When do rules help us, and when do they hinder us?
It's a question that occurs to many people who are part of churches – and it's one that occurred to me when I was dealing with a dark time in my life. Doubt was hanging heavy over my head and I was feeling isolated from Christian communities. What I needed was some solid counsel from a Christian to help me – but had very few connections.
My small group leader, Gary (not his real name), seemed like a logical choice, and I asked him if we could meet to talk and try to ease some of my doubts.
The response was apologetic. Unfortunately, Gary couldn't meet me. It was nothing personal, he said – it was simply that Gary was married and he felt it would look inappropriate to meet with a young female. He suggested his wife, who I knew less well, and was not theologically trained. I never ended up taking this offer.
I've later discovered that this type of experience is not uncommon in churches. It is the so-called Billy Graham rule, described as a personal policy that Billy Graham has famously taken to never meet with a woman alone – whether it be for a work meeting, riding in a car, or at lunch. This is to protect him from temptation and to avoid the appearance of inappropriate relationships. (The rule doesn't take into account same-sex attraction.)
Billy Graham is a regular international traveller and under intense media scrutiny, so personal policies like this make sense for his situation. I'm also not aware that Billy Graham ever insisted on this as a rule for anyone else but himself. However, it's a policy that many men in churches now adhere to. And it was one that Gary had adhered to as well.
Given my experience, my feeling toward rules like this are mixed—and recent articles have made me reflect on the rule again this week. I understood the honour that Gary wanted to give his wife, but my feelings afterwards were negative.
I felt objectified. When Gary told me he couldn't meet with me, he meant no harm or offence. But as a single female and a person who was already vulnerable, what I heard was that I was a sexual object who could be a trap. I was a potential threat, not a dignified sister in Christ.
If others like Gary ran my church, I would have limited access to personal conversation with ministers. The reality in contemporary churches is that leadership is at least predominantly male – and in some denominations, where female ordination isn't allowed, it's all male.
If women can't access a minister due to sensitivities of gender, how can this not be an alienating experience for them? It shuts us out of conversations and strangles our ability to be mentored by senior ministers. I didn't yet have an older female mentor or friend to turn to, and I was left vulnerable at a very unhappy period of my life.
The heart of the matter isn't in making rules
Implementing the rule kept Gary apart from me, but it made me wonder where his heart was at – and why a rule was his only resort. Adultery, after all, happens in the heart. We can adopt personal policies if being with the other gender tempts us, but this can serve as a smokescreen to the fact that we are sexualising others, or not honouring our spouse as we should.
Has this happened to others? Is it impossible to imagine that Christian men and women can meet together with mutual respect, and still honour their spouses?
One excellent article sums up how I feel about the rule. Here, the author compares it to the "immoral woman" of Proverbs, who is described as speaking lies and deceit.
"The caution is to stay away from her door, not all doors. He's not told to avoid walking by the houses of all women all the time. Just her house. She is dangerous. She's looking for an affair and she cares nothing about the path to life.
This does not mean that all women are dangerous to him. Or me.
We shouldn't check our brains at the door and avoid all women. We also shouldn't check our brains at the door and embrace all women."
I won't fault anyone for trying to honour God and others with a personal rule, but I would question a broad application of such rules. Let's not check our brains at the door = but equally, let's not allow distrust of others to drive us apart.
Cheryl McGrath is a communications professional and has a background in editing. She lives in Melbourne.
Cheryl McGrath's previous articles may be viewed athttp://www.pressserviceinternational.org/cheryl-mcgrath.html