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Charles Stanley believes he's a better pastor because he knows what it's like to come home to a house left empty by divorce.

He's no longer just the minister of mammoth First Baptist in Atlanta and the famous evangelist who's heard on more TV and radio stations than probably any other Christian. He's a 67-year-old man struggling with the death of a 44-year marriage.And that, said Stanley, makes him more qualified to bring Christ's love into the lives of those who need it most:

``I've had lots of people who said, 'You know, I couldn't listen to you because you couldn't understand. Now you understand.'

``When I talked about pain before,' Stanley said, ``I didn't know what I was talking about.'

What led to the breakup of Charles and Anna Stanley's marriage after years of difficulty is their business, not ours.

Stanley said he's barred by the court from talking about it publicly, offering only that he is on good terms with his wife and that if she called tomorrow, he'd gladly resume their life together.

But what happens after a Southern Baptist preacher divorces is an issue that goes beyond Stanley. He has become a lightning rod for a bitter national debate.

Many, if not most, Southern Baptist churches prohibit pastors, staff members and even lay members who become deacons from serving after a divorce. Just because he's Charles Stanley and his In Touch Ministries goes all over the world doesn't mean he's above the law of the church, say those who believe Stanley should relinquish his pulpit.

When First Baptist members applauded the news that Stanley will stay on as their pastor, evangelist Charles Colson said on his radio show: ``Have our churches become so accustomed to moral failure that we applaud it? If this is the test of being a good shepherd, should we also endorse pedophiles as pastors so they can better empathize with people who commit child abuse? How far do you carry this preposterous argument?'

What's preposterous, believes Stanley, is branding with a scarlet ``D' all those men and women whose marriages end without sin or fault on the part of either party:

``Things happen in people's lives. Things they can't control.'

Stanley and I covered painful ground after his meeting with 50 Charlotte pastors to promote the free rally he's holding Aug. 4 at the Charlotte Coliseum.

It would be easier to talk about the rally or the latest of his 21 books or his six grandchildren or the 10 sermons he'll soon deliver on an In Touch Ministries cruise to Alaska.

But it might not be as valuable as talking about how he has learned the hard way that the death of a marriage shouldn't signal the death of a ministry.

Ken Garfield is the religioneditor at The Charlotte Observer.


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