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Restoring the Church.

Opinion: The Scandal of Evangelical Christian Friendship

By Karen Swallow Prior
Friends in the mountains. (Photo by Buono Del Tesoro/Pixabay - Creative Commons)

A few years ago, at the end of a conference, I was asked to get my ride to the small regional airport a few minutes away about six hours before my flight.

Another female presenter had to be at the airport then, and the young man assigned to drive guests to the airport wasn’t allowed to drive alone with a woman. As a seminary student he was required to adhere to the Billy Graham Rule, which meant not being alone with a woman who is not his wife.

This rule was a practice developed by Billy Graham in his travels as a world-renowned revivalist. This rule has been widely adopted among evangelicals, most famously by former Vice President Mike Pence, but with varying interpretations and applications.

I think of him now and then, this brother in the Lord, (whose request I honored). I hope at some point in his training he received discipleship that would help him relate to his siblings in Christ in ways that are more biblical than Victorian, more Pauline than pornified and more Christ-like than cultural.

The other woman going to the airport that day was old enough to be the seminarian’s grandmother. I was old enough to be his mother. Both of us, according to Scripture, ought to have been treated as his sisters in Christ.

Even so, I understand the complexities and the competing concerns. Like all matters of Christian life and belief, getting this question right requires achievement of a delicate balance.

Technology has introduced increasingly intimate forms of connection: text messages, Facebook Messenger and Instagram DMs. These complications have been the source of recent controversies about contacts between men and women that make the Billy Graham Rule’s ban on sharing airspace somewhat moot.

On the one hand, Christians believe in and celebrate the createdness and goodness of our sexed bodies (and all that is inherent in being created male or female). To ignore this physical aspect of our being is to deny reality and slip toward Gnosticism.

On the other hand, Scripture instructs believers who are not married to each other to treat one another as brothers and sisters. This is a weighty command with serious moral implications: to treat a brother or sister as a potential sexual partner is, after all, to indulge a rather disordered desire.

Despite the challenge of this tension — that we are sexual beings who are also called as Christians to live as family members — Christians more than anyone else ought to have the most robust and healthiest understanding of friendship, including, or especially, those between men and women.

Indeed, the Bible models various kinds of close friendships between men and women. Jesus shared an intimate friendship with Mary and Martha, even staying with the sisters in their home and raising their brother Lazarus from the dead. Another Mary, Mary Magdalene, was so close to Jesus that she was there as a witness to his trial, his crucifixion and his resurrection. Later in church history, Priscilla and Aquila risked their lives for their dear friend and co-laborer for the gospel, Paul.

These are examples of friendship forged in the context of serving in ministry together. Such friendships are also repeatedly among those at the center of controversy and debate in recent days. Men and women serve together in the church in a variety of ways. Sometimes friendships naturally develop. The Bible makes clear that this is good and right.

Yet when friendships between men and women in the church are discouraged or viewed automatically with suspicion, this attitude, paradoxically, creates situations riper for sin and abuse. Cloaking what might otherwise be a normal, healthy, even casual friendship in the language of “ministry” saddles the relationship with baggage and incurs the risk of spiritual abuse. If people can’t just be friends, after all, then they have to define the relationship some other way.

Someone recently observed that maybe evangelicals have so much trouble with friendship between men and women because our view of marriage today is focused too much on sex and not enough on friendship.

I would suggest the opposite: The modern companionate model of marriage so emphasizes friendship that when a spouse inevitably fails to fulfill all of our friendship needs, and we seek fulfillment of those needs elsewhere, the resulting friendships are conflated with sexual relationship.

In other words, perhaps because we have overlapped marriage with friendship so much, we don’t know how to have opposite-sex friendships that aren’t inherently sexual. A spouse ought to be a friend, to be sure. But “friend” — even “best friend” — is a demotion from “husband” or “wife.”

