The Billy Graham Rule and Its Inadvertent Degradation of Women
If you grew up in an evangelical setting, you must have heard of white American globe-trotting evangelist Billy Graham. If you are unchurched but alive today, chances are, you’ve heard of Billy Graham. Graham was for the white American evangelical world what Elvis Presley was for white American Rock n Roll in the 50s. A myth, a legend, a star, and also, many forget, human.
Billy Graham traveled the world over speaking about the restorative and redemptive work of Jesus Christ and preaching a gospel of personal transformation. You too, he would say, can be born again. Your sins will be forgiven if you will accept Jesus into your heart.
“Come as you are.” Was quite the famous line in his crusade. Always a welcoming environment for people seeking change, seeking religious reformation.
A very personal gospel message that beckoned the individual to turn her life over to Christ for eternal security and reconciliation between the person and God.
Graham’s sermons were beautiful and if you listen to them today you’ll find they are just as convincing and powerful as they were then. If the man had anything he had conviction.
Thankfully, I am not here to discuss Graham’s gospel preaching or his evangelistic efforts. For that, the man deserves credit because his ministry has produced a plethora of testimonies, many of which, we shall only understand and rejoice over in Glory.
But I am here to discuss how white American culture, more so, how white American 1950s and 1960s culture and its understanding of gender norms and expectations formed a set of social rules then that impact us in the evangelical sphere to this day — negatively so. Around the same time, Billy Graham and his team, assisted by Cliff Barrows, George Beverly Shea, and Grady Wilson, met in Modesto, California to develop a ministry morals standard for themselves and other evangelists and leaders in their vocation. This was put together to reduce the number of scandals in the evangelical world and produce an inner and outer appearance of moral rectitude, which had been missing or compromised by felled religious leaders of the day.
Now, considering the acceleration of Christian circle scandals that riddled the news, it seemed appropriate for a group of believers to come together with a better understanding of what is required of them in modern times throughout their ministerial undertakings and personal responsibilities. And in this meeting, the men came up with four ideas or metrics by which to judge the health of their ethics and ministry.
The Modesto Manifesto
The first was financial transparency in an age of Christian greed; the second, sexual purity in an age of sexual liberation; the third, ecumenical efforts in an age of fundamentalist tribalism; and the fourth, the accuracy of events, numbers, and credentials in an age of duplicity, lying, and dishonesty for popularity’s sake.
Again, these are honorable efforts put forth by the group to make sure that their ministries, and their personal lives, were above scrutiny, as the Bible demands of followers of Christ.
But sometimes, not always, sometimes, certain corrections, without nuance or clarification, when they generalize and offer little explanation as to how those corrections were formed over cultural and traditional, national and racial lines, can become over-corrections, thus, creating even more problems for those who adhere to them.
The second rule in Graham’s Modesto Manifesto deals with sexual morality, or rather, one that grapples with the temptation of sexual immorality. It is the rule that this entire segment became known for, a rule Billy Graham followed to the very end, if it was up to him, while he was in control of his mind. This rule would be followed by numerous evangelical leaders and ultimately make national headlines again when Donald Trump’s vice president, Mike Pence, would celebrate it from the White House.
“We all knew of evangelists who had fallen into immorality while separated from their families by travel. We pledged among ourselves to avoid any situation that would have even the appearance of compromise or suspicion. From that day on, I did not travel, meet or eat alone with a woman other than my wife. We determined that the Apostle Paul’s mandate to the young pastor Timothy would be ours as well: “Flee … youthful lusts” (2 Timothy 1:22, KJV).”
It’s interesting to note that from that day forward, Graham did not travel, meet, nor did he, according to him, eat alone with a woman other than his wife ever again. This is revealing, one, because of the level of commitment, it takes a man to avoid being alone in a room with someone of the opposite sex, whose sex estimates well over three billion people on the planet. There being three billion of anything is cause enough for awareness, but isolation and separation? Impossible.
Graham’s second rule, where a man is not to be alone with a woman other than his wife, is ripe with condemnation without even knowing it.
One, this rule generalizes women as sexual deviants who, left alone with a man in a room, no matter the room or the setting, work, campaign trail, lunch meeting, or as a nurse in a doctor’s office, will, without that man’s consent, ravage him. This notion is asinine because it portrays women as agents lacking self-control, moved by licentious desires, unashamedly promiscuous, according to those who adhere to Graham’s line of reasoning.
Women are not vessels of unrestrained lusts. Women are entirely in control of their thoughts, actions, compulsions, and desires. They’re not animalistic brutes who descend to sensual madness at the opportunity of being alone in a room with a member of the opposite sex.
What a farce.
Two, this rule, again, places the blame on women. This is age-old escapist nonsense men have plagued women with for centuries, if not millennia. If something does occur between the two individuals who are left alone in a room, it must have been the woman’s fault. As the only one able to consent or resist — because men are unable to restrain their boyish desires — if they fail to scream out for help or fail to stop things from progressing, they are solely at fault.
