Pat Robertson (courtesy Wikipedia)
By Spencer D Gear
Controversy has erupted in the Christian community over Pat Robertson’s advice on his national Christian Broadcasting Network TV programme in the USA, ‘if he’s (the Christian husband) going to do something he should divorce her and start all over again’. He said that it was OK for a husband to divorce his wife who has Alzheimer’s disease (dementia). Robertson did this on the 700 Club, 13 September 2011. This is some of how it was reported in an article in Christianity Today of Pat Robertson’s advice to a viewer on
yesterday’s 700 Club to avoid putting a “guilt trip” on those who want to divorce a spouse with Alzheimer’s. During the show’s advice segment, a viewer asked Robertson how she should address a friend who was dating another woman “because his wife as he knows her is gone.” Robertson said he would not fault anyone for doing this. He then went further by saying it would be understandable to divorce a spouse with the disease.
“That is a terribly hard thing,” Robertson said. “I hate Alzheimer’s. It is one of the most awful things because here is a loved one—this is the woman or man that you have loved for 20, 30, 40 years. And suddenly that person is gone. They’re gone. They are gone. So, what he says basically is correct. But I know it sounds cruel, but if he’s going to do something he should divorce her and start all over again. But to make sure she has custodial care and somebody looking after her.”
Co-host Terry Meeuwsen asked Pat, “But isn’t that the vow that we take when we marry someone? That it’s For better or for worse. For richer or poorer?”
Robertson said that the viewer’s friend could obey this vow of “death till you part” because the disease was a “kind of death.” Robertson said he would understand if someone started another relationship out of a need for companionship.
Robertson gave the example of a friend who faithfully visited his wife every day even though she could not remember his visits to illustrate the difficulty of caring for someone with the disease.
“It’s really hurtful because they say crazy things,” Robertson said. “Nevertheless, it is a terribly difficult thing for somebody. I can’t fault him for wanting some kind of companionship. And if he says in a sense she is gone, he’s right. It’s like a walking death. Get some ethicist besides me to give you an answer because I recognize the dilemma and the last thing I’d do is condemn you for taking that kind of action.”
Robertson’s advice stands in stark contrast with most theologians and ethicists who would advise fidelity. The decision would not be easy.
What the mass media are saying
The New York Times of 16 September 2011 reported this news in, ‘Robertson Stirs Passions With Suggestion to Divorce an Alzheimer’s Patient’. In the article was this comment:
Dr. James E. Galvin, a neurologist who runs a dementia clinic at New York University Langone Medical Center, said it was wrong to say that people with Alzheimer’s were “gone,” or to call its late stages “a kind of death.”
“While it’s true that in terminal phases, patients may not be fully aware of what’s going on, they tend to recognize the people who are closest to them,” Dr. Galvin said.
With good care, people may live 15 to 20 years with the disease, most of that time at home, Dr. Galvin said. If they eventually move to a nursing home and seem unaware of what is going on around them, he said, then spouses face “an individualized decision” about when and how to develop new relationships, ones based on religion and ethics, not science.
Other mass media headlines included:
OK to divorce Alzheimer’s wife: TV evangelist (an Australian newspaper).
How are Christian leaders responding?
The Christian press and voices have been devastating in their critique of Robertson’s advice:
How should a Christian respond?
On a Christian Forum, a Christian wrote:
After reading his [Robertson’s] own words on this I find they are even more mature and better than I had thought. He recognizes the difficulty and is not saying one way is right, so much as in real life sometimes we live with hard choices. He accepts the fact of what is called ‘cold logic’ can apply, and so works to mitigate the damages instead of insist on an idealistic absolutism of behavior that in the end leads to law breaking.
Note that he insists that the person get good care, not be just abandoned. Note also he does not say such a move is ‘right’ but that if it is done we should not lay a ‘guilt trip’ on the one doing it. That is, no compromise in the moral law, but in the acceptance of imperfect persons in an imperfect world.
My response is:
You are rationalising Pat Robertson’s ungodly advice. There are at least two issues here that a godly person should pursue and Robertson should be advising:
1. Your faithfulness to your wife is critical to truth in marriage. Never, ever break your vow to be faithful to her in sickness and in health.
2. God’s advice to you if you have a husband or a wife with dementia is, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:2-4 NIV). God’s desire is for your faith to mature through the trials you face. This is one of the many trials God is sending your way, to test what kind of stuff your faith is made of.