Wide, varied friendships of varying depths and lifespans are healthy and good — and biblical. I have book friends, movie friends, theology friends, author friends, news junkie friends, funny meme sharing friends, childhood friends, social media friends, dog friends, “Wordle” friends and work friends, to name a few.

Some of these friends are men. Some are women. None of my friends share all of these interests. My husband shares some but not all of these interests.

All friendships require limits of various kinds, even same-sex friendships.

The Billy Graham rule is no help to those whose sin occurs in a homosexual liaison, after all. And while I’m at it, it doesn’t always take two to tango: How many strict advocates of the rule watch porn? Technology has introduced increasingly intimate forms of connection: text messages, Facebook Messenger and Instagram DMs. These complications have been the source of recent controversies about contacts between men and women that make the Billy Graham Rule’s ban on sharing airspace somewhat moot.

Opposite-sex friendships have particular calls for wisdom and guardrails. But so, too, familial relationships need healthy boundaries. This is true of all relationships, of which friendships are just one kind.

I appreciate my male colleagues who don’t refuse to discuss work or catch up over lunch or coffee because I’m a woman. I treasure the male friend who texts me nonstop book recommendations. I’m thankful for the ministry leader I met in the green room of a conference event who engaged me in extended conversation and didn’t end abruptly simply because everyone else had drifted out of the room. Rather he honored and respected me as a fellow human being.

I am grateful for the men who will pick me up or return me to the airport during a professional event without requiring a chaperone or initiating an awkward conversation about such normal circumstances.

Even apart from abiding friendship, men and women must live, work, worship and be together in many other ways. Thus, one-size-fits-all manmade rules cannot replace biblical wisdom, the common humanity God gave us or the scriptural injunction to treat one another as brothers and sisters.

This article was originally published by Religion News Service.

Karen Swallow Prior

Karen Swallow Prior, Ph. D., is Research Professor of English and Christianity and Culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and a columnist at Religion News Service. She lives in Virginia.



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38 Responses

  1. Karen — don’t be naïve. I always keep the Billy Graham rule and will continue to do so. It’s not because I don’t trust myself. It’s because I don’t trust others. Our culture has decided that any woman making an accusation is always right and the male is always in the wrong. In my ministry career, I’m not willing to put my entire reputation and future service to the Lord in the hands of a woman seeking private counsel, a ride or anything else. They can use my phone, use me car, leave me by the side of the road, but I’m not going to be found in a private space with them. I’ll eat out of a bag in my hotel room before I go to dinner with a woman. I used to be a school teacher and saw male teachers terrified that some female student would seek revenge on them for a bad grade or some disciplinary action. This is the way it is anymore and only a full fails to recognize that. I guess it’s the price of feminism and disgusting conduct of some ruthless men. But it is where we are at this point. So out here in the real world, smart men — evangelical or not — guard their reputations. Full stop.

    1. “Our culture has decided that any woman making an accusation is always right and the male is always in the wrong.”

      More like, “Way too many people assume (wrongly) the woman is lying and rally to protect the man.”

      It’s not “our culture” that “has decided” how often accusations are made truthfully. Look instead to some statistics.

      False accusations are very rare. The percentage of accusations that are shown to be unfounded are in the single digits. Hence the phrase “believe women.”

      However, more than the non-veracity of your statement, I’m concerned of its rhetorical effect, however unintended. Daniel, your sentence I quote above sews juuuust enough doubt that the next woman who brings forth an accusation (which is very painful and very difficult) will be at greater risk for being misbelieved. Which then compounds the pain… and this often happens at the hands of the church, who is called to show special care to the vulnerable! That’s not good.

      Especially if you’re a pastor, I recommend you read Credible: Why We Doubt Accusers and Protect Abusers, by Deborah Tuerkheimer. One of the most sobering and compelling books I’ve ever read.

