By Jonathan Howe
Since I have written quite extensively about the abuse of stats by evangelicals and the media in the past, it was refreshing to see a recent article at the Gospel Coalition show some new data that corrects some erroneous divorce rate statistics which seem to get thrown around the Internet, in the media, and, unfortunately, in the pulpit. The stat in question was that Christians divorce at roughly the same rate as the world.
But what did the actual research show– particularly when research practicing Christians?
People who seriously practice a traditional religious faith—whether Christian or other—have a divorce rate markedly lower than the general population.
The factor making the most difference is religious commitment and practice.
What appears intuitive is true. 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.
The article draws from research found in Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites… and Other Lies You’ve Been Told, the 2010 book by Bradley Wright (and for which I wrote the foreword), as well as an article by W. Bradford Wilcox and Elizabeth Williamson in American Religions and the Family.
Specifically, the research shows that couples who are active in their faith are much less likely to divorce. Catholic couples were 31% less likely to divorce; Protestant couples 35% less likely; and Jewish couples 97% less likely, which in itself is quite impressive, I must say.
So what does this mean for you, for me, and for our churches? I see three takeaways: There will unfortunately still be divorce; discipleship is an integral part of marriage; and we must be careful when quoting statistics.
Divorce Isn’t Going Away
This is an unfortunate reality, but a reality nonetheless. I, like many of you, am a child of divorced parents (as is Donna, my wife). My children have had friends whose parents have divorced. I’ve had friends in the ministry who have divorced. And while we sometimes have a tendency to think of it as just another part of our culture, it should break our hearts to see marriages end.
Erwin Lutzer correctly stated “in marriage, the goal is holiness, not happiness.” Marriage was intended to be a God-ordained commitment between one husband and one wife for one lifetime as one flesh. Sin has broken that, and we see those effects all around us. However, we have the Power in us to overcome. Christ is faithful to hold marriages together when they are centered on Him and His redemptive work on the cross. If our marriage is focused on holiness, happiness will inevitably follow. I’ve never met a couple who has divorced because they were pursuing God too much.
Discipleship Is Integral to a Healthy Marriage
Our spiritual growth affects everything about us. To build on the previous point, holiness does not just happen. Sanctification and holiness are the products of work. Marriage is like a muscle. It does not become stronger unless it is exercised.
This is partly on my mind because of my Sunday message at Grace Church– I’ll be preaching on adultery and divorce the next two weeks as we work through the Sermon on the Mount. Divorce is a scourge and part of the answer is well-discipled Christians.
Be Careful When Quoting Stats
Christians aren’t the only group to be misrepresented. Parents of special needs children are victims of this as well. But as pastors who are charged with proclaiming Truth (with a big T), we must also commit to proclaiming truth (with a little t). I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a speaker or pastor misquote a stat or tell a story that was actually not true. For that matter, I’ve done it myself at times– but that does not mean we cannot all do better.
I’ve been in the audience or backstage at conferences when a stat that came out of my office was quoted incorrectly by another speaker. And as for your little stories,Snopes.com exists for a reason, pastors. Please, I beg of you, use it. Stories and stats may help you make your point, but please research, confirm, and cite them.
One reason this is so important in this area is that when we say things like “the divorce rate for Christian couples and non-Christian couples is the same,” we give the impression that Christ makes no difference in our lives and in our marriages. That is offensive to the work of the Spirit in us and simply not true. We must not give Satan a foothold in our marriage, and bad stats can do just that.
So, do couples who say they are “Christians” divorce often? Sure. Almost 8 of 10 Americans say they are Christians and they, well, look like the other 2 out of 10 who don’t claim to be Christians. But, when a pastor says, “Christians and non-Christians divorce at the same rate,” that is not what they people hear. If you are a pastor, they think that you should know what a Christian is, and that you must be saying that Christians (people who follow Christ) divorce at the same rate as the rest– and that’s not true.
Marriage is a gift from God. One for which I am extremely grateful. So, pastors, please don’t undermine it with inaccurate stats or misleading citations of those stats.
UPDATE: For those wanting to know how to avoid and prevent using bad stats, see the follow-up to this post: Curing Pastoral Stats Abuse: How Not to Be a Stats Abuser or Confuser.