Commentary
By Angela Denker 5-04-2018

One unintended consequence of recent male sexual misconduct in America, particularly among well-known pastors and Christian leaders, has been a resurgence of what is known as the “Billy Graham Rule” — a code, championed by Billy Graham and followed by some evangelical men, that says married men should not be alone with women other than their wives, under any circumstance.

It’s bogus. Particularly when it's purported to be a part of “faithful Christian" culture.

Highlands Church pastor Les Hughey is only the most recent pastor to be publicly accused of sexual misconduct. This news broke just one week after prominent evangelical pastor Bill Hybels — of Willow Creek, whose wife Lynne has been a public supporter of the #MeToo movement — stepped down amid growing accusations of sexual misconduct and harassment.

It’s a troubling trend among male pastors and church leaders, as well as among Christians in general.

In response, some pastors and faith leaders, like Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary president Danny Akin, are encouraging men yet again to embrace the Billy Graham Rule.

The “Billy Graham Rule” is rooted in an idea that men and women are inherently, uncontrollably (hetero-)sexual beings, and it is designed to discourage any situations in which extramarital temptations could arise.

But I think this whole narrative is a) unbiblical, b) anti-women, and c) factually incorrect. I also think it does men a huge disservice.

Prior to becoming a pastor, I spent five years as a sportswriter, on assignments and as a part of sports departments that were almost exclusively male. I covered the MLB, the NFL, college basketball and the NHL, and spent time in locker rooms of each of those sports. I was the only woman to cover the MLB owners' meetings the year I was there, and the only woman to cover the NHL GM meetings two years in a row. I worked with exclusively male coaches and male sports editors, and I became the first woman beat writer for the hockey team I covered.

After my years in sportswriting, I attended a Lutheran Seminary and was ordained as a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. I served on a large church staff in Las Vegas with two male pastors, and I served as pastor of discipleship and community life at a large church in Orange County with a male senior pastor.

My path has been made possible by several dynamic, caring, respectful men who built relationships with me and gave me opportunities. They have met with me privately, built up relationships with me, mentored me, taught me, prayed with me, eaten with me — and have given me opportunities to lead, to grow, and to share the truth (in journalism) and the Truth (in the church).

And they did this all without pursuing me sexually, sexually harassing me, or cheating on their wives with me.

Forget the Billy Graham Rule. New rule time: I propose the Peter/Joe/Mark/Greg/Ernie/Mark/Michael/Matt/Bob Rule.

Or, more simply: The “Good Friend/Mentor” Rule.

I want to tell you about these men. Because, moms and dads and church leaders — these actions are the kind we should be lifting up in church. These behaviors are the ones we should ask our children to emulate. These are examples of men following the word and example of Jesus.

Pastor Peter Geisendorfer-Lindgren came to the hospital when I was born. He walked me through confirmation and speaking at our high school baccalaureate service. He met with me when I considered seminary, when I had a rough first call following a pastor who — guess what? — committed sexual misconduct. Peter and I have always stayed in touch, connecting over writing, current events, and the state of the church.

Joe Walljasper gave me my first paid sportswriting job for the Columbia Daily Tribune. I joined an all-male sports department at age 20, and Joe trusted me and even sent me with the team to cover the then-Big 12 tournament in Dallas and Kansas City. He put my writing up for awards, and helped me to publish my first story in Sports Illustrated.

Mark Wollemann was my sports editor at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, my first big writing internship. He helped me grow as a writer and believed in me when I took on out-of-the-box assignments, like a front-page takeout on boxing in Minnesota.

Greg Hardwig gave me my first big sportswriting job after college, covering the hockey beat at the Naples Daily News in Naples, Fla. He didn't flinch when the hockey team initially balked at having me (the first female to cover them) in the locker room after games. Greg backed me 100 percent and insisted the team change its policy. They did, almost immediately.

Mark Wickstrom was my pastoral internship advisor and senior pastor of a Lutheran megachurch in Las Vegas. Mark gave me chances to preach and lead at a huge level for just an intern pastor at such a huge church. He and our other pastor, Michael, never once left me out because I was a woman. Mark taught me much of what I know now about preaching, being a pastor, and being a human (really).

Michael Stoops was the assistant pastor in Vegas when I served as intern pastor there. We immediately got along upon first meeting, but then butted heads over relatively trivial things. It took some deep, one-on-one discussions and prayer to make our friendship and teamwork work. And then it did. When we both later ended up serving churches in California, he and his wife, Jacqueline, were the first friends to visit us after the birth of my second son.

Matt Stuhlmuller was one of my best pastor friends in Chicago during my first call, among other pastors my age who I would meet occasionally for meals. His friendship helped me see beyond my small, struggling church, and his advice helped me turn that church around.

Pastor Bob Mooney and I were Facebook friends before we became colleagues. I sent him an email when I saw his church was hiring a new pastor, and we talked on the phone before arranging a visit and interviews. Once I became Bob's colleague pastor in California, he always respected me. Even though he'd served the church for 30 years, he never referred to me as his "associate pastor." He gave me every opportunity to lead, even sharing preaching duties on Christmas and Easter, and consistently promoting me and praising my work to the staff and the church. He never made people choose between us.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention three more names: Ben, Rick, and Dennis, my husband, my father, and my father-in-law, all three of whom have immense respect for women, including in the workplace. Never once have they suggested that women shouldn't hold positions of leadership because of their sex. Never once did any of these men suggest to me that I couldn't work in male-dominated fields.

It is because of the scrupulous, Jesus-following men I've mentioned above — even the ones who wouldn't consider themselves overtly Christian — that I can work in these fields, and feel supported. These men have changed my life, and my friendships with them continue to help me learn, grow, and serve my God.

Men can do better. The Billy Graham Rule thinks too little of men — especially the men I know. Their behaviors make for good friends and/or mentors, worthy of a different rule. 

It's been a rough year. Women continue to face horrific incidences of sexual misconduct, harassment, abuse, and even assault at the hands of powerful men, and those stories are finally coming out: in politics, in Hollywood, and yes, in the church. And I've experienced it, too.

But the answer isn't an antiquated, unfair-to-women, patriarchal dividing of the sexes. It's not in a rule has nothing to do with Jesus and everything to do with male superiority complex, a devaluing of the human body, patriarchy, and oppression of women.

The answer is to lift up the men who get it, the men who love and respect women. These are the men who make America great. These are the men in whose image I want to raise my sons. These are the behaviors that should set the standard of conduct for how men should treat women. Not an outdated evangelical rule that seeks to keep woman powerless, and silent.

The Rev. Angela Denker is a former sportswriter turned Lutheran pastor, writer, speaker — and full-time mom of two little boys — based in Minneapolis. Denker is a contributor to various publications, including The Washington Post, Sports Illustrated, Red Letter Christians, and Living Lutheran. This article is part of Denker's research for her forthcoming book, Red State Christians: Meet the Voters who elected Donald Trump, which will be published by Fortress Press in Summer 2019. Denker blogs at A Good Christian Woman ... Not that One, where she tries to share Jesus' love and refute the rumors about women, Christians, motherhood, and Jesus.

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"Forget the Billy Graham Rule. Let's Try the Good Friend/Mentor Rule"
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