I find Pat Robertson’s advice reprehensible. Since I have counselled a number of men and women down through the years whose spouses have had Alzheimer’s, in my professional counselling role, I understand the struggles they have. My wife and I recently visited our former neighbour. His second wife (he was a widower when he married this widow) has deteriorated so badly with dementia over the last 4 years that he is at the point of despair, not knowing what to do with her, except to be there for her. He is not a Christian believer.
Compared with Pat Robertson’s advice, there is a much more mature, wiser and godly approach to a spouse who contracts dementia by Robertson McQuilkin. He was president of Columbia Bible College & Seminary when his wife of 40 years contracted Alzheimer’s disease. He wrote this about his personal journey back in 2004, “Living by vows“. I re-read it and tears came to my eyes to listen to this godly man and his response to his loving wife who could no longer communicate with him. There is an interview with McQuilkin in Christianity Today regarding his wife Muriel’s Alzheimer’s, ‘The Gradual Grief of Alzheimer’s‘. Muriel died on 20 September 2003 after suffering from Alzheimer’s for 25 years. Robertson McQuilkin wrote after Muriel’s death, ‘Grieving with gratitude’, in which he reflected, ‘In the week after my wife’s death, I struggled with whether I should be grieving my loss or celebrating Muriel’s gain’. He resigned as president of Columbia Bible College and Seminary in 1990 so that he could care for Muriel.
J Robertson McQuilkin (courtesy Columbia International University)
Columbia International University where J Robertson McQuilkin was president, 1968-1990, has stated of President Emeritus McQuilkin that ‘in 2005 McQuilkin married Deborah Jones, a professor at the University of South Carolina School of Nursing. Deborah also has a teaching ministry in conferences and women’s groups. Between them, Robertson and Deborah have nine children: four in Christian ministry, five in the marketplace’ (accessed 22 February 2015).
‘For better or for worse’ is the vow I made in 1968 to my wife, Desley, and I will maintain that to my dying day, even if she is stricken with Alzheimer’s. Desley has assured me that she will apply the same standards even if I should contract dementia.
However, for a prominent person like Pat Robertson to make these kinds of statements on national television was a shocker for me to hear. However, it may be used by the Lord to help people evaluate their relationship before the really tough times of dementia could arrive.
I could not make a defence of Pat Robertson’s advice to divorce a spouse with dementia from a biblical mandate.
When a Christian supports Pat Robertson by saying that Robertson insisted on the person receiving good care, not being abandoned, the decision not being ‘right’ but to avoid laying the ‘guilt trip’, then this person in the forum is not complying with Scripture in my view. This person said that there was no compromise in the moral law with this decision to divorce a spouse with Alzheimer’s, but was on the basis of accepting that we are imperfect persons who live in an imperfect world.
This is rationalising Pat Robertson’s ungodly advice. There are at least two issues here that a godly person should pursue and Robertson should be advising:
- Faithfulness to one’s wife is critical to truth in marriage. We should never, ever break our vow to be faithful to a spouse in sickness and in health. When I married my wife, Desley, in 1968, I made this vow, ‘I, Spencer, take you, Desley, to be my lawfully wedded wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish; from this day forward until death do us part’.
- God’s advise to you if you have a husband or a wife with dementia is, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:2-4 NIV). God’s desire is for your faith to mature through the trials you face. This is one of the many trials God is sending your way, to test what kind of stuff your faith is made of.
This person on the forum was advocating soft Christianity instead of what God wants according to passages such James 1:2-5 and 1 Peter 1:6-7.
This week on his television show Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson said a man would be morally justified to divorce his wife with Alzheimer’s disease in order to marry another woman. The dementia-riddled wife is, Robertson said, “not there” anymore. This is more than an embarrassment. This is more than cruelty. This is a repudiation of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Few Christians take Robertson all that seriously anymore. Most roll their eyes, and shake their heads when he makes another outlandish comment (for instance, defending China’s brutal one-child abortion policy to identifying God’s judgment on specific actions in the September 11 attacks, Hurricane Katrina, or the Haiti earthquake). This is serious, though, because it points to an issue that is much bigger than Robertson.
