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September 09, 2004



Great post, Hugo. I'll check out the links.


Looking at data solely by religious affiliation likely covers up the following "lurking" variables:

1. Age at marriage -- conservative Christians are likely to marry earlier for various reasons, many of which are not good (e.g., because mom and dad would freak if the couple cohabited)

2. Economic Attainment -- Those who make less are more likely to get divorced because they face additional pressures in meeting family obligations. Note that this item is heavily affected by the first -- the earlier you get married, the less likely it is that you will complete advanced education, which can affect your earning potential.

3. Communal pressure to marry -- this is also a cause and a byproduct of the first factor, but where marriage is a "given" people marry for social reasons that become less compelling over time.

Looking at state by state divorce stats gives you the same results: the highest rates of divorce are in the Bible Belt states, with, I think, Oklahoma leading the way. The lowest divorce rates are in the NE. Greater age, education, and economic achievement at time of marriage all correlate with a lower divorce rate.

A congregation might be able to help a couple, but, in general, where people get married too young, are too deep in debt, and don't have a lot of hope for the future, divorce is sure to be prevalent.


Thanks, Barbara, for explicating some of this. The pressure to marry young (sometimes "so we can finally have sex") surely plays a colossal part in this.



That's a thoughtful post. I've faced this conundrum myself as I've counseled/encouraged several struggling married couples, or individuals within a struggling marriage, over the last year or two. An evangelical friend of mine has been married for just over a year. There were many danger signs before the wedding, and I counseled him not to go through with it. He did anyway, and within a month was wanting a divorce. For the last nine months to a year, I have been urging him to stick with the marriage despite his horrible situation. He has asked for my approval to divorce (and I'm just a lay friend, not a clergy member or counselor, and a never-married chaste one at that) many times, but I have always told him I cannot do that. Why? Because God hates divorce. I also have to believe that God wants to and will work good in the marriage. I've tried to encourage all of my struggling friends to that effect.

But with regard to your main point, I have several thoughts.

*The church has become so Americanized (to cite one of several possible explanations) that church discipline is now very rarely practiced. Only the Roman Catholic Church and a very few non-denominational churches I know of practice church discipline. The church, perhaps having bought into American individualism, has put aside church discipline.

*The church has followed the culture in terms of coming to believe that marriage is primarily about individuals' happiness and not primarily for the raising of a family, as the church used to hold. Such an attitude makes divorce easier to accept.

*As Barbara posted above, there is perhaps more pressure in some evangelical churches to get married. This is due not only to the encouragement to marry rather than cohabitate, but also because Protestant evangelical churches sometimes (usually unintentionally) send the message that you're somehow less of a person if you're not married.

*As a related point, unlike Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, Protestant evangelicals generally lack a theology of celibacy and support for those (admittedly few) who are called to life-long celibacy. Instead, there is support for singleness, but most Protestant evangelicals don't expect people to be called to singleness for life. If Roman Catholics have placed great emphasis on celibacy, Protestant evangelicals have reacted in the very opposite direction.

*"Christians can only effectively argue against same-sex marriage from a place of complete fidelity to Scripture on all subjects relating to the union of man and wife." You've got a point here, Hugo, but you take it too far. If we were to ask Christians to be at a point of "complete fidelity" to any number of Biblical teachings, we'd be waiting forever due to our sinfulness. I agree that it's absolutely tragic and abominable to see the divorce rate so high among evangelicals, but that does not mean that the church should abandon biblical teachings for that reason. Of course, as you point out, it does make it harder for the church to gain the respect of the world when the divorce rate is so high. But that means that the teachings on divorce need to be corrected, not that additional biblical teachings should be discarded.

*We've also got to make a distinction between welcoming people and accepting things contrary to biblical teaching. Anyone should be welcomed in church regardless of their life situation, except perhaps in cases where church discipline has been applied and the person is still refusing to repent (cf. 1 Corinthians 5). At heart, the difference between progressives and orthodox folk is not about welcoming or acceptance. The church should welcome people from every walk of life, and I'd challenge progressives to see that those of us in the orthodox camp are inclusive in that sense. (You are welcome in our churches! You may not agree with or feel comfortable with our teaching, but that's another matter.) Rather, the debates between the orthodox and the progressive revolve around Christian sanctification, and particularly (in today's climate) how a Christian is to glorify God in his or her sexual life. The church has in many respects fallen down on the issue of divorce, but while that needs to be corrected, the church is not free to disregard other biblical teachings.

Peace of Christ,


Well, on a more colloquial note, the Roman Catholic church does have one practice that other churches could copy to their profit -- a requirement that the couple spend serious time in premarital counseling (sometimes known as pre-Cana). In a good program, a percentage of the couples decide not to get married.


Thanks, Chip, for a detailed and thoughtful response! I know that many churches are welcoming of gay folks; that's why I chose my words carefully.

