Strong churches make stable marriages and vice versa

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One would likely believe that those who attend church would have more stable marriages, but a significant number of Christians wind up in divorce. A 2008 Barna poll gave the shocking statistic that 33% of married adults experienced divorce and the “born again Christians who are not evangelical were indistinguishable from the national average”. Significant criticism was leveled at the general Christian community when this statistic first came out, and much of it from inside the Christian community itself.

At the end of the day, can Christians claim to be “pro-marriage” when such a scourge exists even within the community? To even the non-casual observer, it smacks of hypocrisy. There certainly are a lot of explanations for this state of affairs, but perhaps the largest one is that pastors and church leaders have not done enough to stress the sanctity of marriage or to counsel individuals adequately before and during the marriage.

On the Ministry Today blog, Ted Bishsel writes in “Strengthening Marriages in Your Church”:

“One of the singles, perhaps sensing my dilemma, blurted out: ‘The best way you can minister to the divorced is to minister to marriages.’ It was then that I realized that the greatest ministry I could have to the divorced single was to build strong marriages.”

He then turns his attention to building a vision for marriage within the church. It is about much more than just giving couples a new set of tools and sending them on their way. It goes beyond behavior. While things like communication and conflict resolution are valuable, it must be enveloped within the vision of a covenant relationship.

Having said all of that, what is often glossed over in the Barna poll is that things might not seem as bleak as they might be reported. For example, evangelical Christians divorce only 26% of the time, which is still too high but better than the national average. What is not clear, however, is whether the divorce occurred before or after becoming born again, although less than 20% accept Christ after their first marriage.

It should first be established, however, that there really are individual and collective benefits to marriage, else what is the point or the incentive? Then, is there a benefit of being religious to the marriage itself? Finally, what can the church do to strengthen marriages?

The Individual and Societal Benefits of Marriage

One of the greatest benefits of marriage pointed out by many groups and publications, such as The Christians, is that a “Stable marriage is the fastest ticket out of poverty, says the report”. Some couples claim that they cannot afford to tie the knot, but instead, the report indicates that the very poor cannot afford to not get married. The report, one among many, finds that as the middle class has declined, so has the proportion of those who married and stayed that way.

This means the couples benefit by getting and staying married, but it also means society benefits due to having to use fewer resources in providing safety nets for the poor.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops published a lot of reasons “Why Children Need Married Parents”. Those raised in stable married families were more likely to be better off both physically and emotionally, whereas those living with a single mother were 14 times more likely to “suffer serious physical abuse”. Children raised in a traditional family were also more likely to go to college, less likely to be sexually active as adolescents, less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol and, unsurprisingly, less likely themselves to become divorced.

Not only can church attendance help marriages but also stable marriages can help the church, not to mention the society overall. The Daily Press published an article in 2000 that “Family, Church And Society Depend On Stable Marriages”.

Not only do religious institutions recognize the value of healthy marriage. The NIH reported in 2003 “The Benefits from Marriage and Religion in the United States: A Comparative Analysis”.

It should be clear that it is in the interest of every individual, every church and society as a whole to strengthen marriage.

The Benefits of Religion in Marriage

It should be pointed out that the NIH report also shows that there is less conflict if both partners “share the same religious beliefs”. Active shared participation in religious events, such as attending services on religious holidays, can also strengthen the marriage. However, the flip side should be obvious. A difference in religion can aggravate conflict and even destabilize the marriage. With that in mind, a shared religious perspective can greatly aid in having a stable marriage.

In a study titled “Red States, Blue States, and Divorce: Understanding the Impact of Conservative Protestantism on Regional Variation in Divorce Rates“, it was found that even conservative churches have an uncomfortably high rate of divorce. However, as is pointed out in an article about the report by Canon & Culture, “No, Christianity is Not Bad for Marriage: Brad Wilcox on Red State Family Structure and Conservative Protestantism”, “This study also finds that religiously unaffiliated Americans, and counties with higher shares of unaffiliated Americans, are the most likely to divorce.”

This suggests that an active role in a church can lower the expectation of a divorce. Some might interpret it as secularism leading to higher divorce rates, but, as the article points out, nominal Protestantism, those who rarely if ever attend, is also part of the problem.

The Heritage Foundation published an article “Why Religion Matters Even More: The Impact of Religious Practice on Social Stability” by Patrick F. Fagan, Ph.D., which points out that “Regular attendance at religious services is linked to healthy, stable family life, strong marriages, and well-behaved children.”

There is no shortage of literature showing a correlation between active church participation and healthy marital bliss. The Christian Post ran the 2008 article “Church Attendance Key to Marriage Success, Researcher Says”.

What the Church Can Do

As stated before, the biggest advance that the church can make to provide stable marriages is to stress the vision of what marriage actually is about and provide more than simply tools for fallible humans to continue to use in a faulty manner.

FamilyFacts.org provided a list comparing “Religious Practice and Family Stability” that bears out what has already been stated. It really boils down to active participation in a church that reduces divorce rates. The church can stress marital commitment, but also “Couples who are more religious tend to exhibit greater marital commitment than couples who are less religious.”

In all seriousness, should this be surprising? Commitment in one area has a huge tendency to spill over to other areas as well.

What this means for the church is that strengthening commitment in a marriage not only helps the individuals involved, but it helps the church as well. In addition, by providing an overall vision for not only marriage but for the church as a whole strengthens marriages as well. The two commitments really do go hand-in-hand.

The Church Should Be the Light

Strong families make a strong society, even when that society is on a smaller scale like a church or even a church congregation. However, strong churches also make strong families. While at this age nothing will be 100% perfect, the Christian Church should be the leader in showing the way to strong families and a fulfilled life.

The Family Life website in “Strengthening Marriages in Our Church” puts it quite well: “It’s time for the church to call people back to God’s design for marriage. It’s being set aside as not necessary when it’s the very foundation of any society. The world needs to see the church living out God’s design for marriage.”

That should not be so far-fetched. After all, Jesus said, “Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid” (Mt 5:14).

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