If 1976, America’s Bicentennial year, was “the year of the evangelical,” what will 1977 be? That was the question many Christians across the land began asking as they surveyed results of the national elections.
Jimmy Carter, the man who probably did more than anyone else to put “born again” back into popular usage, took the biggest prize of all, the lease on the White House for the next four years. Incumbent Gerald Ford, friend of many evangelicals but less vocal than Carter about his own faith, prepared to turn over the key to his successor.
Carter, the Southern Baptist deacon and Sunday-school teacher, put together a campaign that drew support from a wide spectrum of Americans inside and outside the evangelical community. Some of his strongest opposition near the end of the race came from Christian leaders. Despite their efforts in the last days of the campaign to cast doubts on his ability to put his faith into practice, Carter got the electoral votes of the Southern “Bible belt” states. He also carried Massachusetts, Maryland, Rhode Island, Louisiana, and other states with substantial Catholic populations.
The same voters who opted for a fresh face in the White House re-elected many members of Congress, even returning most of those who have recently been implicated in scandals. Independent-minded voters also turned a deaf ear to the counsel of churchmen on such referenda as the ones allowing casino gambling in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and voiding Sunday blue laws in the Maryland counties adjacent to Washington.
The presidential campaign was a heated one in its final days, with veteran pollsters calling it a toss-up until election eve. Keeping the pot boiling were late appeals by both candidates to various religious groups. In the week before the election Carter paid his second visit to New York’s Catholic archbishop, Cardinal Terrence Cooke. Cooke is the chairman of the American bishops’ anti-abortion effort, and he and his colleagues had found the Democratic platform plank on this subject (and Carter’s earlier interpretation of it) unsatisfactory.
Carter also spoke to some Protestant leaders during the final month of the campaign, answering the same questions submitted to Ford in September (see October 8 issue, page 66). The answers came too late for the deadlines of most evangelical publications reaching readers before the election, but they were sent to stations served by National Religious Broadcasters in time for pre-election airing.
One broadcaster not happy with the conduct of Carter’s race was Jerry Falwell of Lynchburg, Virginia. His “Old-Time Gospel Hour” television program, usually seen on 260 stations, was seen on only 155 on October 24. It included criticism of Carter’s interview with Playboy magazine, and the stations that did not use the program told Falwell that Democratic officials had warned them they might demand equal time under the fairness doctrine if it were aired. The Lynchburg preacher told reporters that he had offered equal time to the candidate early enough to include a response in the program sent to the stations. The offer was not accepted, however, so the program went out without any rebuttal from Carter or a spokesman.
Falwell said he thought he had met the equal-time requirements of the Federal Communications Commission but that stations would not all agree that he had until he produced in writing a Carter promise not to seek an opportunity for response. None was ever produced.
A spokesman for Falwell said that three stations planned to drop the weekly program as a result of the incident. Efforts were being made to convince them that they should not do so, and the Baptist preacher hoped to win them back to his network. He said he had 15 million viewers when all 260 stations aired the program.
John Cashin, chairman of the National Democratic party of Alabama, was told by a judge he couldn’t have Jimmy Carter as his party’s presidential nominee on the November ballot. Carter was already on the ballot as a Democrat, explained the judge, according to a National Observer report. Cashin then submitted another name: Jesus Christ. Cashin said he had made “direct contact” with his nominee and was certain he would accept the nomination. Alabama’s secretary of state questioned whether Cashin had missed the filing deadline, and Cashin eventually withdrew the name, said N.O.
One of the broadcasters who met at the White House with Ford at the end of September was prominent Baptist W. A. Criswell, who telecasts Sunday services from First Baptist Church, Dallas, Texas. His 19,000-member congregation is the largest in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). Bible in hand, Ford attended one of the morning services while in Dallas to campaign at the state fair. Criswell at one point in the service voiced criticism of Carter for the Playboy interview. After the sermon he accompanied Ford to the church steps and there issued a ringing endorsement of his candidacy.
Criswell, a former president of the SBC, was roundly criticized for the endorsement by other Baptists around the country as well as by some fellow pastors in Dallas. Carter did some more campaigning in Texas after that, and the Sunday before the election he went to church—in nearby Fort Worth. The state’s electoral votes went to Carter.
