Divorce, Christian

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Divorce, Christian

Marriage is understood to be one of the cornerstones of support of the social institution of the family. Interestingly, its genesis and forms remain the subject of controversy, which challenges any conceptualization of it as fixed and stable. For example, marriage has not always been monogamous, and certainly the high divorce rate today illustrates that the "ideal" of a lifelong commitment is countered by the reality of relationships of a much shorter duration. Further, same-sex marriage has been much debated in the past two decades, and as Boswell (1994) illustrates, it may have a longer history than is popularly believed. Despite all this, Christian marriage is most commonly seen as the union of two people of opposite sex before God in a vow to remain faithful to each other for life. Divorce is regarded as the unfortunate termination of that union.

Until relatively recently the solemnization of marriage was under the exclusive purview of the church. While there has been a shift of this function to civil authorities, the majority of people still turn to the church to administer their marriage rites or sacraments. Divorce is discouraged by all churches, although the stigma that attaches to it varies, as do the circumstances in which it will be granted. For example, Roman Catholics must still seek papal approval of their divorces in order to remarry, in essence meaning that they must seek both a civil and an ecclesiastical divorce if they wish to remarry in the Church.

Religion, Culture, and Divorce

The secularization debate adds another dimension to this discussion of divorce. Some scholars argue that religious values that previously discouraged divorce have less and less impact in our society. There is evidence suggesting that religious commitment increases marital satisfaction, thus decreasing the likelihood of divorce (Guttman 1993). However, the increasing divorce rate may have less to do with the influence of the church than with the shift from a model of marriage that emphasized economic union to one based on romantic love. Some churches have attempted to stop the flood of divorce by imposing mandatory premarital counseling. A lower Roman Catholic divorce rate (combined with the more restrictive Catholic approach to divorce) may be evidence of the success of this strategy.

We also need to consider the impact of religion on culture. Religiously rooted traditional beliefs about marriage and its intended lifelong commitment infiltrate civil notions of how families should look and who can be married. State policies protect and valorize the "traditional" family, and legal decisions are imbued with notions of how such families should look. The impact of the Religious Right in its promotion of "family values" on the process of state conceptualization of marriage and family life should not be underestimated (Shriver 1989).

The relationship between civil law and ecclesiastical "law" is also complicated. In the 1970s and 1980s divorce law underwent a radical transformation. Grounds for divorce in North America have greatly expanded, and in some states divorce is routinely considered "no-fault." Waiting periods between filing and finalization of the divorce have been decreased sharply in most states. There is a varying degree of acceptance of civil authority in relation to marriage and divorce. For example, while Protestants accept the authority of the state to marry and divorce, the Roman Catholic church retains jurisdiction over both marriage and divorce.

Women and Divorce

Feminist scholarship in the area of Christian marriage and divorce in the past three decades has focused on the presence of equality within marital relationships, and on the pressure on women to hold a marriage together at great cost to themselves. There is concern that, particularly among evangelical groups, teachings such as the submission of wives and headship of husbands have a detrimental effect on women in that they become "doormats" for their husbands. Yet research indicates that even in the face of such doctrine, women often negotiate their relationships with their husbands as partners, and not as subservient members of the family (Stacey and Gerard 1990; Stacey 1990; Pevey, Williams, and Ellison 1996).

Another concern is that because divorce is strongly discouraged, women remain in abusive relationships in an effort to adhere to church teachings. There is a fear that the emphasis on marriage as a lifetime commitment means downplaying the devastating effects of abuse. It is unclear whether this is in fact the case, as both Christian and non-Christian women who live in abusive relationships are reluctant to give up on them. Religious teachings may facilitate the self-conceptualization of the abused woman as the "suffering servant" who is living her life according to God's will by remaining in an abusive relationship (Beaman, 1999).

Religious Diversity

As we have already seen, to talk about divorce is a bit misleading in that there is not a monolithic approach to this issue among religious groups. For example, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints views marriage as forever, for our earthly life as well as for all eternity. Tim B. Heaton identifies a number of distinguishing aspects of the Mormon approach to marriage, including their more conservative sexual behavior before marriage, a promarriage attitude, larger family size, and the fact that "Mormons believe in male authority and in a more traditional division of labor between husbands and wives" (1994, pp. 88–89). Divorce rates are lower among Mormon couples, perhaps reflecting the fact that the institution of "family" is central to Mormon theology and religious practice. Family is the basis of social order and development within Mormon culture (Foster 1991, p. 205): "For Latter-day Saints, marriage and family are more than a matter of social convention or individual need fulfillment; they are fundamental to personal salvation" (Holman and Harding 1996, p. 52). Mormon theology sees marriage and the family as being central to human salvation: "only those who have a marriage performed in a Mormon temple are candidates for the greatest rewards in the hereafter" (Heaton, Goodman, and Holman 1994).

Approaches to divorce vary widely among Christian religious groups (Airhart and Bendroth 1996), and it is therefore important to explore the teachings of each church and the social context in which each exists in order to fully understand the significance of divorce within a particular group.

See alsoChurchof Jesus Christof Latter-day Saints; Divorce, Jewish; Evangelical Christianity; Feminist Theology; Marriage, Christian; Marriage, Jewish; Religious Right; Secularization; Women's Studies.


Airhart, Phyllis D., and Margaret Lamberts Bendroth. Faith Traditions and the Family. 1996.

Beaman, Lori G. Submissive Servants or PurposefulAgents?: An Exploration of the Lives of EvangelicalWomen. 1999.

Boswell, John. Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe. 1994.

Foster, Lawrence. Women, Family and Utopia: CommunalExperiments of the Shakers, the Oneida Community, andthe Mormons. 1991.

Guttman, Joseph. Divorce in Psychosocial Perspective: Theory and Research. 1993.

Heaton, Tim B., Kristen L. Goodman, and Thomas B. Holman. "In Search of a Peculiar People: Are Mormon Families Really Different?" In ContemporaryMormonism: Social Science Perspectives, edited by Marie Cornwall, Tim B. Heaton, and Lawrence A. Young. 1994.

Holman, Thomas B., and John R. Harding. "The Teaching of Nonmarital Sexual Abstinence and Members' Sexual Attitudes and Behaviors: The Case of Latter-day Saints." Review of Religious Research 38, no. 1 (1996): 51.

Pevey, Carolyn F., Christine Williams, and Christopher Ellison. "Male God Imagery and Female Submission: Lessons from a Southern Baptist Ladies' Bible Study." Qualitative Sociology 19, no. 2 (1996): 173.

Shriver, Peggy L. "The Religious Right: A Program of Intolerance and Coercion." In The Religious Right, edited by Gary E. McCuen. 1989.

Stacey, Judith. Brave New Families: Stories of Domestic Upheaval in Late Twentieth Century America. 1990.

Stacey, Judith, and Susan Elizabeth Gerard. " 'We Are Not Doormats': The Influence of Feminism on Contemporary Evangelicals in the United States," in Uncertain Terms: Negotiating Gender in AmericanCulture, edited by Faye Ginsburg. 1990.

Lori Beaman