Conservative Christian Divorce Rates

Recent reports have shown that conservative Christians have higher divorce rates than the national average (U.S. study). Some have even shown that simply living around conservative Christians raises the divorce rate. This should be surprising for a group that is known for the defence of “the sanctity of marriage” (at least politically). So why?

Commitment Level

Of course, an important thing to note is that many who are contributing to raising that stat are not particularly interested in their brand of Christianity and just call themselves that because that is how they grew up. That is inevitable, but it does leave a few questions:

Let’s assume that a high 80% of people claiming conservative Christianity really don’t care in the slightest. If the church really is serious about protecting marriage, we should still expect the church’s divorce rate to be approximately 80% of the national average (20% lower because of the 20% who are serious Christians). Even if it was an equal rate I would accept this as statistical variability, but it is actually worse.

This defense pushes me to another question: just how many people are hanging out in our churches that we (not conservatives, but as Christians as a whole) are completely failing to engage in any meaningful way? There will always be some in a church who are checking things out, but if a significant chunk have been there for a while and still qualify as these lax Christians, we’ve failed.

Sex, Sex, Sex

Conservatives often present as indisputable that you cannot have sex of any kind before you get married. In some extreme cases the line is drawn much further back at kissing or holding hands. You also may have a set of patriarchal rules which makes dating much more of a pain for everyone involved. I often heard the verse “better to marry than to burn with lust” used to push a boy to propose and a girl to accept because they’re a little bit horny. Aside from a failure to define lust in a way in line with Scripture, this is one area where the conservative church has often chosen legalism.

Single = Incomplete

Conservatives also often (subtly, usually) claim that marriage is an essential part of a godly life. Women get this much worse, I think, than men, but I remember the many questions of “do you have a girlfriend yet?” while I was single. Even within a week or two of my one relationship prior to Emily I remember getting questions about whether I thought I’d marry her.

Young, Unprepared Marriages

The two above lead to a lot of unprepared marriages. I’m not saying that all young marriages are stupid and unprepared, just that the two things above tend to increase the likelihood of unprepared marriages.

No sex until marriage? Ok, well I’m horny, so let’s get married. At no point does the church stop to say that being horny is not a good basis for a marriage.

Determined to live the godly life that my church wants me to? Well, I can’t do that single obviously, so I better get married. Few promote singleness as a valid option for a period of time or for life even though Jesus and Paul both very explicitly argued that singleness was better than marriage.

We give these pushes toward marriage to our young people. Rarely do we tell them how much it sucks to fight over the budget. We don’t tell them that the sex isn’t always going to be as perfect as your hormones are imagining. We don’t prepare them in any way to overcome these and the many other challenges of marriage. We just tell them that if they want to be complete in the eyes of the church and have sex, they better hurry up.

No Help for You

So the couple gets married unprepared. American conservatives then tend to discourage seeking help. Most marriages at some point will need it. That’s just a reality of committing your life to another person through thick and thin. If it is denied, the marriage will often just fall apart instead. Many churches will say that you can get help, just do it from the pastor, who is not nearly as qualified and you are probably going to be a little cautious about being fully vulnerable in front of if your church has a judgement problem. So that leaves you with your spouse to figure it out on your own. The nuclear family completely devoid of supportive community, so tied to the American Dream, very rarely is sustainable.

What If?

What would it look like if our churches emphasized discipleship instead of getting married? What if we taught our young people how to live below their means so they can give charitably instead of hoping they figure out how to budget together later? What if we taught our young people to live in vulnerable community, one filled with forgiveness and love, instead of buying wholesale into the individualistic American Dream until it is time to get married and figure out how to live with other people? What if we emphasized sacrificing time, money, and talent for others so that one day it will include your spouse? In other words, what if we made people disciples instead of the perfect Cleaver family? I’d bet Christians would have a much lower divorce rate.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.

  • “you are probably going to be a little cautious about being fully vulnerable in front of if your church has a judgement problem. So that leaves you with your spouse to figure it out on your own. The nuclear family completely devoid of supportive community, so tied to the American Dream, very rarely is sustainable.” <-YES. Great post, Ryan. I have personally found some of these elements to be very true. And your point about discipleship would be a very helpful step in the right direction.

  • Wesley Rostoll

    Great article!