That Playboy interview dogged Carter right up to election day. It appeared in the issue of the sex-oriented magazine dated November, but portions of the article became available in September. Reporters on the campaign plane quoted the candidate as saying on the final day that the interview was the one thing he regretted about his conduct of the race. Earlier, he told the NRB interviewers that he “might have been mistaken” in granting it, but “on balance” he thought it “proper.” He defended it as a way to verbalize his faith for an audience that might never hear the Gospel otherwise.
Appearing in the same issue of the magazine was an article by Robert Scheer, the writer handling the interview. He described his contacts in the Carter camp. His language about the candidate’s aides was earthier than Carter’s, and the top aides came out looking anything but evangelical. The Scheer article was reprinted in Ford headquarters and sent to churches across the country.
Sending this material and other similar pieces was part of what Albert Menendez, assistant editor of Church and State, described as “a massive smear campaign aimed at breaking down his [Carter’s] image of a deeply committed Christian.” The staff member of Americans United for Separation of Church and State found in his study that not all the anti-Carter propaganda dealt with the Playboy interview. In the Catholic press there were some attempts (both in articles and in advertisements) to capitalize on the fears of some Catholics on the school-aid and abortion issues.
Also attracting widespread attention during the last week of the campaign was an abortive attempt to integrate Carter’s home church membership. Rather than admit a black minister-politician who announced he would try to join the Sunday before the election, deacons cancelled the service. The congregation of Plains Baptist Church has long had black visitors, but its policy (which Carter opposes) forbids admission of blacks to membership. Bruce Edwards, 30, pastor of the church and an opponent of the policy, apparently incurred the wrath of the deacons by his handling of the incident with the national press. He quoted the church officers as using the word “niggers” but later said they actually used the word “Negroes” in their minutes.
After the Sunday morning confrontation, when Clennon King, a sometime political candidate and minister of the Divine Mission Church in Albany, Georgia, was turned away, the deacons met again. The pastor was not there, but he happened in on the gathering in time to learn that the deacons voted 11 to 1 to seek his ouster. The final say in such an event would have been up to the congregation. On the morning after the national election, Edwards was given a letter from the deacons unanimously requesting that he resign immediately because he had “lost” his “effectiveness” as pastor. That night in prayer meeting Edwards announced he would not resign, and he challenged deacon chairman Ernest Turner to make a motion that he be fired. Turner remained silent, and Edwards then himself called a congregational business meeting for November 14 to seek a vote of confidence. The pastor told correspondent James C. Hefley he expected to win the vote (“and that will counter the bad image of the church”) but that he planned to resign anyway for the good of the congregation. Meanwhile, Carter—listed during the campaign as an inactive deacon—served notice that he would oppose dismissal of Edwards.
Some black supporters of Carter were stunned by first news of the church incident involving Clennon King, but later most of them said it would not affect their votes. Martin Luther King, Sr., one of the leading black backers, blamed the whole thing on the Republican opposition. As if to confirm his accusation, Ford campaign headquarters sent telegrams to some black pastors in various parts of the country. The messages raised the question of whether the Democratic candidate could manage national affairs if he was unable to effect changes in his church.
The Man From Plains
President-elect Jimmy Carter has supplied historians and political analysts with a question they can debate for a long time: Was his narrow victory aided by his outspokenness about his Christian faith, or was he chosen in spite of it?
Not since President Kennedy became the first Roman Catholic to be elected chief executive (1960) has there been a comparable religious issue in an American political campaign. Many voters said they were put off by Carter’s references to his personal Christian beliefs and experiences. These complaints were countered by the argument that political office ought not to be denied to anyone on those grounds any more than it is denied to someone because of Catholic ties.
Some evangelicals cheered Carter on, while other evangelicals harbored suspicions that he regarded their terminology as a political asset. Actually, he seldom talked about religion on his own initiative during the campaign. However, he readily answered questions about his faith. In one such exchange, the now famous Playboy interview, Carter tried to deal with the charge of self-righteousness and wound up using a couple of vulgar terms that were generally believed to have cost him many votes.
Carter also lost both evangelical and Catholic votes because, although he says he personally opposes abortion and does not want government to support it, he opposes a constitutional amendment to ban abortions.
