Is the "Billy Graham Rule" Biblical?

by Mary E. Stephens
May 2018

Romans 12:17 Recompense to no man evil for evil. Provide things honest in the sight of all men.

Last year, I ran across this post on another blog that got me to thinking: "Billy Graham’s Rule – Misusing it to Hold Back Women and Men of God." The guest writer (Kelly Ladd Bishop) who wrote this item was talking about the standard Mike Pence has to not eat alone with any woman other than his wife and to only enter certain situations if she is with him. This has been called "The Billy Graham Rule" because Mr. Graham had a similar standard for himself during his ministry.

Kelly Bishop is mostly addressing a "tweet" by a certain man which she took exception to, but in the course of her writing about it she made some points that I wanted to address.

Ms. Bishop writes:

"While there are times when it is appropriate for a person to set up boundaries that protect his or her marriage, it is not appropriate to make blanket statements or rules regarding the opposite sex – especially when it puts one sex at a real disadvantage in business, ministry, or life in general. It also doesn’t respect either men or women. It assumes that men can’t control themselves in the presence of a women who is not their wife, and that women are temptations that must be avoided. As brothers and sisters in Christ, we can do better."

"...A straw man argument is an argument that sounds like it is refuting an opposing view, but is actually refuting an argument that was never made..."

Having rules of conduct is appropriate in certain situations. This is why we are given many of them in scripture, even in the New Testament teachings to the church. Personal standards, however, should be viewed as non-absolute. We may make a rule or boundary for ourselves, but we need to realize that there may arise some situations that will make it necessary to break it in order to obey the commands of scripture.


When we were all still at home my mom had a personal standard that she never washed laundry on Sundays. She worked hard to make sure it was done during the rest of the week so that she (and we) could have a rest from that. But, when we had friends staying with us who had some special need to do laundry at our house on Sunday, she didn't balk at that.

On the other hand, I once heard of a man who had a law for his family that they never shopped for anything on Sunday. One Sunday when his sister-in-law and her baby were attending church meeting with them, she ran out of diapers and wanted to stop and buy some on the way home. He refused to stop for her. This was merciless and unkind. His personal standard needed to submit to the greater law of mercy and kindness.

Kelly Bishop is accusing someone else of making a straw man argument, but I feel that she has made one herself, or at least a gross assumption. She says that the idea of a man not eating alone with a woman other than his wife, and the other things associated with that, doesn't respect either men or women. She states categorically that this standard "assumes that men can’t control themselves in the presence of a women who is not their wife, and that women are temptations that must be avoided." Frankly put, it does not say that. She herself is answering an argument that was not made. There are some, perhaps many, who hold this position who don't believe that men are incapable of controlling themselves around another woman and don't believe that women are all-inclusive temptations to be avoided. Kelly's statement is overstatement at the very least, a straw man argument at worst.

In her article she does briefly mention that various pastors have pointed out that it is about avoiding the appearance of evil. She does not discuss that at any length, which is too bad since it the crux of the matter. We have a clear scriptural admonition: 1 Thessalonians 5:22 Abstain from all appearance of evil. Modern translations have sometimes made this "avoid." Avoid is not the same as abstain. According to Samuel Johnson "abstain" is: "To forbear, to deny one's self any gratification..." [Source.] According to Webster's 1828 dictionary it is: "In a general sense, to forbear, or refrain from, voluntarily; but used chiefly to denote a restraint upon the passions or appetites; to refrain from indulgence." [Source.] In other words, to abstain is a purposeful act of refusing to participate, even just a little bit. So as it is used in scripture in regards to the appearance of evil, we learn that we need to think ahead, identify if a certain activity or thing will appear evil, and then purpose in our hearts that we will not do it.

So, let's ask: Does it look bad for a married man to be in company with a woman who is not his wife? And, while we're at it, although Bishop seems more fixated on the alleged plight of women, let's ask also: Does it look bad for a married woman to be alone in company with a man who is not her husband? Because some women have this standard as well, although that doesn't seem to get much attention among the nay-sayers.

