Is the Billy Graham rule sexist, distrustful, and impractical? These are my reflections as a Christian woman on what my experience has been, and what the Bible says…
I can still remember the day I walked out of my bedroom to see my dad spread out on a massage table in the middle of our open-plan living room, clad only in his undies and a towel that was draped over his buttocks. It was a strange sight, and it made our movements through the house slightly awkward (in more ways than one) as the massage table was blocking the main thoroughfare. Regular massages were a part of Dad’s medical treatment plan for his chronic back pain for a period of time.
I pulled Mum to the side and asked, “Why doesn’t Dad get his massage done in the bedroom?”
“Dad’s having his massage out in the open to avoid temptation and to avoid any appearance of evil,” she answered quietly.
And as much as I didn’t want to see my dad’s shirtless back being massaged in the middle of the house, that answer made sense to me. My parents had always held to what some know as “the Billy Graham Rule” (though they didn’t know it by that name) – they would never (as far as was practically possible) be alone with a person of the opposite sex who was not their spouse.
You might be wondering about my Mum’s choice of words – what could possibly be evil about a necessary medical massage taking place in a private room? I might have wondered, too, whether such strong language was necessary before reading the sickening 13-page report about Ravi Zacharias’s sexual misconduct. But evil is certainly one of the words that came to my mind when I read of how Ravi preyed on vulnerable women whom he had chosen as massage therapists, coercing them to go further and further sexually, and making serious spiritual threats against them.
I’m struck by the contrast – my dad, who was happy to make his whole family, and probably also the massage therapist, feel uncomfortable for an hour to avoid giving any leeway to temptation or suspicion, compared with Ravi, who (apparently) went to great lengths to make everyone feel comfortable about his behaviour, while carefully digging tunnels of deception for his deeds of darkness.
Can the Billy Graham rule help people avoid sexual sin?
As I read over some of the recent articles and comments following the release of the full investigative report, I noticed some people bringing up the ‘Billy Graham rule’. In particular, I saw comments suggesting that if Ravi had stuck to this rule, none of his sexual misconduct would have happened.
For one thing, where there’s a will, there’s a way. And if someone is intent on sexual sin and deception, they will find a way.
James 1:14-16 says:
“But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers.”
Furthermore, Ravi himself claimed that he had long made it his practice “not to be alone with a woman other than Margie and our daughters” (Miller & Martin report, page 12). But this was a lie – while he claimed to stick to a rule of not being alone with women other than family members, he was routinely alone with his massage therapists. So while he claimed to follow a type of Billy Graham rule, he actually didn’t in practice.
But what if he had, consistently, stuck to something like the Billy Graham Rule? What if he had requested only male massage therapists, or that there always be someone else in the room? What if he had allowed his wife and friends free and full access to his devices, any time they wanted? What if he had always CC’ed in an assistant on emails or messages with women?
It’s true to say that rules are not an effective guard against sin. If the following the right rules could save us and free us, we wouldn’t need Jesus.
The Bible tells us in Romans 3:20:
“For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight…”
But while a rule or a boundary cannot adequately fight the sin in our hearts, it can help guard against temptation and the appearance of evil. For those who desire to live according to the Spirit and not the flesh, boundaries are an effective tool to use. Man-made rules do not justify or sanctify us before God, but they can be a way we show our love for God and others. They can be the practical outworking of a Spirit-filled heart that longs to be holy.
Is the Billy Graham rule inherently distrustful of others?
Some people object to the Billy Graham rule by saying something like this:
“The Billy Graham Rule is inherently distrustful of people. Only untrustworthy people commit adultery.”
This is true – if someone commits adultery, they show themselves to be untrustworthy. But it’s also true that sometimes people cheat, and in cheating become untrustworthy.
Some people set out to deceive and commit adultery. But for others (many others, I would argue) the process is slower and less obvious. It happens one step off the path at a time. To say we should guard against temptation is not to be distrustful, it’s being realistic about the nature of sin and humanity.
The Bible tells us that “pride goes before a fall”, meaning that the very people who are most adamant that they would never commit adultery are the ones who are most at risk of falling to temptation because they have pride in that area. Sticking to the Billy Graham rule shows humility because you know that anyone can give in to any temptation. No one is immune.
The beauty of this rule, to me, is that it creates a level playing field across all people of the opposite sex. I never have to tell one person that because I find them especially creepy or tempting, I won’t be spending time alone with them (because, who wants to have that conversation?). Instead, I get to say, earnestly, sorry, I have a rule that I won’t be alone with a man.
It’s nothing personal. It says nothing about my feelings for that particular man, whether feelings of fear or feelings of interest. It’s one size fits all, so no one needs to take it as a personal comment on their character or sex appeal.
