Sep

25

2012

Glenn T. Stanton|10:18 PM CT

FactChecker: Divorce Rate Among Christians

Note: FactChecker is a monthly series in which Glenn T. Stanton examines claims, myths, and misunderstandings frequently heard in evangelical circles.

"Christians divorce at roughly the same rate as the world!"

It's one of the most quoted stats by Christian leaders today. And it's perhaps one of the most inaccurate.

At bottom, it is used to explain that Christians are not doing well in living out their faith. But it could also be taken as a statement that redemption by and real discipleship under Jesus makes no real difference when it comes to marriage.  But mainstream sociologists would tell us that taking one's faith very seriously---in word and deed---does indeed make a marked positive difference in the health and longevity of marriage. Based on the best data available, the divorce rate among Christians is significantly lower than the general population.

Here's the truth...

People who seriously practice a traditional religious faith---whether Christian or other---have a divorce rate markedly lower than the general population.

The factor making the most difference is religious commitment and practice.

What appears intuitive is true. Couples who regularly practice any combination of serious religious behaviors and attitudes---attend church nearly every week, read their bibles and spiritual materials regularly; pray privately and together; generally take their faith seriously, living not as perfect disciples, but serious disciples---enjoy significantly lower divorce rates than mere church members, the general public, and unbelievers.

Professor Bradley Wright, a sociologist at the University of Connecticut, explains from his analysis of people who identify as Christians but rarely attend church, that 60 percent of these have been divorced. Of those who attend church regularly, 38 percent have been divorced.[1]

Other data from additional sociologists of family and religion suggest a substantial marital stability divide between those who take their faith seriously and those who do not.

W. Bradford Wilcox, a leading sociologist at the University of Virginia and director of the National Marriage Project, finds from his own analysis that "active conservative Protestants" who regularly attend church are 35 percent less likely to divorce compared to those who have no affiliation. Nominally attending conservative Protestants are 20 percent more likely to divorce, compared to secular Americans.[2]

The following chart shows the relative risk of divorce by religious affiliation among Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish adherents. (Wilcox controlled for other socio-economic factors that impact marital health, thus providing a clearer, cleaner measure of the actual religious dynamic on marriage.)

[Editor's note: In reading the table, the numbers represent the likelihood of divorce compared to those with no religious affiliations. So 20% would mean that group is 20% more likely to divorce than Americans with no religious affiliations while -97% means the group is 97% less likely to divorce than the non-religious.]

 

Faith Affiliation

% Divorce Likelihood Reduction

Protestant - Nominal

20

 Protestant -Conservative

 

-10

Protestant - Active Conservative

 

-35

Catholic

-18

Catholic (nominal)

-5

Catholic - Active

-31

Jewish

39

Jewish (nominal)

53

Jewish - Active

-97

 

 

Professor Scott Stanley from the University of Denver, working with an absolute all-star team of leading sociologists in the Oklahoma Marriage Study, explains that couples with a vibrant religious faith had higher and more levels of the qualities couples need to avoid divorce.

"Whether young or old, male or female, low-income or not, those who said that they were more religious reported higher average levels of commitment to their partners, higher levels of marital satisfaction, less thinking and talking about divorce and lower levels of negative interaction. These patterns held true when controlling for such important variables as income, education, and age at first marriage."

These positive factors translated into actual lowered risk of divorce among active believers.

"Those who say they are more religious are less likely, not more, to have already experienced divorce. Likewise, those who report more frequent attendance at religious services were significantly less likely to have been divorced."[3]

The Take-Away

These data indicate that the divorce rate among serious believers is not something to crow about. It is still higher than most of us are comfortable with.  But there is no reliable, mainstream social-science data that has this rate higher than the general population. Faith and discipleship do make a difference in our lives, but it doesn't make all our problems go away.

 


[1] Bradley R.E. Wright, Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites ...and Other Lies You've Been Told, (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 2010), p. 133.

[2] W. Bradford Wilcox and Elizabeth Williamson, "The Cultural Contradictions of Mainline Family Ideology and Practice," in American Religions and the Family, edited by Don S. Browning and David A. Clairmont (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007) p. 50.

