With recent allegations of indiscretion against a prominent megachurch pastor, some Christian leaders have doubled down on the so-called Billy Graham Rule, which dictates that men and women should never meet alone.
Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary president Danny Akin tweeted, “A valuable lesson we all can learn from this tragic situation: follow the @BillyGraham rule. If you are married, never be alone with someone of the opposite sex who is not your spouse. Never!”
This rule, in its most pristine form, renders male-female friendships impossible. However unintentionally, it communicates to women that they are fundamentally dangerous. And it bars men from meaningful mentorship or pastoral care of women and vice-versa.
I, for one, give thanks for the many men I know who broke the Billy Graham Rule.
My life has been enriched by male friends, mentors, coworkers, and collaborators. My husband has female friends as well and, for that, I am glad. And my husband and I are priests so we need to meet with the opposite sex often to do our job well. (But even if we weren’t, we’d likely need to meet with the opposite sex to do any job well).
Yet, I understand the motivation behind the Billy Graham Rule: a healthy and honest fear of falling into adultery, a sin as massively destructive as it is common. (The rule itself draws from Graham’s “Modesto Manifesto,” a broader set of guidelines the evangelist used to safeguard his ministry against scandal.)
One could argue the Billy Graham Rule is as natural as buckling our seatbelt in our car. It is actually wise to take measures to protect ourselves from things that can destroy us, whether it be a vehicular fatality or a one-night stand. It is not foolish or sexist to know your weakness and to flee temptation.
Yet, I’d submit that the Billy Graham Rule is less like buckling a seatbelt and more akin to refusing to share the road with anyone else (and then claiming that’s the only truly safe way to drive).
It shuts down relationships to protect oneself from the wreckage of sin and puts the burden of that primarily on others—namely on women, who are less welcome in male spaces. (Not to mention the confusion it poses for those who are same-sex attracted: Are they supposed to avoid friendships with either sex to ward off all possible temptation?)
So how do we deal with the inherent tension of wanting to preserve appropriate male-female relationships and also wanting to avoid sin and impropriety in those relationships? How do men and women cultivate self-control, trustworthiness, and transparency and take up practices that nudge them toward healthy relationships and boundaries?
Between legalism and license lies the messier space of wisdom and cultivation of virtue. It is in that space where we—as individuals and in relationships—flourish. People need meaningful relationships with members of the opposite sex, and they need them to be safe, honoring, and full of integrity.
Here, I’ll offer some practices that my husband and I have taken up together. They fall in the realm of wisdom and prudence, not iron-clad law, not one-size-fits-all. This is in no way a rule, much less an edict from on high. Most of these practices developed organically. (We didn’t even know they were “our practices,” until I asked my husband last week, “Hey, what are the things we do to try to exercise wisdom in opposite-sex relationships?”)
The point of these practices is not only to guard against adultery but to build intimacy and trust in our marriage. These are part of the warp and woof of trying to love both each other and our community together:
1. We are careful about staying close to each other and talking a lot. (If we are legalists about anything on this list, it’s having frequent date nights—and that is a pretty fun thing to be a legalist about.) On date nights, we intentionally share how we are doing and what’s happening in our hearts.
2. We have no secrets. Period. World without end. Amen. Our kids know this mantra and use it against us at Christmastime.
3. I know all his passwords and vice-versa. We have no privacy. Privacy is overrated.
4. We rarely hang out with opposite-sex friends alone at night (say, after 9 or 10 p.m.) and never at our house or a hotel room. The only reason you need an opposite-sex buddy in a hotel room is if you need them to perform emergency CPR and even then maybe just call 911. If you must, keep the door open.
5. We have close friends of the opposite sex, but no one as close as our spouse. Which is to say ...
6. We don’t tell someone of the opposite sex something we haven’t told our spouse first.
7. He knows every time I hang out with someone of the opposite sex and vice-versa. And we always check in or text after these meetings. (To be clear, he doesn’t call me every time he walks into a female coworker’s office or talk with me before he sets up a lunch meeting with a friend or takes our kids to the park for a playdate with a female neighbor, but we text and call a lot throughout the day and generally know what the other is doing. We discuss plans and tell each other about our day and what we did).
