Christian marriages do not fail; Christians fail marriage.
Christian marriages are not immune to failure. Contrary to what romantic movies portray, even Christian marriages are not always “Happily Ever After” There are many accumulative reasons why Christian marriages fail (or rather why Christians fail marriage). But among the top reasons are poor marriage preparation, poor premarital counseling, and above everything else, a poor Gospel.
Some Christian marriages fail for lack of effective premarital counseling.
Some pastors have a lot more time to personally devote to premarital counseling than other pastors have. The reason is often due to the size of their congregations. As churches grow, more ministries have to be delegated to associate pastors and other leaders. A church of a hundred members might have only a few weddings a year, if that. A church of four thousand will have many more. The age group of the congregation, of course, is also a factor in any church.
Regardless of the size of the congregation and the number of weddings they perform, the approach leadership takes to counseling premarital couples is crucial. Some churches have thorough programs for counseling couples—including well-organized counseling sessions, trained counselors, and premarital resources in the form of books, videos, group meetings, and seminars. In popular terms, they really have their ducks in a row.
Other pastors have a less systematic approach to premarital counseling. They might use something they put together themselves or a mishmash of resources which might be effective or which, to the contrary, might leave much to be desired. Additionally, some churches provide only a few quick meetings before booking the wedding, and they mostly cover things pertaining to the wedding itself rather than delving into the couple’s relationship with God and with each other.
But as one pastor said in his endorsement of our premarital workbook, No pastor wants to see marriages he performed struggle or end in divorce.” We all hope pastors, mentors, and marriage counselors put great effort and care into preparing couples for a God-honoring, lifelong marriage. However, more than one pastor has told me that they don’t like to do counseling—it’s just not their strong point. Their passion and calling is preaching the Word, This sentiment is probably common to many pastors. And for other pastors, it’s simply not practical. Effective counseling takes time, and that’s a precious commodity for pastors who are already spread too thin.
Pastors must budget their time in a way that will make the best use of their skills. Therefore, whether it is because they don’t have the time or don’t have the inclination to counsel, these pastors, then, must have people in place who are gifted and effective in counseling. In-depth premarital counseling, done by those who have the gift and calling, is an important service to the body of Christ, because inadequate premarital counseling must certainly factor into the large numbers of failed marriages within the church.
Christian marriages fail because of a poor gospel
But ahead of inadequate premarital counseling, at the very top of the list of why Christian marriages fail, is a flawed approach to evangelism, a flawed, shallow gospel, easy believe-ism, shallow pseudo conversions, and shallow discipleship if any at all.
On a personal note, I came to faith in Christ under such a gospel—one that called for mere outward appearances and professions and no investigation into my actual state of conversion. And, although I accept responsibility for my unwillingness to embrace the readily discernible demands of Christ, the leaders of that particular church were of no help in ferreting out my “half-baked” state of conversion. I was vaguely convicted of my sinfulness but had an inadequate belief in Christ and a weak response to the gospel and its demands. I had raised my hand at the invitation, I had walked down the aisle; I had knelt at the altar and prayed the prayers and was as sincere as I knew to be.
There are those who say that God takes us where we are, and it has to be so. God has only sinners to work with. But the point is that I believed I was a Christian, converted, and on my way to heaven on the filmiest of terms: Just ask Jesus into your heart and it’s a done deal. I spent forty years in the wilderness of nominal, fruitless Christianity over that kind of deal.
The shallowness of my own experience has given me insight into problems within Christian marriages. The trouble with Christian marriages that are in crisis stems from the greater problem of Christianity in Crisis (borrowing the title of a once popular book). Much of the reason Christian couples are in crisis is because their relationships to God are in crisis.
This comes as no surprise to pastors. But to what extent are we examining an engaged couple’s relationship to God? Many people faithfully attend church, tithe, and look and act like Christians but who, in fact, have never truthfully and thoroughly repented of sins, never truthfully relinquished affection for sin, and who never at any time before their supposed conversion sensed the severity of their condition, the depths of their hopelessness and corruption, nor the wrath of God and the demands of the Gospel deeply enough to cause them to abandon their self-centered lives, their affection for sin and the love of the world in order to gain Him. Instead, what attracted them (and me) to Christ was a humanistic, easy-to-believe gospel of self-fulfillment in all its myriad and subtle Christianized forms and presentations.
Many are looking, as I once did, for a convenient, comfortable god who will let them keep their self-centered lives. Perhaps the reason counselors and pastors spend months and years counseling married couples and getting nowhere is because they have mistakenly assumed these couples are born again, regenerated, saved Christians when they may not be at all. In other words, they might be spending months in counseling trying to teach people to behave who actually are spiritually dead to begin with. They look the part, but they are not. They have been assumed to be and are accepted into the fold based on the filmiest of confessions, without effectual repentance, and spawned of humanistic devices without divine regeneration. Simply put, they are goats not sheep.
Many of us who are in church every Sunday singing praise songs have never had the fundamental breaking of our wills before God. At our core, we are still in charge, doing our own thing and relegating the Lord to a servant’s position in our lives—a part of our lives for sure, but not everything.
I was reading an article about a pastor who was lamenting the state of the church, saying it has given itself over to entertainment and to compromising the gospel by appealing to members with lively music, people-pleasing sermons, and easy conversions. That’s a bit of a paraphrase on my part, yet the article was written by Charles Spurgeon in the mid-to-late 1800’s. And this is precisely what the American evangelical church is doing today.
Is their any wonder, then–in this age of self-serving, “be-all-you-can-be” preaching–that couples are struggling with the concept of dying to self as a means of solving their marriage problems, let alone of obeying and following Christ?
Of course we need to be joyful with our premarital couples; we need to celebrate their love and enthusiasm with them. But we must be wise in our approach to premarital (and marriage) counseling. We must be lovingly firm and thorough. We must uncover and correct anything and everything that is an offense to God’s Holy Spirit. And we must start where our book, for example, starts: with their relationship to God. Is it genuine? What do they really know and believe about Christ? Has their self-serving life been dealt a fundamental death blow? Have their self-wills been broken so that with tested conviction they say, “Lord, not my will, but Yours?” Marriage, as with all of the Christian life, is a life of self denial, a life of dying to self, of living for Christ at the cost of all other desires and interests. It is a life of obeying Christ and going where he went. It is a life subject to suffering.
The real gospel is not an easy sell. The demands of self-denial, living completely for someone other than ourselves is the antithesis of modern American Christianity. Repentance is at the root of the gospel message, and that message is not being preached. We pray for revival to come to this county, but we give it lip service in our own lives. If revival is to happen at all, it first must happen in each heart. Revival begins with personal repentance—with each Christian, alone, on her or his knees, with no one else to hear but God and with no other motive or reward in mind but of getting humble and contrite and real before God. Repentance is God’s gift, but it is our responsibility.
Put simply, the problem with Christian couples who are in crisis, at least in its ultimate sense and cause, is a lack of genuine repentance. And without repentance no one shall solve their marriage problems …let alone enter heaven.