The Confusion about Boundaries between Men and Women in Churches

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It would be the last time I met with Billy Graham before his death. He was not feeling well enough to get out of bed, but he welcomed Nellie Jo and me like when we were long-time friends. The reality was that we had only been with the famed evangelist a few times. This visit in his rustic North Carolina cabin seemed different. He was much more reflective than on previous visits. 

At one point, Billy Graham pointed to a portrait of his wife, Ruth. If there were any other wall hangings in his bedroom, I do not recall them. His voice was at his strongest when he said three brief words, “I miss her.” 

I Remember 

I remember how he said those words with deep emotion and meaning. I remember how he often spoke of the love he had for Ruth. I remember how he was faithful to her. I remember how he kept his integrity to death, not succumbing to the temptations of power, money, and sex. 

Though I never heard it directly from him, I remember reading in multiple sources that Billy Graham and his team made some key decisions as their new organization was in its formative stages. They made voluntary commitments to maintain their integrity in the areas of power, sex, and money. 

The “Rule” 

Though Billy Graham and his team never called them “rules,” they made several commitments. The most well-known was their decision never to be alone with a person of the opposite sex other than their spouses.  

Billy Graham kept his integrity throughout his earthly ministry. Though viewed by many as a man of great power, prestige, and influence, he remained faithful, caring, and humble. His commitments to his wife, his ministry team, and his God were steadfast and enduring his entire life. 

Navigating the Confusion 

We at Church Answers have received several questions in light of recent issues of moral failure and, most recently, communication with someone of the opposite sex. Without all the facts, it can be confusing to understand what to do. Perhaps we can mostly agree on a few tenets that, taken together, can help guard our hearts, minds, and integrity.  

  • Ask what Jesus would do. We know enough about our Savior and his unscathed integrity to emulate him always. 
  • Never spend time alone with a person of the opposite sex other than your spouse. I have been criticized for this stand. Some of my critics view it as legalistic and potentially unfair to females in situations where the men far outnumber the women. Others have pointed out dating as an exception. Still, I stand by this commitment. It has served me well. 
  • Run from pornography. Many leaders who failed morally have shared stories about the traps of pornography and how it leads to other forms of immorality. 
  • Read the Bible every day. Those who choose to hear from God each day will be less likely to stray morally. He is our compass. He is our truth. 
  • Pray every day. Like Bible reading, prayer is a discipline where we hear from God every day.  
  • Regard others, and specifically others of the opposite sex, as those who have been created in the image of God. We are much less likely to attempt to conquer, demean, or abuse those whom we see as God’s image bearers. 

While these six guidelines do not answer the specificity of all situations, they can provide the guardrails we so desperately need. And though I obviously do not know all situations, I personally do not know anyone who followed these guidelines and had moral failure. 

I would love to hear your thoughts on this matter. 

Posted on September 19, 2022


With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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21 Comments

  • I agree with all of the stated reasons for keeping this rule. I will add that any position of power comes the unavoidable reality that people will be mad at you no matter how reasonable or biblical your decision-making process went into whatever makes them mad. All it takes is one person manufacturing and spreading lies in an attempt to discredit you. This is despicable behavior. Just don’t give that person any weapons to use against you. Don’t even give something to create the perception.
    In this day of electronic communication, I would add that the pastor have a trusted third party privy to all email and/or social media messages. The pastor will have to state this up-front so that no one feels that confidentiality is violated, just as when having another person sit in on counseling sessions, but it’s a better alternative to having an accusation that turns into one person’s word against another.

  • “Never spend time alone with a person of the opposite sex other than your spouse.”

    That may sound harsh and legalistic, but I’ve been a pastor long enough to appreciate its wisdom. By the grace of God, I’ve not fallen into that trap, but I have friends who weren’t so fortunate. These were godly men whom I would never have suspected of moral compromise, but they let their guard down, and that’s exactly what happened to them. I firmly believe one of the worst things a Christian can say is, “It’ll never happen to me.” When you start thinking like that, there’s a good chance that the devil has you right where he wants you.

  • Very well said, point taken! It’s an issue that will always be relevant.

  • I too have followed the BG rule of not being alone with a woman in a closed room. When I need to counsel with women it is understood upfront that my wife will be in the room with me, or if for privacy reasons it must only be the two of us, it will take place in a glass enclosed office and my wife will be in the adjacent room. No exceptions.

    Another thing to consider having boundaries with are phone calls. Far too often lines are crossed which can then lead to something physical between the pastor and the female he is counseling on the phone.

    To me, avoidance is the critical component in not falling into moral failure.

  • I have been in ministry for almost 30 years and we have female ministers. I have maintained the Billy Graham rule and it has worked for me as well. However, I do have meetings alone (in rooms with glass) but I never go out and eat alone with another woman other than my wife. Judge me if you want, but go ahead and enjoy your freedom if God has granted it. I will maintain this rule as long as I am alive.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Thanks so much, Tim.

