100 Marriage, Divorce, Family

David Popenoe, Professor of Sociology at Rutgers University, has devoted his scholarly career to a careful study of family life. Life Without Father (New York: The Free Press, c. 1996) details his thesis: “compelling new evidence that fatherhood and marriage are indispensable for the good of children and society.” Collapsing families, like buildings falling in an earthquake, harm those within them. And chiefly harmed, Popenoe argues, are children deprived of their fathers. “American fathers are today more removed from family life than ever before in our history. And according to a growing body of evidence, this massive erosion of fatherhood contributes mightily to many of the major social problems of our time” (p. 1).

Children simply need both mothers and fathers! Dads cannot be discarded without harming their kids. Dads, forever, have provide for and protected their wives and children. They’re valuable role models. They share the burden of rearing and disciplining children. They play with their kids in important ways– “physically stimulating and exciting” kinds of play rarely found in mothers, who are more careful and nurturing (p. 143). Testing children’s physical limits, teaching them to play by the rules of the game, urging them to be independent, seem natural fatherly activities. “Fathers’ play appears to be particularly important for the development of socially acceptable forms of behavior that do not include violence and aggression–in other words, for the development of the character trait known as self-control” (p. 144). Even their ways of talking matter! “Fathers’ conversations tend to be briefer and to be more directive and focused on specifics; they less often occur face-to-face. In content, fathers’ conversations more often relate to issues of independence and autonomy” (p. 145). They provide a healthy balance to equally important lessons children learn from their mothers.

Yet between 1960 and 1990 “the percentage of children living apart from their biological fathers more than doubled, from 17 percent to 36 percent. If this rate continues, by the turn of the century nearly 50 percent of American children will be going to sleep each night without being able to say good night to their dads” (p. 3). Consequently, we know the litany of problems such kids will suffer: “crime and delinquency; premature sexuality and out-of-wedlock teen births; deteriorating educational achievement; depression, substance abuse, and alienation among teenagers; and the growing number of women and children in poverty. These issues all point to a profound deterioration in the well-being of children” (p. 3).

Families are collapsing, of course, because parents divorce. A century ago, a married couple only faced a five percent possibility of divorce. Today, Popenoe asserts, the likelihood of a marriage dissolving “stands at around 50 percent–by some estimates as high as 60 percent” (p. 5). The United States has the highest divorce rate in the industrial world, and her social problems demonstrate its impact. Amazingly, this has been endorsed, rather than condemned, by assorted “experts” who have studied and written about marriage and family! Textbooks once titled “Marriage and Family” are now styled “Intimate Relationships” or simply “Families.” The legal system too, with its “no fault” divorce laws, has joined in facilitating the destruction. Consequently, the “ideal” of the nuclear family “died during the 1960’s and 1970’s” (p. 135).

The watershed year, Popenoe says, was 1974, when “for the first time more marriages ended in divorce than in death” (p. 21). During this century, due to reduced death rates and pro-family convictions, “by 1960 more children were living with both of their natural parents than at any other time in world history” (p. 22). Then came the catastrophe. “‘The scale of marital breakdowns in the West since 1960 has no historical precedent that I know of, and seems unique,’ says Princeton University family historian Lawrence Stone. ‘There has been nothing like it for the last 2,000 years, and probably longer'” (p. 22). Only during the extraordinary decadence of Imperial Rome do we find divorce rates comparable to modern America!

Thus Popenoe entitles one of his chapters “The Human Carnage of Fatherlessness.” Since today’s children quickly grow up, we face “a social calamity in the making” (p. 52). The glaring illustrations of children’s distress, featured by the nightly news, are collaborated by somber statistical analyses. “Sixty percent of America’s rapists, 72 percent of adolescent murderers, and 70 percent of long-term prison inmates come from fatherless homes” (p. 63). Children in fatherless homes are far more likely to be abused than those from intact homes. One Canadian study showed that children living with one natural parent and one stepparent were 40 times more likely to be abused than children living with both natural parents (p. 71). Children in the United States under two years of age are 100 times more likely to be killed by stepparents than by genetic parents (p. 72). Women too suffer when marriage fails. Careful studies, unlike impassioned rhetoric concerning “spousal abuse,” indicates “that only 12.6 married women per 1000 fall victim to violence, compared to 43.9 never-married women per 1000 and 66.5 divorced or separated women per 1000” (p. 74).

Beyond describing the scene, Propenoe seeks to explain it. He delves into the history of the past 200 years, showing how industrialization separated the father from the home, leaving the mother in charge of rearing children. Then came the “divorce revolution” of recent decades, aided and abetted by the strident anti-patriarchy rhetoric of influential feminists, who have played a significant role in undermining the nuclear family. Fatherless homes, thence, led to a certain hyper-masculine response as young boys sought to free themselves from their mother’s control. “Gangbangers,” wrecking mayhem in our inner cities, graphically demonstrate this reaction. Feminist mantras, endlessly chanted in women’s studies programs, which celebrate “parental androgyny is not what children need” (p. 212).

