When life coach and televangelist Paula White went into her marriage 18 years ago, she thought she'd end her life with her husband, Randy. Divorce was not anything she ever wanted to happen, she recently said.
Now separated from Randy and continuing her own ministry, White has found herself in the midst of a wide debate as more evangelicals show acceptance of divorce.
"The fact is as many have been critical or judgmental [about the divorce] ... I've also found thousands that have reached out to me in a way that maybe they never did," said White in a live interview Monday with CNN's Larry King.
The famed pentecostal preacher's divorce announcement in August compounded with the divorce case of another power couple – televangelist Juanita Bynum and Bishop Thomas Weeks III – that same week fueled discussions on whether Scripture allows the separation of marriage partners as both couples received support.
"I think conservative Christians are becoming more liberalized in the sense of, I guess, making more room for the acceptance of divorce and remarriage," said Mark Galli, Christianity Today magazine's managing editor, according to Religion News Service. "You'll see a lot of churches that plunge right in and have divorce ministries. ... Marriage is a really difficult thing in our culture right now."
The monthly magazine published last month a cover story titled "When to Separate What God has Joined: A Closer Reading on the Bible on Divorce" that stirred controversy particularly with conservative evangelicals.
In the article, British Evangelical scholar David Instone-Brewer wrote that God allows divorce and subsequent remarriage in cases of adultery, physical and emotional neglect, abuse and abandonment – a shift from the commonly held view that only adultery is a biblically justified reason for divorce. He later clarified that divorce is not allowed for just any emotional or physical neglect or other minor infractions but only on "serious and specific grounds." In effect, divorce is allowed for adultery, abandonment or abuse, he stated.
Televangelist Bynum separated from her husband after alleging he assaulted her at an Atlanta hotel parking lot in August. The Whites did not give a clear reason for their divorce but insisted the separation was amicable.
Meanwhile, theological conservative John Piper called the widening grounds of legitimate divorce "tragic."
Piper pointed out that Jesus' standards for marriage were high and that he is "radical, not accommodating." Alluding to the biblical meaning, Piper further explained that marriage displays the covenant-keeping faithfulness of Christ and his church and that Christ will never divorce his wife and take another.
"The world we live in needs to see a church that is so satisfied in Christ that its marriages are not abandoned for something as amorphous as 'emotional neglect,'" he stated in his website DesiringGod.org.
The world, however, is seeing a less faithful image.
Studies in recent years have shown that born-again Christians are just as likely to get divorced as non-Christians. According to The Barna Group's 2004 survey, 35 percent of born again Christians have experienced divorce – a figure identical to that of married adults who are not born again.
The research group also reported that "relatively few divorced Christians experienced their divorce before accepting Christ as their savior."
Both Paula White and Bynum continue to have a strong following even after their highly public divorces. White has out a new book, You're All That!, and Bynum said she believes her experience may broaden her ability to reach people.
One pastor, however, isn't convinced.
"[M]arriage is to be a picture of God's relationship with His covenant people," wrote Christopher Tillman in response to Instone-Brewer's debate with Piper. "To allow for divorce in the life of a believer is to do serious damage to Gospel witness in one's life."
But in a culture where the divorce rate is increasing and Christians are struggling in their marriages, Tillman adds, "What needs to be communicated is not that rethinking marriage yields more 'biblically' lenient standards for divorce than have been traditionally held, but rather, that marriage is an institution to be treasured by us as Christians."