Maybe you’ve seen the popular Discovery Channel show “Mythbusters.” In it, a couple of hilarious special effects experts pit Hollywood and urban legends against scientific tests. Sometimes the myths turn out to be solid facts. But usually, the show’s hosts bust them (and set a lot of things on fire in the process).
Well, it’s time to bust a favorite myth of our culture.
If we’ve heard it once, we’ve heard it a thousand times: The divorce rate among Christians is basically the same as it is among non-Christians. As Glenn Stanton pointed out recently at The Gospel Coalition, we usually hear this argument from fellow Christians, who ask, “How can we make a stink about the sanctity of marriage if we’re divorcing at the same rate as the world?” It’s a popular folk statistic on Christian websites, radio programs, in books — even from the pulpit.
The problem is, it’s not quite true.
As Bradford Wilcox, a leading sociologist at the University of Virginia and Director of the National Marriage Project found in 2007, active, conservative members of both Protestant and Catholic churches are significantly less likely to divorce — by 35 and 31 percent, respectively — than Americans who are religiously unaffiliated.
The numbers often get skewed, says Stanton, because most studies fail to take into account the level of religious commitment and practice among those who identify themselves as Christians. Those who claim to be Christian but rarely darken the door of a church divorce at a rate 20 percent higher than secular Americans.
So contrary to popular wisdom, most of those who take seriously God’s pronouncement, “I hate divorce,” in Malachi 2:16 really do seem to — well — hate divorce.
Okay, so you might be asking, why does this matter? Well first off, we’re servants of a God who calls Himself “the Truth.” And we have to be fearless in our pursuit of it. Statistics never speak for themselves; they’re always open to interpretation. So we have to examine the statistics, understand the assumptions they rest on, and draw reasonable, accurate conclusions, just as Stanton has.
But second, as Stanton points out, this Christian divorce myth finds an all-too-eager audience among those who oppose Christian sexual ethics. I’ve heard it argued by liberal activists for years: “Christians have no right to lecture the culture about God’s plan for marriage; they can’t even keep their own marriages together.”
Well, as Wilcox’s study indicates, that’s not entirely the case. Faith — more specifically, Christianity that’s lived out and taken seriously — makes a significant difference in the stability of marriage.
Ideas matter. If you think marriage is an agreement designed for happiness and convenience, well when marriage is no longer convenient and your spouse doesn’t make you happy, you’re more likely to divorce than those who believe that their marriage is a covenant made before God that serves His purposes.
As I explain in this week’s “Two-Minute Warning,” ideas are like roads that lead us to different destinations. So it shouldn’t surprise us when ideas about marriage tend to land us in completely different places.
I’m not suggesting that Christians have it all together. The divorce rate in the church is still disappointingly high. But this data does expose that one of our culture’s favorite charges against Christians is just not true. And it reminds us that the Holy Spirit is not idle when He takes up residence in our lives and in our marriages.
As my mentor Bill Brown, president of Cedarville University, often says: “You may not live what you profess, but you will live what you really believe.”
And that’s ultimately what makes the Christian idea of marriage true — and the world’s idea a myth.
As the host of The Point, a daily national radio program, John Stonestreet provides thought-provoking commentaries on current events and life issues from a biblical worldview. John holds degrees from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (IL) and Bryan College (TN), and is the co-author of Making Sense of Your World: A Biblical Worldview.
BreakPoint commentary airs each weekday on more than one thousand outlets with an estimated listening audience of one million people. BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today's news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print.
Publication date: October 5, 2012