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July 7, 2010

Column #1,506

“The Scandal of Southern Baptist Divorce”

By Mike McManus

At its recent annual meeting, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) unanimously passed a remarkable resolution on “the scandal of Southern Baptist divorce,” -- “an attempt to speak first to ourselves, and to call ourselves to repentance and accountability.” 

        America’s largest Protestant denomination has publicly confessed to a major failure, an unprecedented step in my three decades as an Ethics & Religion columnist.

    The resolution articulated the conviction that the SBC must:

1.      Realize “how damaging Southern Baptist accommodation to the divorce culture is to our global witness for Christ.”

2.      Confront “the spiritual wreckage left in our Southern Baptist churches by our own divorce rates and our silence about the same.”

3.      Acknowledge that “areas where Southern Baptist churches predominate in number often have higher divorce rates than areas we would define as `unchurched’ and in need of evangelical witness.”  (This is correct.  Mississippi’s divorce rate is 82 percent (13,000 divorces vs. only 15,900 marriages). Arkansas’ rate is 63 percent; Kentucky, 59 percent.)

4.      Confess that “Even the most expansive view of the biblical exceptions allowing for divorce and remarriage would rule out many, if not most, of the divorces in our churches.”

5.      Admit that “The acceleration in rates of divorce in Southern Baptist churches has not come through a shift in theological conviction about Scriptural teaching on divorce but rather through cultural accommodation.”

Dr. Richard Land, President of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, and the church’s most prominent spokesman for two decades, told me that this astonishing resolution emerged from ”a growing revulsion by conservative Christians that too many Southern Baptists and other Christians are quoting the Bible by the yard, and practicing it by the inch.” 

                “We have thoroughly conservative leadership in our denomination, and yet the numbers getting divorced are getting worse, and people are just appalled. We clearly believe that the churches have failed to teach and uphold a standard of a biblical concept of marriage.  It is harming our witness terribly.”

                Therefore, the Southern Baptist resolution urged its churches to:

·         “Address the spiritual wreckage in our Southern Baptist churches by our own divorce rates and our silence about the same.”

·         Proclaim the word of God on the permanence of marriage, and provide on-going enrichment opportunities.

·         Marry only those who are “biblically qualified” and understand the meaning of lifelong love and fidelity, a covenant “until death do them part.”

·         Urge those “in troubled or faltering marriages to seek godly assistance and where possible, reconciliation.”

This is an extraordinary “mea culpa” by a national Christian denomination, which ought to be emulated by other national churches. 

However, there is a missing element, a failure to recognize that the marriage culture cannot be restored by a decree from the leaders of a national denomination, or even by well-intentioned churches. For example, many pastors think what a troubled marriage needs is to see a Christian counselor.  (I wrote a recent column reporting that couples who do so are two to three times more likely to divorce.) 

On the other hand, every church has couples who have survived marital crises such as adultery or bankruptcy, who could be trained to tell their story of recovery to a couple in crisis, and can save four of five such marriages.

However, how can they be identified and trained to be of assistance?

An Episcopal priest, asked this question any pastor could ask: “Are there any couples whose marriages were once on the rocks, but are now in a state of healing? If so, I’d like to meet with you after the service.”  Of 180 people in church that day, 10 couples showed up.  They developed a 17-step recovery strategy, like the 12 steps of AA, and helped save 38 of 40 crisis marriages.

In my reporting for this column, I have come across similar proven interventions at other stages of marriage: preparation with 93 percent success rate over two decades, and a “Stepfamily Support Group” that saves 80 percent of marriages, which typically divorce at a 70 percent rate.

My wife and I lead Marriage Savers, a ministry which helped the clergy of 229 cities to create a Community Marriage Policy to implement these reforms.  We train the mentors. Result: the divorce rate for cities falls 17.5 percent on average and has plunged in half in Austin, Kansas City, KS and its suburbs, El Paso, Modesto, CA and Salem, OR.  Cohabitation rates drop by a third compared to similar cities in each state.  Marriage rates rise about 16 percent.

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