(RNS) When gospel artist Amy Grant got divorced in 1999 and married country singer Vince Gill a year later, the public breakup rocked the Christian music industry, threatened to derail her career and raised questions about the personal lives of prominent Christian artists.

Derek Webb and Sandra McCracken perform at The Grey Eagle in Asheville, N.C., in 2007.

Derek Webb and Sandra McCracken perform at The Grey Eagle in Asheville, N.C., in 2007. Photo courtesy of Danielhalton via Wikimedia Commons


This image is available for Web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Now, the issue is back, this time for popular musicians Derek Webb and Sandra McCracken, who announced on April 17 that their 13-year marriage was ending after an affair.

The fallout will likely be different this time around, in part because of changes in the music industry and a growing sense among evangelicals that divorce — while a disappointment — may be inevitable for some marriages.

The alleged extramarital affair that apparently led to the breakup, however, may be more problematic.

Webb and McCracken have been seen by some as a power couple among Christian artists in Nashville, Tenn., successfully reaching both religious and secular audiences. With three GMA Dove Awards and eight solo albums, Webb entered the music industry as a member of the Christian contemporary band Caedmon’s Call, but he later emerged with a successful solo career.

His NoiseTrade music website has also been seen as an innovative space for a mixture of Christian and independent music. With eight albums of her own, McCracken also wrote songs for Caedmon’s Call and for her husband.

The reaction has been mostly supportive for the couple, but Webb drew particular scrutiny over one sentence in the announcement.

Sandra McCracken in concert at Ecclesia Church in Houston, Texas.

Sandra McCracken in concert at Ecclesia Church in Houston. Photo courtesy of Thomas Campbell, via Wikimedia Commons


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“While we both acknowledge our own human sinfulness, Derek has taken full responsibility for the events which led to this decision,” the statement said.

Those who know the couple say Webb was involved with another woman. According to court documents related to the other woman’s pending divorce, the two were involved as early as last August, just as his latest album, “I Was Wrong, I’m Sorry & I Love You,” was released. He told the Christian Broadcasting Network he made the album for the broader Christian Church.

Matthew Smith, a Nashville musician who has been friends with the couple, said Webb told him about his affair soon after it began, and insisted the relationship had ended.

“Several of us sat down with him one night in late August and confronted him about the whole situation,” Smith said.

In an interview, Webb declined to give any further details. “What I’m interested in sharing publicly, I have shared,” he said, “and I’m committed to the protection of my family.”

Smith said McCracken filed for a divorce, which has not been finalized. They have two children. McCracken declined to comment further, citing concern for the family’s privacy.

“What bothers me is that among conservative Christian circles, people would think that maybe Sandra didn’t try hard enough for her marriage or that she is somehow at fault,” Smith said. “Sadly, I think sometimes women get treated poorly in situations like this in the public eye.”

Derek Webb performs during a concert at Ecclesia Church in Houston, Texas.

Derek Webb performs during a concert at Ecclesia Church in Houston. Photo courtesy of Thomas Campbell, via Wikimedia Commons


This image is available for Web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

In his album notes, Webb hinted at marriage in his song “The Vow,” and introduced the song as a form of commitment. “I wrote a song basically painting myself into a corner, which is basically what marriage is,” Webb said in the introduction, “… but there is real power in making commitments in the face of uncertainty.”

Webb has urged his fans to see him as a musician who is Christian rather than a Christian who is a musician — a departure from earlier years of catering to a Christian audience. He is considered to be an edgier artist among some evangelicals, “a truth-teller kind of guy or a prophetic voice among his fans,” Smith said.

“But,” Smith added, “not all divorce is created equal.”

While news of their divorce was shared across social media, the breakup has proven to be less explosive than Grant’s. During the 1980s to the early 2000s, Christian music was much more centralized, said Matthew Paul Turner, a Nashville-based author and former editor of CCM magazine.

“Christian music was more of a machine,” Turner said, noting musicians like Grant and Sandi Patty faced radio boycotts after their divorces. “Radio sort of ruled the conversation. If they weren’t going to air your song, that was a big deal and that trickled down in the rest of the industry.”

