Beliefs Culture Ethics

Why routine divorce is now inevitable, even among Christians (COMMENTARY)

Wedding rings rest on a Bible during a ceremony.
Wedding rings rest on a Bible during a ceremony.

Photo courtesy of graham tomlin via Shutterstock

Wedding rings rest on a Bible during a ceremony.

(RNS) A LifeWay Research survey released last week on the morality of divorce found that for most Americans, the reason an individual initiates divorce doesn’t matter in terms of how they morally evaluate the rightness or wrongness of that divorce. Pastors, though, still tend to draw moral distinctions between reasons for divorce.

Based on years of research on Christian tradition as it pertains to marriage and divorce, I can tell you what this finding means. The answer is not especially pretty: Routine divorce is now inevitable in American culture, including among religious people (with one possible exception).

Let’s take this problem apart.

READ: Most Americans don’t see sin in divorce

In Western culture today, individuals almost always are free to marry, or not marry, if and when they wish. They are free to choose their partner on the basis of their own entirely self-selected reasons. They are free to conduct themselves in marriage precisely as they choose to do. They are free to initiate divorce if and when they choose and for whatever reason might seem compelling to them.

In other words, a spouse has become a consumer product, to be bought, abandoned or traded in for a new model at the will of the customer.

Of course, this is a bit of an overstatement. The law sets a few limits on whom one can marry (no children, no siblings). And on how one conducts oneself in marriage (no abuse). And on the process of divorce (perhaps a waiting period or mandatory counseling). And especially in one’s conduct after divorce (child custody and visitation, financial settlements, restraining orders, etc.).

READ: Pope Francis says church must welcome divorced, remarried Catholics

But the point still holds: The modern person can freely enter or exit marriage as consumer preference or self-interest dictates. It is not just that the law sets few restraints. Culture, which used to play a formative role in shaping norms related to marriage, also fails to offer much guidance on anything: who, when or why to marry; how to behave in marriage; what grounds might be legitimate for divorce. Probably the main role culture plays in shaping marriage is through brides’ magazines dictating norms related to a properly lavish ceremony and reception.

Enter the leaders of ancient religions as they try to have some impact on the actual behavior of their purported contemporary adherents. What is the poor rabbi, priest or imam to do in trying to offer moral guidance to American congregants as they prepare to get married — perhaps even within the sacred precincts of the sanctuary?

Speaking out of my own evangelical Christian faith, and as a minister who has performed dozens of weddings, I am aware that our cultural-resistance toolbox isn’t what it used to be. We do have Scripture and tradition that (I believe) establish a strict norm of lifetime monogamous marriage. But these texts don’t have the power they once had in the lives of many of our people.

READ: White male anger and the surprise attack on ‘political correctness’

All Christian tradition on marriage is informed by key biblical passages, such as Genesis 1-2, Matthew 19:1-9, Mark 10:2-12, Luke 16:18, 1 Corinthians 7:10-16 and Ephesians 5:22-33. (The polygamy passages have dropped out of the working canon on this issue.) The composite reading of these texts is the belief that God creates marriage as a binding, exclusive, faithful lifetime relationship. (I have argued that for Christians the gay marriage debate should not be understood as about whether this demanding norm still applies, but whether it can apply equally to gays and lesbians.)

The historic Catholic approach offers a theology that makes a legitimately contracted Christian marriage metaphysically impossible to dissolve, something like dividing 1 by 0. That’s one reason why the Catholic Church finds it so difficult to bend on divorce. It’s not just morally banned, but theologically impossible. Which proves to be quite a problem for millions of divorced Catholics.

The main Protestant approach suggests that marriage is a binding covenant that should not be breached through the sinful choices of the spouses, but sometimes is breached by such bad choices. So divorce is morally impermissible, except as a tragic necessity in response to particular sins, or “biblical grounds,” such as adultery and abandonment. This means divorce should only be morally approved for the innocent party who has suffered his or her partner’s covenant violation. On this model there’s no such thing as a legitimate mutual divorce or a divorce because a marriage “dies” or someone “falls out of love.”

One reason for the Christian tradition’s stern ban or near-ban on divorce has been its attention to children, who (of course) are supposed to be one primary product of marriage and whose well-being constitutes one of the main reasons marriage needs to be secure, permanent and healthy. But factoring in the well-being of children does not any longer seem to prevail over the personal preferences of most maritally unhappy adults.

