain, the responses were mixed. Many said that while it was unfortunate, it wasn’t worth the risk to their testimony to invite her into the car. She might be uncomfortable, but the damage would not be permanent. A few brave souls suggested that it would be a lesser evil to sit in the car together than to leave her standing in the rain. The professor suggested a third alternative: The pastor should invite the woman to wait in the car while he himself stands in the rain.

While I’m not convinced this is a perfect solution, I am convinced that calling men to self-sacrifice is always the right answer.

In Philippians 1, Paul prays that the believers’ love would abound with all knowledge and all discernment so that they would be pure and blameless. This must be our prayer, too. We must pray that love, and not fear, would direct our relationships with each other. We must pray that our motives would be refined and purified. Because only then, when we have died to ourselves will we become wise to what is truly good.

Hannah Anderson
Hannah Anderson lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. She is the author of Made for MoreHumble Roots, and the newly released All That’s Good: Recovering the Lost Art of Discernment (Moody). You can find more of her writing at sometimesalight.com, hear her on the weekly podcast Persuasion, or follow her on Twitter @sometimesalight.

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