Carter will be the third Baptist to become president in American history (the others were Truman and Harding). He has been a member of the Southern Baptist church in his home town, Plains, Georgia, since he was eleven years old. His mother says he was baptized on a Sunday evening after he had responded to an invitation during revival services conducted at the church by a visiting evangelist the previous week. Christian Life magazine has quoted him as saying, “I recited the necessary steps of acknowledging my sinfulness, of repentance and asking Jesus to enter into my heart and life as Lord and Saviour.”
Carter grew up in a small community just outside Plains. He and his wife have lived in Plains since he got out of the Navy in the mid-fifties. The town is just south of a now abandoned settlement that appears on historical maps as the Plains of Dura. That name appears in the third chapter of Daniel as the place where Nebuchadnezzar set up his image of gold (which Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to worship and so were cast into a furnace). A Georgia historian who recently compiled a book on place names says his research failed to turn up any reason why that name was chosen.
Carter has always been a faithful church-goer and has served as a deacon. While attending the Naval Academy at Annapolis he taught a class of junior girls in a local Baptist church. Later he conducted services on a submarine at sea. He has also taught the men’s class in the Plains church many times.
Carter has said much about a spiritual experience he had a decade or so ago. At that time he confessed a number of personal shortcomings and began to read the Bible and pray much more regularly. The experience also left him with a desire to engage in Christian witnessing, and he made trips north to help establish new churches under the aegis of the Southern Baptist Home Missions Board. Carter has credited his sister, Ruth Stapleton, with helping him to come to grips with spiritual realities. Mrs. Stapleton travels widely in a spiritual counseling ministry.
The Plains church, probably more publicized than any other in America this year, will lose some of the Sunday attention in January. Carter has announced that he will attend a Baptist church close to the White House as much as possible. He has not said which church it will be, however, and at least two in the neighborhood have invited him to visit.
Among the unanswered questions about the new administration is the big one about the makeup of the new president’s official family. He has hundreds of appointments to make, and many are expected to come from his campaign organization. For months there has been speculation about whether he will have a White House job for Christian Century editor James Wall, his Illinois chairman (Illinois was won by Ford with 51 per cent of the vote). Wall, an early supporter who worked for the candidate in several states, took a leave of absence from his editorship the last two months of the campaign.
While the former Georgia governor has said little about the appointments he will make, he has made it clear he will not keep such Ford cabinet members as secretary of state Henry Kissinger. He assured Jewish voters, however, that he will continue support of Israel while seeking to maintain peace in the Middle East.
Voters settled the question of who Carter will have to work with on Capitol Hill. The party composition of the new Congress is little changed from that of the previous Congress, but there will be new faces.
Voters of Missouri decided to send a minister-lawyer to the Senate. John Danforth, a Republican who has served as attorney general, is also an Episcopal priest and an heir of the Ralston Purina food empire. He is one of the best state-wide vote-getters in recent Missouri history.
A Senate seat considered safe for Republicans was lost. Sam Steiger, who defeated John Conlan for the party nomination for an Arizona seat, lost in the general election to Democratic challenger Dennis DeConcini. Steiger and Conlan, an outspoken evangelical, are both members of the outgoing Congress.
Organized attempts to send evangelicals to Congress seemed to be less than a resounding success. For instance, only about one-third of the sixty “Christ-centered” candidates listed in literature of the conservative Third Century organization won. Most of those elected were incumbents. Among the losers: former professional baseball players Wilmer Mizell in North Carolina and Bobby Richardson in South Carolina, both Republicans.
Only a few of the congressmen who have been implicated in recent scandals were turned down by the voters. (Some were returned to office without opposition.) Among the losers was Utah Democrat Allen T. Howe, who was convicted of soliciting for prostitution and who was denied both his party’s endorsement and the blessing of the Mormon Church (he is a member). Among the winners were some who have collected expense payments for trips they did not make. Some whose extra-marital affairs have been revealed in recent weeks were also given new terms on Capitol Hill.
John J. Flynt, Jr., of Georgia, chairman of the House ethics committee, has been under fire for the relative inactivity of his committee and also for the way he handled real estate matters in his home district. He was reelected. Also returned to Congress was Robert Sikes of Florida, the first member of the House to be reprimanded since the ethics panel was established in 1967.
