The truth about the Christian divorce rate

The divorce button Bertold Werkmann |

The news has swept the Christina blogosphere – those who identify as Christians and go to church regularly report far less divorce than those who identify as Christians but rarely go church. In the studies of sociologist Professor Bradley Wright, among regular attendees 38% had divorced, while 60% of infrequent attendees had divorced. 

The way Wright looked at this is, in my opinion, the right way to go about it. Wright says “I compare Christians who attend church frequently to those who attend less frequently. The logic here is that if being a Christian makes a difference in people’s lives, we would expect to see more difference among those people who are more involved in it.1 This same method has been used by George Barna for years, and it has proven to be a good way to sort out those who are serious about following Jesus from those who are more “social Christians”.

So apparently actually following makes a difference – a rather big difference. Other studies have found similar differences and benefits for those who attend church regularly. (For more on this see Write’s book, link below).

A couple other points on divorce rates, while we’re here. The traditional “divorce rate” is obtained by comparing the number of marriages and divorces for a given year. This actually results in a statistic that is completely useless. If you calculated the “death rate” the same way, you would, at various times in history, have death rates of as low as 60% and as high as 200%. Never mind that the death rate is 100%. Wright did it right, he asked a group of folks if they had been married, and if so, if they had been divorced. Still not completely accurate (some will divorce after being asked) but better – and at least a statistic that can be compared. (I could not find a similar statistic for non-Christians.)

Then there is the attempt to compare the divorce rate for Christians and non-Christians. Aside from the problems above, and the issue of self-defined Christian versus real follow  the reality is those who are following Jesus are much more like than the world to get married rather than to live together without marriage. “Co-habitation”, as it’s called, is far more common among those who are not Christians, and those who are not serious about their religion. Break-ups by those living together don’t make the statistics for divorce, so a group more likely to co-habitat has fewer marriages to start with. Moreover, given that co-habitation weeds out many doomed relationships, that significantly lowers the divorce rate for those who eventually marry. If we were to compare all those who live together in a sexual relationship, with or without marriage, and the subsequent break-ups, those who attend church regularly would have a significantly lower “split up” rate than the rest of the world.

1 Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites …and Other Lies You’ve Been Told: A Sociologist Shatters Myths From the Secular and Christian Media by Bradley R.E. Wright (affiliate link)

Image Credit: © Bertold Werkmann |

22 Comments on “The truth about the Christian divorce rate

  1. It has all to do with pride and reputation and nothing to do with faith propping up a marriage. Couples are more inclined to stick it out because of the shame that would be heaped upon them by their loving Christian fellow worshippers. Many a church will ostracize a couple if they were to dare get a divorce. I’m sorry, but its true.

    • @Mark J – I agree what you say does occur, and is no doubt some of the reason for the difference – but I don’t think it explains the issue completely. Other studies have shown those who attend church REGULARLY have higher self-reports of general happiness and marital satisfaction.

      BTW, my next tip will touch on this issue.

      • What Mark J. said is more true than saying “does occur”.
        Also there is a thing in statistics, I forget what it is called, where the kind of person that attends regularly is the kind of person less likely to divorce and has nothing to do with church.
        I believe these two things entirely negate any advantage regular attendance would seem to have.

  2. This, of course, makes a lot of sense. It relates to what you said a couple weeks ago about loving our friends enough to call them out and disciple them in their marriages as well. I think that submitting ourselves to the correct, biblical authority of the leadership in a local Church is vital to our spiritual growth (which will necessarily affect our marriages).

  3. I haven’t seen much of a difference in the divorce rate between christians and non christians.

  4. These stats make a lot more sense to me than those I’ve commonly heard claimed (i.e. no difference).

    I made a claim in my post today that marriage inside the church should be so dramatically different and better that people should get saved by observing Christian couples in action. That assumes that we are able to love each other like Jesus loves. A pretty tall order!

  5. An interesting line in the tip, and it’s implications, has gone unnoticed: “given that co-habitation weeds out many doomed relationships, that significantly lowers the divorce rate for those who eventually marry.” Is this not an endorsement of “living together,” in that it “weeds out many doomed relationships?” In my previous marriage, we co-habitated for almost a decade, and the marriage lasted 20 years after that. In my current remarriage perhaps co-habitation would have brought some of the present problems into the light before there was no recourse. We used to call it “living in sin,” but still . . .

  6. @Lou – It’s not an endorsement of living together, especially if you know some other well documented statistics – that those who live together and then marry have a higher divorce rate than those who don’t live together before marriage.

    Because living together seems less of a big step, folks enter into it with less thought about it. So that does mean more relationships that have no chance will be formed. Thing is living together connects people. Sex connects people. Having a child connects people. Those connections lead folks to get married even thought the signs are clear that they can’t pull it off long term. This means that some who would not get married if they never lived together do get married, and then divorces.

