I have not only tracked divorce rates for about thirty years, but have tried to succinctly overview and explain them to college students over the same time. This is one of the most consistently misunderstood and misrepresented areas in the social sciences.
Getting the rates, and their meaning and interpretation, wrong, means also making serious errors in assessing things that help to sustain, or undermine marriages: strengths and risk factors. This is critical not only to understanding population trends, and reasons for them, but in helping communities, churches, and couples constructively address potential dangers and embrace things that are likely to strengthen their marriages.
Nowhere do people, and unfortunately leaders and pastors, get this wrong more than in talking about the divorce rates of professing Bible believers versus others. Almost every year I share with audiences, including students, that the divorce rates of professing, Bible-believing, “saved,” “born-again” Christians are the same as everyone else’s. And several times a year, either in the classroom or later through Facebook or email or some other inquiry, I am told that I have misled them. The reason that I am supposedly wrong, I am told is this: regular church attenders clearly do have dramatically lower divorce rates than those who never, rarely, or infrequently attend church. Since professing, Bible-believing, born-again Christians obviously attend church more regularly than others do, than (they think) I must be wrong when I claim that these believers get divorced just as much as everyone else.
I have received more of these kinds of inquiries or rebuttals since the publication of a book by Shaunti Feldhahn entitled The Good News About Marriage, which includes, among other things (roughly) that argument I laid out in the last two sentences. Feldhahn’s claims in this regard have received wide, positive circulation in conservative Christian circles (including, sadly, many people and ministries whom I respect). Without addressing everything in her book, and without denying the value and accuracy of much that she has to say, I do need to object strongly on that point.
You see, these rebuttals to my claims about the sad state of marriage and divorce among professing Bible-believers are always especially frustrating to me. Why? Because, in those same talks or classes, I virtually always point out that (a) while professing Bible-believing Christians get divorced as much as anyone else, (b) regular church attenders get divorced a lot less than others. Then, I virtually always go on to point out that this seeming contradiction is pretty easy to explain, because (c) a very high percentage of professing Bible-believers do not attend church regularly. (And, there are plenty of theological liberals who, none-the-less, do attend church regularly and as a result, reap the benefits – even though they do not believe that the Bible is true, or fully authoritative, by any means.) For some reason, a year later my former audiences only remember that I said “(a)” and forget what I said about “(b)” and “(c)” (above). So they think that the evidence that regular church-goers get divorced less refutes my claim that the divorce among professing believers is the same as everyone else’s.
I have had two conversations with old and dear friends about this that are illuminating.
One came after I dealt with everything I just said above, in a Sunday School class on marriage. (I am loading edited audios of this class, as I get them done, here). I talked about the fact that many professing, born-again, Bible-believing Christians don’t go to church regularly, and that this is one of the reasons for high divorce rates in the professing church. At first, he was skeptical that conservative churches like his really could suffer from such low attendance rates. He told me that later, he thought about it and realized how many confirmed, “made-a-public-profession-of-faith” voting members of his church did not attend services once per week or even close. I could go further. Many of them attended the regular services of that church once a month or less, and some only a few times per year. These folk who rarely darkened the door of the church they were members of were not disciplined in any way, or even spoken to about it. If they attended on a Sunday in which the Lord’s Supper was given, they partook without qualms or questions from anyone. Their status as true Bible-believing Christians was not questioned by the elders. It hit him directly that what I had said was true – these are people in “good standing” in a conservative church that insists upon adherence to orthodox theology, who could only join after being examined to show that they had truly come to Christ and placed faith in Him, but whose church attendance habits are terrible. And as a group, so are their divorce rates. This situation exists in thousands of churches across this country.