“Someone like Derek Webb isn’t dependent on radio,” Turner said.

Along with the shifts in the music industry, evangelicals have shifted views on divorce. In 1988, 10 percent of white evangelicals said divorce should be easier for couples to get, according to General Social Survey data. By 2012, that figure had more than doubled, to 21 percent.

Further, divorce is simply more common among evangelicals than it was in the past. Twenty-five years ago, evangelicals were less likely to be divorced than the average American. Today, they divorce at around the same rate, around 30 percent, according to GSS data, up from 19 percent in 1988.

“One could argue there’s a greater tolerance,” said Larry Eskridge, associate director of the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College outside Chicago. “There’s a greater emphasis on extending grace in the evangelical community these days. And on another level, it’s become so much more commonplace than it was a half century ago.”

Album cover for 'Ampersand EP' by Derek Webb and Sandra McCracken.

Album cover for “Ampersand EP” by Derek Webb and Sandra McCracken. Photo courtesy of amazon.com


This image is available for Web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

On the question of extramarital affairs, however, evangelicals have remained consistently opposed, with more than 90 percent saying it is wrong.

Webb and McCracken’s divorce surfaced at a Southern Baptist sexuality conference with a question addressed to Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

“You’re asking me if people ought to listen to music performed by people who have been divorced?” Moore asked at the Nashville forum. “We could be here all night.”

Moore noted the divorces of Willie Nelson, George Jones and Johnny Cash before addressing Webb and McCracken, and said there’s a difference between musicians in church and in the culture.

“Listening to that artistic contribution is not an endorsement of everything that person is about,” Moore said. “I would have a different take on this if you said these are people leading in a congregation.”

Categories: Beliefs

Beliefs:

Sarah Pulliam Bailey

Sarah Pulliam Bailey

Sarah Pulliam Bailey is a national correspondent for RNS, covering how faith intersects with politics, culture and other news. She previously served as online editor for Christianity Today where she remains an editor-at-large.

37 Comments

  1. The issue of divorce and infidelity is growing in the church at large, so it’s natural it would befall musicianss as well as pastors and leaders. It seems we have placed a large emphasis on “being happy and fulfilled” and lost things like community building, responsibility for others and family as a unit as opposed to a group of individuals. The center had shifted from community and family to me me me. The result is destruction.

    • I agree largely with your comment, but I think we need to be really careful about language…to use words like ‘befall’ in reference to infidelity and divorce…I think we need to be careful. Infidelity and divorce do not simply ‘befall.’ As if the persons in question are inert creatures on which something horrible has ‘befallen.’ The one who made the CHOICE of infidelity to their spouse–no, that did not ‘befall’ them. They were not helpless to resist the charms of another instead of working on their marriage. The fallout of it certainly ‘befalls’ their spouse when they find out about it…but we need to be clear that sin is a choice. And it is one we, as individuals choose, or choose to run from. We are instructed in scripture to “RESIST the devil, and he will flee.” We have a choice. To resist. Or to choose to dance with the devil. But make no mistake, it IS a choice, and the consequences are very real. Resisting the devil leads to greater life and freedom in Christ. Dancing with the devil leads to destruction and death. Restoration IS possible in and through Christ–at least on a personal level–but restoration in Christ does not free us from the consequences of our sin. The consequences will often remain this side of heaven. I think too often–Christians think “restoration” equals an erasure of the consequences…it doesn’t.

      • I agree with your statement. I immediately thought the same thing when I read the first comment– that divorce does “befall” one, but is something one does. I believe that a distinction should be drawn between divorce (tolerating it), and divorcees that should be extended grace and mercy– “Hating the sin and loving the sinner”, as it were.

  2. This article is terrible. I get the subjects are interesting artists and are “public” but for the most part this is a family matter. But I guess RNS as turned into TMZ. Editors…Get a life. And report of news that matters.

    Sure divorse is an issue but this is just cheap writing. Sarah is usually better than this.

    • Gavin,

      Adultery, like murder, lying, and stealing, are public matters with which the Church must deal. In order to preserve the peace and purity of the church and vindicate the honor of Christ, sin must needs be taken seriously. It is public any way you look at it. I am not saying it should be reported as news, but it is not merely a private “family” matter, not to mention Proverbs 6:32-33.