[3] C.A.  Johnson, S. M. Stanley, N.D. Glenn, P.A. Amato, S.L. Nock, H.J. Markman and M .R. Dion  Marriage in Oklahoma:  2001 Baseline Statewide Survey on Marriage and Divorce  (Oklahoma City, OK: Oklahoma Department of Human Services 2002) p. 25, 26.

Glenn T. Stanton is the director of family formation studies at Focus on the Family and the author of five books on various aspects of the family, including his two most recent, Secure Daughters Confident Sons, How Parents Guide Their Children into Authentic Masculinity and Femininity (Waterbrook, 2011), and The Ring Makes All the Difference: The Hidden Consequences of Cohabitation and the Strong Benefits of Marriage (Moody, 2011).

  • Dave

    It's a little hard to get excited about "only" 38% of active conservative protestants being divorced. Compare to active Jews and their 97% reduction in divorce rate.

    • MarieP

      I was about to say that...redemptive-historically speaking, that's NOT a good sign! ;-)

    • http://yuriyandinna.com Yuriy S

      In Hindu dominated India, the divorce rates are less than 1%, in Russian fundamentalist families, its also about 1%. But in both cases there are marriages plagued with abuse, fear, and manipulation this is obviously not only a faith issue, but a cultural issue.

  • Pete

    More importantly, shouldn't we be looking at data to see what percentage has been divorced SINCE becoming a Christian. We shouldn't use people's pre-Christian lives as indicative of their current Christian behaviour. Otherwise we'd all be in a lot of trouble in a lot of areas...

    • David Negley

      Pete, I was thinking the same thing. In our church, we have a handful divorced folks, but this was before they fit the qualification as "people who seriously practice a traditional religious faith." I'd like to see data on divorces that occurred while the persons were "seriously practicing a traditional religious faith."

      • Julia

        My thoughts, exactly- I always cringed when I saw "polls" stating that "Christians" had just as much divorce as secular- for, as in my case, I was divorced, then, years later, born again, devout follower of Christ- but, to answer the polls... yes, I'm a Christian, and yes, I'm divorced.

  • http://intelligentlyredesigneddoonesbury.blogspot.com/ Neo

    Man, those "Jewish-Active" folks need to write some marriage books!

    • MarieP

      I hear there were a few chapters written quite awhile ago by some hotshot former student of Gamaliel...

      • Tim

        Hah!

  • Matthias

    I've said in the past that this stat proves, not that more and more Christians are getting divorces, but that more and more people are calling themselves Christians.

    • Joe Rucker

      Spot on!

  • Phil

    One thing I am unclear about: what does "active conservative protestants" mean? Anyone who goes to a protestant church every week? or must they go to a conservative protestant church every week?

    • http://glenntstanton.com glenn stanton

      Good question phil.

      the scholars typically measure it by a few things for Christians: 1) how often does one attend church, 2) how often do they pray individually/with family and 3) how often do they read scripture and other religious materials. and then of course, their own identification relative to these practices. this gives a picture of general "religiosity" as they call it, but not orthodoxy. they are simply looking at whether religious commitment makes a difference in marital longevity, and to what degree.

      And for the other comments about the divorce rate still being high among Christians, I address this very point clearly at the end of the article:

      "These data indicate that the divorce rate among serious believers is not something to crow about. It is still higher than most of us are comfortable with. But there is no reliable, mainstream social-science data that has this rate higher than the general population."

      • Phil

        Thanks for the response.

        I understand why scholars would look at a number of different factors to determine "religiosity," rather than orthodoxy, but I think it is misleading to call everyone who attends a Christian church every week a "Protestant - Active Conservative."

        (That is, if I understand you correctly, and if that's what the study in fact did. Although, it is possible that "Protestant - Active Conservative" only means evangelicals who go to church every week? At least the USA today article seems to say that.)

        If "Protestant - Active Conservative" only means evangelicals who go to church every week (and the more I think I about, the more I think that must be what it means), were there no statistics about "Protestant - Active Liberal" Or Mainline?

