Pat Robertson, dementia and the easy out of divorce

Pat Robertson recently argued on the "The 700 Club" that it would be morally justified to divorce a spouse who has Alzheimer’s in order to marry someone else. When questioned about this by his co-host, Robertson argued that a divorce would not break one’s vow to remain married “until death us do part” because Alzheimer’s is a “kind of death."

Robertson has since backtracked, but his initial response raises the issue of what Biblical commitment means within the context of marriage.

My mom has severe dementia. I wonder sometimes how dad would have dealt with mom’s inability to converse, her talking in the present tense about people who are long dead and her need for constant watchful care. Getting even closer to home, I wonder how I would cope if my wife Bev developed dementia. Considering my genes, she will more likely be the wife who must tend to a husband who has lost his memory. Bev has such character, grace and love that I have full confidence that she will stay with me and love me no matter what happens to my mind and memory. I would stay with her too.

In response to Robertson’s statement, Russell D. Moore asserts in a Christianity Today article, “This is more than an embarrassment. This is more than cruelty. This is a repudiation of the gospel of Jesus Christ.” Moore argues, correctly in my opinion, that in the Christian worldview marriage is more than a commitment between a man and a woman; it is a sign of the love of Christ for his church. Referencing Ephesians 5, Moore argues, “This love is defined not as the hormonal surge of romance but as a self-sacrificial crucifixion of self. The husband pictures Christ when he loves his wife by giving himself up for her.”

Robertson’s cavalier approach to the marriage commitment reflects our culture's cavalier attitude toward commitment. Any disability or severe sickness could be considered a “kind of death” in a marriage relationship, and one spouse could use it to justify divorce.

But true Christians understand that love is not based on convenience, but rather on commitment. Once I heard Norman Chee, a pastor, speak about an experience when he and his wife were engaged. In an accident, Chee lost a hand and forearm. When he called his fiance and told her about the loss, he told her that he would understand if she no longer wanted to marry him. She wouldn’t hear of it, and they did marry.

Christianity Today also featured a marvelous article by Robertson McQuilkin explaining his decision to resign as president of Columbia Bible College and Seminary in South Carolina in order to care for his wife, Muriel, who had Alzheimer’s. Though he does discuss promise making and keeping, he does not frame his decision as a cross he must bear. Rather, he concludes, “It is all more than keeping promises and being fair, however. As I watch her brave descent into oblivion, Muriel is the joy of my life. Daily I discern new manifestations of the kind of person she is, the wife I always loved. I also see fresh manifestations of God's love - the God I long to love more fully.”

I hope no one decides for divorce after hearing Robertson's poor and unbiblical suggestion. I firmly believe that people who follow our promise-keeping God by making and keeping promises are those who experience life to its fullest.

(Photo courtesy of iStockphoto.)

Mark Stephenson served as pastor of two churches for a total of 17 years and is currently the Director of Disability Concerns for the Christian Reformed Church. This piece originally appeared on The Network.

Comments (10)

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I think your analysis here is correct and good. I also think the dilemma that Robertson was addressing so ham-handedly is an unfortunate outgrowth of our society that supports marriage and family, but not other kinds of friendships and community. Certainly a convalescing spouse will not provide you with the support and companionship you need, but the solution isn't to divorce her (or him) and marry someone else, it is to nurture other relationships. That Robertson couldn't think of a way to fill those needs besides divorcing and remarrying points to the lack of relational imagination in our culture.
there will come a time wen ppl will start preaching false doctrines to suit their own needs and listen to seducing spirits...the Bible was clear on that, rite..? correct me if im wrong in any aspect..
may God guide those on the wrong path...Amen.
Agreed. It seems that a relationship with a spouse within the context of a larger supportive community would be a lot healthier overall. I worry when I talk to people who are married and don't seem to have close friendships outside of their family. I'm afraid that my friends will get so absorbed in their own families that it will be difficult to find time to spend together.
Robertson was clearly wrong. He attempted to clarify later but I feel only got deeper in error. He says he assumed the writer had a relationship with another woman and urged him to make it legal, divorce his ailing wife and marry the new woman. My 84 year old father has the beginning stages of Alzheimers and is being treated with medication. Mom, who just turned 80,  and Dad have been faithful Christians for 50 years and love each other deeply. When the said their vows, in sickness and in health, they meant it. I appreciate Bethany's comments. In earlier times larger extended families offered much more support. And in the early church communal living, communal meals and communal care were more common. One benefit of this terrible recession is that living in common is staging a comeback. It is not healthy to withdraw into isolation or see marriage as the sole option for companionship. As a new Christian in the 1970s I lived in a communal Christian house and loved it.
“This love is defined not as the hormonal surge of romance but as a
self-sacrificial crucifixion of self.” -- Yes.

I'm not sure what Robertson was thinking when he made these statements...too much 'of the world'. I appreciated Bethany's comments as well; the support system of others and the idea of support in community-- whether that's extended family, friends, church, neighborhood.

Thank you for sharing this.
Alzheimer's is just one mental disorder that can affect a spouse, Bi-Polar disorder can make it seem like the person you married has died & been replaced by a totally different person. Being a Christian couple in these circumstances makes all the difference. Apart from the comfort of the Holy Spirit we have the support of our Church family & I know for one it has been a life saver & marriage saver !
That time has been here... for a long time.
I was under the impression that is where "in sickness and in health" come in at!! Of course I disagree with a lot of Pat's ideas on life!!! I just hope no one out there actually took his comments as good advice!!!  What a horrible thing to even say!!!!!! I am sure Jesus sadly shook his head on that one!!!
I watched this segment on "Sunday Morning" some time ago and thought it presented a different perspective -- not a cavalier attitude toward marriage at all. There is a deep love and commitment to this reporter's wife, not only by him but by his new wife. Making a serious decision like this may not be black & white.
Wow, that is incredible in all the wrong ways.  A christian leader who says something like this has his lips firmlly fastened to the rear end of the world unfortunately.

 

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