Women Pastors and the Billy Graham Rule

I originally wrote this post as a thread on twitter in the wake of yet another church scandal involving men in power and some inappropriate relationships with women under their leadership. There’s no point extracting which one; I honestly don’t remember. And it doesn’t matter, because the point of this thread remains true.

People want to talk about the Billy Graham “Rule” (which was never actually a “rule” but a personal boundary set that, with broad publication and gross application, has exploded into a war on women). I want to talk about something else.

We need more women pastors.

pastor (n.) : from the Latin meaning “shepherd”
one who protects, nurtures, and guides those under his or her care

What is the Billy Graham Rule?

First, what is the Billy Graham Rule? 

Never be alone with a woman who isn’t your wife. 

More generally: never be alone with someone of the opposite sex that isn’t your spouse. 

Maybe we should call it the Harry/Sally men-and-women-can’t-be-friends Rule. 

For lack of a better moniker, what we call the BG rule is supposed to protect men and women from illicit affairs. It’s also argued to protect women from abuse (sexual harassment and assault) and men from character assassination (false accusations and “the appearance of evil”).

While it may do those things (however ineffectively), it also blocks women from equal access, service, and leadership. And it prevents women from receiving necessary and confidential pastoral care. It keeps women out of important rooms.

Now let’s add in the Complementarian Dilemma.

The Complementarian Dilemma

Raised by fundamentalists in patriarchy, I was taught distinct, God-given roles. Men, being of greater intellect, strength, and stability were designed to lead & teach. Women being “the weaker sex” were designed to serve men & family.

It doesn’t take a genius to see the corrupt power play intrinsic in this theology. The only way this honors and protects women is if men are perfectly without flaw and possess no personal or selfish agenda. So… eunuchs? Nope. Even that won’t work.

Tangential to this is the belief that women (by nature or Gen 3 curse) seek to dominate men. Righteous women must protect men from temptation & sexual sins. Dress, walk, talk, live modestly. If you get assaulted, you weren’t modest enough. It’s almost always the woman’s fault.

So what does the BG rule do? It encourages the narrative that 

1) men cannot be trusted to be alone with women; they cannot control themselves. 

2) women cannot be trusted because they seduce and lie and seek to destroy righteous men in leadership. 

3) men are weak and vulnerable.

Back to Complementarian theology…

We’re going to (painful as it is) set aside the clear fallacies that women are genetically inferior in intellect and character and instead focus on the roles. Women cannot be in leadership. They cannot teach. They cannot be pastors. 

Let me be clear: women MAY lead or teach children and other women, but they cannot be over men, boys who have hit puberty, or any overarching church initiative that may, even by accident, grant her authority (decision-making leadership) over men.

(Don’t RT this out of context.)

Where does that leave us? It’s story time.

Story #1: I was literally cut out of my own ministry team.

I once served as head of a missions committee. There was only one other woman on the team. If she was unable to attend for any reason, the men would hold meetings without me. They didn’t like the “appearance” so I got cut out.

It didn’t matter that I was the only one with a Bible degree and real-life missions & church-planting experience. Or that meetings weren’t 1-on-1 and that my husband was good friends with these men.

They would tell me later what they decided at these meetings. Sometimes.

Story #2: Pastoral counseling has some big problems.

When it comes to “pastoral counseling” and the BG rule, men go to men and women go to women. Of course, that’s only if women are around and available, which they are typically not in complementarian churches. That means NO COUNSELING FOR YOU! 

Another fun little layer here: Whether overtly complementarian or not, many churches don’t care who’s actually trained. They care who is a “pastor”.

I cannot tell you how many friends I have with advanced counseling degrees who are overlooked in churches because they’re female.

Instead of acknowledging the education, expertise, and gifting of these women, churches give male pastors the authority to offer regurgitated advice disguised as sound counsel. It’s horrific! Destructive and dismissive.

And it is a disservice to both pastor and church.

The pastor shouldn’t carry a burden without training.

The qualified counselor shouldn’t be discriminated against because of gender.

The parishioner shouldn’t be subjected to advice authoritatively given from limited perspective and inexperience.

The church is paying the price.

Whether or not you believe women should be allowed to preach on Sunday mornings, we need more women in pastoral roles. We need more churches to allow women to serve as caring shepherds, wise counselors, and equipped and respected leaders.

Not only would this allow women to walk faithfully in their God-given strengths, it would benefit the church as a whole. This is the point of spiritual gifts, is it not?

It would honor imago dei in women. It would increase cohesiveness in the Body. It would lift unholy burdens.

It would offer safe places for women to receive the pastoral care they need without anyone feeling threatened.

Keeping women out, limiting our presence, isn’t just a slight to select individuals. It is a disservice to the Body of Christ.

We took a few very select verses from Paul (out of context) and decided that the Blessed Alliance God designed is not good enough. Rather than embracing the partnership He created in the Garden, we chose patriarchy. We chose division. We chose oppression and then baptized it.

This is bad for women AND men. It’s bad for the church, our testimony, and the world. It corrupts the Gospel.

A few caveats and addendums:

Some churches are doing this very well.

Some pastors serve as great counselors.

Unqualified women are just as bad as unqualified men.

Equality is not sameness. Nothing said here asserts that men and women are without distinctions. Rather, I’m espousing the opposite! That our distinctions are good and necessary to celebrate. That by embracing our distinct genders as equal, the church will grow in effectiveness and beauty, and the Body of Christ may be whole. So stop shoving women into oppressive boxes that prevent many of us from fully living out our salvation.

I will pour out my Spirit upon all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy.
Your old men will dream dreams,
and your young men will see visions.

In those days I will pour out my Spirit
even on servants—men and women alike.
And I will cause wonders in the heavens and on the earth—

… everyone who calls on the name of the LORD will be saved.

–Joel 2:28–30, 32

Additional Resources:

For more on the historical argument for women in pastoral leadership, read The Making of Biblical Womanhood by Beth Allison Barr.

On Blessed Alliance: books by Carolyn Custis James: Half the Church; Finding God in the Margins; Lost Women of the Bible … All great.

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