May 1, 2018

Marriage and Opposite-Sex Friendships

Vice President Mike Pence has been publicly mocked for following what is known as the Billy Graham Rule. The basis of the rule is simple – never be alone with a woman who is not your wife. Typically, these criticisms come from people outside Christian circles. However, there’s a growing trend among evangelicals for views to evolve regarding marriage and opposite-sex friendships.

This week, Christianity Today published an article about the Billy Graham Rule, stating, “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.”

There seem to be two camps on this issue. Like the author of the CT article, there are those who think sensible guidelines will protect opposite-sex friendships from immorality. Then there are those who see the inherent risks involved. After reading the CT article, Pastor Jack Graham of Prestonwood Baptist Church tweeted, “This is very naïve and beyond it very dangerous advice. Ask thousands and thousands who played fast and loose with sensible guidelines to protect marriages.” I agree.

The core issue of the Billy Graham Rule isn’t actually women at all; it’s personal accountability for men and women alike. Not only do I follow the Billy Graham Rule, so do my wife and members of my staff. It’s not about mistrust. Accountability gives protection. It only takes one hint of impropriety to put your marriage, your testimony, and your ministry at risk.

Billy Graham’s rule about his marriage is just one part of his Modesto Manifesto. It was designed for accountability across his ministry, especially regarding money, morality, and power. And it worked. He stood firm as peers suffered public disgrace because of personal misconduct. Because he protected himself, Dr. Graham could stay focused and effective. After his death, Christianity Today published a Billy Graham memorial issue. One article states, “In six decades of ministry, no one ever leveled a serious accusation of misconduct against him.”

Ironically, this week’s edition of CT also reports, “Last week, (Bill) Hybels retired six months early after 40 years as leader of Willow Creek, calling recent allegations against him a distraction for the megachurch and its ministries.” Hybels maintains his innocence but said, “I placed myself in situations that would have been far wiser to avoid. I was naïve about the dynamics those situations created. I’m sorry for the lack of wisdom on my part. I commit to never putting myself in similar situations again.” One church elder said, “We agree, and now recognize that we didn’t hold him accountable to specific boundaries.” Just stop and soak that in for a moment. A lack of accountability cut his ministry short, became a distraction for the church, and is now a permanent footnote on his life.

Not even Billy Graham considered himself above the need for personal guardrails. Regarding Dr. Graham, CT goes on to say, “He did seem to have ‘a passion for the pure,’ but never for a minute did he imagine that he, or anyone else, was beyond corruption. And that is the secret of his ability to avoid public scandal. No one who listened to Graham warn against succumbing to the pleasures of the flesh would imagine that he derived his information solely from data. Just as he had the wisdom to put others in charge of the purse, he clearly understood that his best strategy for avoiding sexual temptation was to keep himself out of its path.”

So how do we put this knowledge to practical use? First, this doesn’t mean we can’t have friends of the opposite-sex. I’m blessed to know many godly women, both personally and professionally. Maintaining those friendships without being alone has never been difficult, nor has it lessoned their impact on my life.

Secondly, Scripture calls believers to hold one another accountable. This has to be intentional. I meet regularly with a small group of men who are close friends. We have the freedom to bring up any issue that might put our marriages, reputations, or ministries at risk. Followers of Christ should recognize the value in that kind of friendship.

Finally, as believers we band together in local churches bodies and para-church organizations. If our top priority is reaching the world for Christ, then we’ll individually protect our testimonies and our reputations. It’s foolish for members of Christian organizations to behave in any way that would risk their credibility. Remember, one mis-step or one plausible accusation can ruin the reputation of your church, mission organization, or Christian school.

If you are a church leader and your pastor doesn’t have an accountability system, then he and your church are at risk. As a pastor or the head of a Christian organization, if any person under your leadership meets alone with anyone of the opposite-sex, then he or she and your ministry are at risk. If you are married and you are not employing the Billy Graham Rule, then I truly believe you are putting your marriage at risk.

As for me, I recognize that my heart has the same capacity for sin as others who have lost their marriages or ministries in a moral fall. So I will go to whatever lengths necessary to protect my ability to effectively share the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The risks are just too high to do anything else.