When it comes to “reclaiming fatherhood and marriage,” however Popenoe can do little more than offer suggestions. Somehow we must reverse the divorce rate. Somehow we must reduce the number of cohabiting couples. Somehow we must reverse the amount of premarital sexual activity. Somehow, somehow! Popenoe, writing from a purely secular perspective, has little to say about doing what he knows needs doing! But at least he clearly documents the needs, and that is the great value of this treatise.


Alex R.G. Deasley, one of the finest biblical scholars in the Church of the Nazarene, provides us with an important, meticulous study entitled Marriage and Divorce in the Bible and the Church (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, c. 2000). While in-depth and scholarly, the book is written for the general reader and is quite accessible for anyone interested in the subject.

First, Deasley clarifies the “creation ideal,” the original intent God had for Adam and Eve. They were designed to share an intimate, harmonious life as “partners,” bound together as “one flesh” by a lasting covenant, rooted in the covenant God established with man in the Garden. Marriage is, absolutely, good for us. The “creation ideal” so evident in the Old Testament is affirmed in the New, where Jesus discounted Moses’ permission of divorce, considering it “a departure from God’s will,” and reminded His hearers of “God’s true design for marriage” as evident in the beginning (p. 24).

Accordingly, Jesus opposed divorce and insisted that the marriage “union is binding and permanent. It is so, not because the two have joined themselves together, but because God has joined them together. And what God has joined together it is not for man to separate” (p. 25). Still more: this creation ideal can be realized! It’s not an unattainable daydream. It must always be the standard we uphold when discussing marriage. St Paul picked up and developed Jesus’ teaching, stressing the “mutuality” of true marriage. Living together, as partners, men and women find their original design. Importantly, Paul prescribes a “mutual submissiveness” of self-sacrificial love which would, ideally, make for harmony and joy in marriage.

Having established the “creation ideal,” Deasley then turns to the question of divorce, one of the many consequences of man’s sin. “The Fall has thus wreaked deadly havoc at the very apex of God’s creation, that is, in his personal relationship between the pair in whom God reproduced His image and to whom jointly He entrusted the lordship of his creation” (p. 48). Turning away from God, alienated from Him, our first parents injected their self-turning evil into their progeny. Covenant bonds dissolved, and, consequently, divorce was “allowed” in the Old Testament, though mainly for husbands. Never part of God’s plan, He, necessarily, allowed it, as well as other sinful activities and consequences, as part of granting man freedom.

When Jesus taught, he “challenged prevailing standards” in “breathtaking” ways, Deasley says (p. 87). He insisted that the original ideal be upheld. Remarkably, He bound “husbands to their wives with the same exclusiveness as wives were bound to their husbands under the old covenant A real reciprocity between spouses is thereby implied by Jesus’ teaching'” (p. 79). Not even adultery, Deasley argues, justifies dissolving a marriage. Divorce and remarriage, falling short of God’s ideal, must never be celebrated as “good,” though they may be necessary resolutions to impossible situations. As C.E.B. Cranfield makes clear: “‘Human conduct which falls short of the absolute command of God is sin and stands under the divine judgment. The provisions which God’s mercy has designed for the limitation of the consequences of man’s sin must not be interpreted as divine approval for sinning. When our sinfulness traps us in a position in which all the choices open to us are still evil, we are to choose that which is least evil, asking for God’s forgiveness and comforted by it, but not pretending that the evil is good'” (p. 84).

This means we must remember the law but place it within the “context of grace,” realizing that “the law sets out the guidelines for the life of the people of God, which is by definition of a life of fullness and fulfillment because the Lawgiver is also the Lifegiver” (p. 154). Jesus reminded his hearers, in a culture which had trivialized divorce, that it was still sinful. But he also extended, to those who failed to live up to the ideal, a gracious forgiveness. Such is obtained through repentance, something more than “regret or remorse,” more than “a change of mind” (p. 161). It “incorporates the ideas of a renewed relationship with God, a fresh start, a fellowship such as existed before sin intruded” (p. 161).

In accord with his exegesis, Deasley proposes that the Church deal with marriage and divorce by clearly enunciating God’s ideal as the only truly acceptable one. Marriage is good. Divorce is wrong. God’s will is clear here. Too often preachers have preferred not to offend those touched by divorce by compromising the truth contained in Scripture. In part, the problems in our society result from the Church failing to uphold God’s eternal standard in this area. But we must also proclaim the saving truth that all sins, through Christ’s mercy, can be forgiven. Divorce is not the unpardonable sin! Men and women can get right with God, and however complicated their lives have become God can help them move into good tomorrows.

