Men and woman CAN be friends – retiring the Billy Graham rule

Men and woman CAN be friends – retiring the Billy Graham rule October 16, 2022

When Harry Met Sally is clearly not a film that’s based on Scripture, and does not teach a correct view of relationships between men and women. However, Billy Graham’s rule, which stipulates that men and women should not  meet alone with each other are unless they are married is more consistent with that movie than with the Bible.  It leads to segregation between men and women, and has had major negative repercussions for many women; especially in the workplace and in christian ministry settings , such as churches. But it also potentially halves our opportunities to make a real difference in people’s lives as we focus on doing small things to bless others.

This subject feels topical as we continue to reflect on the death of Queen Elizabeth. Who, despite being a great admirer of Billy Graham, didn’t adhere to his rule. She certainly regularly met with men by herself, including her weekly private face to face meetings with her Prime Ministers.  Twelve of whom were men.

Perhaps it is time we follow the Apostle Paul’s teaching rather than that of an outdated movie:

“Treat older women as you would your mother, and treat younger women with all purity as you would your own sisters.” (1 Ti 5:2, NLT)

If, as a man ,you would eat a meal with your sister without wanting to take advantage of her sexually,  perhaps you could do the same with a sister in Christ? Or do we agree with the movie’s view which says men and women can’t be friends because  sex always gets in the way?

Paul certainly seemed to follow his own advice, and was close to the women he worked with. For example, see how he speaks with great fondness about one of them in Romans:

“I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a deacon in the church in Cenchrea. Welcome her in the Lord as one who is worthy of honor among God’s people. Help her in whatever she needs, for she has been helpful to many, and especially to me.” (Romans 16:1-2, NLT)

Surely it sounds like the Apostle Paul saw Phoebe as a very close friend?

For me personally, especially in the last year, I have developed close friendships with several women of whom I would also say “she has been very helpful to me“. They know who they are.

Jesus also did not follow the rule that his most famous follower made for himself almost two thousand years later. Our Saviour famously sat at a well, when nobody was around, and had a long conversation with a Samaritan woman who he asked to get him a drink. Oh the scandal if he had been a modern Christian pastor!

Jesus was also known to travel with a group of women who freely mingled with his male disciples:

He took his twelve disciples with him, along with some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases. Among them were Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons; Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s business manager; Susanna; and many others who were contributing from their own resources to support Jesus and his disciples. (Luke 8:1-3)

Jesus also had an ongoing friendship with Lazarus’ two sisters, Mary and Martha who he loved (John 11:5). He met with each of them separately and privately when their brother died. The fact that he also openly wept may have endeared Jesus to women as often men hide their tears.

Jesus even allowed a “woman of the city” which we believe to be a euphemism for a prostitute, to approach him and intimately touch, kiss and cry all over his feet.  This could be, and was, misinterpreted by some onlookers.

And in the Old Testament we see in 1 Kings 17 that Elijah stays overnight in a house with a widow whose son later died and was then raised to life.

It is strikingly clear that even in ancient Bible times, men and women were able to be friends.

Comedian, and TV host, Steve Harvey has a famous clip that has been doing the rounds on Facebook, where he says it is impossible for a man to have a friend who is a woman. He says that all men who claim to be platonic friends with a woman are  secretly hoping that, one day, they will be able to have sex with that woman.

In this version of the clip, some younger talk show hosts discuss this belief. They argue that, whilst Steve Harvey, who is on his third marriage, may well be right about himself and many other men, his perspective is not applicable to all, and that there are some men who ARE capable of treating women with respect.

I loved the comment from a woman in this clip:

“If you don’t have any female friends I’m going to think there is something wrong with you and that you don’t know how to look at a woman as something other than somebody you would sleep with.”

Steve Harvey’s clip has generated a lot of commentary. In this example  a video from the Daily Wire clearly agrees with Harvey and disagrees with the ideas I express in this article:

“A woman who wants to be just friends with a guy will have to try and imitate the relationship between two men. She’ll have to try and blend in with the guys. She’ll have to try and fit herself into the category of a male-male friendship. Basically become a man by default for the purposes of the friendship . . . there is no authentic category of a close male female heterosexual platonic friendship, it doesn’t exist.” Daily Wire

The truth is, however, that some men struggle with stereotypical male-male friendships.  Elsewhere in the clip, the speaker says that men just want to down beers and presumably watch sport and grunt a bit. However, the truth is that many men do not fit particularly well into the alpha male stereotype, and ,shock horror, might actually get on better with women!

The Wire video cited some research which has also generated some coverage with shock headlines and frank admissions by journalists that they had harboured long term aspirations towards sex with some of their female friends.  The Daily Mail starkly reports, “Sorry, ladies – but we men can NEVER just be your friends” and then spends most of the article talking about the journalist’s rather clumsy attempts to seduce his own unsuspecting female friends.