I am arguing that routine mass divorce is inevitable in modern Western cultures, with one possible exception. That is in religious communities where there are clergy and congregants who attempt to create and sustain a counterculture in which we still believe in binding covenantal marriage — and attempt to nurture the character traits and skills that might make such marriages succeed.

But such efforts swim against the tide of a culture in which such norms are increasingly incomprehensible. And we know that many of those who come to us for our wedding services are not all that serious about faith.

Rev. Dr. David Gushee is Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics and Director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University. Photo courtesy of Mercer University

The Rev. David Gushee is Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics and director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University. Photo courtesy of Mercer University

So a wedding becomes an opportunity for clergy to make a serious pitch not just for a religious wedding — but a serious life of faith within which vibrant lifetime marriage can be sustained.

(The Rev. David Gushee is Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics and director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University. He is also the author or editor of 20 books in his field, including “Righteous Gentiles of the Holocaust,” “Kingdom Ethics,” “The Sacredness of Human Life” and “Changing Our Mind.”)


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David Gushee


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  • It’s hard to accept this article’s claims about the future of marriage when it ignores they way Millenials like myself approach it. We don’t usually get married until we’re sure about our spouse. We know how expensive and complicated divorces can be, so we usually live together before tying the knot. Most of us think you should know someone for a couple years before getting married. We only want to do it once. We also tend to think there is a proper sequence of events: money, then marriage, then kids.

    I will also point out that this kind of divorce shaming can have nasty consequences. I know one woman from an Evangelical family who realized on her honeymoon that she’d made a terrible mistake and married for all the wrong reasons. She stayed with him for years because her church and family kept talking her into it. Now she’s going through an extremely ugly divorce and there’s a child in the middle of it.

  • There are so many forces at work in our world to undermine Christian marriage this article does justice to none of them. Disbelief in the metaphysical basis of the sacred union is perhaps primary, yes, but also, 90% of the social goals of marriage no longer exist or can be easily circumvented. The remaining 10% being the bearing/rearing of children.

    But providing provisioning for a woman who agreed to bear and raise YOUR children exclusively, and which remained a part of your home and household has been made impossible by modern custody, welfare, alimony, and child support laws. Truly, a man gains NOTHING of any value or permanence from modern marriage. Especially since 75% or more of all divorces are initiated by women. Truly, when it comes to reasons to marry, a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.

    The government has replaced the church as the arbiter of both sexual and marital morality. And since the government is “democratic”, secular marriage doesn’t stand a…

  • I agree with Gushee’s statement that there should be a “counterculture” that elevates and honors marriage in deeper theological terms, and which practically works towards that end. However, his belief in the equality of gay marriage reveals a deep misunderstanding of God’s intended purposes and design for male-female only marriage. A stance for the exclusivity of male-female marriage only is also a part of the “counterculture” that the church is intended to be as God’s people.

  • Mr. Gushee, read again what Jesus has to say about divorce and marriage in Matthew 19:3-9. Obviously you reject the authority of the Holy Son of God. You are like Aaron and the Israelites who made their own God when, in their opinion, Moses took too long to come down from the mountain. God is not obligated anyone’s expectations, including yours. Divorce is the result of sin, but Jesus can make a new and beautiful creation from the spiritual and emotional carnage of divorce if we will surrender unconditionally to Him. You seem to approach God with a consumer mentality. Please rethink your approach. Pastor Joseph Blanton

  • Patrick is 1000% correct here.

    Divorce shaming is one of the most ridiculous things traditional religious belief engages in. It does nothing but enable domestic abuse and marital misery.

    How about instead of making nonsense context free sweeping pronouncements on the subject they actually act as if they care about the members of the sect.

    What has undermined “Christian marriage” are ideas that all married couples must act in an exact certain way to make Jesus happy.

    What the Catholic Church demonstrates is when church doctrines are divorced from reality, they will be largely ignored by its members (as its rules on divorce generally are). When religious policy is only followed by its least reasonable, most fanatical members, it was probably not really sane from the outset.

  • ” Truly, a man gains NOTHING of any value or permanence from modern marriage.”

    You sure don’t think much of heterosexual men, do you?

    Or gods word, god’s ordinance, the fundamental building block of society, or the representation of god’s relationship with his church.

