December 7, 2007

Evangelicals Shift Toward Acceptance on Divorce

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2007 1533 page34 caphen Pentecostal power couple Randy and Paula White recently announced they were headed to divorce court, the most remarkable part of the reaction was that there wasn't much reaction at all.

For increasing numbers of clergy, a divorce no longer generates the
kind of career-killing hue and cry of decades ago, in part because plenty of people in the pews have experienced divorce themselves.

The shifting views on divorced clergy reflect a growing concession
among rank-and-file conservative Christians that a failed marriage is no longer an unforgivable sin.

For many evangelical Christians, the line seems to have shifted from a single acceptable reason for divorce--adultery--to a wider range of reasons that some say can be biblically justified.
"I am probably one of those evangelicals who would say it would be three A's for me," said Chris Bounds, a theologian at Indiana Wesleyan University in Marion, Indiana. "Abuse, abandonment and adultery."

Church Manual--Chapter 15 Marriage, Divorce, and RemarriageWhy Can't Christians Stay MarriedDivorce: Dealing With the UnthinkableThe Divorce and Remarriage Challenge

More Resources With the Whites' breakup, Randy White now leads the Without Walls International Church in Tampa, Florida., and Paula White remains prominent in Christian broadcasting. Not long after they announced their divorce, Atlanta evangelist Juanita Bynum filed for divorce from her husband, Bishop Thomas Weeks III, after he allegedly assaulted her in a hotel parking lot.

Beyond the church, polls by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, indicate the divorce records of GOP presidential candidates Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson and John McCain have not hindered their popularity among white evangelical voters.

Christianity Today
, a magazine that often serves as a barometer of
evangelical culture, published an October cover story called "When to Separate What God Has Joined," in which David Instone-Brewer, a senior research fellow at Tyndale House in Cambridge, England, concluded that adultery, physical and emotional neglect, abuse and abandonment are all biblically justified reasons for divorce.

Mark Galli, the magazine's managing editor, said there is a
simultaneous rejection of divorce in principle but acceptance in practice, in part because almost everyone knows someone who's been there. "I think conservative Christians are becoming more liberalized in the sense of, I guess, making more room for the acceptance of divorce and remarriage," he said. "You'll see a lot of churches that plunge right in and have divorce ministries. ... Marriage is a really difficult thing in our culture right now."

But the reaction to Instone-Brewer's article reflected a lingering
discomfort with divorce; Galli estimated that 60 percent of responding readers had a negative reaction. Prominent author John Piper responded that he found Instone-Brewer's reasoning "tragic" and an "astonishing extension of the divorce license."

Statistics bear out that divorce affects conservative Christians
just as much as anyone else. A study this year by The Barna Group, a California research firm, showed that 27 percent of "born-again" Christians have been divorced, compared to 25 percent of non-born-again Americans. In 2005, Phoenix-based Ellison Research found that 14 percent of clergy have been divorced; the vast majority have remarried.

2007 1533 page34Paula White, in a recent interview, declined to go into detail about her divorce, but stood by statements in her new book  "You're All That!" that God can mend any relationship "if both persons are willing to come into alignment with his principles." She added that no other person's love can be completely fulfilling.

"In fact, I say a healthy relationship is, `I am free to be me, you
are free to be you, and together, we're us,'" she said. "So no one in life can complete you. Nothing can complete you. Only God can absolutely complete you."

Last month, Bynum said her recent marital strife may actually expand her ministry's outreach. "I believe it will absolutely, positively broaden my ability to reach people that probably would not ever have come to a church," she said at an appearance in Birmingham, Alabama. "I'm able to teach on the subject of suffering with experience behind it."

J. Lee Grady, the editor of charismatic and Pentecostal magazine
Charisma, said Bynum may have generated a "sympathy factor" because of the alleged abuse, but the Whites are more unusual because there has been no clear biblical reason given for their split. That leads to a concern by some in charismatic and Pentecostal circles that people can "just flippantly get divorced like you go get a haircut," he said.

The Assemblies of God, a Pentecostal denomination, recently changed
its rules to say that a marriage crisis should not permanently disqualify someone from ministry. The church voted this summer to permit remarried ministers if their divorce occurred because their spouse was unfaithful or was an unbeliever who abandoned them. 

Still, the church does not allow divorced ministers to serve under
all circumstances. "We have not permitted credentialing for those who simply do not get along with one another," said the Rev. George O. Wood, general superintendent of the Assemblies of God. "We feel that would be a scriptural violation."

Bishop Noel Jones, a divorced Pentecostal pastor in Gardena, California., who counts the Whites, Bynum and Weeks as friends, said judgment should be withheld from both high-profile clergy and everyday worshippers going through a divorce.

 "I think that in Christian circles, people are more relaxed about
the reasons," said Jones, a spokesman for FaithMate, an online Christian dating service. "I still think that divorce is pretty much a difficult subject for anybody--and rightfully so, but ... we allow more rules, more worldly concepts to prevail."

Greg Garrison of The Birmingham News contributed to this report.