The Current State of Marriage in the Church and What This Means for Remnant Christians
By Reed Benson
Now unless you have been stone cold dead for some time, you are aware that the institution of marriage has been troubled for many years, indeed decades. Homosexual marriage is only one of a whole raft of gloomy news items that greets the weary eyes and sore ears of those who watch the development and redefining of marriage in the United States and our Western cousins in Europe and other places where Israelites live. One of the difficult tasks about studying marriage has been the gathering of accurate statistical information. Fortunately, that daunting challenge is slowly being overcome. It is our intention to explore some of this new data and draw from it some sensible conclusions.
Beginning with a Myth
It turns out that one "fact" that most of us have heard for years about marriage and divorce turns out to be completely untrue. The divorce rate in America is not 50%. One in two marriages does not end in divorce. According to Shaunti Feldhahn in a new book, The Good News about Marriage, the actual number is 33%. Only one in three marriages finally dissolves, or to be more optimistic about the situation, we could state that two-thirds of all marriages are permanent.
Where did this critical piece of misinformation originate? It turns out that in the 1970s, in the wake of no-fault divorce sweeping the nation, most researchers anticipated that the divorce rate would reach 50%. It never did. But so many writers picked up on this gloomy expectation and repeated it so often that it became a perpetual part of the national dialogue on this topic.
The Barna Group, the largest Christian polling service and handmaiden of pollster
George Barna, confirms this. Among the general public, he states that 34%, or about one-third of marriages in America, fail.
What About Committed Christians?
Excellent news awaits us here, as well. Often it has been repeated that marriages in the church are failing at the same rate as the general population. This is also untrue. According to the Barna Group, those who attend Christian church services on a weekly basis are somewhere between 27% to 50% less likely to divorce than the broader public, depending on the denominational church with which you associate yourself. Thus, since the general American divorce rate is lower than what everyone thought (34%) and the divorce rate among every-week church service attendees is lower yet, the actual number of divorces among this group is somewhere between 18% and 23%. Or, to re-phrase it, among people who reliably attend church services every week, only about one in five marriages terminates.
Dr. Brad Wilcox, Director of the National Marriage Project, confirms this with his new research, finding that those who attend church services faithfully are 35% less likely to divorce than the general public. He states, "You do hear, both in Christian and non-Christian circles, that Christians are no different than anyone else when it comes to divorce, and that is not true if you are focusing on Christians who are regular church attendees."
Glenn Stanton of Focus on the Family chimes in similarly: "The divorce rates of Christian believers are not identical to the general population—not even close. Being a committed faithful believer makes a difference in marriage."
Dr. Bradley Wright, author of Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites . . . and Other Lies You've Been Told, confirms that married couples who are active in the their faith and their church are much less likely to divorce than their secular counterparts. Catholics are 31% less likely and Protestants are 35% less likely.
It appears that young people who are exposed to traditional Christian moral values at an early age and whose parents are faithful in attendance reap a benefit. According to Shaunti Feldhahn, young adults "who decide not to live together before marriage has a good effect on that marriage . . . and you get the divorce rate down to 5 or 10% divorce odds." If Feldhahn's research is accurate, that is a remarkable fact: nine out of ten marriages survive the long-haul under those conditions! Excellent news!
Unfortunately, there is some bad news, and that regarding people whom researchers call nominal Christians, or those who self-identify as Christians but do not attend church services on a regular weekly basis, but whose attendance is intermittent and their participation in church activities is unsteady or infrequent. So, how do these folks fare when it comes to marriage? According to the Barna Group, those who declare themselves to be Christians, but do not attend services weekly, are 20% more likely to get divorced than the general public. Note, that is not 20% more than their Christian counterparts who do attend faithfully, but 20% more than their secular peers, in which one in three marriages ends in divorce.
The research of Dr. Brad Wilcox concurs with this observation. He writes, "Nominal Christians, those who call themselves Christians but are not active in their faith, are 20% more likely to divorce than the general population…The problem is nominal conservative Protestants, the people who claim they are Christian, but rarely attend services…[is that] these people are basically religiously unaffiliated in any substantial way; they are most likely to divorce."
Why is this? Dr. Wilcox goes on: "Perhaps there is a link between putting on a show in the religious and relational context… there is something about being a nominal 'Christian' that is linked to a lot of negative outcomes when it comes to family life."
Professor Bradley Wright, a sociologist at the University of Connecticut, explains from his analysis of people who identify as Christians but rarely attend church, that 60% of these have been divorced. Of those who attend church regularly, 38% have been divorced. As you can see, while the numeric data has some minor variation, there is a clear trend. Nominal Christians, who are not faithful and reliable in church attendance, are setting themselves up for marital disaster and dissolve their wedded unions at a rate higher than their secular counterparts.
Glenn Stanton of Focus on the Family summarizes it well: "Saying you believe something or merely belonging to a church, unsurprisingly, does little for marriage. But the more you are involved in the actual practice of your faith in real ways—through submitting yourself to a serious body of believers, learning regularly from Scripture, being in communion with God though prayer individually and with your spouse and children, and having friends and family around us who challenge us to take our marriage’s seriously—the greater difference this makes in strengthening both the quality and longevity of our marriages."