    “The government has replaced the church as the arbiter of both sexual and marital morality. ”

    Absolute NONSENSE. The government is giving people what they want. If anyone has abdicated responsibility, it is your church and your Christian morals. So called good Christians are the ones getting divorced, regardless of their promises to god, their spouses, families, and churches.

    Two words: JOSH DUGGAR.

    Professional Christian. moralizing busybody. Unable to keep it in his pants– at least to all appearances.

  • How many contradictions can you pack into 1000 characters?

    We gay people have fought for marriage, while you so-called Christian, moralizing, self righteous busybodies have trashed it. I don’t have the list I posted the other day of a list, just off the top of my head, of fifteen or twenty professional, moralizing, Christain busybodies who have trashed their marriages.

    josh duggar, anyone? What about bristol Palin, finger wagging moralizer on her SECOND pregnancy while unmarried. Alveda King– how many marriages and abortions? Kim davis– four marriages while claiming her sincere religious beliefs exempt her from doing her job? Ted Haggard, George rekers, Eddie Long, and an unending list of hypocritical busybodies that never stop attacking the morality of others.

    There is always that Barba study about the morality of so-called Christians. somebody said something about being sinless and throwing stones– especially if oyu live in a glass house.

  • Good job pointing out the failures of others who, like you and me, aren’t perfect. What say you against the man Jesus Christ?

  • Ben, I’m trying to figure out what your point is. Gay marriage certainly is subject to similar societal forces that buffet heterosexual marriage. Surely you don’t live suspended in some alternative reality that is exempt from these forces.

  • Patrick, I hate to break the news to you, but what you’re describing is not generation-specific, but class-specific.

    What you’re describing is a view that most of us who are white collar, professional, or executive have shared in common for well over a half-century. It’s a whole set of beliefs and behaviors in which we deliberate about the future, plan for it. There are a few variations here and there, based on religion — ie we evangelicals generally don’t live together before marriage. But other than that, we’re all in the same boat….

    And within this mindset, secular or religious, the divorce rate is much lower than the general population.

    In other words, class has now become a major predictor of divorce. If you’re blue collar or working poor, your chances of getting divorce skyrocket.

    We should all be concerned about this — it is the latest indicator that we have become more of a class-based society.

  • Larry, you’ve just made a “context-free, sweeping pronouncement” of your own.

    The idea that in 2015, America is afflicted by an epidemic of “divorce-shaming” is beyond silly. Most of us fall far nearer to the opposite extreme. We’re afraid to say anything to anyone. But we have to be blind to deny that there are times when people we know best — friends or relatives — need to hear some straight talk from us that dares to make judgments.

    Moreover, the idea that in literally 100% of cases, the only alternative to divorce is a life of utter misery and conflict is impossible to sustain. It is an extremist view — just as extreme as the opposite view that divorce should never happen.

  • Tom, you make some good points which point to divorce law and how it’s interpreted or applied.

    Just for curiosity, what would your recommendations be in terms of change in the law or application?

  • “Most of us fall far nearer to the opposite extreme. We’re afraid to say anything to anyone.”

    So very true. We’ve come to the point where those with the keys to success are too intimidated to share them with others for fear of sounding “judgmental.”

  • Money can’t come first, darlin.’ Character has to come first and you build a friendship on that. Then, marriage can be built on friendship. While money is necessary, you can’t build the relationship on it.

  • Susan, you are correct, of course, but we’re really talking apples versus oranges. You’re speaking like a moralist and I am talking like a sociologist.

    Obviously, the two views aren’t mutually exclusive. You’re speaking about individual decisions irrespective of class, and I am talking about how the realities of money and class influence outcomes. We are both correct.

  • I have no interest in the man you think is your savior. I tried that once, and the internal contradictions became too much to bear.

    I think the idea that an innocent party had to die to atone for the sins of other people is monstrous. So god had to sacrifice himself to himself to atone to himself for being himself and creating people that were as imperfect as he apparently is. And if you didn’t get the memo about what a great guy he is, you will burn in hell forever because once again, he was imperfect and failed to get it to you.

    that being said, as I have stated many times, I have no objection to you believing it. If it makes YOU and your life better, have at it. But keep your purely theological concerns out of my life, and stop insisting that I must believe as you believe, or you will hurt me through the force of secular law.

