Christian divorce myth?

This post by Glenn Stanton of Focus on the Family has been doing the rounds for a few days now.

It sets out to debunk the frequently-asserted statement that “Christians divorce at roughly the same rate as non-Christians”. Instead, Stanton argues, once you look at (ahem) proper Christians, the divorce rate is far lower: 38 per cent as opposed to 60 per cent. As he writes:

The factor making the most difference is religious commitment and practice. Couples who regularly practice any combination of serious religious behaviors and attitudes – attend church nearly every week, read their Bibles and spiritual materials regularly; pray privately and together; generally take their faith seriously, living not as perfect disciples, but serious disciples – enjoy significantly lower divorce rates than mere church members, the general public and unbelievers.

Quite apart for gnashing my teeth at the phrase “mere church members” – and observing that a 38% divorce rate is still not much to write home about – oh, and wanting to scream “correlation isn’t causation!” until my lungs burst – it seems to me that Stanton is not comparing like with like here.

Most of the behaviours that Stanton attributes to “serious disciples” are likely to be associated with other behaviours or circumstances that may be shared by non-Christians. “Attending church nearly every week” and “praying privately and together” suggest a settled, stable family life, and a regular working pattern (no having to work shifts on Sunday, for example). “Reading their Bibles and spiritual materials regularly” suggests a certain level of literacy and of regularity of routine.

In short, what Stanton is describing is a happy, bourgeois family lifestyle in which people work regular hours, married couples spend significant quality time together (whether that’s praying together or just talking to one another), weekends are devoted to family activities (whether that’s going to church or to the park) and individuals have the time and mental energy to read books and think about their lives.

If you compare Stanton’s “serious disciples” with the wider population of those able to enjoy such privileges, I suspect you’ll find the gap between the divorce rates shrinks again.

Above all, though, it seems to me that the underlying aim of arguments like this is to promote a “theology of glory” in which Christianity is vindicated by the visible evidence of Christians’ lives. Non-Christians’ lives are a mess; Christians’ – or at least, proper Christians’ – lives are healthy and strong. And if your life isn’t healthy and strong – well, chances are that shows you’re not a proper Christian. Just a “mere church member”. Which reminds me: why don’t you turn up more regularly?

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16 Responses to Christian divorce myth?

  1. Cathy says:

    Doh! That particular confound never occurred to me – an excellent point (I also gnashed my teeth like Gnasher tho.)

  2. Chris E says:

    “In short, what Stanton is describing is a happy, bourgeois family lifestyle in which people work regular hours, married couples spend significant quality time together ”

    In fact, given that financial problems are mentioned as one of the key reasons as to why couples separate, it’s telling that the lifestyle he describes assumes a family who are fairly comfortably off.

  3. Join Christianity! It’ll make your marriage better!

    What about the Muslim wife who converts?

  4. “In fact, given that financial problems are mentioned as one of the key reasons as to why couples separate, it’s telling that the lifestyle he describes assumes a family who are fairly comfortably off.”

    Does it, though? I grew up and live in a family that has always been lower-to-middle-class- rarely in poverty, but definitely not well off. My dad works on Sundays (*besides* being a pastor), and there are very few times before 10PM that we’re all home every night; and yet regular church attendance and family prayer have always been part of our life (never completely consistently, of course). And I’ve known plenty of families much poorer than us who did the same. I agree that Mr Stanton’s data is insufficient, but I think your analysis is too harsh.

    Re: “theology of glory” – I’m not very familiar with the term so I may be misunderstanding, but what about “ye shall know them by their fruits,” and “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another?” Not that Christians will always be healthy and wealthy; but in those verses Jesus seems to teach pretty clearly that if you’re a legitimate follower of Jesus, your godly life will stand out.

  5. You know you are going to have problems when they start separating out “true” Christians as opposed to just nominal and the like. Something about wheat and Tares I believe.

  6. Chris E says:

    “And I’ve known plenty of families much poorer than us who did the same. I agree that Mr Stanton’s data is insufficient, but I think your analysis is too harsh.”