Practicing your faith in genuine, consistent habits does matter, and the leading sociologists of family and religion tell us so.
Why Does Faithful Church Attendance Make a Difference?
There are three reasons. First, some Bible instruction is better than none. Most nominal Christians do not substitute the lack of a weekly sermon, even a tepid one, with anything of substance. They read their Bibles very little. They do not tune in to sermons on Christian radio networks (most listeners in the United States are faithful church attendees). They do not diligently obtain CDs or podcasts of sermons on a regular basis. Instead, research shows that their only input of a spiritual nature is what they glean from social media—that is, posts from their friends on Facebook, twitter, and so forth. While they claim their worldview is Christian, it is not biblical, and their actual level of Bible knowledge is rather poor, just an ad-hoc collection of Christian-sounding slogans and catchphrases. Not surprisingly, their biblical convictions are correspondingly shallow.
Second, there is no personal accountability. Avoidance of judgmental attitudes is one of the most frequently cited reasons that many people do not attend church services on a routine basis. However, the seemingly unpleasant factor of personal accountability is the very basis of most of the positive effects in relationships, including marriage. None of us really enjoy friends and neighbors getting involved in what we consider "our business." Yet, that abrasive interference has the long-term positive effect of preventing us from making choices that we know we should not, but might do anyway without a "busybody" looking over our shoulder. "As iron sharpeneth iron; so a man sharpeneth the countenance of his friend" (Proverbs 27:17). Nominal Christians who attend church intermittently escape from this irritating meddling, but they do so at a heavy personal cost in the long run.
Third, the opportunity for "spiritual dissonance" grows large. That is, nominal Christians tend to have a large gap between how they view their own spiritual condition and what that condition really is. Failing to recognize how important the routine disciplines of prayer and Bible reading really are, they drift into selfish, immoral, or unbiblical habits much more easily than their counterparts who make the commitment to attend church services every week.
More Facts about Marriage and Divorce
Following are a few more pieces of the statistical puzzle relevant to this topic. These are the result of a vast combing of numerical data Glenn Stanton accumulated for Focus on the Family. They have recently been made available for public use.
These points can be summarized in two generalized thoughts. First, morality matters. Those who do not get involved in sexual activity before marriage are less likely to ever divorce. Second, maturity matters. Being older and more educated and having a stable, reasonably good income also reduces the likelihood of a marriage dissolving.
What Does All of This Mean for Remnant Christians
First, many readers of this publication do not have a church home. This may be a very real problem that requires prayerful thought. The statistics that have been presented here are not manufactured from thin air, and while some people tend to brush off this numerical data, presuming that their personal situation is different, that may be a grave mistake. The reason statistics are valuable is because they represent an objective, valid truth—and the simple truth is this: reliable, consistent church attendance makes a dramatic difference in the success or failure of a marriage. Apparently, not everything you hear there is worthless!
Second, intellectual knowledge of who we are and why that is important does not guarantee success in marriage. It has been my observation in my travels, and I admit this is anecdotal without the support of any polling or research, but among the Israelite remnant, marriage is not our strong point. (I am confident no research has been conducted among only remnant Israelite believers.) Sadly, divorce is not rare or isolated. We appear to rest too easy in the thought that our sense of racial identity and our knowledge that we are covenantally connected to our Father in Heaven in a special way has made us immune to many of the risks of the broader American culture.
Third, we are not as disconnected from this damaged culture as much as we would like to think. In the digital age, the impact of social media via smart phones is a powerful pull. While Remnant Christians often try hard to keep at bay the negative influence of television and Hollywood pop culture, they frequently underestimate the subtle and persuasive tug that smart phones, television, and entertainment exert. Really, this should not be news to anyone; but many in the Israelite remnant are slow to keep pace with this danger and build a spiritual hedge around themselves through a strong personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
Fourth, many remnant families are raising their children in relative isolation. Some remnant parents intentionally choose this, assuming that close connection with other families in a church will infect their offspring with unwanted worldly values. Certainly, this is a possible risk, but all of this is assuming that avoiding a congregation ensures isolation from the larger damaged American culture—and that may not be true at all, as previously stated. Shaunti Feldhahn's research suggests that one of the very best things that parents can do to maximize their children's future marriage success is to take them to church services every week, as reliably as clockwork.
Fifth, we remnant Israelite Christians tend to be gloomy about the future. Some of us spend small fortunes as doomsday preppers, seeming to almost hope that the electrical grid will come crashing down for good at any moment, while still others seem to relish the moment when bad news about America's collapsing social fabric buzzes our ears. But the facts about marriage and divorce are not as bad what we all thought. In fact, there actually might be sensible reasons to hope that our children and grandchildren just might have a plausible chance at a solid marriage and a happy home. We must not take that hope away from them. Young people cannot live without hope, and if we cannot provide an avenue of hopefulness about their future, they will discard us and our cynical, woebegone worldview for one that offers them a reason to live.
Whatever your marital state—single, married, divorced, or divorced and now remarried—few issues in life are more worthy of your concerted attention than doing your utmost to ensure successful marriage. And, nothing will make that more likely than keeping your spiritual life active and connected to other believers week in and week out.
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