    2. Daniel, I could not agree more with what you wrote. I am a pastor, had as always a busy weekend and read the article. Did not have the time to reply. When I read your response I realized you said exactly what I wanted to write. I loved what you said, “I’m not willing to put my entire reputation and future service…in the hands of a woman…” Thank you again for saying it so well.

  2. I certainly understand your point, especially if the “meetings” are in public, such as giving somebody a ride or have a coffee at Starbucks. But as somebody who has been a supervisor in the past, I get leery when I am alone in an office alone with somebody of the opposite sex with the door shut. Not because I am afraid something will happen or even because somebody else might think something had happened, but because I just don’t want to put myself into he-said-she-said situations.

  3. I couldn’t agree more Dr. Prior. Thanks for writing this article. With the Billy Graham rule it defines women as waiting to ensnare a man in a sexual way and men are unable to control their sexual urges. Both are unBiblical and are not the way redeemed Christians act.

    I did read once the beginning reason for the Billy Graham rule was his fear or the team’s fear is that a woman would be hiding in his motel room before he entered and then someone would take a picture. That makes some sense.

    The downfall of this rule is that women are left out of important conversations and men do not learn from women. For me, the current expression of this rule, means very few theological conversations with men. I think it hurts the Body of Christ, because it seems we have a women’s ministry and a men’s ministry. When can we work together to further the gospel of Christ.

    Please keep speaking truth and shining the light on this issue for women in the church, Dr. Prior.

  4. This is such a fascinating topic! I might add that unnecessary guilt can be a byproduct of such confusion. It can leave one feeling a sense of guilt or shame if they engage in a conversation with someone of the opposite gender, as if interaction of any kind is sinful or unholy.

  5. I appreciate this article; maybe the only thing I would toss into the discussion is that Billy Graham lived more in the public eye than most of us do. This rule may have spared him and those touched by his life’s work some stress or confusion stemming from unwarranted rumors. However, I was rather shocked to read how widely this rule has been applied (to all students at a seminary, etc.). For those of us not regularly dealing with the press or paparazzi, I’m grateful for the call that this opinion pieces gives to use wisdom and to “relate to [our] siblings in Christ in ways that are … more Pauline than pornified and more Christ-like than cultural.”

  6. I wonder if it would be acceptable if a Christian man and Christian woman meet and the woman wears a burka? I have always believed the use of the Billy Graham rule today is to exclude women from important ministerial duties. Just my 1/2 a cents worth.

  7. “Someone recently observed that maybe evangelicals have so much trouble with friendship between men and women because our view of marriage today is focused too much on sex and not enough on friendship.

    I would suggest the opposite: The modern companionate model of marriage so emphasizes friendship that when a spouse inevitably fails to fulfill all of our friendship needs, and we seek fulfillment of those needs elsewhere, the resulting friendships are conflated with sexual relationship.”

    I’m not sure about this. It seems as though Ms. Swallow Prior is saying that the only thing distinctive about your marriage relationship is having sex – gratifying a biological urge – and of course you’re going to seek real companionship with other people.

    1. I understand both sides.
      The church is so obsessed with sex that it often presents marriage as “and you finally get to have sex, and it’s ok with God!” I have heard young people get pressured to get married too fast – or to the wrong person – because of the over-emphasis on “maintaining their purity” with not enough focus on the other elements of building a healthy marriage, which includes friendship.

      I also think the church doesn’t do a good enough job of discussing emotional boundaries in friendship – especially friendship with those of the opposite sex. The Billy Graham rule is not the end all be all (and while I understand it, I don’t fully agree with it). I have seen marriages devasated over “not-so-innocent” friendships, in which one spouse had a very deep (and inappropriate) emotional ties to an outside person. But since they didn’t cross any physical lines, it was tough to disciple them through; heck, even within church circles, there is not agreement on what is or is not “emotional infidelity.”

      1. ** there is not agreement on what is or is not “emotional infidelity.” **

        It’s hard to see how there could be. The thing about adultery – a married person has sex with someone other than the spouse – is that it either happened or it didn’t based on known parameters.

