Parenthood, Reformed Theology

Marriage stats and prayer

Over the weekend we went to a friend’s wedding. During the wedding, people kept mentioning divorce statistics. Basically, the saying went like this:

  1. The divorce rate is approximately 50%.
  2. The divorce rate among Christians is no better, also 50%.
  3. The conclusion is then made that the people being surveyed were not true Christians, because the divorce rate among couples who pray together every single day is only one in a thousand. All true Christian couples pray together every day.

My gut reaction:

  • This is probably a fallacy.
  • Talk about a guilt trip. Who in the world can formally pray every single day of their life, let alone ensure that such prayer occurs with one’s spouse? And then are you therefore supposed to live in fear that your marriage will fail when you miss a day?
  • I just went through a mental list of a men’s prayer group I was in 10 years ago. 80% of us were single at the time, but all have since wed. However, only 40% are still married. That’s a very high divorce rate of 60% among a group of apparent born-again Christians who already had a significant predisposition towards an active prayer life.

Here’s the reaction from a Reformed perspective:

The gospel is about God’s gracious love for us, as the love a cherishing husband has for his blushing bride. It is an unconditional love. Such statistics are unhelpful because they are presented as a method of supposedly earning God’s favor.

A more proper piece of marital encouragement would be to say: marriage is a covenant.

  • Adam broke his covenant with God. Israel also made a covenant with God and broke it.
  • God made a covenant with Abraham in which he swore he would never break.Jesus’ substitutionary death on the cross fulfilled this covenant and demonstrated how infinite his love is. It’s not up to us. Nothing we could ever do would cause God to break his covenant with us. He will always be faithful even when we remain faithless.
  • Marriage is a picture of this covenant.
  • So don’t break your covenant.

The technical term for this concept is “covenant theology.” Convenient, huh?

And here’s a further answer from the Reformed point of view: Our confessions teach us that Scripture is the only “rule” to govern our spiritual lives by. In other words, we don’t make up rules like the Pharisees did and hold them over people’s heads. This couple-praying thing is not found anywhere in the Bible. Instead, Jesus tells us to hide ourselves in the closet—alone—in order to ensure that our prayers are not in an effort to bring some practical external benefits to ourselves.

Finally, when we perform spiritual duties not for the end of the enjoyment of God alone, but for the purpose of practical benefits such as preventing ourselves from being subject to a 50% chance of a successful marriage, then we are doing it for the wrong reason. Such individuals may be surprised to find that they end their lives having celebrated an anniversary for the record books but end up getting the “depart from me, I never knew you” because they were living by works and not by faith.

Marriage is not a sacred institution. I have already presented the analogy case, of Christ and his bride, the church. However, even pagan weddings still paint the same picture. Again, the Reformed point of view is that there are some rules common to humanity. This is often framed in the context of the Noaic covenant (cf. Living in God’s Two Kingdoms). People from all religions and cultures get married. Their god is invoked as a witness to the vows made, no matter who that god is. Our god is Yahweh. Just because we invoke his name as witness to our covenant does not make our marriages a sacrament.

I knew Chrisitians who were at the wedding who were divorced, and I knew inter-faith couples at that wedding who had been married for eons. Put yourself in their shoes and imagine how it would make them feel when your wedding homily paints those people in the 50% bracket as “not true Christians.”

I will conclude with the actual statistics from actual experienced statisticians.

First of all, the divorce rate is actually 33%, not 50%. The rate for born-again Christians is statistically identical, at 32% (source).

According to Barna, conservative, “born again” Christians actually have higher divorce rates than other religious groups, Protestants or Catholics, or non-Christian religions, or agnostics and atheists (source).

I suspect this occurs because too many Christians place sacramental importance on their marriage, or see signs of hardship as signs that their spouse must not be the one God meant them to be with, and therefore break their covenant. This is quite unfortunate. Marriage is not about fulfillment, it’s about keeping your promises, no matter what. Interestingly, among those Christians who believe salvation is by grace alone, the divorce rate is considerably lower at 26%. The gospel is so important. It allows us to see that life—and eternal life—is not about following rules and meeting expectations. It’s about loving no matter what.

Postscript: I’m going to use the Noaic covenant argument again in a future post on marriage equality. That’s gonna be a doozy.

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