      • http://www.midlifecrisismarriageadvocate.com Rollercoasterider

        Glenn,
        Thanks for responding to Phil’s question. But I’m still confused. I’m stuck on the word “conservative,” probably because of the political connotations. I also noticed that the adjective was not used with Catholic, only with Protestant. Why?
        I understand the determination of commitment and religiosity, but conservative just throws me off.
        In addition, who is considered protestant? I imagine all non-Catholic Christians? I’m a cradle Lutheran (ELCA) and we don’t consider ourselves protestant, though I do understand using the label in statistics. But we align ourselves more with the Catholics in that we are liturgical—along with Anglicans/Episcopalians.

        I also tend to connotate conservative Christian with being fundamentalist—though I know that is unfair. I guess I would not self-identify as a conservative Christian regardless of whether I am politically conservative.

  • Phil

    I am still trying to understand this blog post. This article seems to help fill in some details (same people/same studies discussed, I believe):

    http://www.usatoday.com/news/religion/2011-03-14-divorce-christians_N.htm

    • MarieP

      Phil,

      Thanks! This does explain it!

      Note the definitions used:

      "For instance, Barna labels Christians "born-again" if they have made a personal commitment to Jesus and believe they will go to heaven because they have accepted him as their savior.

      Evangelicals, on the other hand, are those who fit the born-again definition but also meet seven other conditions, including sharing their beliefs with non-Christians and agreeing that the Bible is completely accurate."

      Very faulty definition of being born-again.

      1 John 3:10- "In this the children of God and the children of the devil are manifest: Whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is he who does not love his brother."
      Phil 3:3- " For we are the circumcision, who worship God in the Spirit ]i.e. live Spirit-empowered and Godward lives], rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh"

      Here is Barna's full definition of evangelical, which is better but still lacking. And it took me awhile to find it too! http://benbyerly.wordpress.com/2008/11/12/who-is-an-evangelical-barnas-definition/

      1. saying their faith is very important in their life today;
      2. believing they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians;
      3. believing that Satan exists;
      4. believing that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works;
      5. believing that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth;
      6. asserting that the Bible is accurate in all that it teaches; and
      7. describing God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today.

      Luke 6
      46 “But why do you call Me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do the things which I say? 47 Whoever comes to Me, and hears My sayings and does them, I will show you whom he is like: 48 He is like a man building a house, who dug deep and laid the foundation on the rock. And when the flood arose, the stream beat vehemently against that house, and could not shake it, for it was founded on the rock. 49 But he who heard and did nothing is like a man who built a house on the earth without a foundation, against which the stream beat vehemently; and immediately it fell. And the ruin of that house was great.”

      • Benton

        "I want to say loud and clear that when the Barna Group uses the term /born again/ to describe American church-goers whose lives are indistinguishable from the world, and who sin as much as the world, and sacrifice for others as little as the world, and embrace injustice as readily as the world, and enjoy God-ignoring entertainment as enthusiastically as the world - when the term /born again/ is used to describe these professing Christians, the Barna Group is making a profound mistake. It is using the biblical term /born again/ in a way that would make it unrecognizable by Jesus and the biblical writers" (John Piper, Finally Alive).

        Just thought I would share.

  • Phil

    I don't understand the table, or I'm being a little bit thick.

    Is it saying that people who identify with "Jewish (Nominal)" are 53% more likely to get divorced while those who are "Jewish - Active" are 97% less likely to get divorced? The wording of the column is misleading as a -97% *reduction* in divorce likelihood must mean that you're 97% *more* likely to get divorced? A negative reduction is surely a gain as it's a double negative?

    • Phil

      Must be a day for confused Phils. I'm not related to the previous Phil :)

    • http://www.lfix.co.uk/oliver/christian/ Oliver

      I understand it to mean that, out of a certain number (unstated) of non-religious Americans and the same number of actively religious Jews, 100 of the non-religious will be divorced and 3 actively religious Jews will be. And 153 Jewish (Nominal) will be divorced out of the same number.

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  • Colin Mattoon

    Is the the table listed in this story correct? Specifically, is the column titled "% Divorce Likelihood Reduction" correct or should the positive and negative assignments to the values be reversed? In other words, for the "Protestant-Nominal" value of 20, shouldn't this be switched to "-20" as the percentage of likelihood of divorce reduction goes up 20% not down 20%?