Not only did the calls for ethics and morality fall on many deaf ears, but the several calls for prayer for the nation before the election met with little demonstrated interest. Only about 1,000 people showed up in Dallas for the National Prayer Congress the weekend before the election. Founder-president Bill Bright of Campus Crusade for Christ, the chief planner of the event, had rented a hall which could accommodate 10,000. With the notable exception of Billy Graham (who announced in advance that he would send a taped message), most of the scheduled leaders showed up, and Bright was enthusiastic. The proceedings were video-taped, and the Campus Crusade leader said they would be seen and heard “by millions” before the effort is over. He indicated they will go to pastors who want to conduct local prayer congresses on the Dallas pattern.
Food for the Hungry president Larry Ward advertised a national day of prayer and fasting the week before the vote, and he reported hearing from about 2,500 people who said they participated.
Mark Weimer of New York, principal organizer of Christians for American Renewal and its political action arm, Citizens for Carter, got only a “couple of hundred” responses to his appeal to “bring decency and good government to America.” He said between 9,000 and 10,000 people were contacted by the group, however, before it learned that requirements of the new federal elections law severely limited the activities of such organizations after nomination of a candidate. Most of its advertising was cancelled when he learned about the provisions of the law, and only about $3,000 was collected, he said.
What happened to that much discussed “evangelical vote” on election day? Are there really 40 million Christians who vote their faith? Carter ended up with a popular vote of 40.2 million. Political analysts have their work cut out for them for the next few months trying to figure out how those “born-again” people cast their ballots and why they cast them as they did.
During revival meetings led by famed Southern Baptist preacher Robert G. Lee in North Carolina, a woman bought a copy of his autobiography, Payday Everyday. She was surprised to find a detailed explanation of “Winemaking at Home” about midway through the book.
Without giving the recipe a try, the startled woman returned the book for a regular copy. A Broadman Press spokesman told reporters the problem was due to an error by the bookbinder, and to his knowledge the woman’s copy was the only one containing the juicy insert.
The mistake, commented a Southern news hand, might have been more appropriate in Lee’s latest book for Broadman: Grapes From Gospel Vines.
A Visit to Church: Once Was Enough
Celia Moses says she will never go back to Douglas Avenue Baptist Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. A black, she was evicted from a Sunday service there last month and escorted out of the church by three men. A newspaper published an account of the incident, and this apparently led to a review of the church’s six-year-old segregation policy. The members unanimously adopted a recommendation of the deacons to rescind the policy and to state “further that we have no policy in regard to our worship services, which will show no discrimination to race, color, creed, or national origin.”
“Good,” said Miss Moses. “At least no one else will have to go through what I went through. But I have no intention of going back. Once taught me a lot, and I still can’t see it as a church of God.”
Planning For Action
The Evangelicals for Social Action group, best known for its 1973 “Chicago Declaration” on social action, is struggling for survival. At its fourth annual meeting last month in Newark, New Jersey, most of the nearly 200 participants were first-timers—as were most at last year’s meeting. “They don’t come back,” commented one of the architects of the 1973 event. The ESA is no longer “a viable vehicle for getting things done,” he said. “It lacks social vision and theological substance.”
One of the main problems is the absence of continuing, committed leadership. Many of the old-timers have simply gone off in other directions. Some who have been persuaded to stay at the helm acknowledge that their hearts are not in it; their philosophies have changed. Once again, volunteers were asked this year to help organize a new steering committee.
Planning for this year’s three-day meeting was done at the last minute and with little coordination, adding to the overall problems, says an insider.
The entire weekend was devoted to a consideration of racism in white institutions, including churches, colleges, and seminaries (some of the blacks who pushed hardest for the program concept failed to show up, however). Participants were divided into fourteen task forces and assigned to develop action plans for dealing with racism in specific circumstances. There was general agreement that some of the best work was done in the task force on Christian colleges. As its action plan, the group will send a document to schools in February exploring the need for a black student handbook on campus and discussing how a Christian college is seen by a black student. Included will be examples of programs already underway at some colleges to overcome racism and promote understanding between black and white students and faculty members.