Once the ministry leader’s sexual scandal makes the airwaves, he’ll peg the woman as a “seductress” whose “promiscuous” advances were too powerful for him to resist. Resembling the work of a “she-devil” she entrapped him, grabbing him by the “unmentionable,” and from there, it was all history. And that’s why we are taught to forgive the man because he’s the victim here, his assailant, a 110 lbs sex witch that caught him alone in the lunchroom and proceeded to violate him while he sipped his tea and read his Bible.
It’s nonsense. I’m using sarcasm and humor here because blaming women for men’s inability to control themselves is a sad and resilient virus that refuses to die in our culture. So to cope, I make light of a grave and grievous situation.
Three, a man ought to be in control of his moral compass. In control of his faculties. If a man, especially a man of the cloth, cannot control himself when alone with a member of the opposite sex, then, by God, he ought not to be in ministry. He should not be in a position of influence, power, or authority ever again. He’s a predator in the making.
I cannot imagine Jesus, meeting the Samaritan woman at the well and thinking to himself, “Maybe I should wait for my apostles to get back before conversing with this woman. I mean, she might trip on that bucket l and land in my arms, where we kiss, romance, wed, make dozens of babies, until, the next woman I meet at the well comes around and trips on something else.”
That’s so stupid. No, I’m not sorry.
Jesus met with that woman alone because He had integrity, even if, EVEN IF she did not, He would have remained integral. And I’m not suggesting she was a sexual deviant or a saint, she could have been one or the other, it would not have changed Jesus’ posture toward her while the two sat and conversed by the well about faith, God, life, water, worship, and relationships. Jesus upheld His part of the ethical bargain, independent of the same being reciprocated or not.
Therefore… therefore… there… fore…
As I conversed with a friend via Instagram about the Billy Graham Rule, specifically rule number two, we got into discussing that the rule would have been more helpful and wise if it required individual integrity over distanced suspicion and isolation.
You see, when someone is integral, they’re complete, whole, satisfied, undivided in their attentiveness to honoring people made in the Image of God. They’re honoring, just, and kind, in the face of someone else’s vulnerability.
Dr. Diane Langberg, a psychologist and author, wrote an eye-opening book, Redeeming Power: Understanding Authority and Abuse in the Church. In this book, she mentions a question she lays before the countless ministers she has counseled over the years. And I’ll paraphrase her quandary.
“If you, being a pastor, are counseling a woman who is experiencing a great deal of trouble in life and in the middle of a counseling session she stands, begins to undress, is nude and vulnerable before you, and the two of you are alone, where does your mind go? Where does your heart go?”
The question, I admit, is answered in two different places.
One, we answer this question publicly and openly, “I would tell her to dress up and get out of my office! That temptress! Damn her!”
The other, we answer in our hearts, in the place no one but us and God can see, and God knows what our answers tend to be. Too often, we have read reports, cover-ups, and lawsuits concerning what happens in these situations. Men in power, men with influence, men with authority, instead of portraying the likeness of Christ in the presence of the vulnerable, become the devil, ravaging and devouring people looking for help.
“Come to me,” Says the morally complicit pastor counseling the vulnerable woman. “And I will give you rest. But keep this between the two of us or else…”
So we must admit that Billy Graham’s Rule is problematic. It’s an over-correction, not a solution. It’s an escape, not a confrontation. It displaces blame, shifts blame, and generalizes women as sexual deviants, who, as I said earlier, given the opportunity, according to Graham’s rule, will devour men whenever alone with them.
There is, of course, wisdom in not placing oneself in a situation where, without a doubt, it seems suspicious.
Houston, We Have A Liquor Problem
Hillsong’s main pastor, Brian Houston, has been caught in hot water because he attended a meeting of some sort and after this meeting, he went for drinks and after drinking himself nearly blind, he went up to his hotel room for the night. Once there, he either misplaced his room keycard or was unable to properly use the keycard he had in hand to access his room. Under this fog of inebriation, Houston proceeds to a church colleague’s room, a woman, knocks on her door and then enters. There they remain alone for more than forty minutes. Both denied anything happened. And we have no evidence of anything having happened, because, no evidence was ever produced. Nor has the woman admitted or come forward with the fact that the two engaged in anything even remotely sexual.
But this scene, of course, is the extreme any married AND single person has to avoid because it does create an aura of suspicion. I mean, considering our current hook-up culture and the history of evangelical sex scandals, Houston should have known better. It is without a doubt that it was possible, in those forty minutes, that one’s moral compass could have wavered, their ability to resist temptation, dissipated, and there, a sexual act or several, could have taken place. And the truth, no one knows.
