MDR: The Church’s Divorce Rate

When I was a child, growing up in the Churches of Christ during the 1950’s and 60’s, divorce was much discussed in our classes and from our pulpits-but the discussion was very much in the abstract. I mean, in the congregation where I grew up, of some 200 members, we only had one couple that had experienced divorce.

Times have surely changed! Nowadays, over 50% of all marriages end in divorce. It’s not surprising that many are calling for a renewed emphasis on the traditional teachings of all Christian churches on divorce and remarriage. It is hoped that, perhaps, a return to the stricter rules we grew up with will slow the Church’s decline into ever more frequent divorce — and who would disagree with the desire to reduce the divorce rate that afflicts even our members?

Indeed, the problem with divorce among believers is even greater than most of us imagine:

Sadly, divorce is not just a non-Christian problem. Pollster George Barna discovered that born-again Christians actually have a higher rate of divorce (27 percent) than nonbelievers (23 percent). Fundamentalists top them all (30 percent). And 87 percent divorced after accepting Christ, presumably aware of the biblical teaching on divorce.[1]

Perhaps the reason nonbelievers have a lower divorce rate is because they often don’t bother to marry in the first place. Nonetheless, no one would consider these percentages as healthy or reflective of sound pastoring.[2]

Is the solution to divorce a stricter doctrine? Certainly, the higher divorce rate of fundamentalists argues to the contrary. More importantly, it’s just not right to modify doctrine to suit the needs of the day. Rather, the answer will be found in God’s truth, which doesn’t change.

By the way, I should add an interesting statistic from Flavil Yeakley’s recently published “Good News and Bad News: A Realistic Assessment of the Churches of Christ in the United States 2008.” Yeakley finds that the divorce rate is only 5.4% for members of the Churches of Christ who attended a Church-affiliated college and remain active in the Church.

This is just a theory, but my experience is that graduates of our colleges are far more grace-oriented, on the whole, than others within the Churches (there are notable exceptions, of course). And, of course, most students who attend one of our schools chose that path because they are serious about their Christianity. The combination is good for marriage.

[1] Divorce, Remarriage & Adultery, (Jan. 21, 2001), quoting Chuck Colson, “Any Ol’ World View Won’t Do,” Jubilee Extra (May 1996).

[2] The reason that no group is near the oft-mentioned 50% mark is that the 50% figure is only realized when you take into account multiple divorces by the same people. Thus, while 50% of marriages end in divorce, only 23% to 30% of the people who marry experience a divorce.

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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9 Responses to MDR: The Church’s Divorce Rate

  1. Alan says:

    Yeakley finds that the divorce rate is only 5.4% for members of the Churches of Christ who attended a Church-affiliated college and remain active in the Church.

    I doubt being grace-oriented (or not) is the fundamental cause. Those who choose a Christian college generally have been taught the church's doctrine on the subject while growing up. The selection of a Christian college suggests an attempt at continuity in the church. It might be a sign of loyalty to the church, and maybe even a sign of fear of stepping outside the safe boundaries of church approval… especially when further qualified by the fact that they remained active in the church throughout college.

  2. Tim Archer says:

    Yeah, that 50% is an oft-repeated myth:

    Still, the problem is real and not getting any better. I look forward to reading your thoughts on the subject.

    Grace and peace,

  3. Well, one thing for sure, the solution is not theological or doctrinal. It's how we treat each other in marriage.

    In fact, our tradition of legalism likely contributes to the problem, because it emphasizes a "right way" v "wrong way" point of view.

    As most of us know, the vast majority of conflicts in marriage are less about right and wrong than about your way and my way.

    When we learn to "get over ourselves", the way Jesus teaches us to love, then we'll see divorce rates decline.

    Loving the way Jesus loved — ultimately — is the solution to this matter.

  4. Joe Baggett says:

    There are significant problems with Flavil's research, in the same report he also claims that 99% of the members of the churches of Christ attend on a weekly basis ranking them at the top for attendance of denominations. We can all look around and see that 99% of the people in the directory are not in attendance once a week. I travel and speak all over the USA and anecdotally his research just doesn't hold up. The churches for the survey he did were only 3000 and I am inclined to think they were hand picked as many of the large congregations I know of in several states were not chosen for the research project.
    George Barna and James Dodson both studied divorce rates among conservative evangelical churches and found that they had dropped some but not much still about 40% of those marrying for the first time in conservative. Most of the cause for the drop is the fact that the emerging generations are getting married much later if at all. Only 50% of the people under the age of 35 in the USA are married. Things are not getting better, the sociology is just changing.

  5. andy says:

    I have my doubts about Yeardly's figure and whether it really tells us much about COC Colleges. The key point seems to be the stays-active-in-the-church part. How many who are seriously considering divorce actually stay active in the church? My guess would be a lot stop attending once their marriage starts to break up.

  6. Joe Baggett says:

    At my last reunion of ACU alumni there were plenty who had already divorced I am 32 years old if that gives a clue to what age these people are. Let's think about this 5.4% number that means that in 100 marriages only 5.4 end in divorce. I am sorry but this simply cannot be right. My sister who is at Harding right now has freinds who have not even graduated from college who are getting a divorce.

  7. Jay Guin says:

    I think you all are right that the 5.4% figure is bogus. Maybe it's just that the divorced couples were too embarrassed to return survey forms! Who knows.

  8. Matthew says:

    Probably keeping the doctrine strong is not going to solve these problems. People might stay married, but will emotionally divorce one another. Probably, more focus on developing and maintaining a healthy marriage will be more beneficial.

  9. Nick Gill says:

    We are well-known in our communities as the Don't-Dos. They don't do this… they don't do that.

    The only way to change that is consistent practical focusing on who we are becoming, and letting our doing come from our being.

    Instead, as Matthew says, we "don't do" divorce, and we "don't do" fellowship with divorcees with whose situations we find fault, while we DO fail to live in Christian peace and love even within our own homes.

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