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Colson: Stanley should resign

National | For the "credibility of the entire evangelical church," Colson's radio commentary calls on fellow Christian broadcaster Stanley to honor his promise to resign now that divorce is final

Issue: "Nifty 50 Books," July 1, 2000

Although Pastor Charles Stanley of 13,000-member First Baptist Church of Atlanta served as president of the Southern Baptist Convention for two years in the 1980s, he is not part of the inner circle of SBC's conservative leaders. That's partly because he keeps mostly to himself, his church, and his $40-million-a-year InTouch Ministries (his messages are aired on more than 500 radio stations in 14 languages, nearly 150 TV stations, and several TV satellite networks). And it's partly because his marital troubles have been in the public eye for at least seven years-culminating in divorce in May. Nobody mentioned his divorce on the platform at the SBC annual meeting in Orlando last month, but clusters of ministers and others discussed it in the corridors. And one fellow Southern Baptist and broadcaster took it very public. On June 13, the opening day of the SBC meeting, Prison Fellowship's Charles Colson on his nationwide "BreakPoint" radio commentary (heard on 1,000-plus stations) criticized Mr. Stanley, his staff, and the church for the way they handled the Stanley divorce. He said Mr. Stanley should make good on his promise to resign. "Given the already high divorce rate among Baptists, the last thing we need to do is to give one of our own leaders a pass, no matter how much we may respect him," said Mr. Colson, a member of First Baptist Church, Naples, Fla. Anna Stanley first sued for divorce in 1995. That August, Mr. Stanley stepped down from administrative duties at the church and told his congregation if and when the divorce became final, he would resign. The church's rules prohibit men from serving as deacons or ministers if they are divorced. However, the deacons intervened and by a vote of 35 to 3 recommended the congregation retain him as pastor. Nearly 90 percent of about 5,000 members at an October 1995 meeting voted to accept the deacons' recommendation. (The church was in the process of relocating to the northern suburbs; an expensive new complex was underway.) In protest, some members and several senior staff resigned-including Mr. Stanley's son Andy, who said his father should have left the pulpit. Andy Stanley a few months later founded North Point Community Church, today a booming church in nearby Dunwoody. Mrs. Stanley agreed to withdraw the divorce suit and work for a reconciliation. Things seemed hopeful by 1998, then fell apart again. Last February, she again filed for divorce, and a judge issued a final decree May 11, ending the 44-year union. Mr. Stanley partly blamed "childhood difficulties." He didn't say whose. No one has alleged infidelity. Mr. Stanley repeatedly rejected counsel of evangelical leaders who suggested he take a year or two away from the pulpit "to get his life together." Three different sources confirmed this to WORLD but none would speak for the record and none would be more specific for fear of betraying confidences. (WORLD tried to reach Mr. Stanley for comment, but his assistant said the minister declines to speak with reporters about the matter.) Mr. Stanley told his congregation he was committed to "remain faithful to God's call" as their pastor. Speaking on behalf of the church's leaders in late May, administrative pastor Gearl Spicer suggested God "has positioned Dr. Stanley in a place where his personal pain has validated his ability to minister to all of us." Members of the congregation applauded. A "galling" remark, "pure Clinton-speak," Mr. Colson declared on BreakPoint. "Have our churches become so accustomed to moral failure that we applaud it?" Mr. Colson expressed "respect and affection" for Mr. Stanley and said there's a role for him in the Christian world, "but he needs first a time for personal repentance and healing." Mr. Colson told WORLD he did the broadcast "with only the greatest reluctance, but the issue had to be addressed for the sake of credibility of the entire evangelical church." He said he'd criticized publicly only one other leader in 24 years: Jim Bakker of now defunct PTL. Mr. Colson said he would apologize on a later broadcast for not having contacted Mr. Stanley prior to the broadcast (he did afterward), and he would clarify the record to show that Mrs. Stanley was the one who sued for divorce. Other than that, he added, he stands behind everything he said. Officials at BreakPoint said some stations declined to air the broadcast but some others had decided to drop the InTouch programs. Outgoing SBC president Paige Patterson told reporters he is "deeply sympathetic with the sorrow I know all of the Stanley family must feel over this. It ought to be a wake-up call for America that if something like this can happen to the Stanley family, it shows how much society has lost its bearings."

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Edward E. Plowman
Edward E. Plowman

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