How the Billy Graham Rule Can Enable Sexual Abuse

by | Sep 1, 2023 | Faith | 20 comments

Billy Graham Rule and Abuse
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Does the Billy Graham Rule protect against sexual abuse?

On Monday on the blog we were talking about the Billy Graham rule, and how it can harm women.

An interesting discussion started on Facebook about that post, and I want to follow up on one of the themes in that discussion: how we have to protect men from false allegations.

Many people said something along these lines:

I’ve seen false allegations ruin the lives of whole families.
Absolutely not worth the risk.
Purity culture has nothing to do with it.

In this assumption, the Billy Graham rule was meant to protect against false allegations (which, I agree, is one of the main reasons for it), and it must be continued because of this horrendous risk.

I’d like to take a step back today and examine the ramifications of that thinking.

What are the assumptions that go along with the fear of false allegations?

When we believe that men and women should never, ever be alone together because false allegations are too much of a threat, what are we assuming?

  • False allegations are common
  • Women pose a threat to men
  • Men are in danger
  • Men must be protected 

Are these things true?

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What are the facts around male/female dynamics?

1. False allegations are exceedingly rare.

Most studies put them below 5%, and most are around 2%.

We had many people saying, “I know someone who was absolutely falsely accused.”

The problem is that I would have said this at two different points in my life, too. I even wrote a newspaper column calling out someone who was falsely accusing someone of abuse. But you know what? I was wrong. I didn’t realize it for years, but I was wrong. I thought I had the whole picture, but I did not.

When the Houston Chronicle article documenting 700 cases of sexual abuse in the SBC that had been covered up, one of the churches named was Second Baptist in Houston. I talked with someone on staff there, and they told me that it was absolutely false. There was no way that abuse had happened.

I asked them how they knew, and they said that they had spoken to the pastors and the staff. 

But they hadn’t spoken to the victims. The newspaper, and the courts, had.

You can know for certain that people were falsely accused, and you can be wrong. In fact, you usually are.

In the 95-98% of allegations that are true, the vast majority had people defending the abuser, absolutely sure the accuser was lying. Most people who sexually abuse had dozens upon dozens of people say, “I know this is a false allegation.” Just look at every single sexual abuse conviction, and see how many people stood up for the abuser. It is normal to know people that you think are falsely accused–and also be wrong.

2. Men are more likely to pose a threat to women. 

The narrative that the Billy Graham Rule gives–that women pose a threat to good men–is actually the opposite of the facts on the ground. It is much more likely that a woman or girl will be sexually abused by a man at church than it is that a man will be falsely accused.

But when we center our male/female rules around the idea that women pose a threat to men, we ignore this.

She Deserves Better!

Because we all deserve a big faith.

Your daughter deserves better than what you likely grew up with in church.

What would it look like to prepare the next generation without toxic teachings about modesty, sex, or consent, and instead set her up for a big faith?

3. Women are in danger far more than men are.

Now, men and boys can also be victims of sexual abuse (and one of the places that boys are most likely to be victims of sexual abuse is in churches). But their perpetrators are overwhelmingly male.

When we look at stats for sexual abuse, we found that 20% of women who answered our survey for She Deserves Better reported being harassed or abused in church as minors. About 20-30% of girls are victims of sexual assault as minors. It is women who are in danger in church spaces, not men.

4. Women and children must be protected.

If we look at the stats of who is actually harmed, it’s clear that it is women and children that are most in need of protection, not men. So the question then becomes: Are policies like the Billy Graham Rule giving this protection? Or do we need a new way of seeing it? 

To answer this, let’s back up again and look at the big picture. 

What dynamics make sexual abuse more likely? 

Sexual abuse flourishes in environments where men are seen as the victims, and false allegations are seen as common. Sexual abuse flourishes where it’s easy for people to dismiss allegations.

Sexual abuse flourishes where girls are seen as temptresses who pose a danger to men.

Sexual abuse flourishes where women are objectified and sexualized, so they are always seen as potential sexual conquests or as sexual temptresses.

Where women are not seen as whole people, co-laborers in Christ, equally made in the image of God, it is easy to justify abuse.