8. If I’m hanging out with a male friend, my husband is always invited. Always. (And vice-versa). He doesn’t always come—in fact, because we have small kids and would have to get a babysitter, 90 percent of the time he does not come, but he could if he wanted to. And, if I’m hanging out with a man, his wife is always invited. Always. The more the merrier.
9. The women he hangs out with are usually also my friends and the men I hang out with are his. Once, when I was out of town, he went over to my friend Andrea’s house after she had her fourth baby and did her dishes and swept her floor. To which I—and Andrea’s husband, who was at work—said: “Well done!” At times, especially because I travel to write and speak, he does not know my male friends, but he knows about all of them (and I’m far more intentional about telling him beforehand if I meet one-on-one with a man when I’m traveling).
10. If ever there is even the faintest attraction to someone—even distant potential weirdness—we tell our spouse that day. This has happened once or twice in 14 years of marriage. In one case, telling broke the power of it, and we all stayed friends. This guideline raises some questions: Do you tell your spouse everytime you see a beautiful person with good hair or nice eyes? Isn’t it completely crushing if your spouse is ever even remotely attracted to anyone else on earth? No and, also, no.
One of the important things for adults to learn is that you can meet a member of the opposite sex and find him or her smart, funny, and even on some rational level know they are pretty or handsome, and not sexualize those feelings. In other words, my husband can find our coworker interesting and compassionate and not desire her sexually. These are healthy adult relationships.
There is a continuum of feelings that lead from meeting someone to having an affair. Stage 1 is finding someone cool and smart and attractive. Stage 2 is noticing that you slightly, for a few minutes even, like that person in a slightly sexual or romantic way. And it moves on through the stages until you destroy your marriage and/or someone else’s.
If we ever enter into stage 2 for even 10 minutes, we tell each other. For us, this is very rare but also not very alarming. We don’t let this fester. And, if needed, we set up more rigid boundaries around that person. If you are married for a while, it’s likely that at some point one of you may be at stage 2. You can talk about it and work through it. This, for us, has not been a big deal.
11. We never complain about our spouse to a friend of the opposite sex.
12. We try to be very aware of the emotional and marital health of the people we hang out with. If we sense someone is less stable emotionally, we put up clearer and stricter boundaries. This goes for opposite and same-sex friends.
13. If we are alone with a member of the opposite sex, we never discuss sex or our sex life or say anyone or anything is “sexy.” This is an obvious one, right?
14. We pray for our marriage. One practice we picked up from an older couple is that if ever we hear about a couple we know divorcing, we stop and pray for them and also for our marriage. We have close friends, a small group, accountability, and spiritual directors and need God’s constant mercy. And we are both huge proponents of counseling. Lots of it. As often as possible.
15. If a situation arises where we need to make some weird exception to these rules, we flex. We talk about it openly and ask permission from the other. (Did I mention that we talk a lot?)
Still, none of these practices make our marriage “affair-proof.” There are no practices or rules or even iron-clad laws that are a silver bullet for sin. I am not above an affair; I think the minute I think I am, I’m in big trouble. But over the years, we’ve built up trust. I am grateful for that. I know it can go differently, and, if it did, we may have to adopt different practices.
I also recognize that there are some men or women who, due to pornography or sexual addiction or particular patterns of weakness, may not be able to have relationships with the opposite sex. These men and women should admit that to themselves and their community honestly and seek help. But we must all recognize that those are unique boundaries for a particular area of unhealth (like alcoholics wisely avoiding bars) and not a generally applicable principle that assumes that women are an inherent threat to all men.
The options are not the Billy Graham Rule or no-holds-barred. You can have healthy friendships and work relationships with the opposite sex and not be an idiot.
Between legalism and license, we may find some good friends or help someone or change a life, and we may become better wives or husbands and grow in virtue, by God’s grace alone.
Tish Harrison Warren is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America, serving at Church of the Ascension Pittsburgh, and the author of Liturgy of the Ordinary.
Speaking Out is Christianity Today’s guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the magazine.