The broad answer would be, Yes it does have an appearance of evil. But, to clarify, there are many situations in which this would be true. Meeting and eating with a woman other than his wife would generally look bad. In certain situations, however, it might be acceptable. For example a woman might eat lunch with her father or an uncle. A man might meet his sister for lunch or dinner. Some people might say, "Yeah, but the people who see them don't know, so he shouldn't do it." Then we have to apply to other scripture to consider that more thoroughly.

Some people might see it in light of verses like Hebrews 13:16, But to do good and to communicate forget not: for with such sacrifices God is well pleased. If we are going to be doing good and communicating with people to whom we owe some familial responsibility, then it would be obeying other scripture and so not be wrong.

Others might still see a problem and feel wrong about it. In which case we might consider Romans 14:12-13, So then every one of us shall give account of himself to God. Let us not therefore judge one another any more: but judge this rather, that no man put a stumblingblock or an occasion to fall in his brother's way. If someone feels they might be a stumblingblock to others or if they feel condemned in their own conscience from doing such a thing, then they need to follow their conscience before God, and we need to let them.

Here are some examples of situations where there could have been an appearance of evil:

One pastor I knew felt a little awkward after he had met his wife from lunch somewhere in the city and they had both come in different cars. After they had parted with a quick kiss in the parking lot it occurred to him that coming separately and leaving separately and kissing her like that in the parking lot, someone could very easily interpret their behavior as evil. He was bothered by that in his own conscience, and I understand why, even though it is something that many Christians would have no problem with in general.

Another awkward situation I heard about was one where a man picked his wife up along the side of the road. She had been somewhere and he was going to be passing that area so they arranged for him to pick her up along the road since that would be easier. Later they wondered what people thought.

One situation that I saw once was when a man, without paying any attention to his surroundings, parked his rather unusual car in front of a sex toys shop while he went into another store in the same building. My own opinion of that was that he should have parked in another spot in the parking lot lest someone who knew him recognize his car and think that he was in that obscene shop.

Here is an example of a situation that had the appearance of evil and it was indeed evil. A man we'll call "Joe" saw a Christian friend's car parked at bar (pub) and he observed the man himself coming out of the bar with another woman than his wife on his arm. Later Joe asked the man about it, not as an accusation, but as an opportunity for his friend to tell him if there was a good explanation. The friend admitted he was in the process of starting an affair. He repented, was restored with his wife, and the marriage was saved - all because a brother recognized the appearance of evil and asked without judging or assuming. The man was very thankful to Joe afterwards, and told him so.

There is a problem that arises from people who are legalistic about these things, or who suffer from a hyper-active conscience. I know of one woman whose husband will not allow her to talk to her Christian father or brother on the phone (probably not in online chat either) at any time, nor to invite them into their house when he is not home. To my knowledge there is no reason (past abuse, etc.) for this other than the husband's excessive ideas. This is, in my opinion, going too far. When we refuse to do things that are biblically appropriate in order to make ourselves feel "right with God," we have fallen into the error of the Pharisees. Jesus addressed similar behavior in His day in a different area of life. Matthew 15:5-6 But ye say, Whosoever shall say to his father or his mother, It is a gift, by whatsoever thou mightest be profited by me; And honour not his father or his mother, he shall be free. Thus have ye made the commandment of God of none effect by your tradition.

So, it basically comes down to that. Are we making the commandment of God of none effect by our "standard" or custom? If so, we are wrong.

As I said, though, in this particular case just because we acknowledge a problem this does not assume that "all men" (as per Ms. Bishop's generalization) can't control themselves nor that "all women" are temptations. Some men cannot control themselves. There is enough of that self-evident in the church that I need not elaborate upon it too much. Just look at the #MeToo movement and its extensions in the church environment to see that. Some women are a temptation. (Yup. I just said that outright. So have a hissy fit.) Most of us have seen that woman who dresses or acts in such a way that she is drawing unnecessary attention to the more sexual parts of her anatomy. We've also seen the woman or girl who is all touchy-feely with the men and literally has her hands all over them. Honesty forces us to admit that some women are just plain "on the make," to use a vulgar, but descriptive, phrase.