In other words, sexual abuse flourishes in environments which share the assumptions that underpin the Billy Graham Rule.

In our survey of 7000 women for She Deserves Better, we found that women were far more likely to be abused/assaulted/harassed as teens in church situations which taught things like the modesty rules, and purity culture, and overly objectified women. The more conservative the church was in terms of these sex teachings, the more likely abuse would happen. 

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But don’t we need a Billy Graham Rule to protect from abuse? 

Any policies about male/female dynamics that protect from abuse have to center the issue of abuse, not false allegations. 

They have to be done with the understanding that women and children are not sexual objects; that men are not entitled to sex; that sexual abuse is a real issue.

All churches should have Plan to Protect policies in place, and health care professionals and counselors should have firm guidelines and professional standards to maintain that protect vulnerable populations from abuse. Sure, a corollary is that false allegations may be less likely. But the focus should be on preventing abuse, not preventing false allegations.

Policies in churches where no adult can be alone with a child/youth are common sense, and vital to create an environment where abuse is less likely, and where there is an expectation that children deserve to be protected (rather than adults deserve to be free of false allegations). 

What if the Billy Graham Rule, in adults, makes sexual abuse more likely?

When we create church cultures which revolve around protecting men, and viewing women as dangerous, we actually create environments which make sexual abuse more likely–because we preach the very things that support abuse. 

I had commenters saying that the Billy Graham Rule was worth it because then people wouldn’t be falsely accused. But is it worth it if it makes abuse more likely?

Are we willing to protect men from the 2% of allegations that are false, by creating an environment where children and women are more likely to be abused? Is that a fair trade, a price we’re willing to pay?

What would happen if, instead, we created a church culture which centered around helping everyone flourish in Christian relationships? This would mean protecting vulnerable populations from abuse, but it would also mean raising the expectation that men and women would not sexualize one another and objectify one another, but would instead treat each other as co-laborers in Christ?

This is the kind of attitude that reduces abuse, and creates far healthier relationships. I hope that the church can embrace it. 

Billy Graham Rule makes abuse more likely

What do you think? Is there a culture of abuse in many churches? How can we change this? Let’s talk in the comments!

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Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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  1. Nessie

    Shelia wrote- “I had commenters saying that the Billy Graham Rule was worth it because then people wouldn’t be falsely accused. But is it worth it if it makes abuse more likely?”

    When a person’s goal is to look out for him/herself, then yes, it is worth it to them sadly. But these same people rarely mention how often women are falsely accused of “joining in” when men have behaved badly.

    A commentor recently described how she had been egregiously groped and when she came forward about that years later, the offender claimed it was “shared.” Women are falsely accused or described in many situations like this. When these men hyper-focus on how hard it is on the men while ignoring that women go through something very similar *in addition to having been assaulted*, it’s extra traumatic. I truly don’t see how those men can keep claiming to be victims *and* trying to “protect” women.

    FWIW, I have been sexually assaulted in public spaces with many people around. The Billy Graham rule did not apply. The toxic masculinity attitudes and behaviors carried over though.

  2. Jen

    I agree with what you are saying, Sheila. I always understood the rule to “keep up good appearances “ – so that no whispering would start (“At the stoplight I looked over and there was Pastor Joe with his secretary in the car!!!! I wonder what they were doing!!‽”)

    I hate that women are always sexualized by these types of “protections”. However, earlier in my marriage I was glad that my husband followed this rule because I was concerned about his fidelity. Obviously, this rule does NOTHING to actually stop infidelity, so the points you make are far more important: the rule reinforces the “women are dangerous” mentality and actually puts women in danger.

  3. Jo R

    Some people cite “avoid even the appearance of evil” as a reason for this rule.

    From my POV, suggesting such a rule is necessary in the first place is an evil I think ***I*** need to avoid, so therefore I will be avoiding people who think this “rule” is necessary.

    After all, we are talking about Christians who should be living a Christian sexual ethic, have Spirit-led self-control, love their neighbors as themselves, see other people as image bearers who should be treated accordingly, etc., etc., etc.

