The ability of a man and woman to live with each other day after day is, as Bill Cosby once observed, "undoubtedly a miracle the Vatican has overlooked." When you factor in a prolonged sickness like cancer, ALS ("Lou Gehrig's Disease") or Alzheimer's, even the closest, most solid marital ships can find themselves near to running aground.
Regardless of these inherent dangers, those of us who are married have taken vows of commitment, generally before God and witnesses. And, most all of us make this promise to keep these vows "as long as we both shall live" or "until God shall separate us by death" or other equally strong, compelling words. Biblical admonitions about taking vows (Ecclesiastes 5:4, 5, for example) make the seriousness of such promises clear.
Recently on the 700 Club broadcast host Pat Robertson answered a viewer's question about marriage, divorce and Alzheimer's Disease. The caller wanted advice on how to speak to a friend who had entered a dating relationship with a lady because his wife had Alzheimer's and she "as he knows her is gone," speaking of her mental condition.
Let me start by saying that Pat Robertson has done some good things – kingdom things – over the years. He has participated in the public square, as more Christians should. Operation Blessing is a wonderful organization. Many have been impacted by his ministry. When I met him, I found him to be a kind and gracious man. So my evaluation here should not be interpreted as yet another person on the "Bash Pat" bandwagon. Yes, Pat has said some many things I find unhelpful and just wrong, but I am glad I am not on television answering questions for hours each day. We all make mistakes.
That being said, however, what Robertson said in answer to this viewer was wrong – not just wrong, but utterly reprehensible. I hope he will apologize and do so soon.
I watched my grandfather forget my name (and just about everyone else's name) as Alzheimer's took its toll. Similar stories are already popping up on Facebook walls all across the Internet. Alzheimer's is a terrible thing, made more terrible when we abandon those who need us most.
I can appreciate that Robertson has concern for the spouse who remains healthy, and he should. But the greatest sacrifice is not that we lose our spouse to a mental black hole from which there is no return. That must be agonizing beyond words, but the answer is not abandonment of the afflicted one. Surely we cannot post-modernize "for better for worse, in sickness and in health" to cover our own feelings rather than physical realities.
But, Robertson's error reminds us that EVERY DAY we can lay down our lives for one another. It might not involve changing the diapers of a demented adult, but it very well could that or other needs for extreme sacrifice.
The famed Princeton theologian of the late 1800s-early 1900s, B.B. Warfield, knew this experience. Shortly after his graduation from Princeton and marriage to Annie Pierce Kinkead in 1876, Warfield and his new bride visited Germany where she was struck by lightning, suffering permanent paralysis. He cared for her, working his job a theologian and teacher around her needs, until her death in 1915--nearly 40 years.
Closer to our own day is the moving story of former Columbia International University president, Robertson McQuilkin and his wife, Muriel, who contracted Alzheimer's disease in 1981. After caring for her as much as possible for nine years while continuing to lead the school (including having her accompany him to classes at times) he found it unworkable to be her full time caregiver and simultaneously maintain his ministry commitments. Therefore, he resigned from the presidency of Columbia. Here is an of a portion of speech where he gives his reasoning:
Not only was Robertson McQuilkin like Jesus in keeping his word to Muriel; he was like Jesus in his love for her. In his resignation letter to the school, he made clear that he didn't think of it as his "duty" to care for her:
Duty, however, can be grim and stoic. But there is more: I love Muriel. She is a delight to me--her childlike dependence and confidence in me, her warm love, occasional flashes of that wit I used to relish so, her happy spirit and tough resilience in the face of her continual distressing frustration. I don't have to care for her. I get to! It is a high honor to care for so wonderful a person (quoted in Disciplines of a Godly Man, by R. Kent Hughes, p. 34).
The name of McQuilkin's own book, A Promise Kept, is as clear a statement as needs to be made. Others can refute unwise statements like those of Pat Robertson, but this how Christ's love for the church is our model-- he laid down his life. So should we. When it comes to marriage and Alzheimers, listen to Robertson McQuilken and not Pat Robertson.
Ed Stetzer, Ph.D., is President of LifeWay Research and LifeWay’s Missiologist in Residence. Ed is a contributing editor for Christianity Today, a columnist for Outreach Magazine and Catalyst Monthly, serves on the advisory council of Sermon Central and Christianity Today's Building Church Leaders, and is frequently cited or interviewed in news outlets such as USA Today and CNN. Ed is Visiting Professor of Research and Missiology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and Visiting Research Professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. Ed blogs daily at EdStetzer.com.