Last week, Billy Graham was being talked about on Twitter so often it could have been mistaken for the Bible belt in the ’50s. An article resurfaced the fact that Vice President Pence adheres to the so called “Billy Graham Rule” and doesn’t dine alone with any woman who isn’t his wife. [The official rule, per Graham, is “to avoid any situation that would have even the appearance of compromise or suspicion … I did not travel, meet or eat alone with a woman other than my wife” and is actually one of four rules – NPR did an interesting, short write up.]
I was surprised to see the various takes on the issue, surprised at how many friends I disagreed with. My friend Matt’s, in particular, interested me – we usually see eye to eye on a lot of things, I respect his ideas and how he gets to them, we were even co-panelists at the Donuts & Dating event a while back. I asked if he, a Marriage and Family Therapist Intern, would be interested in co-blogging with me on the issue. He promptly responded with:
Lucky for you all, he changed his mind. I hope you enjoy our discussion below. I sure did!
What’s the problem?!
The problem is taking a good thing – boundaries – and making it an ultimate thing. It’s taking things way too far, with a mask of good intentions. It’s making women seem like the enemy when actually sin is the enemy. It’s not leaving room for gray areas (innocent friendships, business meetings, professional relationships, etc) – which the world is FULL of – and yet ignoring a lot of other gray areas (emotional affairs, internet porn, email / texting / calling women, etc). It’s cutting out an entire people group to avoid the hint of a scandal. Last time I checked, Jesus embraced scandals.
The problem is women are boiled down to merely temptresses or sexual objects in these situations – not actual people with actual needs. The problem is we’re okay with denying women seats at powerful tables and invitations to important meetings and voices in high level decisions, for the sake of the men involved.
The problem is we’ve allowed scarcity mindsets to take root here. We’re called to spirits of freedom. Spirits of discernment, too, to be sure. But not spirits of fear. We need to be open to where the Spirit is calling, where the Spirit wants to work – not limiting to rigid boxes and small spheres of influence.
The problem is we’re making it seem like non-romantic male and female relationships can’t exist. We’re making it seem like they can’t be professional, can’t be beneficial, and can’t be Christ-like. We’re taking away people’s ability to have common sense or respect boundaries or think clearly in situations. We’re taking all things remotely resembling an issue and automatically condemning them an actual issue.
The problem is that, as a woman, I don’t have the luxury of abiding by the Billy Graham rule. If I did, I wouldn’t have been able to have 3 of my 4 previous jobs. I wouldn’t have been able to do ~75% of the ministry positions I’ve held over the past several years. I’m sure somewhere out there, a woman abides by this rule – but it’s mostly men. And that’s because they can. A man can dine with, network with, work for, work with, and work over solely men – and find himself at the top of a pyramid one day. Women literally do not have that option.
I think it’s important to clarify my specific perspective in this multiverse of infinite perspectives. I’m a marriage and family therapist who has worked with many individuals and couples who have had affairs. I also work with many men who are self proclaimed sex addicts due to their destructive and compulsive sexual behavior. Lastly, my family legacy is filled with extra marital affairs. My dad is one of 3 brothers and between the them there have been 5 divorces and 8 weddings. So when I heard that a married man doesn’t dine out with women who are not his wife, I framed it within the context of taking extraordinary steps to protect himself from potentially ruining his marriage, and my initial thought was “Good for him.”
Now, in this process of dialoguing with others who have shared with me a different perspective, I believe there have been two requests made to venture into a reality and not deny some obvious truths. One request was made by me, the second request was made to me.
My request toward others is this, “Can we not pretend that our culture doesn’t have massively high rates of infidelity?” It’s conservatively estimated at 25% and that doesn’t count the very real infidelity of emotional affairs. So acting like such a boundary like, ‘I don’t eat out with members of the opposite sex who aren’t my wife’ is somehow unwarranted or an overreaction to me is, not living in reality. I think Mike Pence’s social and economic policies are horrible for our nation, but good for him for protecting his marriage.
In response to this, I feel a request has been made to me from a collective other, which is equally valid. That request is, “Can we not pretend that systemic sexism does not exist in our culture, and our churches, and that women are far too often portrayed as ‘stumbling blocks’ to be avoided?” And yes, since my male privilege allows me to not live with a constant awareness of that reality, I do need to be reminded of it. And there is clearly injustice in a rule of the Vice President of the United States not dining out with someone of the opposite sex. Meals are fantastic for networking, displaying your successes, getting career feedback, and more. The fact that women serving under the VP do not have access to such benefits while men do is troubling, and it’s wrong.
So what I have learned is that when there are two valid truths that seem to be in conflict with each other, there is gold in the form of wisdom to be mined out from the middle.
Boundaries? …or legalism?
To be clear, I am not advocating that Mike Pence’s boundary (So called the “Billy Graham Rule”) of not dining out alone with women is a policy which every married person should adhere to.
For just about all of us (maybe swingers aside) the debate is not about whether the existence of boundaries are a good thing, it’s about where those boundaries are. For Mike Pence’s that boundary is dining out, for others it may be not texting or maintaining friendships with ex’s, still for others it could be that everything is in bounds except engaging in a sexual act, and that is the prerogative of each individual couple. There is no right or wrong here.
