A female Baptist pastor and a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship leader say the “Billy Graham Rule” — in the news since revelations that Vice President Mike Pence never eats alone with a woman other than his wife — has serious implications for women in ministry.
The buzz over the practice adopted in the 1940s to keep men in the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association free from scandal as they traveled across the country began with a single sentence in a March 28 Washington Post profile on Second Lady Karen Pence: “In 2002, Mike Pence told The Hill that he never eats alone with a woman other than his wife and that he won’t attend events featuring alcohol without her by his side, either.”
Baptist reactions ranged from “why would anyone have a problem with that?” to ridicule and outright scorn.
Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., said the rule comes down to “a very simple and irrefutable observation.”
“It is virtually impossible to have a sexual affair, to be engaged in infidelity, if one is not with a woman alone,” Mohler said. If the rule were applied to U.S. presidents, he said, Bill Clinton wouldn’t have been impeached.
Karen Swallow Prior, an English professor at Liberty University and research fellow with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, said the rule “befits the world of Mad Men more than the modern-day work world where women are to be treated as equals.”
She wrote for Vox that she remembers feeling slightly embarrassed the first time she realized a male colleague had turned down her offer to give him a ride back to the office after a meeting across campus because of her gender. The offer “wasn’t sexual,” she recalled “until it was,” along with her imaginary retort, “Besides, I’m just not that into you.”
Merianna Harrelson, pastor of New Hope Christian Fellowship in West Columbia, S.C., said she first encountered the Billy Graham Rule in youth group, when she was encouraged to turn to female interns for counseling or advice instead of her male youth minister.
“I can remember thinking that there was something more going on in the interactions the male youth group members were getting that I wasn’t receiving because they had access to the youth minister,” she said.
Harrelson said the idea that professional adults need chaperones “perpetuates false notions of sexuality.”
“Men are not sexual beings who cannot control their sexual desires,” she said. “Females are not sexual temptresses. When we operate in the adult, professional world with these false, negative ideas of sexuality, we only reinforce a culture of sexual abuse, sexual harassment and spiritual abuse.”
Shauw Chin Capps, moderator-elect of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and CEO of Hopeful Horizons in Beaufort, S.C., said she has never knowingly encountered the Billy Graham Rule, but if a male colleague refused to meet with her because she is a woman she would “probably think that he’s pulling my leg.”
“I do think there are healthy, common-sense boundaries that any minister, male or female, can and should implement,” she said, such as meeting with the door open, having glass in office doors or letting staff know the meeting can be interrupted.
The reason may not always be about “temptations,” she said, but the appearance of what is or is not appropriate “often varies depending on the person.”
Harrelson said it is unrealistic to expect a female pastor to minister to her flock without ever winding up alone with a church member of the opposite sex.
“Whether you are doing hospital visitations, counseling or worship preparation, there will always be times when you find yourself alone with a member of another gender,” she said. “Rules like the Billy Graham rule only hinder women from stepping fully into the ministries God has called them to.”
Capps said Pence’s rules for marriage are between him and his wife, but his personal values should not influence how he selects professionals to work with him or for him in public service.
“I can see how that could naturally lead to favoring men over women,” she said. “That would be discrimination.”