    • Joe Carter

      Sorry for the confusion. Here is the explanatory note I just added to the post:

      In reading the table, the numbers represent the likelihood of divorce compared to those with no religious affiliations. So 20% would mean that group is 20% more likely to divorce than Americans with no religious affiliations while -97% means the group is 97% less likely to divorce than the non-religious.

  • http://donotletthisuniverseforgetyou.blogspot.com Heather E. Carrillo

    God is very merciful apparently. What a good article.

  • Phil

    (This is the first Phil):

    It looks like this blog post is spinning the data to fit a certain narrative. (Not that there is anything particularly wrong with that, just so long as you realize that is what is happening).

    This is the most egregious example: where the table says "Protestant - Nominal," the table seems to be refering to this (from the USA article I cited above):

    "When Wright examined the statistics on evangelicals, he found worship attendance has a big influence on the numbers. Six in 10 evangelicals who never attend had been divorced or separated, compared to just 38% of weekly attendees."

    So the blog post above isn't just talking about "nominal protestants." It is talking about ACTUAL evangelicals--who self identify as evangelicals--and who have just stopped attending church. I guess no longer attending chuch (at the time the study was done) might make them "nominal" protestants--but they would not identify themselves that way. Obviously, they identify themselves as "evangelicals."

    Moreover nominal protestants doesn't refer to Mainline protestants (as you might think), or christians in name only (those who call themselves Christians but do not really believe and do not go to church), "nominal protestants" refers to actual evangelicals.

    So the lesson here seems to be: Don't stop going to church, if you are an Evangelical.

    Indeed, I have a suggestion for what these studies really show:

    If you want to stay married, the important part is not that you regularly attend a weekly religious service, the important part is that you regularly do something TOGETHER, every week.

    [I wonder how they controlled for that?]

  • Susan

    Glenn, I've hear this stat many times. In fact, I read your article and then heard the 50% statistic on a Christian radio counseling program (Steve Arterburn's show) today! I have heard before that there is a much lower divorce rate for Christian couples who are in the Word as a frequent habit of life.

  • Dave

    Uhm... as the article shows they actually divorce at much higher rates than do active Jews.

    Is it to be surprising though that cultural differences between different groups can lead to them also exhibiting other statistically significant differences in certain behaviours?

    • MarieP

      It shows that a life-long marriage is no sure sign of salvation.

  • http://www.lfix.co.uk/oliver/christian/ Oliver

    Anecdotally, I see very few divorces among our church acquaintances.

    The statistics also fail to distinguish those who divorce because of a fault by a believing partner and others. Paul tells the Corinthians that if an unbelieving partner wants to separate, the believer is not bound. If someone is converted and begins to live a [more] holy life, the same does not necessarily apply to his partner.

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  • Brad Grammer

    I think it's difficult to be encouraged by this information when Christians should be a model of never divorcing. I know this is unrealistic in this world but is it really something to boast about when we even see any divorce among believers. I think we are far too willing to settle for less and I think this article reflects this perspective in the American culture.

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  • KD

    I also have a question in reference to those figures (how the poll was taken)

    As I look at our congregation the following would be the statistical results...

    As Christians, how many of you have experienced a divorce? 50%
    As Christians, how many of your have had a divorce AFTER you gave your life to Christ? 5%

    (Figures are estimates as I consider the last 20 years of serving the congregation.

    Does the poll take "Before Christ" into account?

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  • Ted Broadway

    I was curious about timing when it comes to these divorce statistics. Does this count how many Christians divorce as Christians or does this count Christians before they became Christians as well? Many divorces occur before people come to faith in Christ.

  • http://prayernotesbycynthia.blogspot.com/ Cynthia

    With all of the facts and such, aside, are we, as Christians, looking for Christian husbands and wives? Are we asking the Lord to guide our hearts and minds when we are deciding on a soul-mate? Everything, and I mean "everything" must me taken to Him in prayer and an obedient heart. If we do this, we won't have to worry about our marriages. I believe in the power of the Lord's blessings over our lives/marriages. Of course, we will have ups and downs, but if our lives/marriages are anchored in Christ's love, we will be able to weather the storms.