Where I think we get into trouble in this issue is when we start imposing our perspective on others, that’s when legalism takes over. I can share my perspective on where the line is for my marriage, but my wife and I have our own unique experiences which has yielded its own unique set of principles. All I’m asking is that we respect whatever unique experiences the Pence’s have had that have yielded theirs.
Boundaries are good and healthy and necessary. I am such a fan of boundaries being depicted in the media as normal. Legalism is attempting to use your checkboxes as proof of good behavior instead of your intentions and morals. I am not a fan of legalistic attitudes being passed off as healthy.
Boundaries are healthy guardrails – stronger, taller ones for dangerous turns and high risk areas, and simpler, smaller ones for safe and trusted roads. Legalism is one speed limit for all roads at all times – not taking into account important differences in the terrain.
As a married couple, you should have boundaries – in lots of areas. You should discuss what you’re comfortable with and what makes you feel safe and what creates security in your relationship; you should be respecting what the other person is both thinking and feeling. You should know yourself and your past and your triggers, and avoid doing things that might make you fall back into hurtful patterns.
If you’re an alcoholic, maybe you refuse to go to bars, maybe you don’t have wine in the house. If you struggle with porn, maybe you don’t have internet at home, maybe you’re in a weekly support group. If you’ve crossed the line with infidelity (or even stepped towards the line), maybe you limit your alone time with the opposite sex, maybe you don’t text the opposite sex. You figure out what exactly you need, and you honor that boundary you’ve created.
What you don’t do is write off any and all things that come even the smallest bit close to your vice. It’s perfectly fine to remove yourself from harmful situations that you know are detrimental to you; its not okay to throw a wide net and decide all remotely similar things are detrimental, especially when those “detrimental things” are other people.
A married man not meeting up with me, as a single woman, for coffee once a week is understandable. Not texting me all day long is understandable. Not talking to me about certain personal issues is understandable. Those are great boundaries. Refusing to ever meet up with me to discuss something, whether it be professional networking, a ministry situation, or the like, is not understandable. Refusing to travel to the same place alone together is, frankly, bad for the environment. Refusing to see me and my thoughts and opinions and expertise as just that – valid thoughts and opinions and expertise – is not understandable. That’s not respecting your marriage – that’s disrespecting my humanity.
So where are we, the Church, called?
Christ’s call is pretty clear to us: to see and respect the imago dei in each and every person on earth. That means women just as much as men.
God wants us to have healthy, vibrant marriages. God also wants us to have healthy, vibrant non-romantic relationships. We serve a communal God who continually calls us to each other. Young and old, married and single, men and women.
A lot of my married friends talk about how their marriage is their number one ministry – and I love that idea. Your marriage should be sacred and protected and cared for. I am in no way advocating anything different. But I don’t believe to honor your marriage you should ever need to dishonor another’s humanity.
If 3/5ths of our congregation (statistically women) can’t meet with our pastor (statistically a man) – what does that say? If they can’t come and have an honest, open conversation about their life or their ministry or their hopes for the church – what value are we putting on women’s voices? We aren’t too far off from the time a white man had the right to refuse to sit with a black man. We’re still in the midst of a time where some men feel entitled to refuse women the pulpit. The church has, historically, been so behind on so many social issues. Do we really want to be known for trailing behind in another? Do we really want to be known, once again, for a form of exclusion?
I believe the Spirit moves in mysterious ways and the Spirit calls us to mysterious places. I think we need to be far more worried about missing His call than worried about what some people might be whispering about behind our backs. Jesus loved causing a scandal. He also introduced the world to a scandalous love. If we are following His lead and desiring what He desires, we won’t find ourselves in compromising situations. If we find our thoughts wandering, our motives changing, our desires shifting – that’s another conversation. That’s not of the Spirit. That’s also something that simply not dining with women is going to fix.
I’m a woman who wants to be seen as a person. Especially in the Church. I don’t want to spend hours upon hours alone with married men, I don’t want to ever get in the way of someone’s marriage, and I really don’t have any desire to have dinner with Mike Pence – but I want to be free to use my gifts and talents as God leads me. That involves praying and dreaming and scheming and vision casting with other believers – men or women, married or single, in groups and – at times – alone.
As Christians we are called to be humbled and aware of our fallen nature. There’s that beautiful hymnal lyric that goes: “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it.” If we as Christians acknowledge our own brokenness and make boundaries guarding ourselves from it then I believe that is genuine humility and wisdom. However the very same boundary, with a heart full of fear of another person being “a stumbling block” is arrogant, misguided, and sexist.
As Christians we are also called to rebel against any force which is complicit with oppressive systems (such as sexism). The hashtag going around the last week was #BillyGrahamRule, I wish we could change that to #FlexibleMarriageExclusivityRes
I am resistant to any criticism of Mike Pence which revolves around his boundary being an overreaction and a minimization of the human condition of being broken and capable of betraying our marriage vows. I am also learning to be resistant to oppressive systems of injustice which paint women as stumbling blocks and prevent them from garnering the same career development and advancement opportunities as any man. So the answer to the tension of both of these is found in a principle that allows men and women to protect the exclusivity of their marriage, but that also allows for a bit of wiggle room, not in a rule.
Matt is a Marriage and Family Therapist Intern at The Soul Care House. He lives in North Park with his wife Kyleigh and his dog Monty.