    Right? 🤔

  4. Angharad

    I think there are two main issues with the Billy Graham Rule. The first is that people have taken a rule which was created by a small group of people for a very specific situation at a specific point in time and have applied it to everyone. The second is that they have twisted the original intention of the rule so that it is now all about preventing women from tempting or falsely accusing men instead of holding men accountable to standards of good behaviour.

    And as I commented on the previous post, it’s interesting that out of the FOUR rules which Billy Graham’s team produced at the same time, only ONE is now commonly spoken of. I wonder why all the men who are so keen to promote and defend Rule#2 (or their interpretation of Rule #2) are not equally keen to promote and defend the other three rules. Could it possibly have anything to do with the fact that Rule#2 can be twisted so that it blames women for men’s sin and limits women’s opportunities to progress, which would be hard to do with Rules 1, 3 and 4. Or am I being too cynical?!

    There is a huge link between assuming that women are always responsibly for ‘tempting’ men and the culture of abuse that is prevalent in many churches. The attitude that ‘he wouldn’t have done it if you hadn’t tempted him’ is widespread. And ‘tempting’ can literally just mean being present in the same building. One guy who followed me into the church kitchen and groped me said he couldn’t help himself because I looked so happy when I walked in to church and smiled at the elderly lady who was greeting people at the door. So I ‘tempted’ him to sexual assault by the way I was talking to an elderly woman… When the church finally develops the attitude that sexual assault is sexual assault and there is never, ever ANY excuse, we will start seeing numbers fall. As long as the first response to a woman’s report of abuse is to ask what she was wearing, had she smiled at her attacker shortly beforehand or what did she say to him in conversations leading up to the attack, we are going to keep promoting a culture where predators will regard church as their happy hunting ground.

  5. Codec

    You know as someone who has seen people get abused and who was a bully himself growing up I think their is another angle to look at this that is also terrifying to think about. If I was someone who wanted to hurt and abuse people what would I want? I would want people to be so scared of even thinking about the ramifications of trying to go against me that even that would make people hurt.

    I see people so terrified of the specter of abuse whether being accused or the horrible reality of abuse that I have to wonder if what might actually help is not only showing people how to recognize abuse but showing people becoming healthier.

    In a similar way when it comes to the opposite sex if we see them at once as a source of danger to be avoided and something inevitable which will find you is it any wonder that people are so paranoid and frustrated with each other?

  6. Wild Honey

    The topic of “slippery slope”’comes up sometimes here. A former church of mine went down that slippery slope with the Billy Graham rule. In response to the #metoo movement, it said that men were no longer allowed to change diapers in children’s ministry.

    I overheard a deacon (coincidentally the husband of the children’s ministry director) explaining it to a new female volunteer (who was retired women’s director from a different local church). “Of course, it’s for your own protection!” she replied with zero hint of irony.

    First, what does a grown man have to fear from a naked infant (other than being pooped on)? Seriously, people? What on God’s good earth did he have to fear? Babies can’t talk! They’re not in the habit of making false accusations.

    Second, the burden of men’s sin got put back on women. Because now men get a get-out-of-jail-free card when it comes to wet or stinky diapers. Why couldn’t the new policy have been that a man needed to find a witness to make sure he didn’t step out of line when changing a baby’s diaper? Why did the burden of diaper changing have to get thrust back on women?

    Third, you guessed it, OF COURSE this was a complementarian church. Only men could be entrusted with spiritual leadership. But they couldn’t be trusted around the most innocent, vulnerable, and helpless members of the church body.

    There is a time and place for the Billy Graham Rule. But it has gone WAY too far.

  7. Anon-1

    I’m sure the Duke lacrosse team, the Central Park 5, the students accused in the Jackie Coakley story, or the people involved in the Tawana Bradley case would have a different take on this issue.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      No one said false allegations don’t happen. We said they are extremely rare. Which they are.

      And if I were to make a list of all the sexual abuse crises that had happened in the church–my list would be extremely long.

      Your list is heartbreaking, yes. But it is still very, very rare, while about 20% of girls are victimized in churches today.

    • Jane King

      Goodness, if you are referencing Tawana Brawley, you must be as old as I am.

