Charles Stanley, one of the most influential and era-defining pastors of his generation, died on April 18 at the age of ninety. Stanley was best known for the half-century he spent as pastor of First Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, as well as for the global preaching ministry—In Touch with Dr. Charles Stanley—that he led for much of that time.
However, despite his renown and the general respect most have for his preaching, his career was by no means free of controversy. At times, that controversy was a natural byproduct of the situations in which he found himself. At others, the wounds were self-inflicted. Yet, regardless of how one characterizes his time in the ministry, it is clear that God used him to spread the good news of Jesus Christ in some remarkable ways, a calling he received early on in his life.
The “survival spirit” of Charles Stanley
Charles Stanley was born on September 25, 1932, in the small town of Dry Fork, Virginia. His father passed away when Charles was nine months old, and he was raised by his mother, who worked in a textile factory to support them.
Stanley wrote in his autobiography of how he and his mother “would turn to the index in her well-worn, thick black Bible—which was the only book she owned—and looked up subjects together,” noting that “those are times children just don’t forget.” Those experiences guided him down the path to his conversion at the age of twelve and the call to preach two years later.
The years that followed would play a similarly defining role in the development of Stanley’s life, though for far different reasons.
When Charles was still a teenager, his mother remarried. Tragically, his stepfather was an abusive alcoholic with whom Stanley fought on multiple occasions, once even drawing a knife on the man. Charles “begged his mother to divorce him, but she remained committed to the union because of her faith.”
He would later describe the impact of those years: “I was very, very uneasy unless I was in charge. I was very, very combative and very, very competitive. You see, into my ministry, I brought the survival spirit. You do or die. You do whatever is necessary to win. It doesn’t make any difference what it is.”
That survival spirit would define much of his time in the ministry, at times to his benefit and at times to his harm.
Seeking power or following God?
After getting married and graduating from college, Stanley would spend the next fourteen years pastoring a series of churches before becoming the associate pastor at FBC Atlanta in 1969. When the senior pastor resigned two years later, Charles became the church’s primary preacher while they searched for a new senior pastor. He applied for the position himself, but the search committee voted against him 5–2.
While the committee continued to look, Stanley continued to preach and increasingly took on the other responsibilities of the senior pastor as well. The church was growing, and many in the congregation began pushing for him to officially get the job he was already performing to a large extent. Many others, however, grew stauncher in their opposition.
Stanley said those who opposed him didn’t like that he just preached about “how to get saved, the coming of Jesus, and how to be filled with the Holy Spirit,” to which he responded, “Well, God, I hope that’s true!” Others, however, accused him of making a “naked grab for power” while distrusting what they described as his “inordinate passion for political power” and “extravagant confidence in his understanding of the will of God.”
Everything came to a head when, at a church business meeting, a board member punched him in the face as the result of a heated exchange. When Stanley didn’t retaliate, it helped him curry favor within the church, and he was elected senior pastor shortly thereafter. In the wake of that decision, though, thirty-six of the church’s fifty-nine deacons resigned.
It didn’t take long, however, for Stanley to make his mark, both in the church and throughout the region.
The launch of In Touch Ministries
The year after Charles Stanley became senior pastor of FBC Atlanta, he started a half-hour program called “The Chapel Hour” on two Atlanta television stations. By 1978, the program had grown so popular that the Christian Broadcasting Network began to syndicate it across the nation. Four years later, In Touch Ministries was incorporated and began broadcasting on the radio as well.
The ministry would eventually go global, extending to more than 4,000 television, radio, and satellite networks and stations in 127 languages.
In Touch Ministries helped Stanley become a household name within Baptist circles and contributed greatly to his selection on two occasions to serve as president of the Southern Baptist Convention. His two terms aligned with some of the fiercest fighting within the convention between conservatives and moderates.
In his first year, he led the push to stop SBC congregations from ordaining women. At the time, thirteen female pastors were in the SBC and more than 220 women who were ordained ministers. His most lasting impact, however, came from filling various Baptist boards with like-minded conservatives, securing that faction’s influence over the convention for years to come.
As such, to some he became a hero and defender of biblical teaching while, to others, he represented the “ends justify the means” mentality that defined much of the conservative movement.
The personal crisis that came to a head a decade later, however, was his most difficult time, both personally and ministerially.
Charles and Anna Stanley’s divorce
In 1993, Stanley’s wife, Anna, filed for divorce. While she would eventually drop that suit, she refiled in 1995 and the couple ultimately split in 2000.
There was never a hint of infidelity or immoral behavior on Charles’ part. Rather, Anna said that the couple had grown apart and she was no longer a priority in his life.
While he continued to tell his congregation that they were trying to work out their differences, she told the Atlanta Constitution in 1995 that “I am dismayed by my husband’s refusal to accept the critical state of our marriage. Instead, he has made repeated announcements from the pulpit that progress was being made towards our reconciliation, when in fact, the very opposite was true. I do not choose to contribute to this charade.”
Stanley had long held the position that a divorced man should not be able to serve as a minister or as a deacon, and his own marital struggles led to many calling for him to step aside. His son, Andy Stanley, suggested that he offer his resignation to the church and let the congregation vote on whether to accept it.
Charles was determined to stay and would not consider any steps that may have led to his dismissal from the congregation he’d led for so long. A rift developed between father and son that saw Andy leave to start Northpoint Community Church in nearby Alpharetta. The two eventually reconciled, however, and Andy said following his father’s death that he looked up to Charles because he showed “how to get to a finish line with integrity, and to be able to look back and be proud of everything that came before, and unfortunately that’s increasingly rare.”
Andy could make that statement about his father not because he saw Charles as a man without flaws or mistakes but because of the unwavering faithfulness to God that he showed regardless of his circumstances. And while many of those circumstances were made more difficult than they needed to be by his “survival spirit” and uncompromising conviction that his way of thinking was correct, his passion for the Lord and commitment to his kingdom are undeniable. As such, God used him to transform countless lives and guide the lost to Jesus in some of the most difficult-to-reach parts of the world.
That is the legacy that Charles Stanley leaves behind, one in which we are reminded that faithfulness rather than perfection is ultimately what God can use best to advance his kingdom.
How faithful will you be today?