It is well known that from the earliest days of their ministry together, Billy Graham and his team made a rule not to be alone with a woman to whom they were not married—for example, in a car or in a restaurant. This rule was both to maintain their purity and their reputation. Just as in our day, they were aware of many Christian leaders whose ministry had been ruined through falling into sexual immorality. Highly visible church leaders have sometimes used their position of influence and trust to take advantage of vulnerable women. Ministers sometimes find themselves being pursued by immature or ungodly women. This danger was compounded as Billy and his team were often traveling without their families. Another risk of being alone with a woman was that false accusations could be made against which it would be hard to defend oneself. So far as we know, the Billy Graham Rule worked well for Billy and his team, in that no credible accusation of impropriety was ever leveled against any of them (all of whom are now with the Lord).

Billy Under Fire

In more recent days, the Billy Graham Rule has been criticized. When it became known that Vice President Mike Pence would not meet privately with female staffers, he was accused of being a misogynist who was depriving women of the access and opportunity for advancement which his male staffers enjoyed.1 The Billy Graham Rule has also been criticized in Christian circles for similar reasons. It has been said that when Christian leaders won’t meet alone with female subordinates, these women may be held back from opportunities for mentoring and greater ministry responsibility. Some criticism has been harsh, saying that if a pastor can’t meet alone with a woman without lusting after her or imagining that she was trying to seduce him, then he shouldn’t be a pastor. Others have emphasized that Christian men and women should pursue close friendships with people of the opposite sex to whom they are not married. Ironically, at least one pastor who advocated these close relationships had to take a break from ministry because one of these friendships became inappropriate. Even if there is no physical component, some fall into emotional affairs. I co-authored a blog with a pastor who had to resign from his ministry because of inappropriate emotional attachments to women in his church.

The Tenderness Trap

In 1995 I published my first article, “The Tenderness Trap,” in the Journal of Biblical Counseling. I wrote after yet another pastor friend had to resign from ministry because of impropriety with female counselees. While I originally had been trained to think that one could counsel women alone, so long as the session was visible through a window, I had become convinced that counseling a vulnerable woman alone can create a danger of personal intimacy which would manifest itself long before anything physical would take place. Even secular research has shown that intense, intimate discussions between men and women often lead to mutual attraction.2 So, I determined that I would no longer meet alone with women. This is not because I was lusting after them or because I thought that they were trying to seduce me. I was simply seeking to protect us both from sinful involvement which neither of us would want—keeping us both at a safe distance from temptation (Prov. 5:8).

While I believe that I am responsible for shepherding all of Christ’s sheep, often this is best accomplished by having a woman meet with a female counselor who can provide one-on-one soul care (Titus 2:3-5). If a female counselee needs my help, we can include my wife or another mutually agreed-upon participant. My wife and I have also agreed not to be alone with someone of the opposite sex in a car, restaurant, or other settings. This is not because we don’t trust each other or because either of us feels particularly tempted. Rather, we humbly acknowledge that all of us are vulnerable. “Therefore, let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor. 10:12).  We also don’t want to give the appearance of impropriety to others.


In more recent days, I have realized that in my desire to avoid temptation, there were ways I was going to an unnecessary extreme in trying to implement my version of the Billy Graham Rule. I was interested to learn that even Billy Graham had some limited wiggle room. For example, he reluctantly agreed to eat lunch alone with First Lady Hillary Clinton—but in a public place.

I no longer copy my wife on every single text or email with a woman (for example, about work issues), but I still include her when anything of a personal nature is discussed. I used to focus my attention in informal settings much more on the men than the women (perhaps even seeming cold to my sisters, for which I repent). I now make a conscious effort to take pastoral interest in both men and women while still being careful not to repeatedly pursue extensive personal conversation with a particular woman. I have done more to pursue beneficial friendships with female peers in the biblical counseling movement while including my wife in these relationships. With my wife’s agreement, I will sometimes briefly meet alone with female students or staff. But I still want someone else present for repeated or lengthy meetings. We sometimes, by mutual agreement, make other brief exceptions to our version of the Billy Graham Rule.


Because sin comes from the heart (Mark 7:20-23), no external set of rules, not even the Billy Graham Rule, will keep us safe from temptation. First and foremost, we need to guard our hearts (Prov. 4:23). Since we see how often ministers (including counselors) fall into sexual sin or emotional affairs, it is wise to be on our guard and to be cautious. At the same time, we also need to build intimacy and trust in our marriages. I can’t say that everyone must follow the Billy Graham Rule or the standards I have set. Each couple (or individual) must work out the specifics of their standards. We need to avoid both the extreme of thinking that it could never happen to us and the extreme of not appropriately loving our brothers and sisters.

Questions for Reflection

  1. What rules do you have regarding your interactions with members of the opposite sex?
  2. What can we learn from those who have fallen into sin in this area?
  3. How could someone go too far in applying the Billy Graham Rule?
  4. How can Christian leaders protect their reputations in these matters?
  5. How would you respond to someone who says that the pastor who won’t meet alone with a woman must have a problem with lust or misogyny?
  1. Some of the furor over Vice President Pence’s practice died down with the emergence of the “Me Too” movement. ↩︎
  2. “The 36 Questions that Lead to Love,” The New York Times, accessed September 23, 2023, ↩︎