In 1995, Charles Stanley, pastor of Atlanta's First Baptist Church and one of America's best-known preachers, announced that he and his wife of 44 years had separated. He told his congregation that, if the separation turned to divorce, he would resign immediately. Well, a few weeks ago, the other shoe dropped. Stanley announced that the divorce was final, a great personal tragedy. But instead of resigning as he promised five years ago, Stanley vowed to stay on as senior pastor. He characterized it as being "faithful to God's call." I have deep respect and affection for Charles Stanley, and I know that God has used him to reach many people for Christ. I also know full well that, despite their best efforts, Christian marriages sometimes fail, resulting in great pain for those involved. I pray I'm not being self-righteous or too harsh, but I must say what I believe. Sadly, I think Stanley has made a mistake, that he should keep his promise, and that he should resign. What makes this all the more galling is the justification the church's administrative pastor used in speaking to the congregation. Rev. Gearl Spicer said, "It is my biblical, spiritual, and personal conviction that God has positioned Dr. Stanley in a place where his personal pain has validated his ability to minister to all of us." In other words, Stanley's divorce enables him to be a better shepherd of his flock? This is pure Clinton-speak. Those of us who criticized the President for quibbling over words to defend his sordid behavior have to be even-handed. And what was wrong for Mr. Clinton is certainly wrong for the pastor of one America's leading churches. I was particularly saddened to learn that the good people of Stanley's congregation actually applauded after Spicer put the spin on it. Have our churches become so accustomed to moral failure that we applaud it? If this is the test of being a good shepherd, should we also endorse pedophiles as pastors so they can better empathize with people who commit child abuse? How far do you carry this preposterous argument? Stanley's decision places his fellow Baptists in a difficult position. In 1998, the General Convention called on states to revoke "no fault" divorce laws. Yet now a former president of the Convention is using these very same laws to secure a divorce without consequences. If Charles Stanley can do this, then how can Southern Baptists presume to speak to their neighbors about marital fidelity? The effects of this case, you see, go far beyond the situation in Atlanta. There's already great resistance to Christian moral teaching, and a case like this makes it much tougher for us. I'm certain there's a role for Charles Stanley in the Christian world, but he needs first a time for personal repentance and healing. Biblical standards for pastors are very high, and rightly so. 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. I believe Charles Stanley is a good and faithful servant who will reconsider his decision and, with the encouragement of the church deacons, do the right thing -- which means putting the integrity of the message first, even at his own personal cost.
June 13, 2000
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