The Scientific American also claimed the research showed that,

“we may think we’re capable of being “just friends” with members of the opposite sex, but the opportunity (or perceived opportunity) for “romance” is often lurking just around the corner, waiting to pounce at the most inopportune moment . . . Although women seem to be genuine in their belief that opposite-sex friendships are platonic, men seem unable to turn off their desire for something more. ” Scientific American 

If you look at the original research, it is more balanced and does not support these conclusions.  It does not say that it is impossible for men and women to be friends, quite the opposite. It doesn’t even say that all men will always feel attracted towards their female friends.  It does not even seem to fully distinguish between finding someone attractive and actually wanting to have sex with them, which are clearly not the same thing.  After all I am sure many men might describe a  female relative as attractive, but the vast majority would not consider them as a potential mate.

The article is looking at average levels of attraction which is a common psychological way of looking at the data i.e. it considered all the men and women in the study as an average group rather than looking at which individuals did or did not report attraction.  So it is not appropriate to use this article to say  that it is not possible to have friendships with a member of the opposite sex. It makes interesting reading though. Here is some of what they conclude:

“Cross-sex friendship has been described as a voluntary, cooperative, non-romantic alliance between members of the opposite sex . . .

The history of research on cross-sex friendship is brief, perhaps because cross-sex friendship itself is considered a historical novelty and because over the lifespan cross- sex friendships are less common than same-sex friendships are . .  . cross-sex friends confront four major challenges: determining the type of emotional bond shared, facing sexuality in the relationship, presenting the relationship as an authentic friendship to outsiders, and addressing equality in the context of gender inequality . . .

The media portrays ‘‘normal’’ relationships between men and women as sexual, and hence non-sexual relationships between men and women as strange and essentially impossible . . .

Attraction between cross-sex friends is common, and it is perceived more often as a burden than as a benefit.” read the original research

Nobody is disputing that sometimes the desire to have sex can be an issue between friends, but that is not the same thing as saying it always is an issue, or that it is such a problem that it makes such relationships always impossible; or at least inadvisable.   I do understand that many men DO have the kind of sexual feelings and intenstions towards their female friends that are assumed by Harvey,  and When Harry Met Sally.  But I am not convinced that all men are like that. Nor am I convinced that men should be like that.


Seeing women only as potential sexual partners demeans them

Objectifying women and seeing them as simply a temptation to sexual sin degrades them. I can’t help but wonder if such a view of women even increases the risk of people having inappropriate casual sex and even rape.

One passage often used to support the idea men and women can’t safely be friends is found in Proverbs 5 (here in her NIV).

For the lips of the adulterous woman drip honey,
    and her speech is smoother than oil;
but in the end she is bitter as gall,
    sharp as a double-edged sword.
Her feet go down to death;
    her steps lead straight to the grave.
She gives no thought to the way of life;
    her paths wander aimlessly, but she does not know it.

Now then, my sons, listen  to me;
do not turn aside from what I say.
Keep to a path far from her,

 do not go near the door of her house

lest you lose your honor to others
and your dignity to one who is cruel,

This speaks of a seductive promiscuous woman who is clearly inviting men to adultery, which in the context is clearly sex with a married woman. These types of women do exist, and we would be wise to keep well away from them.

However, the passage does not assume all women are like this!  It says avoid the door of the promiscuous, adulterous, tempting woman,  not every woman’s door.  It is very damaging to women to label them all as dangerous to men as though simply being in a woman’s presence means you won’t be able to stop yourself from having sex with them.

There is a very toxic view of women held by some Christian men that sees them ALL as temptresses, and blames them for enticing men to think of them sexually. Much if what passes for modesty teaching is based on this premise, that woman are somehow responsible for making men see them as sexual objects. Some even horrifically claim that women who are raped were somehow asking for it.

Men cannot pass the buck to women for their disgraceful thoughts.  Men must take responsibility for handling their own internal thought life. and the stimulus that provokes it. Overly rigid restrictions might well make things worse.  Rules usually do not have the intended effect at restraining our desires. Paul puts it this way:

You have died with Christ, and he has set you free from the spiritual powers of this world. So why do you keep on following the rules of the world, such as, Don’t handle! Don’t taste! Don’t touch!”? Such rules are mere human teachings about things that deteriorate as we use them. These rules may seem wise because they require strong devotion, pious self-denial, and severe bodily discipline. But they provide no help in conquering a person’s evil desires. (Colossians 2:20-23, NLT)

It is often only when you see a sign that says “do not walk on the grass” that the desire to walk on the grass becomes almost irresistible.

Christians have an unfortunate habit of taking a principle that someone once found helpful, and turning it into a commandment for everyone. When in 1948 Billy Graham decided never to spend time alone with a woman who was not his wife, including not eating dinner together on a business lunch, it was a different era.  He was embarking on what would become the most high profile Christian ministry in history. He was no doubt concerned about photographs appearing in newspapers which might compromise that ministry.

Billy Graham was ministering at a time when the relationships between men and women in the church and workplace were very different to today.

You cannot understand any of the issues regarding the relationships between men and women without considering how our society has changed in the last 100 years.  Men and women now work together, study together, go to clubs and bars together, and share homes together even when single.

We are encouraged to interact together as men and women in every way in Western society and most people recognise that simply being together with a person, particularly in a public place, does not mean you have to jump into bed with them!