If I showed up in a conservative Anglican parish with my fourth wife, would that marriage be recognized as a marriage? I bet that most folks would. If I showed up with my same-sex partner whom I married in, say, Massachusetts, I doubt I would. My point is that extending a recognition to me that is not extended to my gay brethren is hypocritical.

After my third divorce, I spent a lot of time at a conservative evangelical non-denom here in Pasadena (Lake Avenue Church, FYI). I got to know a couple of pastors there. No one told me I needed to repent, or go back to my first wife, or any of that. They said, "Man, Hugo, you must be going through a tough time. How can we minister to you?" This in a church where sermons against SSM are quite common. (I couldn't hack the conservative theology and the electric guitar praise music.)

My point is, it seems that divorce is a log in the eye of American Christianity that must be removed BEFORE the speck of homosexual union can be addressed.

Jonathan Dresner

One of the factors I didn't see in your discussion was the effect of being "born again" on marriages in which only one member experienced that change. It wasn't a factor in your case, but I know from discussions of Jewish intermarriage that relatively secular Jews who rediscover the tradition (often after the birth of a child) do sometimes run into serious relationship problems as a result.

I would disagree, though, with your comment that "My point is, it seems that divorce is a log in the eye of American Christianity that must be removed BEFORE the speck of homosexual union can be addressed." Becuase the default position is so often against homosexual marriage, it seems to me that an honest discussion of marriage and divorce should come in parallel with a reevaluation of homosexual marriage, and that might, indeed, help to clarify things.


This doesn't exactly apply, but I recently found The Ekklesia Project which was started by Stanley Hauerwas (I think). Anyway, they have a great pamphet (their word - the thing is 28 pages long - not a pamphlet in my mind) on "Preparing for Christian Marriage."

This is one of my favorite quotes from it:

When we understand marriage only in reference to private pleasures and personal fulfillment, we lose the ability to understand how marriage in community will transform us. We miss the full meaning of living in communion with others “in sickness and in health, for richer and for poorer.” We miss the profound experiences of sharing difficult times, being present to each other’s suffering, working to understand each other and to communicate better, and joining together with others in making community life ‘life-giving’. Ironically, our culture’s emphasis on personal fulfillment limits our fulfillment as whole human beings. Common cultural understandings of love and community are shallow. In their fullness, love includes steadfast endurance, commitment, and duty; community includes finding ourselves through our dependence upon others, and their dependence upon us. Jesus’ words ring true: we gain our lives when we give them away, and lose them when we attempt to keep
them for ourselves.


One word, Hugo, OUCH!

I suppose mine is one of the Pentecostal Churches which practises discipline-One of my fellow lay teachers was removed for adultery, and another was told that he couldn't stay in any kind of ministry until he returned to his wife. This is a lot more common than it should be, and not something to be proud of, but at least we are confronting these issues. I agree that there is too much of a presumption that everyone will and needs to marry-The idolisation of marriage at the expense of celibacy is not a good thing.


John, I think I'm missing your point. You think church discipline isn't common enough?

If so, I would completely disagree - though I might also disagree over the kinds of issues that require discipline.


Graham, let me clarify. I think vice is too common, and restorative church discipline not common enough. If someone is in persistent sin, such as adultery or fraud or wife-beating and so on, they can no longer be a wholesome example, and need to be removed from positions of authority, and minstered to. This will involve loving confrontation, (which the church in general, I admit, is not very good at, either usually letting off the sin or crushing the sinner with condemnation), and restorative justice, aimed at bringing the person back to the right way. I think that's the Biblical pattern, and to compensate for abuses of discipline by either abolishing it or over-emphasising it does, I think, more harm than good. Right discipline is very important, both for maintaining fellowship and love, and for maintaining our reputation in the world, which Scripture commands us to guard.


My dad laid a real trip down on my mom when he became born again. He decided that their marriage wasn't really a marriage in the eyes of God, since she was divorced. He remained married to her anyway, though...inexplicable, this line of thought. Must have been a real quandry for him. At any rate, they are still married, and in spite of their example, I am on my fourth marriage, and have definitely joined the ranks of those who threaten the institution!

Regarding Chip's post, I am tired of the accept the sinner but not the sin line of thinking. Most of the people who say that spend too much time thinking about the sin, and too little time accepting the person. Nothing personal, Chip, and I'm quite sure that doesn't apply to all, but it has certainly been my experience.

La Lubu

"our churches are doing a fairly poor job of supporting the marriages of their congregants."

How so? If your spouse is a substance abuser, gambling addict, wife/husband beater, is emotionally abusive, beats the kids....how can any church "save" your marriage? Because the fact is, if you are enduring any of those situations....you don't have a marriage. There isn't anything to save. It's cut and run time.

