Mission Lab 2018

Prudence & Liberty: What the ‘Billy Graham rule’ outrage misunderstands

April 27th, 2017 / By: Gary Ledbetter | Editor in Chief / comments

Vice President Mike Pence is not the only man to use the “Billy Graham” rule to safeguard his marriage. Named for the famous evangelist, the rule is based on Graham’s determination, early in his ministry, to avoid being alone with any woman who was not his wife. At SBTC, our version of that entails the “rule of three.” When we travel or meet with a co-worker of the other sex, we ensure that there is a third person with us to avoid the appearance of impropriety. Our offices all have windows in the doors to enable confidential meetings that do not compromise the reputation of any party. It is sometimes inconvenient and the temptation to “cut this corner, just this once” arises for practical reasons. But we don’t do that. We are committed to guard our own marriages, as well as those of our co-workers.

Outsiders find the effort to avoid potentially compromising situations quaint, threatening and sexist. One absurd comment suggested that Pence is some kind of predator who fears the beast within. Another hysteric said that those who keep this rule fear or objectify women. Let’s rake those extremes aside. There is still a theme, carried even by those within our fellowship, that acknowledging the God-given differences between men and women in this way is demeaning and legalistic. One evangelical writer says that men who strictly avoid private meetings with female co-workers are guilty of a vice—the lack of moral character. 

I have a general and a specific concern here. Specifically, the argument that this is a rule more fit for the 1960s when women were less equal in our society—that this practice holds women down—is beside the point. The essential nature of men and women has not changed since the fall of Adam and Eve, much less over the past 50 years, but the sexualization of our culture has only hastened. Divorce rates are higher than in 1960. Why should we pretend to be safe from temptation or moral failure for the sake of social “progress”? Mike Pence and I should not be required to disrespect our marriages in order to hold a job. If men and women are different in some essential ways, it is not progress to behave as if they are not different. That is only one blind absurdity in the decision to place women in military combat roles. If men and women are equal before God, and we are; and if men and women are equal before U.S. law, and we are; it still does not follow that we are indistinguishable from one another. That is true in church life, political life, academic life and business life. Institutions that “move beyond” the sensibilities of a hundred generations are reaping the whirlwind in our day.  

Generally, my concern is that my fellow believers will feel liberated from prudence for the sake of a social value. Consider the use of beverage alcohol as a parallel example of the prudence and liberty discussion. I don’t believe the Bible demands total abstinence from beverage alcohol for believers. But we are called to temperance, humility and a willingness to give up personal rights for the sake of the gospel. I have heard legalistic messages against the use of beverage alcohol, but I have also seen some who seem mindless of the “Corinthian Principle” (see 1 Corinthians 8-10) and insistent that all mature believers should enjoy a craft beer with the Bible study group. In a society where so many violent acts and deadly accidents feature alcohol as an aggravator, I teach and have taught that abstinence is a safety rail between ourselves and intemperance—the way of the wise. I may be missing something good, but I am certainly missing something bad. It’s fine if you call me the weaker brother in this scenario; I’ve heard that before.  

Similarly, the Billy Graham rule is not a specific demand of Scripture. Scripture does not offer us a “go and do likewise” or a “thou shalt not” on this subject. It is a safety rail for those of us who discern the times as very dangerous for men and women desiring godly relationships. Pence’s critics, if desirous of the same things, are too optimistic about the nature of mankind. The risks are greater than the reward in thinking we have evolved beyond the temptation of marital infidelity. Perhaps we are the weaker brothers. Or maybe we are just more aware of our weakness. 

It is wrong to judge the virtue of Billy Graham’s disciples whose pursuit of integrity leads them to avoid situations that tempt. Nearly everyone who has railed against the vice president in recent days has at one time removed something from the pantry to avoid eating it or told the waiter to remove the bread from the table. Is this poor character? If you are a sober alcoholic, do you socialize in bars to display your moral strength, or do you run for your life, as Joseph did from Potiphar’s wife? That’s sometimes what prudence looks like. Those who scoff at those who run misunderstand liberty as well as prudence in a dangerous time.