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  • Neil

    One thing that needs to be stressed is the reasons why there are divorces in the first place. The simple fact is there should be no reason for anyone to divorce if they vow to be husband and wife. The church has fallen way short in the area of protecting this sacred covenant. One statistic you will rarely find is the number of remarriages of people who initiated a divorce through an adulterous affair. A number of clergy will even marry an adulterer who initiated the divorce. These clergy believe God has forgiven them thus allowing them to marry their adulterous partner. How can they be forgiven if they did not forgive a spouse they cheated on? There is some level of unforgivness for an adulterous spouse breaking a covenant. Adultery is rampant in the church and the clergy not only ignore this, they encourage it. If the church would cease all remarriages of divorced couples, we would not have the millions of broken families we have today. Satan attacked the sacred union from the beginning and once you fracture that union, everything falls apart.

    • http://www.midlifecrisismarriageadvocate.com Rollercoasterider

      "There is some level of unforgivness for an adulterous spouse breaking a covenant."
      Neil, are you saying that spouses who commit adultery should not receive forgiveness from God?
      That's what it sounds like you are saying, so supposing it is, is that for all adulterers, or only those who divorce their betrayed spouse?
      What of those whose betrayed spouses divorce them?
      Sometimes the betrayed only does the divorcing in name--because the adulterer won't and he or she feels they are supposed to do that or because it's what he or she has to do to financially protect themselves and thier children--a legal divorce does not equal a divorce in God's eyes and many of those who are divorced by an adulteret or divorce the adulterer are Standers for their marriage working toward a goal of reconciliation.

      What of those adulterers who remain married and end their affair and work with their spouse to repair their marriage--they feel remorse, guilt, shame, apologize and ask for forgiveness... (Some of those who do that are divorced by the betrayed as well)
      When my husband cheated and filed for divorce I told him 'No' and contested. He stopped the divorce, but not the affair which lasted a total of 3.5 years through which he left and came home 8 times.
      I was a Stander. I forgave and we have worked through that time. Are you saying that my husband shouldn't be fully forgiven?

      Now about infidelity that leads to marriage--I'll cover more than your statement, you technically limited it to those adulterers who iniated a divorce, but sometimes they don't initiate it, though you may be meaning they passively initiated by cheating even if legally it was their spouse who filed--I get that.
      There are statistics on that, but they are varied and unreliable--often they are anecdotal. I wrote a post for my readers (Standers) who are so afraid that their spouse will marry the alienator (affair partner). Here's that post.
      http://loveanyway.theherosspouse.com/?p=379

  • Dr and Mrs Jon

    Where is Eastern Orthodoxy's representation and statistics? Thank you.

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  • http://www.justinlong.org Justin Long

    Something wierd about these statistics. 60% of non-regularly-attending Christians in USA are divorced? Given that about 60% of Americans (or so) claim to be Christian, that has to be a high % of the USA. 60% of 60% of the USA is divorced? Am I missing something here?

  • http://www.religion-to-the-rescue.com Arnett

    He that dwelleth in the secret place of the Most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.
    I will say of the LORD, He is my refuge and my fortress: my God; in him will I trust.
    I'm not surprised by these statistic, becaues the bible tell us, he who pray togather then stay togather, so this statistic should not surprised anyone. Futher more ,if you are not filled with Godly spirits, then the evil spirits will fill that void and Jesus say's you can only serve one master, every one have has a choice.

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  • kent

    the couples who pray together stay together

  • Rebecca

    As a divorced Christian, and a conservative Christian at that, I could write a book about how and why I ended up in this position. The judgement leveled at the divorced is so contrary to what Jesus intended when he stated that God "hates" divorce.

    He was not stating this to set up a new law that was stricter and "tougher on crime" than the Old Testament law. He was using it to show the Pharisees how far they were from God's heart when they used his law to justify his behavior.

    Which brings me to the reason I am divorced. So many Christian conservatives pick and choose Bible verses to say that the wife should be submissive to her husband evenif he is abusive and to justify it because God hates divorce.

    Spousal abuse is JUST as common in the church as it is in the world. Which should make us FAR more ashamed than the divorce statistic. (25% of all American women regardless of religious affiliation end up being struck by a spouse at some point in their lifetime) After all, so many of these divorces would be prevented if we focused on fixing abusers' hearts, rather than beat people over the head with the stick of the law, that divorce is a sin. See, the law kills. It hardens hearts. Tell people not to divorce and they surely will. The Spirit heals, and brings us into right standing. (Romans 7)

    The worst part of the fact that the abuse rate is the same in the church as the world is that because these women are encouraged to stay because "God hates divorce!" they stay much longer than non Christian or non conservative women, and thus are statistically much more likely to end up enduring severe abuse or be killed by their abuser.