Renewing The Church
The Catholic charismatic movement began in 1967 among a handful of mostly young people, some of them with back-grounds in Campus Crusade for Christ and the Navigators organization. Today the movement—known as the Catholic Charismatic Renewal—is burgeoning throughout the world. In a regional three-day meeting of the Renewal at Atlantic City last month, 28,000 enthusiastic participants heard priest John Randall, a leader in the movement, estimate that 5 per cent of the nation’s 49 million Catholics are involved in some way in the renewal in thousands of prayer communities across the country.
Six bishops and 400 priests were among those at the Atlantic City meeting. One of the themes stressed repeatedly was that the Renewal is being integrated rapidly into the life of the church. Another: there is a growing acceptance of the once-suspect movement by the bishops (twelve East Coast prelates endorsed the Atlantic City conference).
There was recognition that the Renewal is “making ecumenism a real thing on the grass-roots level,” as Bishop Paul F. Anderson of Duluth, Minnesota put it. Yet there was reflected also a deepening loyalty to the Pope, the bishops, the church. “We must be on guard not to end up with a ‘Church-less’ Christianity,” Anderson warned. True ecumenism, he said, does not “dismantle the church.”
The movement is “no longer at the point of talking about itself, trying to justify its existence,” declared president Michael Scanlan of Steubenville (Ohio) College. “We are now talking to the church, as part of the church.”
Much of the language in the Renewal is familiar to evangelicals; the emphasis on receiving Christ, on witnessing, on reading the Bible, on being filled with the Holy Spirit, on living and loving as Christ did.
In conversations, sermons, prayers, and songs, it all came through at Atlantic City.
The UCC: Executive Business
Clergyman Joseph H. Evans, secretary of the 1.8-million-member United Church of Christ since 1967, was named to the presidency of the UCC. The executive council of the church selected him to fill the unexpired term of Robert V. Moss, who died last month of cancer. Evans is the first black to be chief executive officer of a major U. S. denomination that is predominantly white.
Moss, 54, a New Testament scholar and theologian, had been ill for only a short time. He was the second president in the UCC’s nineteen-year history, having been elected in 1969. He was also an officer of the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches.
In another action, the executive committee voted to ask its 1977 General Synod to begin unification talks with the 1.3-million-member Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). The target date for a vote on union is 1983.
The council also voted to provide $600,000 in bail, legal fees, and educational funds for the “Wilmington Ten,” a controversial group the UCC identifies as civil-rights workers imprisoned in North Carolina.
Protection For Convictions
Employers must take “reasonable” steps in arranging their work schedules so that they do not interfere with workers’ religious practices, the Supreme Court decided last month in the first test case of a 1972 law. One justice disqualified himself from the case, and the court split 4 to 4. In such a vote the effect is to uphold the lower-court decision under review.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 barred discrimination against an employee because of his or her religion. Congress in 1972 passed a law to strengthen the 1964 measure. It specified that employers must make “reasonable accommodations” in the way they run their businesses so that they do not interfere with their employees’ faith. These accommodations need not be made if the employer could show they would cause “undue hardship” to his business.
A lower court said the law “reflects a legislative judgment that, as a practical matter, certain persons will not compromise their religious convictions and that they should not be punished for the supremacy of conscience.”
The test case involved the dismissal of supervisor Paul Cummins by a rubber-seal manufacturer in Berea, Kentucky, after he joined the World Wide Church of God and refused to work on Saturdays. The WWCG forbids its members to work between sundown Friday and sundown Saturday. Cummins was later asked to reconsider his decision because other supervisors had to work extra hours to cover for him. When he declined, he was fired, and he took his case to court.
Merylee Kreshawer, 24, a member of the Hare Krishna movement in New York City, last summer filed charges against private detective Galen Kelly and her mother for kidnapping her and attempting to “deprogram” her. Authorities in Kingston, New York, where she had been held, charged Kelly with second-degree kidnapping.
Back in New York City, two top leaders of the Krishna sect went to a precinct station to sign complaints against Ms. Kreshawer’s parents and the parents of Eddie Shapiro, 22, another member of the Krishna group. Police instead arrested the Krishna leaders, Angus Murphy, 24, and Harold Conley, 25, for unlawful imprisonment of Ms. Kreshawer and Shapiro. Murphy and the sect were also indicted on charges of grand larceny for an alleged attempt to extort $20,000 from Shapiro’s father, a prominent Boston physician.
