In recent days, there has been much made of the so-called “Billy Graham Rule,” as Vice President Pence announced he is a supporter and practitioner of it.
Graham, the seemingly timeless evangelist, swore in 1948 — along with his ministry team — never to eat, meet or travel alone with a woman other than his dear wife. This was meant to be a safeguard for his marriage, ministry, and to give no suspicion of anything inappropriate.
For more than 60 years, Graham has never been rumored in any sexual scandal. Sadly and unfortunately, the Christian scene is shook regularly, it seems, by scandals involving pastors, staff and other ministry workers that center on unbecoming sexual relationships and those under their watch care.
Proverbs 6:27 says:
Can a man carry fire next to his chest and his clothes not get burned?
The meaning, of course, is self-evident. The more one dabbles with fire, the greater the odds of falling victim to it. And so it is with (sexual) temptation. To court temptation is to court getting burned. Christians must, therefore, make every effort possible to avoid its burning flames—while also avoiding legalism and Pharisee-like responses.
So are those who follow this wise? Is it prudish?
Here are at least six biblical takeaways from this discussion:
1. Those who know sex is a precious and sacred gift know that there must be boundaries to protect and hallow it.
Throughout the Bible, one of the distinguishing characteristics of God’s people is that they view sex and sexual temptation differently. God guards sex for our good (1 Thess. 4:1-7). No one drives through the twists of the Rockies and curses God for the guardrails. Truthfully, there’s much sexual sin among us Christians. It needs to be confessed, poured out, vomited out, and protected against. Then gracious healing can begin.
This isn’t saying that everyone who follows the “Graham Rule” is a sexual opportunist or legalist. Or that women—in the case of this discussion—are seducers or tempters.
(And, yes, this rule itself isn’t quoted chapter and verse in the Scripture. Jesus himself met with the woman at the well in public — John 4. Jesus was tempted as we are yet without sin — Heb. 4:15; 1 Pet. 2:21-23. Our desires, unlike His, are fallen, but like Him, we can always resist—and must!)
Let’s remember, though, that all wise, good, and Christ-honoring boundaries aren’t for keeping people out but for building bridges for proper care. Biblical doctrine defines—and gives boundaries to—Christ-followers in practical matters such as guarding the integrity of a Christian witness, how to run a church, live out a marriage, raise kids, or represent other institutions or groups.
2. The life of a Christian is a life of self-mistrust.
A Christian would do well to trust more in Jesus’ resolve to save him or her completely than in his or her resolve to do better. What the “Billy Graham Rule” advocates isn’t a mistrust of women, necessarily. We don’t seek to abuse women. We protect them—like our Savior did (John 8:1-11).
Rather, the closer I come to the biblical Gospel and cross, the more acutely aware I am that I can’t trust myself. Like tons of godly men, Billy Graham distrusted himself, which leads us to the practical wisdom behind establishing such a self-governing rule. We only completely clench the Gospel when we get, as Paul did, that we are the worst sinner we know (1 Tim. 1:15), and we recognize that we must guard against sin in personal, marital and professional lives.
No temptation is beyond God’s provision (1 Cor. 10:13), and no sin is beyond His redemption (Isa. 1:18). The real power of a temptation is not the thing in itself, but the desire inside me (“his own desire,” Ja. 1:14).
Christians would do well to heed Heidelberg Q/A 112: “I should do what I can to guard and advance my neighbor’s good name.”
3. The Bible’s assessment of human nature is extremely grim (Psa. 14:1-3; 53:1-3; Rom. 3:9-18), and we keep proving it and must protect against it.
This is where the great chasm is between those who adhere to the rule and those who don’t. Interestingly, William Lyon Phelps, professor at Yale, said wisely: “You can learn more about human nature by reading the Bible than by living in New York.”
We have freedom (as believers), but we don’t have absolute freedom. Our will is constricted by our sin nature. Sin affects every part of us and our world. It’s extremely complex and convoluted. Only Christ’s return will effectively untangle and vanquish it.
A sign you’re growing in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ: You guard confidences, protect reputations, and know how to graciously refuse gossip. The best way to “guard our hearts” (Pro. 4:23) isn’t to isolate it from evil, but to fill it as jam-packed as possible with Jesus. And the Spirit provides us with all necessary weapons and armor, not simply to stand guard, but to assault Satan’s kingdom.
4. Gathered from Scripture, there are four tiers of authority over sexuality: God, the church, the marital institution itself, and our spouse.
I hate how women are mistreated in this wretched world. But there is one woman I can make sure is treated well. If you are a married man, there’s no greater measure of your “success” than to love one woman well the rest of your life and do everything to protect that relationship. That’s what our Lord expects of us!
And that is the essence of following this rule. The church needs far fewer men who cower in the face of sexual temptation—and to prevent it head-on.
“We must not indulge in sexual immorality… We must not put Christ to the test” (1 Cor. 10:8-9). Sexuality is about Christ. He thinks so. In this world, the measure of our sanctification is the godliness of our sexuality. The front line of the battle.
5. You may have to do some things that are hugely inconvenient to fight sexual sin, but it will not be as inconvenient as hell (Matt. 5:29).
What does “You shall not commit adultery” (Exo. 20:14) say about God? He values our sexuality (more than we do). Even that conveys His Gospel.
Any spouse who says, “I really wish you would spend more time with the opposite sex apart from me” has a skewed view of God-honoring marriage.
We can’t say our sexuality is a private affair and God has no right to impede. God cares even about our sexuality (Leviticus 18). The church is here to re-enchant marriage & sexuality and paint a bigger picture than the pagan sexual ethic and its boundaries. Of course, not in a Pharisaical way—but one that glorifies Christ and makes the Gospel clear.
6. As pressure mounts, let’s pray for grace not to exchange our birthright for the lentil porridge of popular opinion and cultural wisdom.
This is an important time to articulate a biblical theology of sexuality and marriage, while choosing to love those who disagree. Human nature is to demonize our opponent in an effort to defeat them. Christians and non-Christians alike are guilty. We need to stop it.
I have a sneaking suspicion that some Christians want some Christians with whom they disagree to fail and fall so that they’re proven right.
Pray for other Christians with whom you disagree, as if you were to spend an eternity with them feasting, dancing, embracing and worshiping. May we honor Jesus with our responses!
Lastly, let’s acknowledge the “elephant in the room”: This rule is wise, not mandatory. As one pastor friend said: “An important guideline—yes! A biblical law—no.” It’s a boundary that, though, if you want to safeguard your marriage, another person, your witness, etc., you need to have some boundaries. Scandals blacken the eye of the whole church and the glorious Christ we represent as ambassadors. We’d do well to pay attention rather than criticize this method. The church—and Christians in secular workplaces—could use more of this type of glittering character rather than the various scandals that have plagued the church and its congregants even recently
Remember that the heart and soul of real, wise Christianity is “a sincere and pure devotion to Christ” (2 Corinthians 11:3). It’s unimpressive by design. That’s the aim of the so-called “Billy Graham Rule”—even if some situations are hard or inconvenient or not possible.
Why make it easier than it is already for the enemy of our souls?