        1. Cynthia –
          I assure you I have had a lot of conversations on this, and you hit the nail on the head: parameters seem to be unknown or vary quite vastly when it comes to emotional infidelity.
          Sexual infidelity is clear. We know what sex is. But ask for a definition of emotional infidelity and get ready for dozens of answers (at least).

          When is a friendship too close? Is confiding in someone other than your spouse ever ok?
          One person will say they are not comfortable with a person of the opposite sex comforting their spouse in time of loss; another has no problem.

          As for me, if I wouldn’t say or do it with my mate next to me, it crosses a line. But I’ve even been challenged on that.

          1. I think part of the problem is the term “emotional infidelity.” As you observe, the same action can be “emotional infidelity” to one spouse and “I’m glad they found someone other than me to talk to” to another.

            If either spouse feels neglected, I think that should be the focus, whether the reason is work, sports, a hobby, or friendships with people of any sex.

  8. Hmmmm…what about being alone with another male and them accusing you? Time to update to today’s culture…the reality is we do need to be wise but we also need to serve believing the Lord will protect us. Being alone with a man or woman nowadays…it really doesn’t matter…The BG rule is so outdated it is now completely naive IMHO. I pastored a church that at the beginning was 90% women…we prayed families and men into the church but if I adhered to the 70’s and 80’s culture that church would have been buried. ????

    1. Further clarification: I had accountability like crazy! My office admin, ministry admin, wife and board knew who I was meeting with and when. I had them calling me and popping into my office purposefully. It’s when people hide meetings and who they are with that red flags should shoot high into the air.

  9. I do ‘get’ the point of the article, as represented by the writer. Yet, I also see that Billy Grahams rule seemed to work well for him (his purposes). If we are frequenters of this site – we could all name half a dozen famous named preachers, who now likely wish they had used the ultra strict ‘Billy Graham rule’.

    you know how I really feel about all of this subject? Its complicated, but best expressed in this (actual) prayer:
    “O Lord, you know how dysfunctional and messed up I am. Please help me not to cause undue harm to others, while allowing me to express Your real love to them, as we should. Your empowerment of grace is what I need to get through this messy life. Please correct me early and often, so I am teachable and able to see the Truth in my deceptions. I ask to be humble before You. Thank you for all Your help! amen”

    I am so looking forward to leaving this place (earth), because I am nearly sure we wont have these issues in the hereafter. But, God himself is in charge of ‘promoting’ us, as we have work to do here, and He asks us to be responsible and loving and obedient. please comment if you have anything to add.

    1. Thank you for a perfect response. Seems to me that Paul nailed (excuse the pun) this one: Romans 14. I am to messed up to try and define another’s walk with our glorious LORD JESUS.

  10. To some extent, this difference of opinion is generational. I was born in 1961. My mother was born in 1936. She could not understand how I could maintain friendships with my male friends even while dating another male monogamously, and she routinely asked me if (a) my boyfriend knew about this and (b) if he was okay with it (both answers were yes).

    That being said, apart from the generational divide, Billy Graham wisely implemented this rule as a pastor to millions. As a pastor, he knew it was important to avoid scandal and the appearance of impropriety so as not to cause other believers to stumble or to cause them to not come to faith because of the hypocrisy of the shepherd.

    I admire traditionalists who feel that keeping this rule is a good guardrail. But a guardrail is only that. It doesn’t stop someone from deliberately jumping off the road.

    The truth is, sexual sin doesn’t “just happen”. People behave their way into it with a thousand small steps and justifications until they are well on the path. And it all starts with thoughts, intentions and finally small actions. Perhaps teachings on those issues, with examples, can show how people go wrong and prevent sexual sin amongst the clergy. This would also address same-sex attraction as well as flirting of all types, which can be fun, but in my view is never “innocent” as in “innocent flirtation”. Flirtation is an exploration of how far one can go and what will be accepted or even welcome. This is where many ego-driven so called “rock star” pastors, and others, go off the road.