Marriage, the Scripture tells us, is an icon of something deeper, more ancient, more mysterious. The marriage union is a sign, the Apostle Paul announces, of the mystery of Christ and his church (Eph. 5). The husband, then, is to love his wife “as Christ loved the church” (Eph. 5:25). 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.
At the arrest of Christ, his Bride, the church, forgot who she was, and denied who he was. He didn’t divorce her. He didn’t leave.
The Bride of Christ fled his side, and went back to their old ways of life. When Jesus came to them after the resurrection, the church was about the very thing they were doing when Jesus found them in the first place: out on the boats with their nets. Jesus didn’t leave. He stood by his words, stood by his Bride, even to the Place of the Skull, and beyond.
A woman or a man with Alzheimer’s can’t do anything for you. There’s no romance, no sex, no partnership, not even companionship. That’s just the point. Because marriage is a Christ/church icon, a man loves his wife as his own flesh. He cannot sever her off from him simply because she isn’t “useful” anymore.
Pat Robertson’s cruel marriage statement is no anomaly. He and his cohorts have given us for years a prosperity gospel with more in common with an Asherah pole than a cross. They have given us a politicized Christianity that uses churches to “mobilize” voters rather than to stand prophetically outside the power structures as a witness for the gospel.
But Jesus didn’t die for a Christian Coalition; he died for a church. And the church, across the ages, isn’t significant because of her size or influence. She is weak, helpless, and spattered in blood. He is faithful to us anyway.
To be faithful to the Gospel means to be faithful to what Jesus said about marriage and faithfulness to one’s spouse. What are the reasons Jesus gave for divorce (Matthew 19:9)? Only one – for adultery. There is not a mention of anything like dementia (Alzheimer’s) being one of Jesus’ reasons to divorce a spouse.
We are not being faithful to the Gospel if we follow Pat Robertson’s advice to divorce a wife if she has Alzheimer’s. To think that Robertson’s advice is acceptable for an evangelical Christian is an example of Scripture twisting.
I find Robertson’s statements to be as ungodly as they are unscriptural. The Scripture only give us one possibility of divorce and that is if the spouse is unfaithful in the sexual relationship. Therefore, Pat Robertson is recommending an anti-biblical action when he affirms that it is acceptable to divorce a spouse with dementia because she has ‘gone’ and has experienced ‘a kind of death’ with Alzheimer’s.
 Tobin Grant, Christianity Today, ‘Pat Robertson says divorce Okay if spouse has Alzheimer’s’, 14 September 2011, available at: http://blog.christianitytoday.com/ctliveblog/archives/2011/09/pat_robertson_s.html (Accessed 24 September 2011).
 Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/17/us/pat-robertson-remarks-on-alzheimers-stir-passions.html (Accessed 24 September 2011).
 Christian Fellowship Forum, Christian Morals, ‘Whither Pat Robinson (sic)’, #6, available at: http://community.compuserve.com/n/pfx/forum.aspx?tsn=1&nav=messages&webtag=ws-fellowship&tid=120817 (Accessed 24 September 2011).
 See the article, ‘Remembering Muriel McQuilkin: A life of love and ‘looking up’, Wife of former CIU president dies after suffering from Alzheimer’s for 25 years’, The Columbia World, available at: http://www.worldnewspaperpublishing.com/news/FullStory.asp?loc=TCOLW&id=1007 (Accessed 24 September 2011). On 22 February 2015 when I updated my article, the ‘Remembering Muriel McQuilkin’ article was no longer online.
 It is now called Columbia International University.
 For a sample of wedding vows, see ‘Your wedding vows’, available at: http://weddings.about.com/cs/bridesandgrooms/a/vowwording.htm (Accessed 24 September 2011).
 Christianity Today stated that Moore is the Dean of the School of Theology and Senior Vice-President for Academic Administration at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. “Speaking Out” is Christianity Today’s guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the publication.
 Christianity Today, 15 September 2011, available at: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2011/septemberweb-only/robertson-alzheimers-divorce.html (Accessed 24 September 2011).
 This article originally appeared on Russell Moore’s blog, Moore to the Point, in the article, ‘Christ, the Church, and Pat Robertson’, 15 September 2011, available at: http://www.russellmoore.com/2011/09/15/christ-the-church-and-pat-robertson/ (Accessed 24 September 2011).
Copyright © 2011 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 1 March 2017.