This is a fine study of an important issue. Deasley works carefully with the texts–and, inevitably repeats some as he moves through all the relevant passages–he persuasively develops his thesis and builds his case. He gives us an valuable work with which we can understand and explain Christian teaching.


Years ago Amy Kass and Leon Kass, distressed by the myriads of failing marriages, began offering a seminar at the University of Chicago to focus on courting and marrying. It occurred to them that universities encouraged many kinds of studies, but rarely focused on the truly central “activities of everyday life” which deeply concerned earlier thinkers such as Aristotle (p. x). “Absent especially is the devoted search for moral wisdom regarding the conduct of life–philosophy’s original meaning and goal, and a central focus of all religious thought and practice–a search that takes help from wherever it may be found and that gives direction to a life seriously lived” (p. ix). Students warmly responded to the course, and the assigned readings have been collected into a sourcebook edited by the Kasses, Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar: Readings on Courting and Marrying (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, c. 2000).

The editors became concerned, 15 years ago, by the apparent disinterest their students showed for getting married and having children. Relatively few thought seriously about the importance of sharing a lifetime with someone. Since the Kasses have found their marriage right at the heart of what has made life meaningful, they unapologetically take a “pro-marriage” stance. They wondered why youngsters failed to crave to discover such a good life! In part, they concluded, the demise of “courtship” helped explain it. As they define it, “courting” means “to pay amorous attention to, to woo, with a view of marriage” (p. 5).

Unfortunately, such “courting and marrying” have nearly disappeared in modern America. Kass and Kass believe several factors explain it. First, the “sexual revolution,” and especially the availability of contraception, have tarnished one of the main allures of marriage. Second, feminist ideologues have persuaded countless numbers of young women that careers, not families, truly matter. Third, the “destigmatization of bastardy, divorce, infidelity, and abortion” has, understandably, encouraged such traditionally evil activities. Fourth, the “commercialization of sex” and the “sexualization of commerce” have dissipated the “shame” which once surrounded sexual activities. Fifth, “morally neutral sex education” in the classrooms of the nation has encouraged much experimentation and justified much promiscuous activity. Sixth, the exploding numbers of divorced parents have deprived marriage of its luster in the eyes of the young. Seventh, the mobility of the populace, depriving children of extended families and settled neighborhoods, has cut them off from traditional moral restraints. Eighth, youth culture celebrates an unrestrained hedonism which easily sweeps away immature youngsters. And ninth, “an ethos that lacks transcendent aspirations and asks of us no devotion to family, God, or country, encouraging us simply to soak up the pleasures of the present” grants permission to do whatever one feels like doing. (pp. 12-13).

In part, they believe, the proliferation of “gender studies” and the influence of militant feminism have deliberately sought to “redefine and recreate the meaning of being man or woman,” alleging that “gender” is little more than a “cultural construction” subject to continuous change. An egalitarian ideology has subverted “the authority of religion, tradition, and custom within families, of husbands over wives and fathers over sons” (p. 13). Against such, the professors Kass urge us to simply study our navels! They unequivocally show we were born of a woman! “Moreover, absent a miracle, each of us owes our living existence to exactly one man and one woman–no more, no less, no other–and thus to one act of heterosexual union. This is no social construction, it is natural fact” (p. 7). So let’s be honest and talk about two sexes, not multiplied genders! And doing so leads us to wonder at the beauty of courtship and marriage.

To rightly wonder, this anthology brings together a rich collection of sources, ranging from Homer and Herodotus to Erasmus and Shakespeare to Robert Frost and C.S. Lewis. Reading and reflecting on what others have found true, one longs for a recovery of the courting and marrying guidelines of earlier times. And the materials added by the Kasses add much to one’s understanding of why such a recovery is needed. The collection is rich in classical resources, nicely edited and placed together in a remarkably inexpensive volume.


To briefly note a book which has had surprising sales (and popularity among many collegians), Joshua Harris’s I Kissed Dating Goodbye (Sisters, OR: Multnomah Books, c. 1997) merits attention. Having participated in the “dating” scene, he concluded that its agenda is “fun and games,” not preparing for a healthy marriage. Youth culture, he says, is aptly summed up by the words of Curt Cobain: “‘Here we are; now entertain us'” (p. 131). Tragically, this attitude leads to all the wrong activities in “dating.” So he urges young people, such as himself, to wait until they are clearly interested in marrying, and then to engage is a careful, physcially restrained (truly “old fashioned”) process of “courting.” To stay pure, in both thought and act, should guide the courting process, and healthy marriages should result.

Young people who’ve read this book either love it or hate it. I find it a fine challenge to the dominant ethos of our media-molded culture, and I further find it fascinating that a strong minority of young people seem to embrace Harris’s views.

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