    Certainly there are other factors involved, but the financial pressure is a big one – just ask any of the marriage counselling services.

  7. Mr. Rice says:

    I agree that a God based marriage has a higher chance of lasting, but just because someone “claims” to be a Christian doesn’t necessarily men they follow God whole-heartedly. God doesn’t like luke warm christians

  8. “Certainly there are other factors involved, but the financial pressure is a big one – just ask any of the marriage counselling services.”

    Oh yes, absolutely. Mr Halton is right to point out that praying before you go to bed doesn’t magically fix a marriage; that that’s not what being a “true Christian” is in the first place; and that a 38% divorce rate among “true Christians” is pretty pathetic. I just don’t think that financial pressure gets the upper hand over godly living, or that less well off people somehow can’t have a stable devotional life. My family is evidence against both, especially since we’ve never been perfect and certainly *have* come close to breaking up in the past.

  9. John H says:

    Thanks for the comments.

    To come back on a few points. First, as to “you will know them by their fruits”: yes, but we have to be careful not to smuggle in worldly categories of successful living into this. The “theology of the cross” (which Luther contrasted with the “theology of glory”) sees God as hidden in weak, broken and unimpressive things, just as God’s victory over sin was hidden in the apparent weakness, brokenness and defeat of Jesus’ crucifixion. So the “fruits” by which we are to know true disciples should principally be sought in the those things which the world would see as signs of failure and defeat.

    Second, it is certainly a good thing to seek to live a godly life in which prayer, attending church and so on are important. But that is something done out of gratitude for God’s grace towards us – not something that is done to help our marriages or exhibit the benefits of Christianity to a watching world.

    In fact, the more I think about it, the more I wonder (WARNING: RECKLESS SPECULATION AHEAD) if God allows Christian marriages to fail at a similar rate to non-Christian marriages within a given society precisely to stop Christians from using their “superior” marriages as an argument for the faith.

    Mr Rice: I am, and will eternally be, grateful for the fact that God does like the lukewarm who fail to follow him “wholeheartedly” – that he desires mercy, not sacrifice. Bear in mind what “wholeheartedly” means, and ask yourself if you can confidently say that you have attained it.

  10. Chris E says:

    “I just don’t think that financial pressure gets the upper hand over godly living, or that less well off people somehow can’t have a stable devotional life. My family is evidence against both, especially since we’ve never been perfect and certainly *have* come close to breaking up in the past”

    The thing is that before God all of us are rendered without excuse for godly living; on the other hand I’m going to be careful about judging the alleged failures of people who have had to face situations that I haven’t been put into.

    My family was very poor, but on the other hand only one parent worked and our ethnic roots probably gave us a certain amount of social capital. I’m sure that some families in the inner city church I previously attended – many of whom had two wage earners working shifts on low pay – faced different pressures.

  11. Robert Smith says:

    38% is no comforting thought. We’ve grown to accept a largely unacceptable state in the church today. The Bible gives little justification for divorce, and much reason to believe in the permanence of marriage.

    I deal with these social patterns and Biblical truths on my blog “Save The Legacy”.

  12. Nicole says:

    A lower divorce rate doesn’t mean much anyway. I know plenty of people who are still technically married but are functionally divorced. And plenty of people are like my parents who are in an extremely toxic relationship but their dysfunction feeds off of each other so they will never get divorced because they need (in a bad way) each other.

    Attending church regularly, reading the Bible, and praying together does not make a family healthy and stable. It just means they do those things and are likely to have significant peer pressure against divorcing. So those families don’t stay together because they are healthy, they stay together in order to keep up the facade and avoid being the target of gossip. The idolatry of family certainly doesn’t help either.

  13. Robert Smith says:

    The problem is one of focus. So many couples are focused pressures and circumstance, “acceptable patterns” of relinquishing duty, who’s right or wrong, and the justification of personal lusts.

    If we’re not willing to focus on God’s establishment of marriage as being unbreakable, and the wisdom of his word on building lasting marriages, nothing anyone does will help the desperateness of the situation we see all around us.

