Rampant Divorce in the American Church


Sexual Problems

Someone asked me why I thought that the divorce rate in the American Church is not significantly different from the rest of society.  Below are some of the reasons why I think that this is so.




In my view the single greatest problem in the American church is the loss of the eternal perspective: there really are two places, one called heaven, the other called hell, and every human being is going to spend eternity in one place or the other. Heaven is so wonderful that we cannot comprehend its value this side of being there. Hell is so dreadful that no matter what it takes to avoid it, it is worth it. There is no one in hell who would not barter all he had owned in this world to be given an opportunity to exchange his current estate with that of anyone alive on earth, even in the worst possible circumstances: a woman being raped, a man being tortured, a convict in the worst prison in the world. As our Lord put it: “If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell” (Matthew 5:29, 30).

The second problem, not unrelated to the first, is what is often called “easy-believism.” Whether we are dealing with the “walk an aisle, say a prayer and never doubt that you’re eternally secure” version, or whether it is teaching people that they should never question their salvation as long as they have been baptized and are members in good standing of a local church, we are dealing with the same destructive phenomenon: carnal presumption. While the Bible clearly and unequivocally teaches that God declares a person as righteous through faith alone, the Bible also clearly and unequivocally teaches that real faith is always accompanied by a changed life, as the little Sunday School ditty puts it: “If you’re saved and you know it, then your life will surely show it.” 

The Apostle Paul put it this way: “For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a man is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient. Therefore do not be partners with them” (Ephesians 5:5-7).

And Saint John said: “Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. He who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. He who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work. No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God. This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not a child of God; nor is anyone who does not love his brother” (1 John 3:7-10).

The Church-Growth movement tends (thank God, not always) not to emphasize sin and grace but puts the focus on Jesus as a kind of self-help guru. “You can be a more successful business person with Jesus alongside you, helping you out” sells a whole lot better to unconverted people than does “You deserve nothing less than eternal damnation in hell. You must repent of your sins and cast yourself on God’s mercy in Jesus Christ.”

I am convinced that the overwhelming majority of the members of America’s churches are lost and on their way to hell.

The third problem is a failure to take seriously that there are consequences to deliberate sin in this life, we do, indeed, reap what we sow: “If the righteous receive their due on earth, how much more the ungodly and the sinner!” (Proverbs 11:31) Sexual sin is singled out in Scripture as a particularly egregious offense that calls down a “supernatural” phenomenon, the curse. This is seen so clearly in many places in Proverbs, particularly 5:3-23; 6:23-35; 7:4-27. Over and over again, I have seen Hebrews 13:4 literally carried out in people’s lives in this world: “Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral.”

The fourth problem is a failure to press home the authority of Scripture alone over every area of life. As long as the Bible is simply a useful book alongside many other authoritative resources, people will never follow biblical standards with regard to the sanctity and permanence of marriage when the chips are down. People can concoct the damnedest excuses to bail out of a marriage that they no longer find emotionally fulfilling, and I am reminded of the wisdom of our Puritan and Presbyterian forefathers when they wrote:

“Although the corruption of man be such as is apt to study arguments unduly to put asunder those whom God hath joined together in marriage: yet, nothing but adultery, or such willful desertion as can no way be remedied by the church, or civil magistrate, is cause sufficient of dissolving the bond of marriage: wherein, a public and orderly course of proceeding is to be observed; and the persons concerned in it not left to their own wills, and discretion, in their own case” (WCF, XXIV, vi).

Under this heading one should consider the terrible toll that much pop-psychology has taken on people’s lives, both in terms of individuals no longer taking responsibility for their own actions and in their bailing out of difficult marriages for dubious reasons, utterly lacking divine approval.  Oftentimes authors with little or no scientific verification pontificate authoritatively and give people justification to disobey God.  The Church must both stand against such disobedience and be a pillar of support to people pressed down with life’s burdens.

The fifth problem is connected to the fourth: the failure of the American church to practice discipline even in the most severe cases. Many passages teach that if sin is not quickly dealt with it will spread to others: e.g. Deuteronomy 13:11; 17:7; 19:19; 21:21; 22:21, 24; 24:7. Saint Paul instructs: “Those who sin are to be rebuked publicly, so that the others may take warning” (1 Timothy 5:20).

The sixth problem is the pandemic of a personality disorder, narcissism—not in the absolute, scientific sense of how that term is used, but in the profoundly self-centered approach to life that is all around us. This grows out of the previous four problems, to be sure, but life in modern America, including the American church, is “all about me”—my significance, my self-worth, my self-esteem—“The music left me empty this morning.” 

