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  • July 11, 2014 - Reflections

    By Jean S. Horner
    The other day while walking down a corridor in a public building, I saw what appeared to be someone walking toward me. On coming closer, I found it was my own reflection in a huge mirror. For a moment it frightened me. Somehow a full-length reflection of one’s self is a startling thing. ...

When Ties Unbind

By Christina Quick
Nov. 16, 2014

It seems there’s a smartphone app for everything these days. Divorce is no exception.

Unhappy couples looking to untie the knot can now download tools on their mobile devices to help with everything from contacting attorneys and filing paperwork to dividing assets and keeping track of child custody arrangements.

With divorce commonplace and breakup advice just a touch screen away, churches face an uphill struggle to address this modern social and spiritual epidemic. Even though the Gallup organization says more than three-fourths of the U.S. population identifies as Christian, America has the one of the highest divorce rates of any nation.

Adding to the disconnect between faith claims and personal behavior, the U.S. divorce rate peaks in the South — a region known as the Bible Belt and long associated with evangelical churches and conservative traditions. States with the most failed marriages according to U.S. Census data include Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia.

Some figures suggest the situation is no better within the church itself. A Barna Group study showed little difference in the number of divorces among those who identified as born-again Christians compared to the rest of the population. However, other researchers question how many of the respondents represent committed adherents.

The often-touted statement that “half of all marriages end in divorce” is inaccurate. Statistics indicating a 50-percent divorce rate only refer to divorces compared to marriages in a given year and do not factor in all existing marriages. But some research still suggests a young person marrying today could have as high as a 40 percent chance of divorcing in his lifetime.

W. Bradley Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, says those who attend church several times per month are actually 35 percent less likely to split from their spouses.

Nevertheless, Christian counselors concede the church is far from immune to the devastating impact of failing marriages.

“Divorce has lost much of its stigma,” says Robert E. Carter Jr., counselor for the Alabama District Council of the Assemblies of God and the founder and president of Barnabas Counseling Ministries. “There are so many people in the church who have gone through it that divorce seems normal — even among Christians.”

Carter says that while churches should welcome all kinds of families, leaders shortchange their congregations when they fail to address the value of staying married.

“The church has to get back to living what we preach and not being afraid to teach what the Bible says about marriage,” Carter says.

Southerners marrying in greater numbers rather than cohabiting may help explain why the Deep South produces more divorces. However, Carter believes a lack of education is also a factor.

“Marriage is a positive thing, but many of these couples marry young without any kind of guidance about how to make a relationship work,” Carter says. “Most young people study harder to get a driver’s license than they do to prepare for marriage.”

Carter says churches can make a difference in their communities by offering engaged couples premarital counseling.

“I won’t perform a wedding without doing six weeks of premarital counseling first,” Carter says. “We talk about finances, differing ideas about raising kids, and all those things that should come up before you walk down the aisle. I’ve had couples decide to call off the wedding after they learned more about each other in counseling. I make it clear that this is for the rest of your life, not until the new wears off or something better comes along.”

Brenda Spina, a family therapist and licensed Assemblies of God minister, says couples need support and discipleship after the wedding day as well.

“Research suggests only about 12 percent of the population naturally possesses the skill base to promote success in a marriage relationship,” says Spina, owner and director of the Center for Family Healing in Appleton, Wis. “The rest need to develop those skills.”

Spina says many of the behaviors even secular marriage counselors teach are Bible truths.

“Being quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry — those are practical scriptural principles that can go a long way in a marriage,” Spina says.

The church could lead the way in teaching these precepts and building strong families, but many attendees are reluctant to admit their marriage struggles, Spina explains.

“Everyone could use some help at some point during their marriage, but couples often wait too long before they seek it out,” Spina says. “Sometimes Christians have the hardest time admitting their faults. If we could just embrace our humanity enough to see our strengths and openly work on our weaknesses, we could save ourselves a lot of grief in our relationships.”

Family therapist Glen Ryswyk says Christians often feel pressure to have perfect families. Yet many enter marriage with emotional baggage couples don’t know how to process.

“People come into marriage relationships with far more damage than they did 50 years ago,” says Ryswyk, an Assemblies of God chaplain and clinical director of the Christian Family Counseling Center in Lawton, Okla. “There’s more abuse and more family brokenness, and people enter adulthood unrealistically thinking a spouse will remedy the damage and unmet emotional needs from childhood. Marriage can’t fix that. We need to go back and let the grace of Jesus Christ flow into these wounds.”

Ryswyk says that while the entertainment media promotes the idea that romance completes and fulfills people, the Bible teaches that only God can truly do those things.

“When we receive that from the Heavenly Father, then what we receive in this other relationship is enough,” Ryswyk says. “When we’re looking for that other relationship to make us OK on the inside, it’s never enough.”

Marital problems aren’t limited to young couples. While the overall divorce rate has plateaued since the 1980s, it has doubled among the 50-and-over crowd, according to the Center for Family and Demographic Research at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. A quarter of those divorced in 2010 were aged 50 and over.

Carter says the busyness and distractions of life can cause couples to drift apart at any age if they aren’t intentional about prioritizing their relationships.

“My philosophy, biblically, is God first, then spouse, then family,” Carter says. “A lot of believers allow their jobs and hobbies to edge out their marriages. Because they don’t have the right priorities, they experience what I call commitment drift. The things that are really important begin to drift away.

“The best solution is to base your marriage on what the Word of God says, not on feelings, and to give the marriage relationship the attention it deserves. Stay close to God and ask Him to keep your priorities in check.”

CHRISTINA QUICK is a former Pentecostal Evangel staff writer who attends James River Church (Assemblies of God) in Ozark, Mo.



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