Is the Billy Graham rule sexist?
Other people object to the Billy Graham rule on the grounds that it is sexist; that it unfairly makes assumptions about and disadvantages women.
I’ve read comments like – “The Billy Graham rule unfairly assumes all women are temptresses and all men are incapable of controlling themselves when alone with them.”
Okay, allow me to let you in on a little secret. Many women like sex, too. Sometimes the man is the tempter and the woman is the one who can’t control herself. I have never seen this rule as something imposed by men on women. I’ve always seen it go both ways – godly men and women in my life who were each, for their own part, concerned with guarding against temptation and the appearance of evil.
As a woman, I have never felt marginalised by men around me who stuck to the Billy Graham rule. I think back to all the men who would leave their office door open when I needed to talk to them, or who would walk around the block with me to chat instead of inviting me inside when no one was home, or who would rearrange car passengers so I would never be alone with them… none these men made me feel uncomfortable or objectified.
On the contrary, I felt safe and protected. I felt that these men cared not only about my bodily safety, but also my reputation. And of course, they were also caring for their own bodies and reputations. But to me, it felt like a mutual understanding built on respect and love as brothers and sisters in Christ.
Sisters, we are not immune to sexual temptation. This is not just a rule that is for the benefit of men, it’s something we would be wise to implement in our own lives. Don’t be prideful and think that sexual temptation is only a man’s problem.
Interestingly, thinking over this rule, I’ve realised that men and women who follow the Billy Graham rule have somewhat different things they are seeking to avoid. For men, they are seeking to avoid sexual temptation (from within their hearts) and false accusations against them (coming from outside). And for women, we are also seeking to avoid sexual temptation (from within) and sexual predators (from outside).
Is the Billy Graham rule impractical in modern life?
I’ve also heard it suggested that it’s simply not practical to follow such strict rules around male/female alone time in the world today. Our world is fast-paced and global – surely no one has the time or space to make the accommodations this rule would require…
And I agree with this principle – it’s not always practical to never be alone with someone of the opposite sex. Since this is not a command given by God, but rather a personal rule we are each free to follow, we don’t have to stick to it all the time.
I can remember being alone in the car with my youth group leader when I was 15 years old on the way to a short term mission trip in a country town. It stands out in my mind because my mum talked to me about it beforehand, explaining that usually a male youth leader would not ride alone with a teenage girl, but in this instance, we had no other option.
There are also times I’ve had medical appointments that required me to be alone in the room with a male doctor or practitioner. My husband has been alone with a woman for work purposes before.
There are many ways we can still practice wisdom and guard ourselves when these situations inevitably arise. We can pray for protection, we can text a friend or spouse to let them know who we’ll be alone with, and we can make an effort to keep the conversation appropriate. If being alone is unavoidable, we should invite accountability and transparency at every turn.
So yes, it’s not always practical to avoid being alone with members of the opposite sex. But we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath water. We don’t need to scrap the whole rule just because there are times it won’t work.
Wisdom, not law
It comes down to this – the Billy Graham rule is a matter of wisdom, not law. God has never commanded that we don’t spend time alone with the opposite sex, so we are free to take up this rule for ourselves, or not.
But God does not leave us without principles and means to make wise decisions in this life. We have the Holy Spirit to guide and lead us in all truth. And we have God’s direct word to us in the Bible. The book of Proverbs, especially, is filled with wisdom.
Look at Proverbs 7 (the warning about an adulterous woman) and notice what this woman says to the man she is seducing:
“Come, let us take our fill of love till morning;
let us delight ourselves with love.
For my husband is not at home;
he has gone on a long journey;
he took a bag of money with him;
at full moon he will come home.”
She entices the young man by inviting him in specifically when her husband is not at home. Why? Because she wants to do something she wouldn’t be able to do with her husband there. She wants secrecy and privacy because she is looking to sin.
John 3:19-21 tells us:
“And this is the judgement: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”
If we have nothing to hide in our relationships with the opposite sex, then we won’t mind keeping them in the open, accountable to others. We will be happy to keep all our deeds out in the light, if we have godly intentions.
Here are some questions to ask yourself in thinking through how to have wise relationships and interactions with the opposite sex:
- Will my actions bring glory to God, or dishonour His name?
- Will my actions make it easier or harder for me to engage in sexual sin?
- Am I fleeing temptation or running towards it?
- Am I acting out of pride? Are there any sins I assume I would never commit?
More important than any “rule” is to keep in mind that the two greatest commandments are to love God and to love our neighbour. All our actions should flow from these. And we should be prepared to look a little strange sometimes in the process, like having a massage in the middle of the living room.