Mess of Pottage Blog

Luke's "Pro" Blog

Pat Robertson and Alzheimer’s Ethics

Well. Pat Robertson says it’s okay to get a divorce when your spouse has advanced Alzheimer’s disease. (To be fair, he does say there is an obligation to ensure that custodial care is provided.)

Now here’s the thing: I appreciate he isn’t just responding with a knee-jerk “God said it / I believe it / that settles it.” It’s a tough problem. I see people in church struggling to do what’s right when their spouse has dementia.

But “disability is vocation.” We believe that God is sovereign, and if the road we walk is a tough one, we should walk it nonetheless, because if God didn’t want us to, he wouldn’t have made the road that way. We say the road can be walked because God is with us on the way, and, if it comes to it, God will carry over the worst parts. We say that if (or when) we fall down, God will pick us back up and set us on our feet.

Difficult circumstances aren’t license to sin, they are our calling. Slaves are to obey their earthly masters, even when the master is cruel (Ephesians 6:5, Colossians 3:22, 1 Peter 2:18).

That’s what we say to teens who are tempted to premarital sex. It’s what we tell homosexuals about any kind of sex. It’s why women should submit to their husband’s authority, and why men should should give their lives for their wives.

But do we believe it when the tough circumstances are our problem, or just when they’re other people’s problems?

(A separate observation is that Robertson seems to be using worldly wisdom here. How does the Gospel of Jesus Christ change the equation? I know a non-believer who is taking care of their spouse partly from residual affection and partly from a stubborn unwillingness to break their marriage vows. What are they to make of Christianity when a popular preacher holds them not to a higher standard, but a lower one?)

Finally, let me answer an obvious question about vocation. Must we bear up under whatever our circumstances, or may we seek to change them? If I’m born with poor eyesight, am I forbidden to wear glasses? If there’s a medical breakthrough that cures dementia, can I use it? I’d answer those questions no, no, and yes.

The hardest Scripture on this subject is probably 1 Corinthians 7:20, which says:

Let each of you remain in the condition in which you were called.

Here’s how John Calvin and I interpret that:

Now it were a very hard thing if a tailor were not at liberty to learn another trade, or if a merchant were not at liberty to betake himself to farming. I answer, that this is not what the Apostle intends, for he has it simply in view to correct that inconsiderate eagerness, which prompts some to change their condition without any proper reason, whether they do it from superstition, or from any other motive.

Farther, he calls every one to this rule also — that they bear in mind what is suitable to their calling. He does not, therefore, impose upon any one the necessity of continuing in the kind of life which he has once taken up, but rather condemns that restlessness, which prevents an individual from remaining in his condition with a peaceable mind and he exhorts, that every one stick by his trade, as the old proverb goes.

If you’re not a fan of Calvin, here’s what Wesley said:

Wherein he is — When God calls him. Let him not seek to change this, without a clear direction from Providence.

(It’s amusing that the Armenian says to do nothing except if God directs you, and the Calvinist says you’re free to act. But that’s a completely different topic for another day.)

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