      • Ryan, I believe the affair was made public by the couple. I was not commenting on that issue. I think it’s just cheap to make it News. They have kids and RNS should know better. Thanks for the bible quote…what about verses about planks in the eye?

        • Ryan J. Ross

          Gavin,

          Matthew 7:1-5 has no bearing on the issue. The author is not judging him in some self-righteous manner, while ignoring or denying her own sinfulness; she is reporting a public scandal which has disrupted the peace and purity of the Christ’s Church. That verse is so important to directing saintly affections and governing how we encourage the godly to hate what is evil and cling to what is good. It is a shame when it is misused and misunderstood.

          Moreover, I am not advancing the usefulness of Christian gossip columns. Personally, I find it unbecoming and rarely honoring to Christ. But it was Derek who hurt his family, not the author. Honest reporting does not hurt the family. Derek, his wife, and their children need to fly to Christ in this time, making petition upon petition for his familial mercies. Let’s not confuse the author possible “gossip” with Derek’s grave infidelity, which upset the peace of the Church and the security and joy of his family.

          • Ryan, you wrote, “Honest reporting does not hurt the family.” I don’t know how old the children are, but making the affair public in this manner does nothing to help “the peace of the Church and the security and joy of his [Webb’s] family.”

            Also, if you truly believe that this is a Church issue, then why shouldn’t Webb be held accountable via the Biblical process of discipline rather than being vilified in public?

            I’m not defending Webb’s actions if he had an affair. I’m just not sure why his affair and divorce has to become a public spectacle.

          • Ryan,

            I agree with you on this. Christians are often influenced by the world not only in terms of immorality, but also by adopting its “superior” ethical standards. Marriage is a public act, and so is divorce, especially for a couple that has accepted the role of being Christian celebrities. John the Baptist was not out of line for publicly vilifying Herod for marrying his brother’s wife.

            I would also like to add that I agree with Matthew Smith that the wife should not be subject to shame in this matter; not because she is the woman, but because she is the partner against whom adultery was committed. She has been wronged, presumably through no fault of her own.

    • Yes, we can’t publicize the FACT that Christians divorce at the same rate at heathens without the Holy Spirit. If that would get out, you’d have to admit that American Christianity is a farce and has no power at all.

      • Drew Darnell (@drewdarnell)

        Those stats have been proven to be untrue:
        http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tgc/2012/09/25/factchecker-divorce-rate-among-christians/

    • Would you mind getting specific? I am wondering what exactly, in your opinion, is cheap about this article. It seems to be quite respectful while examining questions regarding divorce in the church as a prominent Christian artist goes through this process.

  3. It is possible that lifelong Marriage is a mistake.
    I’ve been married for 27 years but if somebody can’t handle it or it turns out you are not done dating – why stick it out?

    religion puts up barriers where none should be.

    • That’s right. Kids don’t need their parents to stay together. Whatever feels good, do it. If you fancy that girl next door, go for it. Stupid religion, putting up barriers.

  4. Part of my issue is that RNS claims that its “goal is to promote civic engagement and discourse on religion. We strive to inform and challenge our readers, out of a conviction that religious literacy is a necessary component of effective citizenship.” It also says that it is “a secular organization committed to an ongoing conversation about the role of religion in public life.”

    If the article had left out the three paragraphs on the affair, then I think it would have been appropriate. Instead, Bailey wrote on an affair that, as far as I can tell, was not public knowledge until her article. Her statement that Webb and McCracken “announced on April 17 that their 13-year marriage was ending after an affair” is a misrepresentation of the announcement. True, the joint public statement read, “While we both acknowledge our own human sinfulness, Derek has taken full responsibility for the events which led to this decision.” One could rightly assume marital infidelity, but there could have been a number of other things behind that statement.

    For RNS to spend three paragraphs on revealing the affair publicly and in detail strikes me as gossip. That seems even clearer to me because Bailey references the divorce papers of the other party in the alleged affair. (And if you’re going to be a thorough journalist, why not reveal her name as well?)

    All in all, there was a better way to approach the main premise of the article–divorce in the lives of Christian music artists–without spending time exposing the affair publicly.