The other conversation was with a man who had been introduced to Shaunti Feldhahn’s arguments (through a popular Christian column) and asked me about the “40-50% divorce rate in the professing Church” claim. I assured him that there were good grounds for this claim, and shared some hard data with him. But I asked him something that I often ask older Christians to consider, especially Baby Boomers like me, who have been serious committed believers since their younger, single years, got married for the first time as believers to a believer, and have many friends and acquaintances who are identical in this regard. “Of all your Christian friends and acquaintances who got married over the years and at least, say, ten years ago, how many are now divorced (or more-or-less permanently separated, which is quite common)? When he thought about it carefully he realized that was…well, about half! Same for me. If I look back at all the professing, theologically conservative Christian friends I know who got married over the past thirty to thirty five years, about half are now divorced or irreconcilably separated. About half.
One argument I hear goes something like this: “Well, they aren’t real Christians – if they were, they’d be in church regularly.” Uh, ok. Isn’t that a bit circular? Yes, there is some truth in that. A church member who refuses to connect and remain committed to his or her local church is someone who, at a certain point, should be challenged. We might even have grounds to reasonably question the state of their heart. (And hopefully do so not to condemn them but in order to encourage and help them. In fact, we should do that. Most churches don’t, but all churches should.) I suppose we could say the same thing about regular prayer and Bible reading. But going by public profession, and considering that we don’t (in practice) reject folk as believers based on inconsistent use of the means of grace, I am a bit hesitant to go there.
So let me share just a little data, and then some closing thoughts of application. (By the way, for more detail on this and related issues, see the video of a dinner presentation I gave in April 2015 here.)
First, I need to say some things about measuring divorce in a population. (a) Divorce is dynamic and on-going. Thus, in any group of people who have ever been married, you will have some who are now divorced or legally separated, some who are widowed, and some who are married. Among those who are married or widowed, some were divorced previously. And among some who are married, some will get divorced in the future. (b) Divorce is heavily “front-loaded.” The vast majorities of divorces that will ever occur take place within the first ten years of marriage. For example, the U.S. Census noted that, as of 2009, the average first marriage that ended in divorce went like this: separation by year 7, finalized divorce by year 8. As a result, researchers typically look at marriage cohorts (that is, every marriage that started in a given time period, such as “first marriages that started in 2000 through 2002”). They do so ten to fifteen years later or more. Then, they make a reasonable projection, based on standard patterns of frequency of divorce across the span of marriage, on how many additional divorces will take place in the future, among those marriages that are still intact at the time they captured the data. Roughly, if about 38% to 40% of all couples who got married in 2000 are divorced or legally separated by 2010 to 2015 (and I am being conservative here, I’d go with just 2010 with a lot of confidence), about half of those marriages will have ended in divorce by the time that every person in that original, 2000 marriage cohort is deceased. This is not that speculative, this is based on very sound, long-term, empirically-measured experience. (c) Legal separations need to be included. Although some happy exceptions occur, the overwhelming majority of legal separations are in fact a virtual divorce. Either the couple ends up formally divorced eventually, or the legal separation remains permanent and irreconcilable.
OK, that technical stuff is out of the way. What are the facts? I will look at one excellent data source, the General Social Survey (GSS). This has been performed using large national samples since 1972, by the prestigious National Opinion Research Corporation (NORC), and is widely used by researchers and policy makers.
Taking only those who have ever-been married, and combining the years 1972-2012 of the GSS, I see that for those who had first been married ten to fifteen years prior to being surveyed, 36.5% had been divorced or legally separated at the time they were surveyed. (Some had then remarried, others had not.) Among those in the same group who were classified as “Protestant fundamentalists” (based on a combination of factors, which would together include almost all professed “evangelicals”), that figure was 41%! That is actually higher. But among those (again, who had been married for the first time ten to fifteen years prior to being surveyed) who attended church about every week or more, that figure was 24% Add in those who say they attended church at least two to three times per month, and the figure was 28%.
So, regular church attenders had much lower divorce rates. Still too high, but lower.
(If we restrict ourselves only to more recent decades, by looking at 1992 through 2012, the situation gets worse. Overall, 40.5% of all couples first married ten to fifteen years prior to being surveyed had divorced or legally separated, and the same figure was 43% for conservative Protestant believers. But again, for regular church attenders divorce rates were far lower: 31% for those who were in services about once per week or more.)
