Note: This message is edited and cross-posted from a thread on the NLQ Forums.
After my father divorced my mother (he was not a Message believer, she was), she learned that Message women were not allowed to remarry, as per William Branham’s doctrine of the “natural law of polygamy” preached in the sermon “Marriage and Divorce.” Branham taught that men who divorce their wives for adultery are allowed to marry again, because after the Fall the model of human relationships became “one man and many women,” but never the reverse. Divorced women could only be reconciled to their original husbands or remain single until their ex-husbands died. My mother therefore latched onto the idea that God was going to restore her marriage by bringing my father back, making a believer out of him, and taking away his abusive nature. Her game plan? Unconditional love and submission.
She was encouraged in this pursuit by “Rejoice Ministries,” run by Charlyne Steinkamp (aided by her husband, Bob). Charlyne divorced Bob after something like 19 years of marriage, then had a change of heart and took him back. Her ministry advises divorcees to change themselves, submit to God and their husbands, and prepare their home (including, in my case, the children) to receive their “prodigals” back. She claims that in order for prodigals to return, they need to see that something’s different, and it’s up to the divorcees to show them this.
Poking through Charlyne’s FAQs can be pretty eye-opening. For instance, I searched for “abuse” and “abusive” and got this:
An entry written by her husband, Bob:
The foremost question on the heart of any prodigal who ever gives thought to returning home is a simple one; “What’s different now?” It does not matter if you are separated because of adultery, abuse, alcoholism or any of the rest of the alphabet of causes, your spouse wants to know what has changed so that this nightmare will not repeat itself.
A little later in the same entry, he adds,
“Me change?” someone is thinking. “My spouse was the one who committed adultery, not me. Let them change!” You need to stop playing the blame game. Satan is the one at fault for your situation. He attacked your family by using a preexisting spiritual weakness in one or both parties.
In response to the question, “Why did you never give up on Bob in spite of all the sinful things he did? Did you really believe that Bob would change and not be abusive, emotionally, physically and mentally, let alone commit adultery again?” Charlyne writes:
I could never give up on Bob, because I did once. I divorced Bob due to all of his sinful behavior during our entire marriage. But God, touched me. He spoke to my heart and told me that He had not given up on Bob. God spoke to my heart and said, “You have given up on Bob and on Me, God, who created the Heavens and the earth and in My mighty power.”
In response to the question, “What about my spouse’s free will?” Charlyne answers:
Everyone told me that Bob had his own free will. Then God gave me a scripture: ‘And that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.’ 2 Timothy 2:26.
(In other words, “You only have free will if you do what I want! Otherwise you’re doing Satan’s will!”)
Following Charlyne’s footsteps, my mother expected: a Holy Spirit-filled, godly leader of our home who would love and cherish her as Christ loved the church and would finally be a good father to me.
What she got: her ex-husband moved back in with her when he ran out of money, never remarried her, still does not attend church, still abuses her verbally and physically, and continued to verbally abuse me until I caught a plane out of there fearing I would be shot if I stayed any longer. Sure sounds like God’s perfect plan of restoration, huh?
Like much of fundamentalism, Rejoice Ministries takes “divorce” as the enemy, not as a descriptor of a process that ends a broken relationship. The problem is the divorce, not the relationship. In Bob’s quote above, I think it’s telling that he doesn’t care who perpetrates the abuse or adultery (a nice stand for him to take, as by accounts he sounds like the abusive one in an abusive-codependent relationship!), because those abstractions are the problems, not the people who abuse or the people who commit adultery. (I’d make the comparison to abortion, too, as another faceless, uncomplicated “evil.”) Abuse, adultery, and divorce become things to “fight.” People who oppose divorce become “standers,” who “stand for their marriage” (marriage being another apparently transcendental abstraction) rather than “people who pretend they aren’t divorced to convince their exes to come back.”
Warring against abstractions is almost always futile, though, as it totally fails to take into account cause and effect. Making your home hospitable for the man who divorced you is not going to solve the problems that got you divorced. What it does, in fact, is invite him to continue the same patterns because he is convinced that you’ll do all the changing to make things convenient for him. Pretending that abuse is something that ” just happens” because Satan attacks a marriage excuses the abusive partner of all responsibility and as a result (a direct result!) utterly destroys the possibility that the abusive dynamic will change. In biblical terms, it means that the “prodigal” circumvents the process of repentance. He or she does not need to repent, because the road is paved for them to continue their bad behavior (and it’s paved with the souls of the “stander” and children).
NLQ member KR Wordgazer points out how far removed Rejoice Ministries’ ideas about “prodigal” spouses are from the real meaning of Jesus’ parable:
Wow, Sierra, that is the most bizarre application of the prodigal son story I ever heard. Didn’t it ever occur to Ms. Steinkamp that what she’s teaching is the opposite of what Jesus meant by the story? In Jesus’ version, the prodigal son didn’t go home because something had changed. He went home because he had changed. At home, nothing had changed, and he knew that he didn’t deserve to be accepted back. He went back, not expecting to be fully reinstated, but simply to be as one of the hired hands. That his father gave him much greater grace than he deserved was something he understood very, very well.
If we were to redo Jesus’ story to match Ms. Steinkamp’s, the prodigal’s father would make it clear to the boy that he could come back any time and be fully reinstated as a son, so that he could continue to demand money from his father and tell him he wished he would just drop dead (which was what asking for your inheritance in that culture actually meant). His father would make it clear that the son could walk all over him, no questions asked, no decency required. The son would come back and continue to waste the family’s money until the father went bankrupt– and the father would be expected to simply be happy that he had his prodigal back.