What would CT readers say in confidential responses to questions about marriage, divorce, and other sexual experiences? We mailed surveys to almost 1,500 readers to find out. Over two-thirds responded in one of the highest response rates in over two decades of subscriber research. These responses were published in our December 14, 1992 issue.The results give snapshots of what readers agreed and disagreed on when it came to divorce and remarriage. They also showed that respondents stand out sharply from American culture's trends. Only one out of ten were divorced, for example. But there were surprises, such as the number of respondents who admitted they had engaged in premarital sex.While readers of CT—primarily church leaders—do not speak for all evangelicals, and three out of four of our respondents were male, their answers offer a wealth of insight on strengthening marriages, ministering to the divorced, and understanding the cultural pressures Christians face. Senior Editor Haddon Robinson here comments on some of the findings.

Staying Married

  • Of the 28 percent who had ever considered divorce, nine out of ten said belief in Christian teaching about marriage helped keep them together.
  • Only one out of ten respondents said intervention by family or friends was a factor.

While half of all marriages in this country now end in divorce, 83 percent of survey respondents who have ever been married are still in their first marriage. Most (90 percent) say they are satisfied with their relationship and describe their marriages as "warm and supportive."Giving marriage a hearty endorsement, however, does not mean that subscribers always enjoy Cinderella relationships in which they and their mates live "happily ever after." When those in their first marriage were asked whether "you or your spouse ever considered getting divorced," one out of five admitted that it had crossed their minds; 4 percent had given it somewhat more thought; another 4 percent had considered divorce a serious option.What kept these marriages together when the going got rough? That so many stayed together out of deference to biblical teaching (90 percent) should hearten church leaders. It also argues convincingly that we should place regularly before our congregations the teaching that marriage is a lifelong covenant. Commitment rather than love holds couples together in the dry times of marriage. Not surprisingly, the second greatest factor contributing to couples not divorcing was children (40 percent).

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Getting Help

  • Of those needing help with their marriages, 61 percent turned to a Christian therapist.
  • Forty-one percent turned to a pastor, and 18 percent to a non-Christian therapist.

Almost 75 percent of those still in their first marriage say they have never received any marital counseling. Those who have been divorced and remarried are almost twice as likely to have turned to a counselor for help.Does marriage counseling make a difference? Of the 201 respondents who had marriage counseling, 85 percent report it was worth doing. Only 6 percent felt that it was not helpful.That so many turn to therapists rather than pastors helps explain why counseling has become a growth industry in the evangelical community. In many of our seminaries, in fact, counseling departments attract the largest enrollment, easily overshadowing homiletics or biblical studies. While this may reflect the obsession of a culture turning inward for personal "fulfillment," the rise of counseling clearly benefits hurting Christian couples.

Beliefs About Divorce

  • Seventy-one percent agreed with the statement "Divorce is no greater sin than any other transgression."
  • Twenty percent believe a divorced and remarried person should not be a deacon or elder.
  • Thirty percent believe divorce disqualifies someone from being a pastor.

The majority of survey respondents classify themselves as evangelicals or conservatives. A smaller segment say they are fundamentalists. While all read the same Bible, the survey shows great diversity in attitudes toward divorce. What we are determines how we read, and how we read determines how we act.While only 8 percent of the respondents disagreed with the statement "Divorce is so prevalent today that it makes it crucial that we show grace to the divorced," "showing grace" means different things to different Christians. Many evidently regard divorce as such a serious sin that it requires an extra measure of grace to be forgiven. Additionally, subscribers who classify themselves as "fundamentalist" are twice as likely to reject divorced people as leaders than those who identify themselves as "conservative" or "evangelical."Experience as well as theological bent affected how respondents perceive divorced Christians. Not surprisingly, divorced people are more open to the possibility of Christians like themselves holding leadership positions. In addition, almost 30 percent of the respondents admit that the divorce of a family member or friend has made them more accepting. Females seem to be more influenced by such experiences than males: Almost half of the women and a third of the men agree with the statement "The remarriage of a family member or close friend has made me more accepting of divorce." What we bring to the text sometimes determines how we interpret the text.

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Stances on Remarriage

  • Seventy-three percent accept the remarriage of a Christian if the former spouse committed adultery or remarried.

Does showing grace to the divorced extend to approving of remarriage? Subscribers are far from agreement on how the Bible answers that question. Only 4 percent of the subscribers completely rule out any remarriage for a Christian after divorce.The majority believe that fornication (73 percent) and desertion by a non-Christian spouse (64 percent) are two scriptural grounds for remarriage. At the same time, a significant minority believe Jesus taught that believers should not remarry after divorce (44 percent) and that God designed marriage to be permanent, and remarriage constitutes adultery (44 percent). Less than four out of ten believe there may be reason for remarriage other than adultery or desertion. Those who have been divorced are more likely to accept other reasons.Agreement about divorce and remarriage comes more easily when there are applicable texts. When questions arise to which no biblical passage speaks specifically, agreement is much less likely. For instance, subscribers divide on whether or not the teachings of Jesus about divorce apply to people who were not Christians at the time of divorce. Or what about divorce and remarriage if a wife or husband has been physically abused? If Moses permitted divorce and remarriage because of "hardness of heart," does such hardness exist today? If it does, may it still serve as valid grounds for divorce? If divorced Christians are disqualified as elders, deacons, or pastors because of divorce, are people also kept from these offices if their spouse has gone through a divorce? Questions like these are made more difficult when interpreters must work from inferences rather than direct biblical statements.