    In my experience, I found that as an abused Christian wife should you leave your husband, or are kicked out, or flee him (however it happens) you suddenly discover a whole network of silent sufferers. Out of the wooodwork appear all sorts of Christian women with their tales of woe. Some of them divorced, others still married to their abusers. Stories of missing teeth, being beaten up while giving birth, catching STDs from adulterous husbands, being held at gunpoint, leaving the house to grocery shop and finding out that the husband had beaten or otherwise abused the children in your absence. The list goes on.

    One of the stories that finally helped me to decide it would be good to cut my ex loose was the assertion from an elderly woman who stuck out 12 death defying years with a monster who ended up being committed to an insane asylum that "If I had left him sooner, maybe I would still have all of my teeth" At that point, I realized that all of the teeth across the front of her mouth were false. I like my teeth.

    I do not find these stories nearly as often among non conservative Christian women. They may indeed have a story that "I had a boyfriend/husband in my twenties. He struck me one time and gave me a black eye. It was the last time". These ladies are not under "law" and do not give the abuser a chance to repeat his behavior until their very lives are in danger. They pack up and go!

    So basically, rather than beat on the tired old drum of "No divorce!" which obviously has not fixed anything, why are we NOT in the business of what Jesus was actually here to do? Which is to fix hearts? If we stop trying to harden their hearts with rules and regulations (Romans 7) but instead teach them to move under Jesus' Grace and have hearts softened by the Holy Spirit, we would probably have VERY low divorce rates and barely even need to talk about it! The few divorces we had would be nearly universally acknowleged as necessary for the circumstances that arose.

    As far as those cultures which have very low divorce rates, look at places like the Middle East, and other very conservative cultures. Ya, they may have lower divorce rates, but the lives they live in those marriages are hell. Because they have hard hearts. Which absolutely is an abomination to the insitution which the Lord declared to be a model of himself and the church. This does NOT glorify God. Which is why Old Testament people were ALLOWED divorce: for the hardness of their hearts.

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  • Bob Srigley

    There is another factor which is rarely considered in comparisons of divorce rates. Simply this: the rate of cohabitation among non Christians is much higher. The significance is that when a cohabiting couple breaks up, as they frequently do, it doesn't count as a divorce even if the relationship has lasted many years and even if there are children resulting from the relationship. These break-ups may often be as wrenching as an actual divorce, but will not be counted as a divorce in any statistic. Many well-meaning exhorters have beaten up Christians with this statistic for years, and we all know of Christian couples who have failed to keep their marriage together even when their faith was genuine, but the incidence of divorce among genuine believers is much lower than the world at large if cohabitation were to be figured in.

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  • MickeyFL

    So, to summarize you could say "the divorce rate for christians is lower than reported because I will personally label those people as not christian." Problem solved.

  • Bob Srigley

    There is another factor at work which significantly mitigates the charge against Christians: More non-Christians than Christians tend to cohabit in fairly committed relationships, sometimes even with children. When these relationships break up, as they frequently do, it does not count as a divorce in any statistical analysis because they were never married.

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  • http://rabbimaller.com Rabbi Allen Maller

    the major reason individual Jews have an above average divorce rate is that so many of them today are married to Christians. The divorce rate for Jewish Christian mixed marriages is double the rate for both Jewish marriages.

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  • Talia Z

    If the divorce rate is lower among practicing Christians, wouldn't that be because they are afraid of going to hell if they get divorced? Likely also surviving day to day in "livable hatred", with a strong silent contempt for his or her life. That doesn't sound like much of a life. But it's all about the finish line, right?

    • http://www.MidlifeCrisisMarriageAdvocate.com Rollercoasterider

      "If the divorce rate is lower among practicing Christians, wouldn't that be because they are afraid of going to hell if they get divorced?"
      No, not all Christians believe in Hell or that it's all about the finish line.

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