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Marriage and Nominal Christianity: A Match Made, Well, Not in Heaven

In Ezekiel 5, the prophet laments that not only had Jerusalem become wicked and idolatrous—she had become an embarrassment to even her pagan, Baal-worshiping neighbors.


Well, professing Christians today may find themselves in a similarly embarrassing spot. When it comes to marriage and family, the nation is doing poorly. But it turns out one group is doing worse than the whole: Christians who don’t go to church.


First, some background. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2015 the U.S. marriage rate had fallen to an all-time low of 6.74 per 1,000 people and is expected to keep dropping.


That’s bad news for kids, increasing numbers of whom are being raised in single-parent households and by unmarried couples. As W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project, notes, “marriage provides a unique level of emotional security and stability” for kids.


Social scientists have been arguing for years about the reasons for the decline of marriage. Many point to the loss of blue collar jobs, making it harder for workers to find and keep wives. Others look at changes in welfare policy that have undermined family structure.


Wilcox and Nicholas H. Wolfinger of the University of Utah’s Department of Family and Consumer Studies, however, cite a more fundamental issue, which is the huge shift in cultural attitudes toward matrimony. Expressive individualism, the weakened connection between sex, marriage, and parenthood, and the view that marriage is more of a capstone life preference than the foundation for adulthood and sexual intimacy—all of these have fostered the decline of marriage.


Here’s where it gets really interesting. Citing Robert Putnam’s book “Bowling Alone,” Wilcox and Wolfinger note that “many forms of secular and religious civic engagement, from membership in the Shriners to church attendance, have declined since the 1960s. Civic institutions have traditionally supplied Americans with social solidarity, moral guidance, financial support, and family-friendly social networks, all of which reinforce the marriage norm and strengthen family life.”


And which civic institution has historically served as the backbone of family? “Religious attendance and belief . . . The retreat from marriage has been fueled by a parallel retreat in American civil society, especially [in] religious participation.”


Studying the General Social Survey, it turns out that over the last 40 years, the rate of frequent church attendance—going several times a month—has fallen from about 37 percent to about 26 percent. And here’s the shocker: nominal Christianity—professing Christian beliefs without committing to a church—actually makes matters worse.


They report that “Adherence to conservative religious beliefs without attending church regularly is associated with worse family outcomes, whereas combining adherence with regular attendance is associated with better family outcomes. This may explain why single parenthood is high in Arkansas, with its many nominal Baptists, and low in Utah, with its many active Mormons.”


Now, we shouldn’t go to church because it will improve our marriages or make our kids better-behaved. We go because that’s where Christ is preached and shared in His sacraments. But empirical data proves that commitment to a local body of believers has a tremendous impact on families and their stability.


Like the people of Jerusalem in Ezekiel’s time, nominal believers today don’t even live up to the standards of their unbelieving neighbors. And now, as then, that’s an embarrassment and a tragedy.


BreakPoint is a Christian worldview ministry that seeks to build and resource a movement of Christians committed to living and defending Christian worldview in all areas of life. Begun by Chuck Colson in 1991 as a daily radio broadcast, BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today’s news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print. Today BreakPoint commentaries, co-hosted by Eric Metaxas and John Stonestreet, air daily on more than 1,200 outlets with an estimated weekly listening audience of eight million people. Feel free to contact us at where you can read and search answers to common questions.

Eric Metaxas is a co-host of BreakPoint Radio and a best-selling author whose biographies, children's books, and popular apologetics have been translated into more than a dozen languages.

Publication date: March 22, 2016

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