The aspect that I don't see Ms. Bishop addressing is the whole "relationship" situation. For a man to meet once with a woman who is not his wife for a "business lunch" or a job interview or something of this sort is one thing (though some of us still don't like these situations). But, it's another whole thing when a man and woman (either of them being married to someone else) spend time together "alone" repeatedly eating lunch, working on a project after hours, sharing living spaces, etc. These types of situations can and often do lead to emotional attachments, romantic feelings, and potentially to adultery and fornication. Don't believe me? Ask Hollywood about that. They have "explained" it over and over and over again because it's a plot that shows up in real life and people recognize it. (And just to be clear, even an emotional attachment without sexual or romantic unfaithfulness can be destructive to a marriage.)

Kelly mentions specifically how "male pastors" will insist upon not spending time alone with any woman other than their own particular wife in order to "avoid the appearance" of evil. I wonder, does she not understand the reasoning behind that? Does she not know how many pastors have gotten into adultery, or opened themselves to slander and tale bearing by choosing to council or mentor a woman alone?

My mom once knew of a lady who went to her pastor for counseling and, over the course of time, they eventually got into adultery. It was not something that happened in one meeting because he couldn't control himself and she was a "temptation." It was something that developed because they spent much time alone together discussing her very real marital problems. The pastor was frankly an idiot for not including his wife in those sessions. Only a fool - female or male - would imagine that there would be no temptation in a situation like that. 1 Thessalonians 4:3-6 For this is the will of God, even your sanctification, that ye should abstain from fornication: That every one of you should know how to possess his vessel in sanctification and honour; Not in the lust of concupiscence, even as the Gentiles which know not God: That no man go beyond and defraud his brother in any matter: because that the Lord is the avenger of all such, as we also have forewarned you and testified.

My dad once had a woman come to him for counseling and she did not want my mom to be present. My dad insisted that without my mom there he would not meet with her. He was very glad he had insisted on that when it came out that she wanted to talk about her marital sex life. It would have been even more uncomfortable for him had my mom not been present!

Bishop goes on to mention how doctors have patients of the opposite sex and pastors have staff and church members of the opposite sex with whom they may need to meet. This comparison doesn't ring equal in my mind. First off, I should mention that there are women who prefer women doctors for this very reason, or they will take someone with them when they visit a male doctor. There are also men who do not feel comfortable with a female doctor. But, pastors hardly fall into the same category as medical practitioners.

It is generally understood that when people need medical help there are many boundaries that will be crossed. Wise doctors maintain a professional "bedside manner" that makes this as comfortable and polite for the patient as possible. Pastors on the other hand are generally not in a situation where they need to see someone of the opposite sex alone. There are also more options for dealing with this available to them. Furthermore, as ministers of the gospel, and with the many horror stories of pastors who got into sexual sin, it is even more important for them to ...Provide things honest in the sight of all men. Romans 12:17

Kelly eventually tells her readers,

"It is possible that a wife can accept that her husband has a legitimate reason to meet with another woman, and that it is not a threat to their marriage. This is called trust. It is also possible that a husband can accept that his wife has a legitimate reason to meet with another man, because he understands the situation, and trusts her."

While good trust is admirable and needful in a marriage, we should not be presumptuous. Just because one spouse trusts the other does not give license to carelessness. And even the greatest marriage relationship in the world that is solidly founded on unshakeable trust cannot stop the mouths of slanderers and liars. It isn't just about trusting each other.

Furthermore, not everyone can hold themselves to the same level of disinterest. We all have our own special weaknesses. While one person may not be inclined to fall into some kind of sexual sin, she or he may have a tendency to make close emotional bonds with members of the opposite sex - bonds that could become a stumblingblock in their own marriage or the marriage of the person with whom they are meeting. This may lead to serious problems over time.

I knew someone who had this happen. She became involved with "mentoring" a man through the internet. Over time, an emotional and allegedly spiritual bond formed. By-and-by she was ready to declare her marriage a failure, abandon her husband, and travel clear from the west coast of the U.S. to the east to marry a man she had never even met in person. (That's right - they never "met" anywhere except on line. Shivers of horror.) 1 Corinthians 10:12-13 Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall. There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man...

In finishing her argument against the other man's statement, Ms. Bishop says this, in part:

"...but it is a bit of an insult to people who are negatively affected by these rules – to all the women who have been refused mentoring by their bosses, who have been denied meetings, who can’t advance in their careers, and who have been treated like nothing more than temptations."