  7. Thanks for the post. As a Pastor for 20 years I think I can speak to this issue.

    In most cases the family friendly Church provides an atmosphere that cultivates healthy relationships. In my opinion the greatest element of impact is good Bible teaching. Perhaps the next level of influence marital relationships is the ability to observe other healthy couples in action. Associating with other healthy couples almost always has a positive influence on relationships.

    Although the Divorce rate is still to high in the Church, I believe that those who never attend church are missing out on a healthy influence that can enrich their lives.

    Thanks again for the post,

    Pastor Vance Williamson

    • @Getting Over An Affair – I agree that both good biblical teaching and examlples are helpful, but where is the accountability? I see more accountability in the Bible than I see in most churches. The result is two legs of a three legged stool!

      A large part of the problem is a change in culture – a change which the church has mirrored to a great extent. No one feels they “have the right” to tell anyone that what they are doing is wrong. We also lack the depth of relationship necessary to see problems, much less address them.

      At a wedding those who are present are supposed to both witness the marriage, and pledge to pray for, care for, and if necessary correct, the new couple. At least that is how it was in the past. I once attended a wedding where this was stated to those attending – what they were promising to do. Oh that we would go back to that.

  8. There is a problem with the statistics as you report them. The issue is that you’ve stated two different results that are not the same. I’m assuming one or the other is an honest mistake, since it appears you have copied and pasted most of the first paragraph and only altered the relevant passage.

    I’ll try to explain the problem. To say that 38% of regular church attendees have been divorced (which I believe you are saying in the first paragraph) is entirely different from saying 38% of divorcees are regular church attendees (which I believe you are saying in the second paragraph). Let’s say he surveyed 1100 christians, 100 of whom are regular church-goers. Of the 1000 non-regulars, if 60% are divorced, that’s 600. Of the 100 regulars, if its 38%, thats 38. This is a total of 638 divorcees. 38 of the 638 are regular church-goers, a rate of about 6%. I’m sure my numbers are not accurate, but they serve the purpose of demonstrating that the two percentages are not equivalent.

    So I guess the point is, what did the study actually say?

    • Ok, I understand the duplicate paragraphs, but the one you have left does not support your conclusion. The fact that 60% of divorced couples were not frequent attendees does not imply that they are more likely to be divorced. It could just as easily imply that 60% of the total population surveyed were infrequent attendees, and the divorce rates are identical.

  9. Dear Pastor Vance,
    Let me apologize in advance for how this post may sound. You have touched my proverbial “third rail” so a little bitterness and anger may leak out. None of it is personal because after all I don’t know you.
    You said: “In my opinion the greatest element of impact is good Bible teaching.”
    Well, in my opinion and experience Bible teaching of any sort, good or otherwise, when it concerns marriage, is destructive and or worthless, bordering on evil itself. (Remember, the devil himself can use scripture.) Because the teaching doesn’t give you the skills to actually fix the problem it only paints a pretty picture for you to simulate so that when you lie to people about how you are doing or how your marriage is doing you can be believable. Hence the appearance of “healthy” couples that merely teaches the other couples how to lie so they can appear healthy too.
    In every church I have ever seen or attended, when you pull back the curtain, the amount of emotional pain and suffering revealed simply staggers the imagination. And the church does absolutely nothing about it until it slaps them like a fish in the face and even then it is lip service and platitudes. Oh yeah, and a broom to sweep it under the rug. What better example than the saga of Ted Haggard.
    Frédéric Bastiat wrote an essay called “That Which Is Seen, and That Which Is Not Seen” that talks about the law of unintended consequences. If you never look at the long-term results of Bible teaching with any intellectual honesty then you hurt the marriages around you in the most insidious of ways. You hurt them with that which is not seen.

    • @Bill – I have certainly seen churches that do what you say, or at least something about as effective as what you say. I have also seen churches that do far more, and far better.

      It can be done well, and it is done well.

  10. This comment stood out to me; Moreover, given that co-habitation weeds out many doomed relationships, that significantly lowers the divorce rate for those who eventually marry.
    I ready a book by Chip Engram, Sex, Love & Lasting Relationships that I recommend if you haven’t read. He has a lot of stats on marriage and divorce in there. One of them is this; those who live together before marriage have a higher divorce rate than those who don’t.

  11. I think that some people are missing the spirit of this i.e. obedience to Christ should turn your life around and result in better relationships with all and especially with your spouse.
    Biblical teaching is all too important in this respect as God is love and has called us to love. First He presents us with a target image of the perfect marriage – the relationship of Christ to the church – and then provides instructions on how to get there (1Corinthians 13) and all the other scriptures that deal with relationships, including forgiveness, grace, humility, mutual submission etc.
    The fact that many suffer emotional and other trauma in their lives is evidence of the need for biblical teaching and obedience to the word. In case you are wondering I too have experienced trauma as a direct result of disobedience to God’s word, but thankfully repentance and forgiveness can and does heal those traumas.

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