    I don’t claim to be perfect. I do claim to be a good person. I don’t need this imaginary sacrifice.

  • And you know I don’t, Jack. I’m not interested in straw man arguments.

    My issue is with religious hypocrisy, not human imperfection.

  • The Groom is on the far right upper corner. Bride next, followed by maid of honor in lower left. Minister is on right.

  • Ben, I realize you’re responding to a question about Jesus, and I don’t want to get diverted further from the topic we’re discussing, but you can reject belief in Jesus while still characterizing that belief accurately and fairly.

    Calling Calvary monstrous is an opinion to which you’re absolutely entitled. But to go on to characterize the God of the Bible has having created imperfect beings is to change the story. The story is exactly the opposite. It says humanity was created without moral or spiritual blemish but somehow fell from that state.

    That’s the story. You can say it’s true or it’s bunk. But to mischaracterize what the story is saying isn’t fair. It is to misstate the claims being made. Again, we can accept or reject those claims…..we each have a right to our opinion. But we need to state the claim fairly and accurately.

    Again, I want to get back to the topic, but wanted to respond to that part of your post for accuracy’s sake.

  • Ben, I have my real-life stories of hypocrisy of Christians that would make anybody’s blood boil, but I’m still not sure what the point is.

    Is it to say that there are plenty of hypocrites out there? Okay…..tell me what I don’t already know. Again, I have my own stories of “games people play” that still turn my stomach.

    Is this an argument against Christians standing up for their beliefs? If so, it’s not exactly a compelling one, unless you are specifically referring to a person who himself or herself is the hypocrite. It certainly doesn’t stop a Christian from standing for their beliefs if that person is living them out in their own life.

    Is it to say that this disproves the claims of Christianity? If so, the clear answer is that one thing logically has nothing to do with the other. Jesus is or he isn’t who he said he was, regardless of how many people who profess this view are decent human beings or total louses.

  • “The idea that in 2015, America is afflicted by an epidemic of “divorce-shaming” is beyond silly.”

    Of course it is. That is why I SAID NOTHING LIKE THAT. Do try to keep up. You have an argument in your head with no relation to what I said.

    Divorce shaming is a function of “traditional” religious belief. People who would be at best an overly vocal minority in this country.

    I still can’t see a single positive aspect to it. Coercing married couples to stay together through spiritual and cultural browbeating is a recipe for misery. Nothing more.

    Come back to me when you feel like responding to what people say instead of whatever strawman arguments you feel like making..

  • Larry, “divorce-shaming” is or isn’t a widespread problem in 2015 America. I say it is not. You, despite your clarification, apparently believe it still is a serious enough problem — serious enough to have raised it in the first place.

    But beyond that, your portrayal of divorce as anywhere and everywhere the alternative to a horribly wretched marriage with no hope of ever changing, is a grossly oversimplified picture that ignores the pesky little nuances of relationships. Your 100% either/or portrait doesn’t conform to the real world, where sometimes, people do throw up their hands and quit too early and live to regret it. In those instances, a voice or two raised against hasty decisions could well have made the difference.

  • BTW, I just read Jana Riess’ latest blog post and it is a good example of what I just said. Mention some simple but inconvenient facts, count on an outcry from the perpetually offended.

  • @John, this “counter-culture” exists and is a global brotherhood known as Jehovah’s Witnesses. No, we don’t claim perfection but claim to take marriage seriously and teach prospective marriage mates to ask themselves certain questions and do personal study and self examination before tying the knot. We encourage young and old to enter into marriage with all seriousness knowing that God meant for it to be a permanent commitment. After marriage, we continue to take in knowledge and understanding on how to treat our mates in a way that is Christlike and builds love and respect for one another. The only biblical reason for divorce is adultery or willful nonsupport. The rest can be worked out by using Bible principles to resolve any situation that may arise.

  • Well, how about trying to be kind and worrying less about theology? Suppose that two people meet, fall in love, and decide to spend the rest of their lives together. Then, despite their best efforts, things don’t work out for them. It’s not a stretch of the imagination to think that this kind of thing happens every day. If a theologian can’t respond to something like this without even minimal human decency, perhaps they need to give the whole God thing a rest and find a career where their particular talents would be of greater use to society–like accounting.

  • There’s nothing here. Just one sentence. How can this be an article? Is this what they call “link bait?”