Christian advocates of traditional marriage are often criticized for defending our faith’s definition of marriage while seemingly ignoring its teachings about divorce.
“Opponents of gay marriage say they are defending the institution of marriage, but if that were really true why aren’t they spending at least as much time and vigor attacking divorce?” wrote Austin Cline in the Huffington Post.
It’s an exceedingly fair critique.
Kirsten Powers took it further. In her USA Today column
, she wrote that if people wanted to enshrine religious traditions governing marriage, then how about a law that “bans divorce except in the very narrow circumstances the Bible permits it.”
“This would be a tough one for evangelicals, since their divorce rate is almost identical to that of atheists and agnostics,” Powers wrote. “This might explain why you don’t see evangelical leaders pumping hundreds of thousands of dollars into campaigns to keep the government from providing divorce.”
Powers and Cline are touching upon the admonition against being a hypocrite. “Why look at the speck in your brother’s eye while you miss the plank in your own,” Jesus asked (Matthew 7:3).
Studies of divorce rates in America by religious affiliation are notoriously controversial, but according to a 2012 report by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate
at Georgetown University, 36-percent of the general population had experienced divorce. The report then showed that 39-percent of Protestants and 28-percent of Catholics had been divorced. Other reports show similar numbers.
So why do we Christians experience divorce as commonly as everyone else? The answer is complicated, of course.
First, we’re all flawed: believers, agnostics and atheists. Secondly, different Christian denominations began teaching different things, first when the Orthodox churches broke away and then after the Protestant Reformation. The Catholic Church maintained that a valid marriage can never be broken, regardless of the reasons, while many Orthodox and Protestants churches allowed for divorce in some cases.
Still, until a few decades ago most held to a very conservative view and divorce was quite rare. There was a time when divorce was as uncommon in our small towns as gay marriage is common in our big cities today. Popular culture and its libertine messages were partly the cause of the shift, but some argue so was a desire to show compassion to divorced and remarried couples by tolerating their second marriages within Christian churches.
This sentiment is behind German Cardinal Walter Kasper’s effort
to convince the Catholic Church to tolerate “second unions” for its divorced and civilly-remarried members. He has been telling his fellow cardinals that the church’s teaching on divorce must incorporate the “whole message of love, and of mercy, of forgiveness, of a new chance.”
Some warn that such compassion is actually veiled indifference. Over time, the passive tolerance of divorce within our communities has evolved to active acceptance, and eventual normalcy. What began as mercy for some failed marriages has ended in the destruction of many more that could have been saved.
Whether or not people think we’re hypocrites, Christians should use this moment in the battle for traditional marriage to rededicate ourselves to its complete defense.
As the liberal writer Cline correctly observed, we should indeed expend the same level of effort attacking the root causes of divorce. Many churches already are. From holding serious marriage preparation courses to sponsoring marriage retreats
to providing counseling for those contemplating divorce, our communities are working hard to keep families together.
Earlier this month, for instance, my church held its annual National Marriage Week
to coincide with our nation’s secular celebration of Valentine’s Day. Our community spent a lot of time focusing on the sacred institution and how much better in makes our lives, enriches our communities and brings us closer to God.
So, in the time of trail and discourse, it’s important to remember the beauty of this institution.
“The image of God is the married couple: the man and the woman; not only the man, not only the woman, but both of them together,” Pope Francis recently said.
“This is the image of God: love, God’s covenant with us is represented in that covenant between man and woman. And this is very beautiful!”
(First posted on AL.com)