Ms. Kreshawer and Murphy were held on $50,000 bail as material witnesses. District Attorney Michael Schwed said that a psychiatrist had examined the pair and judged that “they were both definitely brainwashed and under the mind control of the Hare Krishna sect.”
Civil-rights lawyer Jeremiah Gutman will defend the Krishna group. “After 18, you’re legally free,” he said. “You can think or believe whatever you want, no matter how crazy others may think you are.”
The two Krishna leaders had been arrested following a hearing before a grand jury in Queens where some two dozen witnesses were called, including former members of the movement. Instead of indicting Ms. Kreshawer’s mother or the detective, the panel handed down charges against the Krishna people.
Piracy In the Parishes
That music copyright-infringement suit brought by F. E. L. Publications in September against the Catholic archdiocese of Chicago sort of backfired last month, and F. E. L. had to go to court again to seek relief. The suit was aimed at ninety-seven parishes in the archdiocese that were allegedly using F. E. L. songs without permission in homemade hymnals and songbooks (see October 8 issue, page 54). In it, F. E. L. president Dennis Fitzpatrick, 39, asked for $2 million in damages. Subsequently, the archdiocese agreed to deliver to F. E. L. all homemade songbooks containing the allegedly pirated material from all 447 churches in the archdiocese. That resulted in a deluge: more than 330,000 books were shipped to F. E. L. However, complained Fitzpatrick, less than one-third of these contained illicit material. The bulk contained F.E.L. songs that were properly licensed, he said. Accusing the archdiocese of engaging in retaliation, he went back to court.
F. E. L. asked that the archdiocese be restrained from returning materials not related to the suit and from barring the legitimate use of F. E. L. songs in churches and schools. In an earlier statement, Fitzpatrick charged that the extra 220,000 copies “were sent to us to totally wipe out ten years of our sales in this archdiocese.” The ban on F. E. L.’s materials is so complete, he said, “that the archdiocese is not even allowing our songs to be sung, even from memory, in [its] churches.”
“We want all this material out of the Chicago churches … until this suit is resolved,” declared archdiocesan attorney Donald Reuben. “These hymns are not going to be sung in the churches of Chicago until we have resolved this so that nobody can misunderstand.” He said the ban was necessary to protect the archdiocese from further litigation.
Attorneys for both sides were to meet to try to resolve their differences over the ban.
Fitzpatrick meanwhile has expressed concern that the ban idea may spread. The Phoenix diocese, he said, has issued a letter recalling all F. E. L. books, hymnals, and music. He also said that he was concerned over the failure of sixty-five parishes in the Chicago archdiocese to return unauthorized material. “I suspect that their evidence might have been destroyed to avoid justice,” he told reporters.
Fitzpatrick estimates that at least 10,000 Catholic parishes throughout the nation have violated copyrights, and that his firm has lost $29 million in gross revenues because of such bootlegging.
Editorials in a number of Protestant and Catholic publications have called attention to the questions of ethics and law raised by unauthorized copying not only of music but also of Christian-education material. “Christians who get into an heroic sweat about those big soul-less corporations stealing from the little fellow, and all such-like things,” said an editorial in the Living Church, an unofficial Episcopal magazine, “might do well to see whether theft is practiced by their own parish, Sunday school, or choir, or parson.”
Aborting The Law
Judge John F. Dooling of a U. S. district court in New York ruled that a legislative ban against Medicaid reimbursements for voluntary abortions is unconstitutional. His twenty-nine page opinion overturned the Hyde Amendment to the $56 billion federal social-services bill that banned Medicaid reimbursement for all abortions except to save the life of the mother or in cases of rape and incest. The judge said the state and federal governments “are linked in a fiscal partnership to provide medical assistance to the needy” but that the legislation discriminates against the poor who exercise their constitutional right to have an abortion. All fifty states are affected by the ruling.
During debates in Congress earlier, reports indicated that 300,000 women in the United States had Medicaid-paid abortions last year.