  8. Lisa Johns

    I think several people have touched on something here that needs to be addressed LOUD and CLEAR: why is it OK for women to be falsely accused of tempting or consenting, when it is not OK for men to be falsely accused of abuse? Women who come forward with allegations of abuse are ROUTINELY accused of tempting, consenting, or outright lying, and this is simply the price they pay for being courageous enough to speak out. But when a man is accused of abuse and swears that it is a false accusation, boy does the s*!t hit the fan!!

    We as women have every right to expect that false allegations against us will be refuted just as strongly as those against men. When is this going to happen?

    I will never accuse a man of something he has not done, I can promise you that. Can I expect that men — and society in general — will make the same commitment to me, and not accuse me of tempting, consenting, or lying when it is not something I did?

    • Jo R

      🔥 🔥 🔥

      “Can I expect that men — and society in general — will make the same commitment to me, and not accuse me of tempting, consenting, or lying when it is not something I did?”

      What, like accuse you of living while female? 🙄

    • Angharad

      The problem with both temptation and assault is that currently, in many situations and especially in church, men are allowed to define them both.

      You smiled at him as you walked past? You were tempting him. You smiled at someone else and he just happened to see you smile? You were tempting him. He groped you? It was consensual. You say it wasn’t? He says it was, so it’s consensual.

      • Lisa Johns

        So true.

  9. NM

    I’m so glad you’re talking about this. When we were first married and my hubby was commuting to work I asked him to follow the billy Graham rule because I thought it was the best way to “avoid the appearance of evil,” and also make sure my husband wouldn’t be tempted because we all know they’re just one bad moment away from an affair 🙄 Sweet man that he is, he submitted to me on the issue even though I believed then that he was the authority. Too bad he didn’t use his “authority” to tell me it was hogwash. Now I just feel bad for women that are denied career and ministry opportunities by men who practice this.

    When we were leaving our last (very complementarian) church, one of the pastors met with me to talk about my concerns. And I was so relieved when he invited me into his office to talk just the two of us. I immediately knew he didn’t see me as a threat and we had a wonderful conversation. He left the door open, which seems to be good common sense, but it would have been so awkward if we’d had to sit in a common area with people walking by. We still left the church because of the top leadership, but I will always appreciate how he handled our meeting.

  10. John

    It makes me wonder what would happen in fully egalitarian churches, if the men in leadership, who didn’t trust themselves (which I think is what this is all about, regardless of “false accusation” cries) to meet one-on-one with a woman honourably, stepped down from leadership. I wonder how many primarily female led churches we’d end up with?

    • Bernadette

      So, are you thinking about a church with both male and female leaders? And saying some male leaders don’t trust themselves to be alone with women?

      And what if those male leaders stepped down, while the other male leaders stayed? And would that result in a church lead primarily by women?

      If that’s what you’re asking, then the answer is “it depends.” Does this church have a double-standard where it’s ok for female leaders to not trust themselves to behave, they don’t have to resign? But a male leader would have to resign?

      Then, yeah, that would lead to a female lead church.

      But if both men and women are held to the same standards then I think you’d see an equal number of male to female leaders.

      • John

        Yes that is what I am speculating about. My suspicion is that significantly more men struggle with this problem, than women do. So yes, with “men and women are held to the same standards”, I still suspect you’d end up with more female than male leaders remaining.

        • Bernadette

          Now that you point it out, I see how that could lead to more female leaders than male. Which I think would be unbalanced.

          And the best way to correct the unbalance might be to just stop teaching an entitlement mentality to men. Maybe toxic teachings pushed on men are why they struggle with this more.

          That, and certain denominations can stop teaching men that noticing = lusting. Because even if a man does reject all the entitlement teachings, he still has to deal with this.

          If he believes that noticing = lusting then he might think he’s lusting when he’s not. Which could make him think he can’t be trusted when he actually can be.

          • John

            I agree with all of that and I think, hope, pray that any imbalance would be temporary. But this might take out many of a generation men raised this way. I think that many of my generation of men probably need to explicitly take some time out of church leadership (not time out of leading a wholehearted Christian life as followers of Jesus or of being husbands and/or dads), in God’s presence, to understand, repent and heal. Clearly notallmen, and some will heal quicker than others, but some of us may take a long time and some a life time to heal.

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