Hours after the Revs. Randy and Paula White announced their impending divorce last week, Christians began discussing how the evangelical power couple had come undone.
It had, in fact, been a tough week for televangelist couples.
The day before the White’s revelation, Atlanta Bishop Thomas W. Weeks III alledgedly assaulted his estranged wife, evangelist Juanita Bynum, in a hotel parking lot. The couple had met to discuss reconciliation. But it turned violent when Weeks choked, kicked and threatened to kill his wife, police said.
Both couples’ histrionics – the Whites made their announcement from the pulpit of their Tampa church Aug. 23 – rocked the evangelical world and left many tongues wagging about the state of clerical marriage and the ability of divorced clerics to minister. In both relationships, each of the ministers had been divorced before.
“The clergy is supposed to be setting an example for the other lay families,” said Adair T. Lummis, a faculty associate at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut. “It looks strange to people.”
At Without Walls International Church, the Whites’ megaministry, Randy White told members that he expected some in the congregation to leave because of their divorce. Indeed, a small exodus appears to have begun. But plenty of the church’s 22,000 members say they will continue to support their pastors.
“From my understanding, they’ve been through counseling for quite a long period of time, and if things don’t work, they just don’t work,” said member Stewart Yoder, 45. “We have to forgive. … My heart breaks, but God knows what is best.”
Patty Gray, a seven-year Without Walls member, says her support of the Whites won’t waiver.
“You don’t just run out on people,” said Gray, a divorcee who recently remarried. “You support them to the end. … They’re great people, but we have to remember they’re human as well.”
Biblical scholars have long disagreed about divorce, with each side pointing to conflicting scriptural passages that seem to forbid or show compassion toward divorce. Most agree that the Bible allows for divorce in cases of adultery or violence, but agreement seems to end there.
Some conservatives call divorce a sin, saying it should disqualify pastors from preaching and offering services such as marital counseling. That stance harks to a time in some Christian denominations where clerics who divorced were removed from their pulpits and, in some cases, put out of churches.
But even the strictest of conservatives hold that such a lack of compassion is unnecessary in today’s church.
“Pastors have to be allowed to be human,” said Glenn Stanton, the director of research for family formation studies at Focus on the Family, a conservative Christian organization in Colorado. “But on issues of divorce, we stand with God with this in that he states very clearly in Malachi, ‘I hate divorce.'”
More liberal Christians hold that divorce no longer has the stigma it once did.
“As divorce has become more pervasive in our society, I think it’s less and less of a liability for a minister to have been divorced,” said John P. Bartkowski, a sociology professor at Mississippi State University who has studied divorce and Christianity. “Pastors are given, if not a complete pass, more leeway when there’s not an extramarital affair involved.”
Divorce more common
The public’s softening stance on divorce may reflect the reality in the pews. A 2004 study by the Barna Group showed that the number of divorced Christians mirrors the rate of non-Christian divorcees.
Still, consensus on the issue of ministering after divorce remains afar off. Among conservative ministers, reaction to the White’s divorce has been mixed.
The Rev. T.L. Lowery, a longtime leader in the Church of God based in Cleveland, Tenn., who has served as a mentor to the Whites since the early days of their ministry, said their announcement grieves his heart. But he also said God provides forgiveness.
“While we do not support divorce, we still love Randy and Paula very deeply,” said Lowery in a statement. “We are committed to provide them with personal love and spiritual guidance according to the word of God and the direction of the Holy Spirit.”
Despite split views on ministering after divorce, separated clerics can look to several pastors who have been able to sustain and grow their ministries after their marriages ended. Some even are able to use the experience to connect with followers.
It’s a notion that White, who has long preached about her troubled childhood, and Bynum, who made a name for herself by offering her seemingly charmed Christian life as an example of redemption after being sexually promiscuous, might consider.
“They could say, ‘Look I’ve failed,'” Lummis said. “I’m going to be much more sensitive to what you’re going through and would be able to give you better advice than someone who’s been happily married.”
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.
Other cases: Televangelists divorced, still ministering
At one time, divorce among clerics meant the instant demise of a pastoral career. But across denominational lines, the reaction toward clerical divorce seems to be softening.
Jim Bakker – Former head of PTL ministries. Marriage to Tammy Faye ended in 1992. Remarried.
John Hagee – Pastor of the Cornerstone Church in San Antonio. First marriage ended in 1975. Remarried the next year.
Noel Jones – Pastor, City of Refuge Church near Los Angeles. Divorced in early 1990s. Single.
Clarence McClendon – Senior pastor of Full Harvest International Church, Southern California. Divorced wife of 16 years in 2000. Remarried.
Joyce Meyer – Leads Joyce Meyer Ministries. Divorced first husband in 1966. Remarried in 1967.
Robert A. Schuller – Senior pastor of the Crystal Cathedral Ministries in Southern California. Divorced in 1984. Remarried that same year.
Charles Stanley – Senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Atlanta. Marriage ended in 2000 after 44 years. Single.
Robert Tilton – Former head of the Word of Faith World Outreach Center Church. Twice divorced. Remarried.
Sources: Times archives and wires