Her implication is that it is only the women who are negatively affected by men having standards of not being alone with any woman other than their own individual wives. I am not going to address the whole career and mentoring by their bosses thing here. While it is frustrating for a woman when she cannot get help that she feels she needs, why is a man obligated to defile his conscience in order to further women's "rights"? What makes people assume that a man thinks of a woman as "nothing more than a temptation..." just because he refuses to be alone with her? Do they not realize that a man's whole career can be destroyed by accusations? This ought to be even more evident now than ever before.  And, yes, I realize that in many instances there are men who have molested or raped women, but, oh, wait, usually they were alone with them. So, why are women like Ms. Bishop so angry at men who actively try to avoid any situation that could be mistaken for that? It doesn't make any sense.

Proverbs 11:1 A false balance is abomination to the LORD: but a just weight is his delight.

Honestly, the contradictions of rank feminism are sometimes maddening. Where is the respect for a man who doesn't want to put himself into a situation where his honor and respect for women could be slandered or questioned? Where is the understanding that a man guards the woman's honor, as well as his own, by refusing to be in situations that could be seen as evil? Why are we told here to look only at the "poor, poor women's plight" while the consequences to the men are ignored or minimized and lightly passed over? I don't get it. It is such a false balance. It seems to me that the women are to expect all the rights in this way of thinking and the men are to forfeit theirs, even to suffer unjustly for trying to do the honorable thing. Honestly, it's a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation. Either way the men get blamed and accused - and since there are many rape and sexual harassment accusations that are true, the honorable men should be allowed to find a way to avoid anything that could look bad.

And, sometimes, amazing as it may seem to Kelly Bishop and her friends, the men also suffer from the things that they do to "Abstain from all appearance of evil." Sometimes it is inconvenient for the men or causes them to lose out on something that could have been beneficial to them. Maybe they too are hindered by following this personal rule. But why do Christian men do it? Because they love Christ and want to honor Him!

Yes, sometimes loving Christ enough to avoid besmirching His name costs us something - both men and women. Christianity never was about convenience or succeeding or getting what we imagine we deserve. It's about following the example of Jesus Christ - even to the cross.

1 Peter 2:21-24 For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps: Who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth: Who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously: Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed.

Did you just see that? Jesus Christ gave up His RIGHTS and suffered for us. He allowed Himself to be reviled without complaint. He did not threaten when He suffered. Why? Because He had committed Himself to God - the righteous judge - and He came to do His will, to die to save our souls.

Sacrifice! Do you get that? Sacrifice. That is what the Christ-life looks like. It isn't about being able to do what we want so that we can advance our own purpose. It isn't about getting our "rights" or what we imagine we deserve. It's about yielding ourselves to the example of Jesus Christ and following HIS steps.

Philippians 3:7-10 But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ. Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ, And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith: That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death;

O Cross of Christ! on me thy shade is resting,
Thy sacred marks I bear;
Earth holds for me no more of grief or gladness,
No anxious thought nor care;

Only henceforth, the bliss and pain commingled
Of sharing woes divine,
Of knowing I am called to eat His portion,
To drink His bitter wine.

Keep me forever, Lord, beneath that shadow,
Lest, haply, I should lose
My life for something less then Thy sweet service,
Or one dear pang refuse.

From "The Shadow of the Cross" by Annie Johnson Flint

Luke 9:23 And he said to them all, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.

Galatians 6:14 But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world.

We are called to live a crucified life. Getting our feelings hurt because we can't go meet with the pastor or some other individual alone without his wife present is simply nonsense. Being offended because a man respects his wife, his marriage, his reputation, his LORD, and us enough to not put himself or us in that situation is ridiculous. Yes, it may be inconvenient, but if it's for the glory of God and the sake of the Gospel, we should willingly and gladly make that sacrifice. This isn't about what we deserve. It's about what Jesus Christ deserves!

1 Timothy 4:12 Let no man despise thy youth; but be thou an example of the believers, in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity.


Graphics by Mary Stephens.
Vintage graphic - source unknown.
2018 - CA