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Stand By Your Man… Or Not

Two women, both scorned, are book-ending a public discussion of marital infidelity. Coincidentally, both wives claim to be Christians, as do their offending spouses. Which makes the discussion even more fascinating. But the underlying question in both cases is the same: Should they stay or should they go? Which is why the “Christian” part of this is so interesting.

Is it more Christian to remain with an offending spouse, rather than leave them?

Jenny Sanford’s book, “Staying True,” recently hit book stands. She filed for divorce in December from South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, whose ongoing affair with an Argentine woman was exposed after he disappeared for several days last summer. The details were sordid, tabloidish, and very sad. I watched her interview with Larry King last night and couldn’t help but feel she was doing the right thing divorcing this heel. So who was she “staying true” to? I’m guessing it was herself. But God? Therein lies the rub.

The same question could be asked of Gayle Haggard, who is doing just the opposite. Haggard’s “Why I Stayed” explains just that — why she is not divorcing the fallen mega-church leader after his dismissal for sexual misconduct with a male prostitute. According to a piece in the Denver Post, she wrote, “Will I be the woman who washes her hands of the situation and walks away from Ted? Or will I be the woman who loves him and shows forgiveness? The choice was mine.” The obvious sense is that either choice could be right. And, for the Christian, that’s where things get sticky.

I could be wrong, but isn’t the consensus among church-goers — whether spoken or not — that it is more noble to NOT divorce a cheating partner? The Christian thing to do, we imply, is to remain with our wayward spouse. After all, God doesn’t divorce us when we are faithless. As a result, the divorce label stigmatizes many members of the average church.

Like the Sanford interview, I watched the Haggards on Larry King. And I must admit, I am far more perplexed by Gayle Haggard’s decision than by Jenny Sanford’s. Perhaps my grace meter is running low, but Haggard’s decision to stay with her husband appears naive. I realize this puts me in the same camp as feminists who are hailing Sanford, Erin Nordegren (Tiger Woods’ wife), and Elizabeth Edwards as feminist heroes for NOT standing by their cheating men. Nevertheless, I remain skeptical of Ted Haggard’s “restoration” and Gayle’s response just seems so… stereotypical. But can a Christian woman ever remain with an adulterous husband without seeming like a doormat? I doubt it.

Which brings me to the bottom line: Divorce is never the ideal, is always a sad thing, is a very personal issue, and rarely has clear lines of resolution. Indeed, many couples divorce at the exact point their marriage can be strengthened. Furthermore, our quick-to-split culture fuels the divorce epidemic and taints our attitudes.  Still, who’s to say which woman’s decision was better or more “Christian”? Heck, maybe they both were.

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{ 6 comments… add one }
  • Shannon McNear February 9, 2010, 2:12 PM

    Very thoughtful posts, and questions I have asked more than once. I have a dear friend whose husband was unfaithful, and her response was to hit her knees, humble *herself* before God, and hang on … and He restored their marriage. Could I do that? I don't know. God doesn't give me grace for a trial that hasn't been my own. (She feels the same way about our experience in losing a baby ten years ago.)

    It's my belief that the NT allows for divorce for sexual misbehavior because this sin sunders the marriage relationship as no other. I think the difference in the wife staying in the Haggard and Sanford situations is in whether the offender truly repents. If Haggard is truly repentant–wonderful. Sanford, on the other hand, doesn't seem to be. (Maybe my reaction is a bit stronger because I'm a SC voter who formerly supported him. 🙂 ) In my view, Jenny Sanford is certainly not bound–and I respect her choice as much as I do that of my friend who stayed with her husband years ago.

    Blessings, Mike!

  • Jay February 9, 2010, 2:27 PM

    Within the church, I'm almost entirely against divorce — unless someone's well-being is in danger. It helps if we look at the marriage covenant as typology…of a model of God's husband-relationship first with Israel and then later with the church. How many times has God been faithful, while the other half of the marriage contract consistent infidelity? Shouldn't we model our marriages after God's behavior in His?

  • Mike Duran February 9, 2010, 2:30 PM

    Shannon, thanks for your comment! You're right about Scripture allowing for divorce on the grounds of infidelity. The verse that often bothers me, however, is this one: "Because of your hardness of heart, Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way" (Matthew 19:8). Not only does this suggest the ideal: No divorce, but it frames divorce as a "heart" issue as opposed to a "legal" issue. Hard hearts — whether in a sinning spouse, an offended partner, or both — are the main issues in a divorce. Which makes the decision to stay or go even more complicated. Blessings back at you, Shannon!

  • Angela Hunt February 10, 2010, 1:14 PM

    If and when you read Gayle's book, you'll realize that the key difference in these situations lies within the husbands. Ted repented; Sanford clung to his "soul mate" who was not his wife. In the face of repentance, are we not commanded to forgive, as we have been forgiven?

    Angela Hunt

  • Mike Duran February 10, 2010, 1:51 PM

    Well, Angie… there's still a lot of grays. From what's being reported, and from the interviews I've watched, both men appear to be "sorry" for what they did (or got caught doing). While I agree with you about Sanford, Ted Haggard's "repentance" seems just as fishy. Remember, he prematurely quit a "restoration program" that was one of the conditions of his New Life severance package and has started a "prayer group" in Colorado Springs which he promised not do. Then there's his "new" views on sexuality, claiming to be “a heterosexual with issues.” I'm not saying all this to pile on, but just to note that there's more to it than just saying "I repent."

    Either way, it appears both women have biblical grounds for divorce. All I'm saying, in juxtaposing their decisions, is that the answers aren't as cut-and-dried as some Christians would like. I applaud Gayle Haggard for staying with her husband. But does his "repentance" require her to do so? I don't think so.

    Thanks for your comments, Angie!

  • Frank Spinella February 13, 2010, 5:03 PM

    I doubt there is a "Christian" answer to the "stay or go" question in the face of marital infidelity. There is only a "personal" answer, and one's Christianity may or may not inform that personal decision (if it does, it may inform the decision differently for two different Christians). But looking to the New Testament for a definitive answer is futile. Some Christians automatically assume, or have been taught, that "the answer has to be in there somewhere." No, it doesn't. No gospel or epistle instructs a scorned wife to stay if hubby is repentant and leave if he's not (how could she be sure of his sincerity anyway?!) — nor to apply any other criteria to one's decision. It stays a personal one, informed by a host of circumstances on which the NT gives limited or no instruction.

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