All this "you must stay together no matter what" or "God hates divorce" crapola is killing people. Literally. I internalized all that crap much to my detriment; I stayed for the alcoholism (sickness and health, don't 'cha know?), refusal to get a job, incessant insults/name calling/profanity, emotional abuse, which finally escalated to physical abuse....until finally I had enough. I didn't care if I was a "failure" or wasn't meeting some kind of phony obligation. I finally decided that I didn't want to live like that any more. I finally realized that I deserved better. I realized that I wasn't responsible for his behavior. And that God loved me anyway. And that God would stand by me, anyway.

I cannot for the life of me, understand why anyone would want that kind of life for a fellow human being, all under the guise of "God hates divorce". I couldn't, and wouldn't, worship a Creator who hated me, or anyone else, that much.

Pay close attention to that last paragraph, the one that had the phrase "I wasn't responsible for his behavior." That is key. The Church isn't responsible for the behavior of spouses, either.

A marriage certificate does not a marriage make. Capisce?


"Regarding Chip's post, I am tired of the accept the sinner but not the sin line of thinking. Most of the people who say that spend too much time thinking about the sin, and too little time accepting the person. Nothing personal, Chip, and I'm quite sure that doesn't apply to all, but it has certainly been my experience."

No offense taken, Michelle. I agree with you that too often people are condemned and not loved by the church when we are all in the same boat regarding sin (whatever our particular sins may be).

Have you ever read The Ragamuffin Gospel by Brennan Manning, or any other of Manning's works? Have you ever listened to the music of the late Rich Mullins? I think you'll find both of them a breath of fresh air. (On the Rich Mullins end, go for The World As Best As I Remember It, Volume 1, or A Liturgy, a Legacy, and a Ragamuffin Band for starters.(

God bless,


Great points, Hugo.

No one in the church really tried to save our marriage.

I am curious as to what you believe the church should have done, specifically.

There was, and still is in many churches, a blindness to anything but 'save the marriage'. Advocating that abused wives pray that their husbands will stop beating them and stay with their abuser, that kind of thing. Perhaps that makes church members hesitant to rush in and say "You shouldn't divorce!"


For what it's worth I agree with La Lubu. I have been married for 15 years, to the same person, and it was the first marriage for both of us, so obviously I take marriage seriously, but . . .

Reasonable efforts in support of marriage are a good thing, but too often advising someone to stay in a marriage comes down to expecting the unhappy spouse to absorb unlimited quantities of misery, which, among other things, means that those around him or her don't have to actually provide real and practical help to deal with the almost always negative consequences associated with divorce. They can instead satisfy themselves with bromides and platitudes about marriage being "hard work" and how finding yourself in Holland when you wanted to go to Italy doesn't mean Holland is such a bad place, and so on.

Chip, your friend has been married for less than a year and has known that he made a mistake almost as soon as his honeymoon ended. I'm sorry, but that's the time to end it. You are never going to be happier than when you're young, enencumbered, healthy, and drenched in sex. You have to realize that going forward, the possibility for real tragedy as opposed to sorry and embarrassing mistake gets more and more likely, especially if they have children. Better to start anew.

Hugo, if you had had children your church would likely have been more proactive, to the point that many people going through divorce actually change churches because they feel like such failures (even when that sincerely wasn't intended).


You: "For years, conservative Christians have suggested that cohabiting before marriage undermines the chance of success of that future marriage. The first highlighted sentence suggests that may not be the case."

Me: I read that research to mean they aren't married (co-habiting), therefore, aren't divorcing. Co-habiting before marriage does increase the divorce rate, probably because the relationship is falling apart and they decide it is worth a try. They start off on a really weak foundation.


Thanks everyone!

I often wonder what I would have liked the church to do when my 3rd wife and I were in trouble. Ideally, I would have liked to have had the pastor who married us call us into his office for a talk; I would have liked some of our older married friends to confront us with the seriousness of what we were doing. But on another level, I suppose that's asking far too much of a modern church community. And I wonder if that kind of help had been forthcoming whether I (we) would have considered it helpful or intrusive.

Norma, given the changing statistics, I wonder if the data that supports your contention that cohabitation undermines marriage will continue to be true in the years to come -- especially given the abundant evidence of Barna that Christians who are virgins on their wedding night are and do everything "right" are still gettin' divorced all over the place.

Lubu -- indeed, a marriage certificate does not a marriage make. Marriage is spiritual, first and foremost -- and the church is concerned with spiritual divorces as much as with civil ones.