  11. In seminary, we were told about a pastor who gave a female congregant a ride home when it was raining outside. According to both of them, nothing happened. But the church decided it was a poor choice of judgment and had him fired. Karen, you might cry, “That’s not fair!” but that’s the reality of the situation and just one reason why some men will insist on following the Billy Graham rule.

    1. Andrew: The situation you mentioned is beyond ridiculous IMO. Really, the Pastor used bad judgment to give a female congregant a ride home? No one can know what it is like to be a Pastor because you are darned if you do and darned if you don’t. Maybe this Pastor wised up and left the Pastoral Ministry after this “Christian” treatment by this church.

  12. I’ve always understood the Billy Graham rule as one that ultimately protects the woman. Let’s not mince words, it is usually the man who crosses the line. She has taken something good and noble and made it sexist. I really do not understand what people want anymore. This website goes to great lengths to show how despicable men are. Then it gives credence to an article that demonizes a practice that helps make sure men and women are not in situations that could lead to predatory, uncomfortable or compliant but sinful behavior. I lose more and more respect for Karen the more she writes. And yes, one of the commenters above is right-she is naive. What will she say when, God forbid, one of her Christian male friends goes too far. Boundaries and biblical.

  13. This article is written through the lens of current culture and constructs. It sounds so thoughtful and thought provoking. Yet it ignores “wisdom” which is a lost virtue today. Say what you want, the practice is so practically wise and every man should give it great consideration as something they would practice. Don’t let hundred dollar words prevent you from Godly wisdom. I am not sure a women should be condemning a wise practice by a man.

  14. I worked a corporate job for many years and often travelled and checked into motels with a female co-worker. I never thought much about it. It was common and I did it often.

    On the other hand, I was talking to an associate pastor and he told me a story about how he and the churche’s female secretary were working on a project together in the church’s office and then decided to go get some lunch. As they drove out of the parking lot the pastor stopped, then turned around and said, “we can’t be seen driving together.” I get that. It only would take one gossip to ruin a pastor, a secretary and a church’s reputation. So, I understand, sometimes it’s best to be very careful, and wise.

  15. Does anyone else find it ironic that on a website known for exposing the failures (often in sexual purity) of Christian male leaders, their is an article criticizing how some Christian men are trying to protect their sexual purity?

    1. It’s more that both views are assuming women are sexual objects, either to be pursued in lust or fled from. Neither view allows for women as sisters in Christ and full participants in the church of God. Of course one has to exercise wisdom, purity, and godliness, but please remember that women are primarily co-laborers and co-heirs in Christ.

  16. Interesting debate but we are now living in a hook-up culture where people have sex at the drop of a hat.

    Also Billy Graham’s issues were not with women but had the following problems:

    – Civil Rights movement
    – Richard Nixon
    – Vietnam War

      1. Perry N,

        “The Civil Rights movement was a problem?” I think you are taking what GJ wrote out of context:

        “Also Billy Graham’s issues were not with women but had the following problems:
        – Civil Rights movement
        – Richard Nixon
        – Vietnam War”

        Gordon J is commenting on what Billy Graham had issues with, not what he personally believes.

    1. Perry,

      Graham had some real difficulties…..

      In terms of the Civil Rights movement he emphasized “Obeying the Law”… which was seen as maintaining a racist status quo..

      In terms of Nixon, Graham supported Nixon’s policies and had a close relationship with Nixon that went very badly….. (e.g. Watergate etc. etc.)

      In terms of the Vietnam War…. is it ethical for American forces to napalm civilians? etc. etc….

      In some way I wish there a Billy Graham rule for politics…. Do not get close to a politician and their policies….it would really help in today’s scene where I am embarrassed by evangelicals and their extreme willingness ability to kiss politician’s rings…..