Confessions of Sexual Sin

  • Forty percent of respondents currently married admitted to premarital sex.
  • Fourteen percent admitted to an extramarital affair.

Not surprisingly, subscribers identified mass media as a major cause of infidelity and divorce in the church. We live in a sex-saturated society, and Christians are bombarded with sex on every side. Christians are not immune to sexual temptation. Of the 14 percent admitting marital unfaithfulness, three-fourths were Christians at the time. Married women are as likely as married men to have had an affair. Sixty percent of the spouses are now aware of the adultery, though only 7 percent of married subscribers know that their spouse has had sexual intercourse with someone else while married to them. Another 2 percent are not sure.Sexual sin appears to be a greater problem for those who have been divorced. They are three times as likely as those in their first marriages to have committed adultery, and they appear to have had their first involvement in premarital sex at an older age, probably after their divorce and before their remarriage.For most of those who admitted to adultery, their infidelity paid hard wages. Over 70 percent of those involved in extramarital affairs said that it produced in them spiritual and emotional struggles. Thirty-two percent reported that adultery contributed to other marital problems. For 10 percent, it led to a divorce; 5 percent lost their jobs. Only 7 percent felt that it had no negative consequences at all.What factors lead to illicit sexual relationships? Those who admit to adultery point to marital dissatisfaction, emotional attraction, and physical attraction as more or less equal causes. In addition to the 94 percent who point to media influence as a source of temptation, 88 percent single out peer pressure and the desire to conform to society.When Christians battle with illicit sexual desire, to whom do they turn for help? Most do not share their struggles with their mates. Seventy-two percent of married respondents say they rarely or never talk with their spouse about their sexual temptations. Older subscribers are even less likely than younger ones to have such conversations. Only slightly less than half (46 percent) of all respondents say they have a close friend or family member with whom they are able to discuss the subject. Obviously a significant number of subscribers do not talk about their sexual temptations with anyone at all.Perhaps the greatest guard to a husband's or wife's purity is the affection of a spouse. Nearly three-fourths of married subscribers say they are satisfied with their current sex life.

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Preaching on Sex

  • Thirty-nine percent believe fellow parishioners want to hear more biblical instruction on sexual ethics.

How much support do Christians get from their churches in standing against the media blitz luring them from sexual purity?Nearly one in five say that the subject is mentioned about once a month or more. One-fourth say the subject of sex comes up once or twice a year or less in their pastors' sermons.The top three sexual topics respondents feel need to be addressed by the church are incest, practicing homosexuality, and premarital sex. Pastors especially singled out incest as a subject that needs more of their attention.

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Helping the Divorced

  • Six percent of churches with Sunday attendance of 200 or less have divorce support groups for adults.
  • With churches of attendance of at least 1,000, the percentage rises to 65.

Many believe a church's offering a divorce support group may be as important as the good actually accomplished. It communicates to divorced people that they are welcome.How well do the churches represented in the survey respond? One out of five subscribers know his or her church has a divorce support group for adults. Only 1 out of 20 know it has a support group for children of divorced parents.

Grace and Truth

  • Twenty-one percent of divorced persons felt supported or strongly supported by their churches during divorce.
  • Sixty percent felt such support from family.

Half of all divorced respondents said their church sent mixed messages of support and disapproval. While 34 percent said they felt their churches were "supportive" or "strongly supportive," 8 percent were disfellowshiped or excommunicated.Perhaps a reason for the mixed signals lies in a perennial tension. The apostle John declared our Lord "full of grace and truth" (John 1:14). Of all the tensions, this is perhaps the greatest. People who are strong for truth concerning divorce and remarriage often lack grace. Those who deal compassionately with human weakness often seem to pass lightly over the standard. This sometimes expresses itself in feuds between teachers in seminaries or Bible schools, who argue for adherence to the standard, and pastors and counselors, who may err on the side of acceptance.Instead, as Jesus demonstrated with the woman taken in adultery in John 8, we need both high standards and ready compassion. Jesus rebuked the scribes and Pharisees. Yet he also told the woman, "Go, and do not sin again." He showed both grace and truth. When the divorced and remarried come knocking on our church doors, as they have and surely will, our ministry cannot do without either.This article originally appeared in the December 14, 1992 issue ofChristianity Today.

Then, as now, Haddon Robinson was professor of homiletics at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts.

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Related Elsewhere

Other stories from the 1992 CT Institute on divorce and remarriage include:CT Institute: Divorce and Remarriage | An introduction to our 1992 series on what divorce means for families, churches, and our country. A Marriage Counterculture | In addressing divorce, the church must adopt the strategies of the missionary. By David Seamands Divorce and Remarriage from Augustine to Zwingli | How Christian understanding about marriage has changed—and stayed the same—through history. By Michael Gorman Can One Become Two? | What Scripture says about Christians and divorce. By H. Wayne House Remarriage: Two Views | Two New Testament professors debate whether remarriage is acceptable for Christians. By Craig Keener and William A. Heth How Not to Fail Hurting Couples | We need a kind of shock therapy to become alert to missed opportunities. By Thomas Needham Becoming a Healing Community | How the church can develop a climate of help to the hurting.