Avoiding Women Won't Prevent Adultery

Last week, Vice President Mike Pence made news for his dining habits. According to a resurfaced 2002 interview, Pence said that he never eats alone with a woman other than his wife. In evangelical circles, this is commonly known as the Billy Graham Rule because of Graham's commitment to avoid, "the appearance of compromise or suspicion."

While recognizing Graham's reasons and the unfortunate frequency of extramarital scandals among pastors, writer Laura Turner says that the Billy Graham Rule, "locates the fault of male infidelity in the bodies of women." She leaves room for maintaining high profile reputations such as Graham's, but she condemns the blanket application of it.

Like Laura, I don't doubt that Billy Graham had genuine, legitimate reasons for his rule, and I also agree that the public eye requires a completely different expression of wisdom than the average person can appreciate. But in my experience, most adherents to the Billy Graham Rule have a much less noble motivation.

Many Christian men believe that avoiding women keeps them holy.

When I met my wife while working at an evangelical Bible conference, we were infatuated with each other almost immediately. So much so that the staff supervisor told me to stop hanging out by the front desk every day while she was trying to work. We were that couple. Not gross, just inseparable.

Sadly, the summer came to an end along with the staff program, but we continued working there through the fall and lived in the vacated boys' and girls' dorms. It was at this point that our blossoming-all-over-the-place relationship caught the conference director's attention. And he took it upon himself to offer me a bit of wisdom.

Quoting 1 Thessalonians, he told me that while I worked there, I needed to "avoid the appearance of evil" regarding my relationship (a poor interpretation for another post). Apparently, he had heard that the two of us were often alone together in the staff lounge--a situation difficult to avoid seeing that the lounge was the only common area for staff and we were the only two kids on staff all week.

I missed our daily Mario Kart battles, but I wanted to be a good, upright Christian. So, despite the room's numerous windows around three of its four walls, I abided by this new rule. However, I couldn't escape the nagging feeling that appearances was only an excuse.

Apart from the director and whoever squealed to him about us, I doubt anyone noticed or cared that two young people were playing video games in a well-lit room. For all they knew, we were brother and sister or we were married.

I think the real reason Christian men follow the Billy Graham Rule is the same reason they care so much about modesty.

The Bible conference I worked at was also known for its strict dress code, especially due to its summer staff program within walking distance of a beach. I remember one time a girl got sunburned so badly while wearing a two piece that she had to be hospitalized. It was the cautionary tale among staff leaders for the rest of the summer.

Non sequiturs notwithstanding, dress code violations were expected so modesty was a well-rehearsed topic of staff chapels. Every summer, staff leaders implored the young girls to consider their hormonally-charged brothers and to not lead them into temptation with how they dressed. The young boys, however, were just told to stop looking at porn.

In both cases, boobs were these magical orbs that could make men sin just by looking at them. The solution, of course, was to avoid them entirely by employing sweatshirts and internet filters. Lust problem solved.

If only lust was that stupid. I didn't know much about web proxies and circumventing firewalls until I discovered girls, but let's just say I became an expert quickly. Lust will make a way. The problem was not sin's accessibility; the problem was sin's proximity.

As Laura said, lust is in me, not another woman's body. I can put up a firewall around my life all I want, but the lust is already inside. I need to be fixed, not the women around me. And that's precisely why the Billy Graham Rule will never work as marriage insurance.

I've seen the causes and effects of adultery in church leadership first-hand, so I can confidently say that breaking the Billy Graham Rule did not break up those marriages. Desire did. Sure, private meals and meetings were shared, but they came after the desire had torn down their inhibitions. It's ironic, but safeguards against lust only work when lust is not a factor.

Paul said as much to the Colossians when he told them to stop relying on legalism for their sanctification. You can feel his frustration as he chides their ascetic rules for having "an appearance of wisdom" but lacking "any value in restraining sensual indulgence".

If you want to watch porn and lust after exploited young men and women, XXXchurch.com won't stop you. If you want to cheat on your partner with that pianist who really gets you, the Billy Graham Rule won't stop you. They have an appearance of wisdom but they are powerless against your desire for sensual indulgence.

Avoiding women will not prevent adultery any more than modesty will prevent lust. But confessing your desires will. And not to your "accountability partner" but the person truly affected: your life partner. Sin thrives in secrecy so don't enable it with more rules that let you to keep your desires to yourself. Confess. As painful as it will be, do it now before you do something even more hurtful.

That being said, I'm hesitant to join in the mocking of Mike Pence because I don't know him or his story. Perhaps he has a painful history with infidelity or his wife was hurt by a malicious rumor. But if he thinks that avoiding other women will protect him from lust and adultery, he is gravely mistaken.

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  1. Alex, I think Billy Graham made that rule not because he didn't think he could restrain himself if he was alone with a woman. First off, it's about "appearance," as Graham and Pence said. Secondly, I think he did it on the advice of his lawyers. This way he protects himself from being falsely accused. Likewise, I don't think Pence said what he said because he couldn't control himself if he was in the presence of a woman alone. Men can control themselves if the presence of woman, obviously. Do men lust after beautiful women? Of course, whether they're alone or in a group. Preventing himself from lusting wasn't Graham or Pence's rationale.

    1. Correct and I believe I said as much in the post. My point was that most Christian men don't have the same worries about appearances; thus, they apply the rule for the reason I suggested. Certainly not across the board, but this is by and large how I've seen it encouraged among the general populace.


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