Brian admitted to the idiocy of his choices that night, having drunk too much, and then mixing sleeping or anxiety pills with his liquor, before proceeding to his coworkers’ hotel room. The two of them alone. His wife was nowhere in sight.
The curiosity here, and I’m being frank, not critical, even if I do end up sounding critical, for that I apologize, because there are certain things I do not understand and that’s fine because my intelligence is limited and finite. But here’s the thing, why blame moral failings on alcohol, drugs, anxiety, mental illness, and the opportunity of that woman being there.
Listen, Dr. Wade Mullen goes into detail on how men (and women, sometimes) use certain tactics to divest themselves of responsibility once they commit a predatory crime. In his book, Something’s Not Right: Decoding the Hidden Tactics of Abuse-And Freeing Yourself from Its Power, he offers insight into why abusers, predators, malcontent power-hungry, sex-crazed, and responsibility-for-wrongs-committed-averse leaders give us such excuses.
“Abusers and abusive organizations may concede the basic reality of the wrong-”Yes, this happened”-but quickly add statements that either soften their responsibility or promote their integrity: “We value all people and only want what is best for everyone involved.” If these concessions do their job, the accused will stay in power, stay in favor with the community, and stay far from the shame their actions deserve.”
And listen, I’m not here to say that people are beyond redemption and reconciliation, but we must better understand what those things mean when people fail, morally, I mean.
One, take responsibility for your failings, instead of, say, blaming some agent or narcotic. Or worse, blaming your victim.
Here’s a healthy, albeit imperfect example I’ve come up with in my mind:
“Listen, everyone, I was sexually repressed or sexually uncontrolled and I enticed my coworker (or classmate, students, etc), under the guise of trust, bypassing the reality of our power-dynamic relationship, and I engaged in what I now understand as a non-consensual act with her. I am now resigning from my position to seek counsel, professional counsel, and I do not look forward to returning to leadership, but to fellowship, in God’s time. I’m sorry to all, and most all, I apologize to the victim of my uncontrolled passions. You did nothing to deserve this. It was my fault.”
Now, that sounds dreamy, almost, to consider someone admitting to the reality of their intentions and the gravity of their actions with such brevity and transparency, and that would do wonders for us instead of covering our mistakes over with alcohol, Ambien, seductresses, etc.
Graham’s Rule would and could be revised to state:
“No matter what situation you are in and who you are with, for however long, you must reflect the character of Christ in that environment. If the person you are with fails to live up to Christ’s calling, more so, His admonishments on sexual ethics, that is not an excuse, nor a vote of confidence, for you to forego your integrity. In every situation, interaction, relationship, friendship, and meeting, whomever you are with, man, woman, or child, reflect Jesus.”
That seems more prudent. More wholesome. That way, whenever someone does step out of line, should they ever, it will not be a woman’s fault or society’s healthy understanding of social interactions’ fault.
Every woman we meet, no matter the situation, deserves to see Christ reflected in us. And this does not mean we proselytize or evangelize every woman we meet, say, a woman stopping by a vending machine for grape soda only to have Mr. Jenkins show up to ask her if she has sipped from the fountain of life yet or not.
No. That’s creepy.
It means we reflect Christ’s integrity in every interaction. We befriend, we respect, we listen, we learn, and we… well… we act like normal people. There’s no need to sexualize everything in the world, conversations with co-workers, colleagues, classmates, and strangers of the opposite sex.
If you’re afraid that any or most interactions with a member of the opposite sex will devolve into a sexual act, then, my friend, the issue here is within your heart, not with socially acceptable interactions and meetings between two people of the opposite sex.
You need professional counseling and spiritual advice to help you determine why you see women (or men) as sexual objects to be perverted and abused by you. From there, professionals will guide you further toward recovery.
And we must, at all costs, as Dr. Diane Langberg states, combat the notion that we must return flawed characters to power. We must strive and strain to hold wrongs and sins accountable in hopes of restoring that person to fellowship, not power.
We’re often plagued by this lust for power and results that once our most talented advocate succumbs to a scandal we want nothing more than to see them forgiven, celebrated, and restored to their position of mass production. It’s the temptation of the evangelical industrial complex.
But that is unbiblical and to be honest, it fails to bring that person to a state of true repentance and change. They’re just re-platformed and given a new license through which they will abuse and tarnish the sheep again.
In all, allow Christ to be in your heart and mind when with friends, acquaintances, and strangers. Do not, under any circumstance, use that situation as an excuse to compromise your morals, ethics, and faith, for the sake of fleeting passions, only to then blame a substance or a woman for your very personal and spiritually compromised decisions.
“Don’t rebuke an older man, but exhort him as a father, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and the younger women as sisters with all purity.” 1 Timothy 5:1–2
Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves; ensure justice for those being crushed. — Proverbs 31:8 NLT
Originally published at http://olivettheory.com on March 22, 2022.