      I was watching old tv footage where Graham was at a public golf outing and the national press was peppering him with questions regarding the Nixon administration…. it was very sad to watch….

  17. It would be nice if he, rather than you, clarified. Nonetheless, the comment remains a bit disturbing. The Civil Rights movement hastened the end of Jim Crow. Definitely a good thing, not a “problem” from my perspective.

    1. “It would be nice if he, rather than you, clarified.”

      He did, in his original post where he stated this was a BG problem, but your reply was not clear on whether you were asking about BG’s point of view, or if your we asking GJ if he thought the CRM was a problem. It appeared if you were trying to twist what was written about BG and use the information against the messenger, not address the message maker. Gaslighting/attacking/DARVO/Straw-manning in order to avoid a possible uncomfortable truth about a church leader has no place in looking at a leaders character. We have to look at all leaders (religious or otherwise), warts and all, and hold them to the same standard God ask of all of us (and of what they preach), not our ideal of what that person means to us personally.

      “not a “problem” from my perspective” nobody was questioning your character.

  18. Ahem… cough….

    Is no one else going to point out the hypocrisy here?

    Didn’t people just tar and feather Chandler for basically not following the Billy Graham rule.

    You do know what happens when you butter your bread on both sides?

    You get sticky fingers.

    The whole reason for the billy Graham rule is to keep your name out of the blogs of false accusation. Not because you don’t trust yourself.


    1. This discussion arose again precisely because of Matt Chandler.

      The Village Church framed the announcement with vague details that STRONGLY implied he is taking a leave of absence because of the Billy Graham Rule. The vast majority of the criticism that I have seen of Chandler and TVC over the issue is from people who do not believe it adds up.

      To summarize, some of the criticisms of Chandler and TVC are:
      1. Chandler led the announcement by saying he wasn’t going anywhere. If he is fully submitting to the elders like he says, he has no right to say this
      2. He claimed to be a victim, that he was ‘disoriented’ by the allegations
      3. At no point did they say how the woman was doing
      4. He and the elders used the word ‘unhealth’ but never used the word ‘sin,’ despite this resulting in a leave of absence. If he has a known non-sin health issue, they should share it to remove doubt, and so the church can pray for him. If he was found to have been sinning, they should disclose the sin so the church can be sure there was no additional harm caused (other people bullied, belittled, gossiped about, or whatever exactly he was doing)
      5. Chandler got a standing ovation. This is not a church that cultivates a proper view of its leaders
      6. They said a third party investigation cleared him by reviewing the emails, but the third party is a law firm that specializes in protecting corporate interests

      The biggest problem is that the church gave vague details that sound like a violation of the Billy Graham Rule, but handled it like a church hiding something much worse. There is a solution for all of this:


  19. I think the Billy Graham rule still being enforced shows one thing; churches have not discipled their people well enough to understand what Christ stands for. If they did, the rule would be unnecessary. Brothers and Sisters in Christ can live like brothers and sisters in a household and never even think of committing sin against the other. When women are objectified and made to be “the enemy” of men, you have organizations building fences that don’t belong being built. This is one such fence. Colossians 2:20 – 23 sounds the alarm on all such man-devised attempts at producing false piety. Man made rules do not change hearts. The Spirit, Jesus and God the Father changes hearts.

  20. The Billy Graham so called Christian man’s rule of never being alone in in a car or restaurant or meeting with a woman is misogynistic, bigoted, ungodly and pig headed.

    What a disgusting way to view a woman or that woman’s feelings.

    Is she supposed to feel like a prostitute and it’s her fault that the Christian man might have his poor little feelings hurt or tarnished by malicious rumour or gossip because of her presence?

    The man and the other woman are judged by God for their innocence not by tickled ears and malicious gossip of fellow congregants and worldly views.

    Christian men – grow up!

    Drop this misogynist rule and treat women with the respect they deserve.

    Billy Graham was dead wrong!

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