My home church, Mckinney Cove Baptist, licensed me to preach in October of 1992, and I was formally ordained into the ministry in February of 1993. Since that time I have seen many changes in regards to how Baptist churches function. No change, however, has been more marked than the change in standards for who can serve as either a pastor or a deacon in a Baptist church. Specifically, I’m talking about the issue of divorced men serving in those roles.
I can’t speak as an expert on all Baptist churches of all sizes across the globe, but I can certainly do so with expertise regarding the smallish, rural, “country” churches of my area. In 1993, the only such churches that would allow a divorced man to fulfill the role of pastor or deacon were the moderate/liberal churches that leaned left on matters of theology and the interpretation of certain passages. As for the conservative churches, they just didn’t roll that way.
Then came the Charles Stanley situation. In case you don’t know, Charles Stanley is the longtime pastor of First Baptist Church of Atlanta, Georgia. He is a two-time President of the Southern Baptist Convention, and his television/radio/internet ministry, In Touch, reaches millions of people each day. He’s also a bestselling author who has written many dozens of books, more than I could even begin to name. Suffice is to say that a whole bunch of Baptists have loved Charles Stanley for a long time.
In 1992, Stanley and his wife, Anna, separated after having been married since 1958. Even though Anna hadn’t been attending church with Charles for some time, the separation came as a shock to many church members. A few months later, in June of 1993, Anna officially filed for divorce. Not long afterward, though, the scandal was temporarily lessened when she agreed to amend the filing and seek reconciliation of the marriage. In the meantime, Charles continued unabated in his role as the pastor of First Baptist, Atlanta.
Despite sincere attempts at reconciliation, however, in March of 1995 Anna again filed for divorce. In an open letter to the church, she said, “Charles, in effect, abandoned our marriage. He chose his priorities, and I have not been one of them.” At this point Charles told his congregation that if the divorce ever became final he would resign as pastor. However, the church’s 38-member board of deacons — by a vote of 35 to 3 — recommended that the congregation keep Stanley on as pastor. In October of 1995, nearly 90% of approximately 5,000 members of the church voted to accept the deacon board’s recommendation, which, in effect, placed the ongoing decision to resign or not to resign in Stanley’s hands.
But there was no quick resolution, either way, in sight for the scandal. What followed were several more years of work toward the reconciliation of the marriage, not to mention more legal wrangling done by the lawyers involved. As more and more time passed, though, it became increasingly obvious that the marriage was going to end in divorce. Ultimately, this prompted the managers of the Moody Radio Network in Atlanta to go ahead and take Stanley’s daily In Touch broadcast off the air, even as Stanley continued on as the pastor of First Baptist, Atlanta.
It was also during this time that a rift of separation occurred between Charles and his popular son, Andy. Andy had originally joined the staff of First Baptist, Atlanta, as a Youth Minister, but over the years it had become generally assumed that Charles was grooming him to be his successor at the church. While this announcement of succession was never publicly stated, it was the logical assumption considering that Charles often broadcast Andy’s pulpit sermons from the church on his In Touch broadcasts. In addition to these broadcasts, Charles had also appointed Andy as the pastor of First Baptist’s satellite campus, which opened its doors on Easter Sunday of 1992. Within two months, that campus boasted 2,000 members.
As the separation/divorce scandal continued to unfold, Charles was shocked to learn that Andy agreed with the many notable Baptist pastors who felt that Charles should either resign as pastor or at least take a lengthy hiatus to devote himself to the restoration of his marriage. What Andy really wanted his father to do was go to the pulpit and read a letter of resignation, thus giving the church the choice of either accepting the resignation or rejecting it. Andy believed that the church would reject the resignation and that the gesture by Charles would bring some much needed decompression to the whole situation.
Charles, for his part, viewed Andy’s suggestion as more or less a treasonous betrayal. According to a CNN article that was published in 2012, Charles told Andy during a highly charged meeting between the two, “Andy, you have joined my enemies, and I’m your father.” In that same article, Charles assessed that difficult period of his life by saying, “I felt like this was a huge battle, and if Andy had been in a huge battle…you’d have to crawl over me to get to him, no matter what. I didn’t feel like he did that.”
It certainly didn’t help matters that Andy’s satellite campus was starting to outdraw Charles’ congregation, so much so that Andy’s staff actually asked First Baptist, Atlanta, to give them the satellite campus’ property outright so that the new congregation could become autonomous. But Charles rejected that idea, with his reasons being that the satellite campus had been his idea in the first place and that the campus wouldn’t have done nearly so well out of the gate if it hadn’t been backed by First Baptist’s money.
And so how did Andy respond to Charles’ negative reaction to his suggestion that Charles offer his resignation to the church and let the members decide what to do with it? He responded by leaving not only First Baptist, Atlanta, but also the satellite campus. He walked away with no church, no salary, and no health benefits. He did, however, still have his famous name, his preaching ability, and his pastoral gifting, and so in 1995, shortly after his departure, he and a small group of other young pastors founded North Point Community Church. In the years since, that church has become one of the largest churches in America (much larger than First Baptist, Atlanta) and has multiple campuses of its own.
Finally, in May of 2000, the divorce between Charles and Anna Stanley became official and legal. The big question now was, “Would Charles resign as pastor?” He answered it by announcing to the congregation that God had told him, “You keep doing what I called you to until I tell you to stop.” Stanley took that word as God’s permission to continue serving as the pastor of the church. And the decision sat well with the vast majority of the church because they wanted Charles to remain as pastor anyway. Their only stipulation was that he should never remarry as long as Anna was alive.
It is now 2018, Charles Stanley is 85 years old, and he continues to serve as the pastor of First Baptist, Atlanta. He’s served in that role for over 47 years, 18 of them coming after his divorce became official. He has never remarried, even though Anna died in 2014, and many of the people who now listen to his sermons have no idea that he is divorced. Even among those who do, it’s not that big a deal to them. In December of 2017, he presented a pastoral plan of succession to First Baptist, Atlanta, and the church approved the plan. It stated that Senior Associate Pastor Anthony George will assume the role of Senior Pastor of the church at “such time in the future, known only to God, that Dr. Stanley ceases to be the Senior Pastor of the church.”
Now, as I begin to wrap up this post, let me say that my purpose in writing it has been simply to present the facts of the Stanley divorce rather than render any personal opinion about it. I chose to hone in on that specific divorce because it is far and away the most famous one from the ministerial circles of my own denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention. Truth be told, I’m not sure if Stanley’s divorce and continued pastorate paved the way for the others that would follow or if his just happened to be the firstfruits of a trend that was bound to inevitably rise with or without him. In other words, was the Stanley divorce and continued pastorate an enabler that gave other divorced pastors and their churches an excuse to break away from the stereotypical Baptist standard? Or was it merely one prominent example of how the old standard was already beginning to slip in Baptist circles? My guess is that it was some of both.
Either way what is undeniable is that in the years since I was first ordained into the ministry there has been a significant change in the attitude toward not only divorced pastors but also divorced deacons. Summing up that change, divorce isn’t nearly the deal breaker it used to be. Still, the question that needs to be asked is the one that many Christians don’t want to touch with a ten-foot pole: “Is God truly on board with this new attitude?” Ah, now you’re on a subject, and it’s one that we’ll look at the pros and cons of in the next couple of posts. So stay tuned.