Units of the American Baptist Churches, the Church of the Brethren, the United Church of Christ, and the Unitarian Universalist Association joined with Americans United for Separation of Church and State and several other religious groups in filing a friend-of-the-court brief against the Hyde Amendment. The brief contended that the amendment imposes on recipients what amounts to a biased religious viewpoint and is therefore unconstitutional.
When Love Fails
Evangelicals expressed an uncharacteristic attitude toward divorced persons at last month’s Consultation on Divorce and Remarriage, held in Oakbrook, Illinois. Some forty invited participants found themselves being open toward the remarriage of divorced people while at the same time confessing tension between their theological commitment to the permanence of marriage and pastoral concern for those with failed marriages. Part of this tension resulted from the admission that the churches have not established adequate marriage foundations through pre- and post-marital programs and have thereby contributed to the rate of marriage failure.
The consultation grew out of discussions between two ministers, Arthur DeKruyter of Christ Church of Oakbrook, Illinois, and Arthur Brown of Village Church in Western Springs, and a seminary dean, Robert Meye of Northern Baptist Seminary. They were concerned about the growing problem of divorce and felt that current evangelical thinking about divorce might be more traditional than biblical and hinders more than it helps pastoral ministry. Others, such as David Mains of Circle Church in Chicago and writer Letha Scanzoni, were invited to take part in the discussions, and this led to the consultation.
The time was ripe for a discussion of the evangelical view of divorce and remarriage. The Continental Congress on the Family held last year issued a call for a theology of marriage, part of which must be a theology of divorce and remarriage. A number of church bodies this year adopted resolutions on the topics. During the past year significant books on divorce have been published or reprinted. While the reprinting of Guy Duty’s Divorce and Remarriage (Bethany Fellowship) represents a restatement of traditional opinion, Dwight Small’s The Right to Remarry (Revell) is a rather new evangelical approach to divorce. Personal testimonies of the hardship of divorce are also appearing regularly from evangelical publishers, such as Zondervan’s Divorced—I Wouldn’t Have Given a Nickel For Your Chances, by Suzanne Stewart.
The range of opinions at the consultation was not broad, because of last-minute cancellations by important representatives of the traditional evangelical position that divorce is wrong and remarriage constitutes adultery. The group expressed widespread agreement on the right of genuinely penitent Christians to remarry following divorce. This was justified on the grounds that forgiveness for divorce means that the event is past, the slate has been wiped clean, and the divorced person has the opportunity to begin again. Although insisting that divorce is always wrong, Paul Jewett of Fuller Seminary offered a biblically based theological justification for remarriage. Careful exegesis of several crucial passages was provided by Berkeley Michelsen of Bethel Seminary.
Agreement on the value of divorce was not so widespread. Uneasiness was expressed about the view that divorce might be the lesser of two evils; this view would place a person in the position where he could not choose to do good. Nonetheless, there was considerable agreement that the covenant of marriage can be so violated by certain actions (for instance, adultery, desertion, extreme cruelty) that divorce is the answer. The customary biblical grounds for divorce are thus illustrative rather than definitive.
Pastoral participants expressed serious concern about the tension between the traditional “no divorce, no remarriage” approach and their deep personal concern for those who are experiencing the trauma of deeply unsatisfying marriages or who have gone through divorce and want to begin a new life that includes marriage. Many felt, however, that the open attitude prevalent at the consultation went far beyond what many people in their churches might accept.
“Isn’t the Gospel of Jesus Christ good news?” was a continual question. Particular application was made to the growing opportunities to minister to formerly married persons. Is the Gospel good news when it says “no” to one of their most basic needs, the need for intimate companionship in marriage? Singles minister Jim Smoke of Garden Grove Community Church emphasized particularly that the Gospel means rebuilding for the future, not concentrating on the failures of the past.
A major tension was expressed only late in the consultation, although it was an undercurrent throughout. Professor Warren Young of Northern Baptist Seminary, while giving his summary of the conference, stated that sociological rather than theological factors had dominated the approaches to divorce and remarriage, and that traditional biblical-theological approaches had been abandoned. Dean Lars Granberg of Hope College, without actually challenging him, asked, “To what extent should sociological data condition theology?” His question went unanswered as the conference turned to items of pastoral rather than theological concern.
The conference concluded with a proposal to hold a further consultation on the whole range of human sexuality at some future date.
C. E. CERLING, JR.
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