From "For Faith & Family." Used with permission.

According to the 2000 census, the number of households headed by unmarried people grew almost 72 percent in the previous ten years. Illegitimate births made up 3.8 percent of births in 1940; in 2000, a third of all American children were born out of wedlock. Children from single-parent families suffer in every quality-of-life category compared with children of married parents. They are poorer, sicker, more inclined to crime; they are people of unfulfilled potential and lost opportunity; and their hope of spiritual fulfillment is dim.

A recent study quoted by Maggie Gallagher in National Review suggests it's essential that everyone--Christian and non-Christian alike--understand the social cost of never-married mothers, divorce, and all the rest.

According to the study, even after variations in race, income, and cognitive ability had been factored out, boys raised outside of intact marriages are two to three times more likely to be incarcerated than those in households that meet the traditional, biblical definition of a family. Again, Christian precepts lead to secular benefits. Good living and Christian living are inseparable.

Daughters of single parents are 53 percent more likely to marry as teens, 111 percent more likely to have children as teens, 164 percent more likely to give birth prematurely, and 92 percent more likely to file for divorce. One forensic psychologist said, "The one human being most capable of curbing the antisocial aggression of a boy is his biological father." Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan--whom I can't say I agree with all that often--got it exactly right when he said, "A community that allows a large number of young men to grow up in broken families, dominated by women, never acquiring any stable relationship to male authority, never acquiring any rational expectation about the future--that community asks for and gets chaos."

What can I do to keep married couples married?
There's no telling how much ink and effort have been spent recounting the pitfalls of broken families. It's important to understand the problem and its causes but even more important to take actions to reverse this destructive trend. Certainly there are societal changes taking place that encourage the breakup and distortion of families. Still, Christians could do a lot more to preserve the institution of traditional marriage.

It's up to us, our clergy, and our church leadership to hold marriage partners accountable for their behavior and to compel husbands and wives to realize that marriage vows represent an unconditional lifetime promise. Marriage is forever, regardless of what pop culture says.

Writing in World magazine, Joel Belz speaks for many Christians when he admits, "It's easy to blame the bad guys-- the terribly secularized media, Hollywood, the public schools, the demands of big business--but maybe the biggest blame rests on God's own people. . . . the picture we in fact offer is barely distinguishable from that offered by the rest of society."

It isn't easy or comfortable to hold a brother or sister in Christ accountable for their marital behavior, but it's our duty. Nobody ever said being a Christian was easy. Belz looks at three specific ways Christians can strengthen the institution of marriage:

1. Resist divorce. Obvious as it is, this option is overlooked more often than not. Friends and church members hear that a couple is splitting up, and their reaction is usually, "Isn't that too bad!" when it should be, "No way!" Church officers must be willing to use their God-given authority to persuade and encourage people to remain married.

2. Identify the guilty party and hold him accountable. Matthew 19 is explicit in laying out the only biblical foundation for divorce: "And I tell you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery" (Matt. 19:9). Only unfaithfulness or irreconcilable desertion by a non-Christian spouse (1 Cor. 7:12-15) provides biblical justification for divorce. For Christians, marriage is pronounced by the church and should be dissolved only under the discipline of the church; the church is obliged to uncover the truth.

3. Understand the circumstances surrounding the divorce of a prospective member. Churches that want to discourage divorce must be careful on what terms they welcome as members those who carry the guilt for breaking up previous marriages.

How have pastors contributed to the growing failure rate of marriages?
Something I wonder about as a pastor who has had the honor of officiating at numerous marriage ceremonies is why Christian ministers perform some of the marriages they do. I believe there are people married in the church every day who don't understand their marriage vows, who don't realize the lifetime nature of the marriage commitment, and who don't approach their roles as husband and wife in a biblical manner because they have no idea in the world what that means. Some of them aren't even professing Christians. There's nothing to stop these people from getting married by a judge or justice of the peace, but responsible Christian pastors have no business marrying them until the pastor is convinced they understand what the whole process means and that they understand the divinely ordained obligations they assume in being joined in "holy" matrimony.

The United States has the highest divorce rate in the world. To understand why, listen to marriage vows. Today's vows tend more and more to be written by the couple themselves and tend to downplay or avoid any pledge of marital permanence. The old vows conformed the couple to the marriage institution; the new ones are a subjective projection. As one commentator puts it, "Rather than the vow creating the couple, the couple creates the vow." Couples "in effect become the gods of their own marriages." Pastors not only allow but encourage couples to be wise in their own eyes, rather than submitting to the teachings of Christ when they allow such practices.

The Baptist Faith and Message statement offers as clear a definition as I've ever heard of marriage as "the uniting of one man and one woman in covenant commitment for a lifetime." Christians, then, have to hold themselves, their friends, and members of their church to godly standards in marriage. Is this hopelessly old-fashioned? It is old-fashioned, but, far from being hopeless, it's our best hope for reviving traditional marriage.

Is it better for children to dissolve a bad marriage rather than staying married and miserable?
A Toronto Sun article by Elaine Moyle focused on the relationship between the destructive effect of divorce on children and the selfish gratification their parents seek, trading the happiness and future success of their children for their own selfish ends.

"Research shows that kids-once thought to be resilient to parental separation and better off with a single, `happy' parent-actually suffer severe emotional consequences. The phenomenon is attributed to their parents' obsession with personal gratification and belief that divorce was the instant panacea for an imperfect marriage."

This flies in the face of all those parents and their advisors who insist a divorce is "best for the children." According to these studies, living in a household with two unhappy parents is immeasurably better for the child than living with one happy one.

If you're unhappy in your marriage, don't get a divorce for the good of the children. Divorce is a selfish act: "I want something different; I deserve something better." A divorce won't help your children. And a divorce certainly won't trigger a fountain of heavenly blessings from God on your life.

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