    • That’s right. Kids don’t need their parents to stay together. Whatever feels good, do it. If you fancy that girl next door, go for it. Stupid religion, putting up barriers.

  5. It’s unfortunate that this ended in an affair. Perhaps it wasn’t meant to be, but there are better ways to end a relationship than affairs. Hopefully this doesn’t affect their music career too much. Perhaps once they’ve moved on they can throw up a profile on the website MillionaireMatch and try their luck.

  6. Neon Genesis

    Somehow I doubt evangelical Christians would show as much tolerance if Derek Webb had an affair with another man yet they have no problems forgiving if it’s with a woman.

    • Perhaps. But if he were to confess to both sins — adultery and sodomy — and strive to repent from both, he would certainly get my respect. The current moral climate makes it very difficult for someone to admit that his same-sex attraction is something he should not act on. For now, anyway, the man who feels attraction to young children at least has the opprobrium of the culture at large to bolster his resolve if he is striving not act on his feelings.

  7. Very sad news especially in light of other adultery read about recently. I agree with one commenter that wrote it now seems to be about me me. Another wrote how this is now TMZ. In my opinion there is no room for error when commenting on a story like this..scripture is clear..although I am not sure that the commenter gives it much weight.Timothy 5 ..Them that sin rebuke before all, that others also may fear. If this was TMZ their would have been interviews with the whorish woman who came to break up this home or secret cameras rolling to catch Derek in the act. While this story is not seeking to fulfil 1 Tim. 5 it is most definitely appropriate and balanced.

  8. I would be interested in reading more about McCracken, since the article seems mostly focused on Webb. On the other hand, since the divorce is formally stated to be Webb’s responsibility, focusing on him is probably a good way to respect the privacy of the rest of the family.

    On another topic: Russell Moore’s comment “Listening to that artistic contribution is not an endorsement of everything that person is about” fascinates me. I work with classical music and that controversial issue comes up every now and then (e.g. Is it ok to enjoy Richard Wagner’s operas without seeing some of them as endorsements of his anti-Semitic views? Can one really separate artists from the works they create?).

  9. This shows that real preaching needs to start again! Far too many
    churches today are about fun,drinking coffee,finding a good spouse,
    music and people who want to go to heaven but don’t want to Repent.
    Jesus said you are one of Mine only if you follow Me! We must follow!
    Bible says Repent or perish but we sure don’t hear that preached
    anymore. Ephesians 5:18 says don’t get drunk and 1 Corinthians 6:10
    says that drunkards go to hell so why are Christians still drinking and
    getting drunk? It’s because far too many “preachers” today have a book
    to sell and only talk about gay marriage or abortion so they don’t have
    to face their own sin like getting drunk,gossip,being mean/sharp tongues,
    sleeping around,gambling,smokin cigars,coveting/jealousy. People today
    seem to forget Jesus said many will say to Me Lord,Lord and not enter
    heaven! If people say they love Jesus and then don’t follow the Bible
    no Truth is in them! Not enough to believe in Jesus. We must Repent then
    follow Him/the Bible/religion. Bible says Repent or perish! We must Repent!

    • No drinking or smoking? And I was hoping Martin Luther and C. S. Lewis would be in heaven!

      I’m teasing you, Karla, but I do think you need to leave _some_ room for the grace of God. I’m as conservative as (nearly) anyone, but if everyone who has ever gossiped will be excluded from heaven, our sweet Lord will be the only one there. If you are striving not to hurt your brother or sister in your speech, and seeking God’s forgiveness when you come up short, that is consistent with a redeemed life. I wouldn’t want anyone to get the impression that the Christian life is impossible. I know no one can live it in the flesh, but even with the enabling of the Spirit we will all stumble from time to time.

  1. […] When gospel artist Amy Grant got divorced in 1999 and married country singer Vince Gill a year later, the public breakup rocked the Christian music industry, threatened to derail her career and raised questions about the personal lives of prominent Christian artists. Now, the issue is back, this time for popular musicians Derek Webb and Sandra McCracken, who announced on April 17 that their 13-year marriage was ending after an affair. [Read more] […]

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