I wonder if she noticed that time I opted to take the stairs rather than share an elevator alone with her. I’m almost certain she caught on that time my car had broken down. I caught a hint of confusion, maybe even embarrassment, on her face when I declined her kindness. “No thanks,” I told her. “I actually prefer the bus.”
But I don’t prefer the bus. I rode the bus, and climbed the stairs, because I had refused to be alone with any woman who wasn’t my wife. No car rides. No meetings behind closed doors even if those doors are just elevator ones. It was a covenant to myself—we met in parties of three or we didn’t meet at all.
Self-protection is an attractive idol.
At the time, I didn’t realize it had a name: the “Billy Graham Rule.” No one I knew called it that, but its tenets were considered essentials in the evangelical Christian man’s arsenal of spiritual disciplines.
The way we saw it, the rule had multiple purposes making it indispensable. The first seems harmless enough: it assured faithfulness to our current or future spouse. We were well-aware of our propensity for sin, and we feared what we were capable of.
People outside our BGR-following community thought, “These men must think little of themselves. They must think they can’t control themselves around a woman.” The truth is, they’re right. Of course I’m afraid I can’t control myself.
I thought I would have made better progress by now. I still feel it inside, this ever-present temptation to lust. On Sundays, I bow my head with the rest of my church, and I listen to the words of my pastor leading us in prayer. He says something about those in the room who are “struggling with sin.” That’s the phrase he always uses: “Struggling with sin.” My mind immediately goes to my desires for sinful sex. My brain has been conditioned to equate my lust struggle with my sin struggle.
I've never cheated on my wife. Most guys like me haven’t. But we’ve seen men who have. We saw these men—these brothers of ours—and we saw the way they devastated their lives and the lives of their families. And we saw that all it took was a moment of succumbing to the same shared struggle.
The fallout made us shake our heads, repeating the mantra, “But for the grace of God go I.” And once again, we shrank back to the safety of “the Rule,” resolving anew to never put ourselves in a similar opportunity for temptation.
But it wasn’t only assuring our actual sexual purity that made the Billy-Graham-turned-Pence rule feel like the right option for a God-fearing man. We also had perceptions and appearances to worry about.
Men’s retreats assured me of the importance of “optics” and keeping up appearances. It wasn’t enough for God’s men to only avoid evil. We must also avoid the appearance of what could be potentially interpreted as evil.
I was admonished that even an innocent meal or being seen in the same car with another woman could be misconstrued and misinterpreted by unsavory witnesses. As men of God, our reputation was a matter of Gospel witness. And that’s easier to protect when you never allow an opportunity for it to be questioned.
But I see now how we took the Rule too far. I took it too far.
With some rules, nobody wins.
For all its pragmatic appeals to common sense and decency, my strict adherence to the Rule was actually feeding the lust I was so desperate to escape. Treating every isolated cross-gender interaction as potentially sexual was the thing that made it sexual all along. Elevator rides are just a way to get to the top floors of a building. It was me who was making them a potential love box.
I had underestimated sin’s stronghold on me. At some point, I had begun to equate my rigorous avoidance of temptation with the pursuit of holiness. It was no longer enough to press into Christ, to rely on his sufficiency to strengthen my resolve in the face of my weakness.
And, perhaps most tragic of all, the rule had changed how I saw my sisters in Christ. For all of scripture’s appeals to the power of Christian unity and siblinghood, to the repeated examples of our Lord befriending, ministering to, and partnering with women (in flagrant disregard of the social expectations of his day, no less) it was increasingly difficult to see my sisters as anything other than an unwelcome threat to my righteousness and reputation, a minefield to be avoided rather than a relationship to be nurtured.
Recently I’ve been listening more. I hear the appeals of my sisters. Women like Karen Swallow Prior and Katelyn Beaty call us—me—to something greater. They have shared their personal experiences with followers of the Rule, treated as secondary players in the church rather than full and equal partners in the Kingdom.
Have I made women feel that way? Have I treated them as “other” as “secondary”? Have I pushed aside the allies God has given me for the good of his purposes? Probably so.
The Pharisees would have loved the Billy Graham Rule.
I've been reading through Ezekiel lately, and I haven’t been able to shake its sad narrative from my mind. God’s people wrecked their covenant in a big way through unrestrained sin and idolatry. They paid a terrible price with the ravaging of their people and Jerusalem, culminating in their exile to a foreign land.
But what saddens me even more is considering the generations that came after, the generations of post-exile religious leaders we see in the New Testament.
These men, these Pharisees, had witnessed the devastating sins of their forefathers. They became so consumed with fear of another exile that they imposed impossible spiritual burdens that devalued and dehumanized those under their care. They kept up an appearance of holiness, forsaking the real thing. They lost spiritual eyes to discern between religion that breathes life and that which kills, adding to God’s law beyond anything he ever intended.
There has to be a better way than that of the Pharisees. Almost ironically, we need a scandalous way. Something that challenges the social conventions and expectations of male and female friendship. A way that pushes against the toxic “friendzone” mentality of the dominant culture and seeks the example of our Savior and not the inflation of our image, our weakness, and our temptation as a primary concern. A way that embodies a faith that rehearses the kingdom to come, where deep, intimate friendships with one another are formed regardless of gender.
Our Lord Jesus was happily defiant to break the Billy Graham Rules of his day while reserving his sharpest, damning words for men consumed with fear instead of love.
Men like me.
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