Till Death Do Us ... Oh, Whatever

Hey, hey, Paula -- Bible Girl's losing faith in you.

I learned everything I need to know about living a sexually pure life in the ghetto. You heard me right.

I came to a tough neighborhood -- to a black Pentecostal church in the heart of South Dallas -- with all my white middle-class notions intact. Couldn't help it. I was raised that way. One notion was that I could have some innocent relationships with guy friends, even after I got married. Never mind that the past friendships I’d filed in that category weren't quite as innocent as I wanted to think they were; in South Dallas, I ran smack up against an ironclad belief that there is no innocent context whatsoever for a close friendship between a grown man and a grown woman. It is always assumed, Ghetto 101 here, that something is going on.

And you know what? Two decades of experience later, I totally agree. Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the time, something is going on.

Here's another one that my South Dallas church training bludgeoned into my thick head: A woman shouldn't be calling another woman's husband without the wife's permission. Yes, there are a few exceptions, but if you have to ask, you’re the kind of person who’s looking for loopholes. “Don’t let your good be spoken of as evil,” my leaders would always tell me, alluding to Romans 14:16.

Want some more? If you're in ministry, never travel without your spouse for any length of time. You think you’re both fine with it? Think again. “Make no provision for the flesh” -- that’s my leaders talking again -- and “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought."

Last one: That woman who’s always complimenting the pastor about his fine clothes, his fine messages, his fine whatever? She’s up to no good. Never, ever allow yourself to be in a private situation with her. The converse is true as well. Never trust a male minister who “counsels” privately with female congregants. He too is up to no good.

Well, last week was another embarrassing week for Pentecostals. Randy and Paula White, founders of the fast-growing Without Walls International Church in Tampa, Florida, announced their impending divorce. Juanita Bynum, an extremely popular preacher with bases in the Atlanta and New York areas, got beaten and stomped by her estranged husband, Bishop Thomas Weeks III, in a hotel parking lot. A bellman had to pull the bishop off of her, according to a police report.

I, like you, am sick of Pentecostal preachers being the laughingstock of the world. I know quite a few Pentecostal leaders of integrity who are exasperated by what they see as well as genuinely heartsick at the personal tragedies involved in these two particular cases. But all of this makes me want to gather some of these big-name folks, stuff them into a rickety church van with “Holiness or Hell” stenciled on the side in crooked letters and haul them to South Dallas for a little Ghetto 101. Seriously: If more folks followed the wisdom that’s been hammered into my brain at the old school, we wouldn’t be where we are today.

I know what we say -- “God isn’t through” -- and surely, at the end of the day, we will have clarity. A clear demarcation between what is real and what isn’t. But until then, we have this:

Last Thursday, Randy and Paula White -- a dynamic preacher with a big following among women, white and black -- divulged what has been rumored for quite some time, that they are getting a divorce after 18 years. Paula White is senior pastor of Without Walls church in Tampa, which has been getting some bad press lately. She is much better known than her husband. I have never actually heard Paula White preach myself, but I know that many people have benefited from her television ministry. Let’s not forget that.

The Whites’ divorce has been a subject of speculation for months because their ministries seemed to be on divergent paths. Randy White was attempting to launch a church for celebrities in Malibu, California. Paula White had a second home in New York, where she was expanding her ministry into inspirational speaking (don’t get me started). They were spending a lot of time apart, and, according to the Tampa Tribune, rumors abounded that Paula White had something romantic going on with a ministry associate. When the Tribune asked the Whites two months ago about the status of their marriage, the response struck me as odd. Asked whether they were considering a divorce, Randy said, “No one can predict the future.” Both said they “have been true to their marital vows for 18 years.”

Well, I’ll admit I’m a somewhat cynical journalist of more than 20 years’ experience, but I couldn’t help but detect some Bill Clinton-esque parsing of basic English words going on here. If you asked me if I was carrying on with someone besides my spouse, you wouldn’t even get a chance to finish the sentence. And you might be wiping a few beads of spit off your face.

This week comes word, via the San Antonio Express-News and reporter Abe Levy, that Paula White recently purchased a $700,000 home near Boerne earlier this month. She bought the home, Levy writes, “about the same time she was giving a five-week sermon series at Family Praise Center, founded by Bishop Rick Hawkins. Increasingly, White, Hawkins, his son and the San Antonio church have developed closer links.”

Oh, and here’s this, dropped in a few paragraphs later: “Family Praise Center was founded by Hawkins in 1993, and his son Dustin Hawkins is pastor. Both men got divorced in February.”

Mercy me, the ghetto bells are dinging real hard in my head right about now. The little church van is rocking, coughing up some really stinky exhaust fumes, and I’m feeling dizzy.

Just get me back to my church home in South Dallas, where I can lay my head on the altar and make some sense out of all this.

You say I’m making insinuations? After all, the Whites, while offering no reason behind their plan to divorce, did specify that there was no infidelity involved. And I’m more than ready to accept this -- no one did the deed outside the bounds of marriage. But I’m sorry, I learned everything I know about living a sexually pure life in the ghetto, and that’s all I’m gonna say about Paula White.

So what about Randy? Well, check out the Tampa Tribune, which has been giving the Whites a lot of coverage lately. Here, we discover that Randy White has apologized for appearing with attractive women other than his wife in public, even though these acquaintances were “innocent,” and that he has introduced his former personal trainer, a female ex-porn star, to the church.

Really and truly, the Whites have built an admirable inner-city outreach in Tampa, and you can check out J. Lee Grady’s excellent column in Charisma magazine, which serves the Pentecostal and charismatic churches, for some perspective on the Whites’ contributions to ministry. But folks, how about a little wisdom here? How about a little accountability?

Is there anyone in the Whites’ church who had the standing, the moral clarity and temerity to call things as they appeared? Because appearances do matter, according to the Word of God. The Apostle Paul cautions that all “overseers” must live a life above reproach, and that our only attitude toward sexual immorality should be to “flee” it. In other words, don’t humor it, play with it, tickle it, slap it, dance around it or sidle away making sweet apologies. Flee. Just flee.

Juanita Bynum’s predicament, on the surface, appears pretty clear-cut. Her husband of five years, Bishop Thomas Weeks III, brutally beat her last week after the two had met at an Atlanta hotel in an attempt to reconcile. Bynum suffered significant bruising, which you can view in photographs online.

Weeks turned himself in to police a day later and was charged with aggravated assault, a felony, and making terroristic threats. Bynum clearly appears to be the victim here, but again, my South Dallas church training tells me to look deeper. What were the circumstances of Bynum’s marriage to Bishop Weeks in the first place? Both had been married before. Bynum came to prominence several years ago with her powerful message on how she put away her life of sexual immorality, “No More Sheets.” She, like Paula White, got a big boost in popularity through her association with Dallas’ Bishop T.D. Jakes, who has championed quite a few gifted female ministers over the years.

I’m pretty sure Bynum’s ministry will rebound from all this, but I, for one, will be keeping my distance. Same for the Whites. I’m just not going to spend much time following the ministries of folks who appear to operate outside the bounds of a solid accountability structure.

You say I’m blaming the victim? I don’t think so. I just can’t help but think of the words of a terrific young spoken-word artist from New Orleans named G.F. Soldier, who I heard recently. “If your gospel message isn’t saving you,” he said, and I paraphrase, “then how can it save anyone else?”

Good question, G.F. Soldier. Good question. --Julie Lyons

Coming up: Mother Teresa’s dark night of the soul

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Julie Lyons
Contact: Julie Lyons