One of the reasons for the old boy network is that it is often easier to get a job because of who you know. If women were denied the opportunity to form such networks via business lunches, the glass ceiling would continue to be a problem.

In most churches today, women will also be involved in ministry and may be employed by the church in a way that simply wasn’t the case in Billy Graham’s day. Almost all churches have gone on a journey in the last 100 years towards a more inclusive view of the role of women in ministry and leadership. Even in churches where pastors or elders are still required to be men, it is now almost universal that women are encouraged into various other ministry roles in church.

If men and women are working alongside each other in church, and the workplace, surely they are going to need to forge friendships, and if they are not allowed to do this, it will inhibit their ability to do their job.  Indeed it has been suggested that the Billy Graham rule applied in any working environment would be illegal since it would amount to unfair sexual discrimination and could contribute to a hostile working environment for women.

In fact, perhaps in an acknowledgement that times had changed, Billy Graham actually flexed his own rule later in life to have a private meeting with Hilary Clinton on a table at  a public dining room.



The risks of male – female friendships

Friends will need to address any issues of temptation to inappropriate sexual liaisons that might come up. But most of us will find that provided you are sensible, and know how to firmly label someone as “not available”,  then these temptations will not be a barrier. The so called friend zone really does exist.

After all most of us do not harbour sexual fantasies about members of our extended family who are of the opposite sex. So we are capable of putting the opposite sex into box where they are “off limits”.

To be honest if almost every person of the opposite sex you meet turns you on,  or you see them as as potential conquest, then you have bigger problems to deal with than deciding whether you can take your colleague on an innocent business lunch when you are traveling together for work.

The real way to resist any temptations towards sexual liaisons is to deal with your heart. If you love God, love your partner (if you have one), love your kids, love your friends or colleagues, even dare I say it if you love platonically the person you are talking to, all those loves should drive away urges to inappropriately peruse a sexual relationship.

Receiving and understanding grace and the hope that it gives should have a neutralising effect on the lure towards all sins.

Some people do pursue casual sexual relationships with multiple partners (some do feel ok with that morally). But even most of them are perfectly able to distinguish between who they feel are appropriate targets for such attentions and those who are off limits. Some of the most sexually promiscuous individuals are still able to have friends of the opposite sex who they never pursue in a sexual way.

The benefits of male – female friendships

Those who have a very conservative view of this issue risk missing out on the huge blessings that can come into your life from male – female friendships.

I have certainly found recently that there is a huge value in having friends of the opposite sex who are for me, but where neither of us want to pursue a romantic relationship.

The frequent circumstance, where only one person fancies  the other, is clearly going to be harder to navigate.  It will be important to be absolutely honest clear and open about what is and is not on the table.  I am not talking about us trapping some poor soul who is dreaming of a future that will never happen into a one-sided and distressing limerence. Indeed it is questionable whether such a friendship could ever work, and if one or both parties do have romantic feelings for the other a time apart with no contact may be the best way to give them a chance to resolve and heal.

But there are huge opportunities to experience the delightful difference of the other sex without getting into a romantic relationship. Men and women are different. They have different perspectives.  They have different approaches. They are different in how they like to converse.

Some men will naturally find that they are more comfortable chatting with women than other men. Perhaps they like to discuss feelings and share what is happening in more detail than the typical man does. Maybe they get frustrated with the minimal grunts offered in between watching the game or drinking beer that some men consider a conversation.

Some women also say they feel more comfortable in friendships with men too.  This is not necessarily pathological! Friendships across the gender divide can offer us so much.

In addition, if you have had difficulties in romantic relationships with those of the other sex in the past, often one of the most healing ways to address that is to develop non romantic friendships with the opposite sex.  Some dating apps, including Christian connection allow you to indicate that you are currently only looking for such friendships.

It is likely that if you aren’t able to first make such platonic friendships, you will  also struggle to forge a good quality romantic relationship.  After all we all know that any enduring romantic relationship that may lead to marriage must have friendship at its core.  Since a friendship where romance is off the table is actually much less stressful it can be such a healthy bridge to healing and almost act as a training environment in how to relate in an less pressurised environment.

In short, times have changed, and it seems that for most of us it is time to retire the Billy Graham rule.  That does not mean that we should abandon all wisdom on these matters, however.

What if I am married?

If you are married or in a romantic relationship it would be very advisable to talk about all this with your partner before embarking on any new friendship with someone of the opposite sex.  Attitudes will vary dramatically, and you and your partner will know each other well and no doubt will have clear views on what is and is not wise and appropriate for you as individuals. There is much more that could be written about how to ensure that any friendship is both innocent and is also perceived to be beyond reproach.

Certainly this article will provide no excuse for any reprehensible behaviour such as embarking on a cross sex friendship which you decide to keep secret from your partner.  Clearly any relationship you carry out must be done in the open and with the full knowledge of your partner.   There is nothing more calculated to break trust or put us at risk of making stupid decisions than keeping things hidden in the dark that should be freely known in the light.

Perhaps this verse is a good place to leave our discussion today:

God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth.  But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. (1 John 1:5-7, NLT)

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