Too many good Christians are under the illusion that the divorce rate is the same inside the church as outside. It is not, and Christians should stop saying it. Faith does make a real difference in many important areas of one’s life.
Yes, Christ’s church is a wholly welcoming place for broken people, and those with shattered stories are drawn to it, finding profound and life-changing hope there. So of course, we will find high levels of broken people there. It’s exactly where they should be!
People who are sick go to the hospital and people who need real answers about the deeper things of life go to church. Jesus was quite clear that these are precisely the people He is seeking. Our Lord has no use for perfect people. He doesn’t know what to do with them. Yes, divorced people exist in the church and it is good that they do.
But this doesn’t change the fact that faith does make a positive, demonstrable difference in the lives of married couples and that people who faithfully attend church and take their faith seriously tend to have healthier marriages. Why? Well first, let us look at the bigger picture.
Faith is Healthy
Medical research coming out of Harvard University and other leading institutions in the last few years demonstrates how being a committed part of a faith community “is associated with numerous aspects of human flourishing, including happiness and life satisfaction, mental and physical health, meaning and purpose, character and virtue, and close social relationships.” Harvard’s Tyler J. VanderWeele explains the robustness of such findings, “Evidence for the effects of religious communities on these flourishing outcomes now comes from rigorous longitudinal study designs with extensive confounding control.” People of faith do indeed look different than their unbelieving and non-practicing neighbors under the gaze of science.
And this is true when it comes to marriage.
Two leading sociologists of the family, who are also two men of deep personal faith, wrote an important piece for Christianity Today explaining the ways faith strengthens the marriage of active believers. They are Lyman Stone of the American Enterprise Institute and W. Bradford Wilcox at the University of Virginia. These men ask two very important questions,
“Is the way religious Americans form their marriages different than the way their more secular peers do? And do religious unions formed by 20-somethings face different divorce odds than those formed by secular Americans in the same age group?”
They say the answer to the second is more complicated than the first, due to the increasing practice of cohabitation in the world today. Astonishingly, more than 70 percent of marriages formed today are preceded by some form of pre-marital cohabitation! That is a very disturbing figure, given cohabitation’s close association with increased risk of divorce.
Faith Curbs Cohabitation
But young people who grow up with a serious religious faith are much less likely to be among the newly marrieds who cohabited in any way prior to marriage. As these scholars explain, “religiosity is associated with a markedly higher likelihood of going directly from singleness to a married union without cohabiting ahead of time, and generally at younger ages.” Broken down by faith groups, the data on likelihood of marrying without having ever cohabited looks like this…
Seriously religious people tend to marry earlier in life than those with no faith. Unfortunately, early marriage is, by probability, associated with increased likelihood of divorce. But so is cohabitation.
Faith Reduces Divorce
So how do these two facts shake out for religious couples’ risk of divorce compared to their unbelieving peers? This is an important and complex question that these two scholars uniquely explore. They say, “the answer appears to be yes” that religious people, even though they marry at younger ages on the whole, are indeed less likely to divorce. Interestingly, professors Stone and Wilcox say,
“Overall, if we control for basic socioeconomic background and a woman’s educational career trajectory, the typical marriage of a woman with a religious upbringing is about 10 percent less likely to end in divorce within the first 15 years of marriage than the typical marriage of a woman with a nonreligious upbringing.”
“Our results also suggest that religion fosters relationship stability by pushing young adults away from cohabitation, which is highly unstable, and toward marriage, which is much more stable.”
These scholars conclude,
“The upshot of all this is that the religious model of marriage and family appears to boost the odds that young adults can marry before 30 without increasing their risk of landing in divorce court.”
These findings mean science continues to show that couples, young and old, who have a serious connection to their faith enjoy markedly lower risk of divorce.
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