Culture At Large

Pat Robertson, dementia and the easy out of divorce

Mark Stephenson

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.)

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