The seventh problem, growing out of the sixth and suggested by a friend after reading my original list, has to do with ‘over-inflated ideas concerning romance, romantic love, finding your “soul-mate.”’ I commented:

Nothing is more destructive to two people building a solid, lasting and loving marriage than the notion that there is only one special person in the world for each of us, and only when we have finally found that unique person will we know true and lasting love.  Twentieth century American films and songs helped to engrain this destructive approach to love in the Western psyche:

“Maybe I’m old fashioned, feeling as I do
Maybe I am living in the past
But when I meet the right one
I know that I’ll be true
My first love will be the last

“When I fall in love it will be forever
Or I’ll never fall in love
In a restless world like this is
Love is ended before it began
And too many moonlight kisses
Seem to cool in the warmth of the sun

“When I give my heart it will be completely
Or I’ll never, never, never give my heart
And the moment I can feel that you feel that way too
Is when I give my heart to you
And the moment I can feel that you feel that way too
Is when I give my heart to you”

(“When I Fall in Love” by Edward Heyman, the theme song for the 1952 film One Minute To Zero.   This song was first made popular by Doris Day.).

Given people’s incredible abilities to deceive themselves, even fooling their own memories, they can go from one infatuation to another, vainly trying to recapture that first, fleeting blush of adolescent love, each time obscuring the beautiful memories of the first stages of an earlier relationship.  They “fall in love,” get married and when the “honeymoon is over” and they get down to the everyday business of life, they discover that the intoxicating obsession they called love is no longer the dominant emotional force in their lives.  They become depressed and restless.  Then they begin to look with an increasingly critical eye at the person with whom they were “in love” just a few months before.  They imagine, “This couldn’t have been the real thing, or it would have lasted.”

The fact of the matter is that any two people who are willing to submit themselves to each other according to God’s holy ordinance of marriage can come to love each other deeply.  That’s not only true of a spiritual relationship, but of a deep and growing friendship, as well as exhilarating romantic and sexual love.  Modern notions of sex and love assume that sex without romantic love is evil, that love should lead to sex rather than sex leading to love.  But the Bible teaches that sex without marriage is evil, and rather than love leading to sex, sex was especially designed by God to create a lasting bond of love between two people.  According to God’s plan each time a married couple engages in sexual relations, the bond of love and intimacy between them is nurtured.  You might want to read more about this at “Marriage” and “Thoughts on Sex, Marriage and Celibacy.”

The eighth problem is the idea that difficulties, suffering and pain are to be avoided at all costs and the problems of life should be able to be quickly resolved. Whether it’s popping a psychotropic drug or a quick divorce, when things begin to get difficult, people have little patience to work through their problems. This is vitally connected to the first problem. 2 Corinthians 4:16-18 reminds us: “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”

The ninth problem is the sexual saturation of American culture. I grew up in a world where a woman would never be told a dirty joke and where I almost never heard a woman cuss or use vulgarity. That’s not true today. With tampon ads and that goofy eyed woman in the Levitra commercial coming into people’s homes at all hours, with the nightly news dominated by the explicit details of President Clinton’s sexual dalliances a few years back, with films that have continued to push the envelope in language and nudity over the past half-century, with the proliferation of even hard-core pornography available in the privacy of one’s home, especially through the Internet, and especially with men and women working together in fairly intimate settings, sexual sin is off the charts.

Back in the early seventies, I was a police chaplain. What was simple common sense for thousands of years has now been tossed in the trash can: you cannot put a man and a woman in a patrol car together for forty plus hours a week and them not form a powerful bond, a bond that oftentimes leads them into an affair, if they are not really careful, especially if they don’t have strong marriages.

Two or three generations ago, people lived in close proximity to their extended families, and there was both social pressure and easy transmission of cultural values. Today people move a lot more than they did in the past, often thousands of miles away from where they were brought up, and there are no grandparents, aunts and uncles close by, reinforcing the concept of putting up with stuff and working out your problems. 

Without the social safety net of twentieth and twenty-first century America, people were forced by economic consequences to put up with their problems. With financial assistance readily available without moral considerations, modern society encourages people more quickly to get out of difficulties. I’m not saying that this is always evil, only that it is a factor.

In the individualistic atomization of modern life, television often replaces flesh and blood peer group pressure with new friends such as Oprah and the main characters in soap operas. Psychologically people become bonded to these characters oftentimes more than to the people around them. 

Public education has systematically been de-Christianized in the past half century—gone are the moral imperatives that were drummed into our heads in the public school system of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

Loyalty to the denomination of one’s upbringing is largely a thing of the past, replaced with a consumer driven kind of Christianity. In a small congregation, there is still a lot of pressure on people to deal with their business. In a mega-church while there is an on-site counseling center for those who want it, there remains a basic anonymity for those who don’t.

I’m sure I could go on and on, but I’ll stop for now.

Bob Vincent