Anyone advising a remarried person to go back to a previous spouse has not read Scripture enough. 1 Corinthians Ch. 7 has Paul dealing with a church that had had its share of divorce and remarriage. His advice there squares with the rest of Scripture and can be summed up as follows: No divorce except for adultery or abandonment, and that after a real attempt to reconcile. One does not break up a current marriage to patch together a previous divorce. And if one spouse is a believer and the other is not, Paul calls the believer to stay in the marriage if the unbeliever is faithful and willing to stay. "For how do you know, O wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, O husband, whether you will save your wife?" No one is called to stay in an abusive marriage. The abusive spouse has certainly broken the vows and, without real repentance demonstrated by a changed life, could legitimately be said to have abandoned their spouse. There are no perfect solutions for broken, fallen people in a broken, fallen world. We can only cast ourselves on Jesus' mercy and turn our whole lives over to Him in trust of what He will make of it and follow where He leads. Grace and peace to all.


No one is called to stay in an abusive marriage.

Where is your Scriptural support for this? How is abuse the same as abandonment? (Both terrible, but obviously two different things.) Surely the abused spouse should cast him- or herself on Jesus's mercy, rather than going against his teachings and seek divorce.


It is not stated explicitly in Scripture that abuse is equivalent to abandonment, just as the Trinity is not stated explicitly as such, but without gyrations or equivocation becomes clearer when the whole word of God is taken into account. Again, an abused spouse is not commanded to divorce, but after clear refusal over time of an abusive spouse to repent and live a changed life after real attempts have been made to reach out and reconcile then the abuser's real attitude of abandonment of the spouse, of refusing "to love and to cherish, to have and to hold (not as a prisoner!)" becomes clear. Some Scripture:

1 Peter 3: 7 You husbands likewise, live with your wives in an understanding way, as with a weaker vessel, since she is a woman; and grant her honor as a fellow heir of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.

Colossians 3: 19 Husbands, love your wives, and do not be embittered against them.

Ephesians 5: 25, 28 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her;... So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself;

1 Corinthians 7: 15 Yet if the unbelieving one leaves, let him leave; the brother or sister is not under bondage in such cases, but God has called us to peace.

Romans 12: 18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.

Ephesians 4: 26-27 Be angry, and yet do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not give the devil an opportunity.

1 Timothy 5: 8 But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith, and is worse than an unbeliever.

Likely there are others that do not come to mind just now. As always, divorce is not a quick fix, only reserved for the most desperate situations after all reasonable atttempts have been made to reconcile and after determined rejection of them by an abusive (not merely neglectful or distant, or, heaven forbid, "unexciting") spouse.

La Lubu

Mythago, that is one seriously messed up statement; that "the abused spouse should cast him- or herself on Jesus' mercy" rather than seek divorce. Do you realize that by saying this, you are saying to people that they have a spiritual duty to be beaten? To literally roll with the punches? That kidney punches, shin kicks, and black eyes are a part of spiritual discipline? To you really believe that God sends abusers into the lives of their victims to---what? teach them a lesson? If you really believe this, and are not just saying something so outrageously offensive to get a rise out of folks, then you need to seek some serious psychiatric and spiritual help.

I suppose the rate of suicides and murders of abused spouses, and the effect that seeing or experiencing abuse has on children wouldn't sway you a bit...after all, you already have your mind made up that God not only condones abuse, but prescribes it for certain individuals as part of some unfathomable spiritual "lesson".

For everyone else, this is why more legal strictures on divorce would do more harm than good. Mythago is hardly the only person out there that would have survivors of abuse continue to be victimized, rather than live like human beings. I blogged a little on this at my blog.


If you really believe this, and are not just saying something so outrageously offensive to get a rise out of folks

Neither. Moving on...

Hilton, the problem I see with your argument is that it's not directly supported by Scripture, and is honestly a bit fuzzy. "Over time"? How long should an abused spouse wait to be sure that the abuser will not repent? (Multiple forgiveness vs. the problem of the wrongdoer thinking that repentance means you just get a change to do it again--not unique to domestic violence, of course.)


Let me be clear (if I was unclear before) that an abused spouse is not obligated to stay and take the abuse. The abused spouse should get out of the situation physically and confront the abuser (with the support and confirmation of a believing Christian pastor and others who know the couple and will back up the abused spouse) and set confession, repentance, and a clearly evidenced change of heart AND action as the condition for the abused spouse to return. If the abuser refuses reasonable attempts to get him (or her) to change behavior then their abandonment of the marriage becomes clear and, I think, would then be grounds for divorce following the separation I mentioned (leaving physically) above. The Scriptural grounds are 1 Corinthians 7:15 as I quoted in a previous post. Grace and peace to you.


Milton, I think your analysis ought to be pointed out to many more church leaders, btw. It's the best discussion I've seen that balanaces an abhorrence of divorce against the very real harm done by putting that abhorrence above all other considerations.

I think it's worth pointing out that Jesus, being a Jew, lived in a religious tradition where divorce was something that could only be initiated by the husband; a wife could not unilaterally divorce.

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