Most Americans became aware of the Billy Graham Rule in 2017 when they learned that Vice President Mike Pence refuses to meet with women one-on-one. For the record, I defended Mr. Pence’s right to take this position as it’s his own deeply held religious belief in the same way I’d defend any other religious person’s right to alter their work responsibilities to accommodate a deeply held religious belief. Of course, defending his right to the practice doesn’t mean I personally support the practice, which I don’t.. I just supported his legal right to the practice.
I first became aware of this rule when I read about it as a freshmen undergraduate student and had to sign an agreement affirming that I’d abide by it. It wasn’t called the Billy Graham Rule in the Student Life Guide but that’s what I was told it was by classmates who recounted the Billy Graham story that lead to the rule.
In 1994, as an 18-year old college freshmen, I thought it was a sexist, non-biblical rule. And I think it’s equally so today.
Here’s a simple fact… true whether you are an 18-year old college student or Tony Robbins or Billy Graham or Mike Pence or Bill Hybels: If you can’t be trusted to be alone with a member of the opposite sex for fear that you’ll have sex with them (by coercion or otherwise)… perhaps you shouldn’t be in a leadership position at all.
In other words, your need for a “Billy Graham Rule” should be seen as a disqualification from you leading. Just a thought.
Last night, I watched the Netflix documentary Mercury 13. It documents the thirteen women who passed the physical and mental tests to join Project Mercury, to be among the first people to go to space or walk on the moon, but were ultimately disqualified from consideration solely because of their gender.
At a key moment the movie used CGI to re-imagine what would have happened if a woman had been among the first to enter space, been celebrated with parades and hero status, and assumed positions of power in society like the original astronauts had. Instead, the old boys club of military test pilots shot down the idea of female astronauts, clearly for sexist reasons.
As I watched this movie I couldn’t help but make the leap: What would be different in the evangelical church today if the old boys club didn’t rely on their sexist Billy Graham Rule to alienate women from positions of power and the rooms where decisions are made?
I believe the church would be in a much healthier place than it is now. And I look forward to the evangelical church’s day of reckoning, as NASA had to deal with, when women break those glass ceilings and the old boys clubs of yester-year are put out of business.
In the church, with it’s antiquated Billy Graham Rule– what’s really happening, what got me in trouble for speaking out about as a senior at Moody Bible Institute– is that men in church leadership are protecting their old boys club with the so-called Billy Graham Rule. (The evangelical hermeneutic simply doesn’t lead them to “complementarianism“, the notion of “separate but equal” our society rejected in the 1960s, instead the evangelical hermeneutic leads to egalitarianism.) They don’t want to compete for positions of leadership with women who might be more talented, more educated, and more qualified for the jobs they want.
The Scandal of Jesus
“But what about false accusations?”
Yes, this is what proponents of the Billy Graham Rule appeal to. They argue that it’s not about trusting them to not coerce women into sex… it’s to protect yourself from being falsely accused.
My response, particularly for Christian leaders hiding behind this rule is to ask them to take a deep look at how Jesus dealt with such accusations? In his time, to the religious elites and power brokers, Jesus was scandalous.
He touched women to heal them. He allowed a woman to pour perfume on him at a dinner party. He spoke to the woman at the well about her sexual past. He offered forgiveness to a woman caught in the act of adultery. Over and over again the Gospel narrative uses the first century version of the Billy Graham Rule put in place by the Pharisees as an example and says, “So what about it?”
“Before the coming of this faith,[j] we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.
So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.”
Friends, it’s time to put the Billy Graham Rule in the rear view mirror. Many churches have. Let’s celebrate that. And let’s build on that momentum to welcome women into all aspects of leadership and decision making in our local churches.