    • Deborah Murphy says on

      We should always guide whats been entrusted to us.the Bible says to Shun all apperance of evil. How do it look if we are out with the opposite sex without our spouse ?Even when We are single We should always be among other people and not alone with someone of the opposite sex .

  • Thank you for this thoughtful article. I am a female volunteer ministry head in our parish. My denomination is very male dominated. I often work with my parish priest and depending on what project we may be working on, we have no choice but to sometimes work alone. We have complete trust and respect for each other. We have discussed Billy Graham’s “manifesto” as he called it. What we have done is to intentionally we bring it to the light. For instance, I always share with my husband when I will be working at the church. I always go through to front office to greet others and let them know I am there. Even if the door is closed, the office window blinds are always left open. We always sit with empty chairs between us. I know that Jesus set the standard for integrity, I also know He loved and counted on women to serve Him and support His ministry. I know that St Paul worked with and mentioned women by name. I believe it can be done, it just requires extra steps and intentionality. I hope this comment is received with the humility in which is was written. As a woman it is not always easy to serve our church I persevere with faith and integrity to honor the Lord, my husband and my family, the Church, and my priest and his family.
    Thank you for all the work you do.

  • I appreciate you sharing about this critical and sensitive issue, which we too often avoid. As a pastor, I’m very intentional about setting and keeping boundaries as well as expressing the need for the leaders of the church to do the same. However, I failed to share this important conversation with the entire congregation. I find too often my presence and position as a single female pastor tends to draw men, not excluding females more than I anticipate. The need for spiritual counseling is always the basis for wanting to meet with me. However, I’m not alone with any, and my focus is always on Christ and helping them to see Jesus. Maintaining my integrity is very important as well as the leaders of my church. Once again thank you for sharing these guidelines. I will certainly have this conversation and share with all the members of my congregation.

  • Very tough issue especially in these days when women are everywhere in the work force and where we don’t want to treat them as second class in any regard. But safeguards are so greatly needed, with grace and occasional flexibility (and immediate accountability). “Regard older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity.” (1 Tim. 5:2).

  • Phil McLain says on

    Wherever our thoughts go, our actions follow.

  • Pastor Tricia Barnes-Garback says on

    I understand the idea behind never spending time alone with someone of the opposite sex. After all the scandals of infidelity, people can be scared. However, this attitude is not only no longer workable, but deeply misogynistic.
    When only men were doing the work of the church, this might have made sense. These days, there are far more women in leadership positions. How are you supposed to run a church with a male pastor and female head of trustees if they can never meet? Or in my case, a female pastor and a male head of Staff Parish Committee? How can I discuss staff issues protected BY PRIVACY LAW if we cannot be in a room together?
    There are a lot of problems in this modern world, and one of the most serious is the lack of trust. If we cannot trust our fellow workers in the faith, if we cannot trust our spouses, we aren’t moving forward in love and trust with Christ either.
    All due respect to the Rev. Graham, that rule must go.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Your points are well made. Indeed, they clearly reflect the criticisms I receive about my position.

      My counter is that the boundaries I take are only between one man and one woman alone. It certainly does not apply if three or more people are in the room. Also, if there are matters of privacy, the meeting could take place in a room with glass. When I was CEO of a large company, I frequently met with female executives alone. But my office had plenty of glass and there was an assistant with clear visibility to the meeting. When I was a pastor of a church, I only met with females alone if a volunteer or assistant was present and could see us visibly.

      The bottom line for me was that I was able to find a way for such meetings to take place. I could always find ways to keep the boundaries intact if I truly desired to do so.

      Thank you, though, for your input. It’s important for everyone to see and hear both sides of this issue. You articulate the other perspective well.

      • Thom, from experience, even adhering to those rules and boundaries does not guarantee that a pastor cannot be accused of misconduct. Accusations can be made and if there is no policy which addresses the contingencies which “violate” the standard, e.g., a pastor who works in a building alone receives a call from a congregant (gender and sexual preference are immaterial in this case) in the office and there’s not another person in the building, what steps are taken to prevent the appearance of inappropriate contact and conduct.

        Boundaries have to be maintained. The biggest boundary the pastor can enforce is to know the person they are meeting with. Minimizing the power differential and making physical boundaries and separation is important. Knowing the mental state of the other person and their ability to push your (the pastor’s) buttons is also critically important.

        What is the ideal? Never meet with another person alone.
        What is the reality? If you have to meet with another person alone, create and enforce boundaries that will protect both of you.

      • Thom Rainer says on

        Good commonsense thoughts, Les.

    • Go to the head of the class, Pastor Tricia Help me to understand how this works.