So if regular church attenders have lower divorce rates, why are the divorce rates of conservative Protestant believers just as high, or even higher, than average? Because lots of these folk, despite what they claim about their faith, don’t attend church regularly. In fact, among ever-married “fundamentalist Protestants” who were surveyed by the GSS between 1972-2012, fully 54% admitted to attending church less than once per week. Another 17% attended church one to three times per month. The rest were very infrequent and sporadic. This is especially troubling because, in surveys like this, particularly among those who are more religious, there is a demonstrated tendency for respondents to overstate how often they attend church.
These low church attendance rates are not, as some claim, something one only sees at places like megachurches or the more liberal wings of the evangelical world. Even in one fairly small conservative church we were members of for some years, the gap between the voting members listed in the church directory, and the folk one saw at church most Sundays, was huge (as I mentioned earlier).
As I used to tell my Sunday School marriage class – “if you aren’t here, we can’t help you”. (Of course, the folk who needed to hear me say that weren’t there! Which I suppose is the point. My hope here is to reach some of them on the Web instead!)
The author of the Book of Hebrews strongly warned early Christians that they should not “forsak(e) the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some…” (Hebrews 10:25a) After all, it is in that assembly that we “exhort one another” (v. 25b), in which we help each other to “hold fast the confession….without wavering” (v. 23) and “consider one another in order to stir up love and good works” (v. 24).
Christians need each other, and they need to relate to each other (in addition to other ways) within the on-going ministry of the Church, especially meeting together on the Lord’s Day. Christian marriages need the instruction, encouragement, on-going ministry and care, preaching, sacraments, fellowship, practical support, early intervention, pastoral care, and all else that a healthy, Biblical church should be providing. If their church is not a healthy, Biblical church, and constructive change is not likely, then they should consider finding another church. (Not church-hopping, but also not “sticking out” a place in which basic spiritual meat and drink is too sparse to keep them “alive.”) To believe we can function without the church is to claim that we can be faithful to God without also being faithful to doing what God says we need to do! How much sense does that make? That is impossible by definition. If we claim to live under the authority of the Word of God, while neglecting its clear instructions about being regular participants in the assembly of His saints, we are deceiving ourselves. And the fact is, we were not designed to make it on our own. (Except when God provides extraordinary grace for unusual (and hopefully temporary, circumstances.)
This is also developing a habit of commitment to something larger and more important than ourselves. This is being committed, week in and week out, to something that we need and to others who need us, whether we feel like it or not. And isn’t that what marriage requires too?
Imagine that someone told you that you can get into athletic trim while exercising only when it is convenient or pleasurable, never when it is hard, and that you can do it without ever skipping anything that would be more fun than exercising. Would you believe it? Why then do we take that approach to the discipline of regular attendance, with our family and our spouse, at church?
Ultimately too, the real question of faith-authenticity has to be addressed. That is not for me to answer for anyone ultimately, but for infrequent attenders to confront honestly. Real faith produces action consistent with it. Because I believe the floor is solid, I stand on it. If I was afraid to stand on it, then that would mean I don’t really believe that it is solid, regardless of the claims I am making with my lips. The Apostle James said that we should demonstrate our faith by our works. He said that faith without works is dead. (He actually says it twice in the space of four consecutive sentences.) James said that even the demons believe in one God, and fear Him, and yet do not have true saving faith. (James 2: 17-20) Real faith produces works consistent with it. And for the Christian, that includes joining oneself to the Body of Christ, to serve, and to be served, by and within it.
Of course we are sinners. Of course the carry through of our faith into our actions is going to be horribly flawed, beset by stumbling and backsliding. Of course this includes our commitment to the church, and to other basic disciplines of the Christian life such as Bible reading and prayer. But the very sin nature that often makes it hard for us to be as committed to regular church attendance as we ought to be, is the very reason we need it. In a healthy church, sinners help sinners under the care of the Good Shepherd. You need it. I need it. Your family needs it. My family needs it. Your marriage needs it. My marriage needs it.