  14. Zach Schmidt says:

    I just stumbled upon your blog and am excited about it! I’ll comment specifically on the “theology of glory/cross” issue here:

    John H. said the following in response to Jacob Andrews. (I’ve broken John H.’s response into segments for my own comments):

    “First, as to “you will know them by their fruits”: yes, but we have to be careful not to smuggle in worldly categories of successful living into this.”

    Agreed! if we’re defining “worldly categories” as material wealth, prestige, physical appearance, etc.

    “The “theology of the cross” (which Luther contrasted with the “theology of glory”) sees God as hidden in weak, broken and unimpressive things, just as God’s victory over sin was hidden in the apparent weakness, brokenness and defeat of Jesus’ crucifixion.”

    I may agree with the “theology of the cross” as you’ve laid it out here, but not if this theology sees God exclusively as hidden in apparent weakness. I guess I need to learn more because what strikes me is that God is a God both of the cross and of glory. What of Christ’s resurrection? Of his being given all authority? Of his being seated at God’s right hand? These things sound like glory to me!

    “So the “fruits” by which we are to know true disciples should principally be sought in the those things which the world would see as signs of failure and defeat.”

    Please clarify here. I belief the fruits by which we are to know true disciples are the “fruit of the Spirit,” the attributes of love, joy, peace, patience, etc. These are not qualities that would be hidden from others around us, and I like to think that we “radiate” or “reflect” God’s glory (i.e., his own character and characteristics) when we bear such fruit. Now, if I’m only bearing this fruit when my circumstances are marked by worldly success, and if such fruit quickly shrivels and dies in trials and suffering, then that’s probably telling of my true inner life (and therefore, my true discipleship).

    So, John H., if you’re saying we should “seek” to bear this fruit during times of trials and suffering, then I heartily agree. But if you’re saying the fruits that mark Jesus’ true disciples are actually what appear to the world as “signs of failure and defeat,” then I disagree. The mere signs of failure and defeat are in no way evidence of the fruits under discussion. How and with what characteristics we live our lives amidst and in response to worldly failure and defeat is what will reveal our true discipleship, or lack thereof.

  15. Caleb M says:

    Can I say that:
    @John H, God may love lukewarm Christians, but he doesn’t like his Christians lukewarm.

    @Nicole, I agree that a “regular church-going, bible studying Christian family may perceive more peer pressure against divorce” though I might add that as Christians the one whose opinions of us matter most is God. If you seek the approval of others, especially in case of God’s Institution, then your priorities are not in order.

  16. Julian says:

    I lived in an evangelical christian community for three years and have known the families from the community for about 10 years. Despite the steady stream of students being part of the community for 2 years at a time- that’s to say- despite the many opportunities for the 50 or so married staff couples to be tempted in their marriage, I can only think of 1 instance of marriage breakup. I am not sure if any of the other staff have broken up in its 35 odd year history, but I don’t think so. Many of the people who become involved in this community are from troubled backgrounds. It is true ‘Correlation does not mean causation’, but it is impossible for anyone who lives amongst these earnest christians to deny the difference in this part and indeed every other part of their lives.
    Sure, God can show his glory even in our failures. The staff in the community are wracked by all kinds of temptation, relative poverty, and physical disease that are apparent in any community. If you don’t see that there is a difference between the lives of Christians for whom life is Christ, then I can only pity you (no offence intended). It might seem that I am suggesting that there is high way and a low way to God. I am not here talking about final salvation, but in this life, a Christian who believes that the purpose of their life is to ‘love the Lord your God…’ (this narrows the field) and then tries with all that is in them (this might narrow the field to 1 in history), will be undoubtedly different.
    Why don’t we stop making excuses for ourselves by suggesting that it is Jesus’ plan that we live the same kind of life whether we know him or not. Why not just continue to ask forgiveness for our failures to do so, and his strength to do better. It’s not just that we are letting God down, but we are letting down this generation. Are we not the body of Christ.

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